Comedy audiences these days seem to be more bored than ever. The cyclical impulses of voyeurism and exhibitionism that have accompanied the advent of the digital age have desensitized live audiences to an art form already known for excess, prompting entertainment that just keeps getting bigger. The dirty jokes have gotten dirtier, absurd comedy pushes into the surreal, and there seems to be few boundaries concerning what should and shouldn’t be talked about. And yet, as always, the brightest lights in the comedy scene still distinguish themselves by knowing when to temper their boundary-pushing with a certain degree of humanity.
Hilarious stand-up comic and Twitter star Rob Delaney epitomizes this dynamic of tempering extremes with a human touch. Delaney’s subject matter is often extremely filthy, and yet he has a genuinely open style, as approachable as it is raunchy. He has risen to the top of the comedy food chain by being dirtier and more shocking than much of his cohorts, but as well by exuding an unmistakable charm. He takes the lengths of what he’ll say and the depths of what he’ll reveal that much further by hedging this impulse with a manner that can only described as ... niceness. There’s no getting around it, for a comedian who’s known to opine freely about sexual positions and pubic hair, Delaney still comes across as the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind introducing to your grandmother. His juxtaposition of niceness and ridiculous oversharing is a winning combination, one side of the formula always sharpening the other.
PopMatters talked with Rob Delaney about his unique style, his nice guy good looks and a lot more, from ongoing legal battles with Kim Kardashian to which books from classic American literature make for the best jokes.
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I’d like to talk a little about your style of comedy. I’ve always thought one of the reasons your comedy works so well is that you represent the idea of a really nice, handsome guy saying really abrasive things. I see a lot of similarities between you and Sarah Silverman in that way. Do you think this is true? Or do you even see yourself as a nice guy?
I generally think I am a nice guy, yes, in real life and on stage. And thanks for including me in the same paragraph as Sarah Silverman. I understand what you’re saying. I look like a weatherman or “Guy Smiley”, and then the things that come out of my mouth are crazy and dark and bizarre. I am told that is the case and, yes, I agree with it.
Is this conscious on your part?
I’m aware of it, but I hope that after a few minutes that people get past the fact that it’s surprising to hear someone that looks like a New Hampshire cop say the things I do, and then go on a ride for the content of what I’m talking about. Like, a guy who looks one way and says things another way, and that’s it, that would be a gimmick and ultimately not interesting. You’d see him once and maybe not go to another show of his.
Well, it’s not meant to indicate gimmick-iness. I think all comics deal in reversals.
Oh, certainly. Surprise and coming in from an unexpected angle are tools in a good comic’s arsenal.
Like one great example is Louis C.K. He seems all bluster and anger, and yet he is also incredibly articulate. It’s like he’s sort of reinvents anger so that it actually produces reasoned, well thought out arguments.
Yes, Louis C.K. certainly does this, absolutely. And I aspire to that. I may draw people in on-stage with my “Father Knows Best” looks, then peel back the layers and get into the good stuff, the messy stuff.
You also talk some about addiction, and are very open about having a drinking problem earlier in your life. But obviously your perspective is one well into recovery, which isn’t always the case with some comics who talk about addiction. I tend to think your jokes about addiction might not work if you weren’t in recovery. Do you think this is true?
That is possible. I think comics who drink and use drugs can certainly be funny. I just can’t use them because I go way, way overboard and would die. And if I was dead, I couldn’t do comedy anymore. Now, I’m a little older and married and a dad, so the “party” lifestyle, which I certainly lived, is less interesting to me. There’s less area to mine for jokes. So very, very rarely would a comic talking about partying and excess, in terms of drugs or booze, be as funny as one looking into issues that are more universal. Similarly, older comics are usually funnier than younger ones, because they’ve experienced more.
I saw Bill Cosby a couple of weeks ago. He’s 74. He told jokes only a guy in his 70s could talk about, like watching erectile dysfunction commercials with his wife of 40 years. And he also told jokes about being a tiny kid in Philadelphia. It was amazing.
He is great.
He sure is. I met him and talked to him for quite a while before the show. And one cool thing he said was to make sure I keep my family a higher priority than stand-up. He actually made me repeat that out loud.
