Steve Byrne Interview: Tell the Damn Joke
Star of the comedy special Tell the Damn Joke, Steve Byrne has had a decades long comedy career. As his fourth special hits the airwaves he took the time to speak with us about his life, his career and his amazing sense of humour.
Das Hat: I have to ask the question: Why call the special, "Tell the Damn Joke?"
Steve Byrne: I titled it that, as you see in the special I had asked my wife permission to do a joke about her having, potentially, a big butt. And so I remember the negotiation scenario and eventually she capitulated and said "Steve, just tell the damn joke". So that's essentially what happened, I not only got permission to tell the joke, but she also gave me a great title.
DH: The show, you do talk about her a little bit, and not in the most flattering sense. Does she actually ever see your shows?
SB: Oh she came to the taping. Yeah, she's a great sport and she's extremely patient with me so it's so funny because what the audience sometimes hears is "My wife's got a big butt" while what she hears is "I love you, I think the world of you" so what she hears is the set up. She doesn't pay attention to the punch line as much because all the things she wants to hear are laced in there and that is done on purpose, yes.
DH: Aside from just her, you are introduced by your family. Which I thought was an amazing touch. What has their reaction to your comedic career been?
SB: Heh Heh. That's kind of why I had them introduce me. My folks have been more than supportive and it's not typical to be raised by a Tiger Mom and have her children pursue the arts, but my mother has always, always supported it. When you're starting off in New York City as I did they have these things called "Bringer Shows" which are essentially you have to bring 2 paying customers and you're allotted 5 minutes of stage time. So every weekend the first 4 to 5 months, every Saturday or Friday night, my parents would be my two paying customers at the New York Comedy Club or The Comic Strip Live and they'd pay, they'd sit through 2 hours of garbage stand up to watch 5 more minutes of garbage stand up performed by their son. So any time I had an opportunity to have them be a part of it, have them be inclusive with my family I definitely try to