He actually made you recite it?
He made me recite it. He also asked if I was doing standup to get acting opportunities. I told him no, I just loved doing standup. He said, “Good! That means you’re a lifer.” It was the coolest thing ever times 1000.
You’ve also said that you’re funnier since you’re sober. Is this just a case of being older and more experienced, too?
Yes, I’m funnier since I’ve been sober and older. They are both happening at the same time, so I’m not 100% certain which is responsible. I am happier sober, and that’s necessary for me to create on any kind of schedule, dependably. I’m older, so more shit has happened that I can sift through for humor.
So for you, it’s necessary to be happy in order to be funny? That’s surprising, because a lot of comics seem to deal in misery. But you do seem like a happy person.
I want to be happy. I actively seek happiness, yes. Life is awful enough, and the horror will find you no matter what. Your attitude in response to it is what matters.
It always interests me to hear comics’ influences, because they never seem to be the comics you’d think. It usually is the case that really funny people are influenced by really funny people, regardless of whether they have the same style or not. One example of this would be Chris Rock’s love for Bill Cosby. Who are your influences?
Well, of course, I love Cosby and Chris Rock. Rock is amazing. People often think of him as a big social commentator, which he certainly is. But his family stuff and relationship stuff is so, so amazing. I love Chris Rock very much. And Cosby throughout his career has done so many massively wonderful and important things, from his earliest albums up to his still rigorous touring schedule. Plus those guys are both involved in philanthropy in a big way, which is very cool.
Beyond them, Richard Pryor is of course as good as it possibly gets. So warm, so human, so vulnerable. He’s currently my favorite of all time. That “honor” moves around, though. But I’ve just been drinking up the Pryor lately.
Also, I must say the Upright Citizens Brigade ... I saw them do an ASSSSCAT show 14 years ago in New York, and said, “I WILL DO THIS.” The energy of those shows, the fearlessness, the collaboration. It blew my mind, and they made it feel possible for me. Like, “I live in the same city. I speak the same language. I breathe the same air. This is happening on the same planet I live on. Maybe I can do this.”
Do you think that comics are more inspired by styles different from their own? Is there a comic you think has inspired your style, specifically?
I suppose it’s an amalgamation? Like, I actively want to be like Pryor. I want to exude that warmth, that type of humanity. So I can then get in there and have wacky, dangerous fun with people like the U.C.B. do, then say something totally batshit like Steve Martin, and then address a societal issue with the intelligence and vitriol of a George Carlin.
It’s very interesting to hear you attribute these different aspects of your comedy.
I mean, I love them all, and I think about how they do things. And I study them, so it wouldn’t be weird if that came through in my onstage activities, I guess. I remain open and malleable, and all that. But I love all the aforementioned and credit them with my fascination with comedy. I try to remove the barriers in my own head and go where I’m afraid to go, in an effort to do entertainting stuff that I find interesting
I just wrote “enterTAINTing” by mistake. [Note: this interview was conducted via Instant Messaging.]
Nice. Even typos can give you material. You’re very active on Twitter. Do you find Twitter an attractive medium for your brand of humor, because of the sometimes subversive nature of it? Is it ever hard to go out on stage and perform your jokes?
I like Twitter for a variety of reasons. I can workshop standup jokes or concepts. That’s the best thing about it. Also, it serves as a sort of digital writing packet that I can refer to. And I do like that it’s a “social media tool,” so I can slam a politician or vapid celebrity on a playing field, where if what I write is funny or resonant, people will see and share it.
To answer your other question, my standup is usually pretty different from my Twitter. I am not at all a one-liner comic on stage. I totally stretch out and tell stories and longer things.
Oh, of course. But in terms of content…
Conceptually things might be similar, yes. But also onstage, I’m “me,” whereas on Twitter, I will absolutely assume a character or a voice or whatever solely to stir things up. I very, very routinely say things on Twitter I don’t believe at all, solely to amuse myself and hopefully others. Like, people use and consume Twitter like drugs. They want a “high” in the form of laughter when they look at their phone or computer. I try to tailor my jokes to that desire. I want to squeeze the maximum laughs out of as many human persons as possible with my allotted 140 characters.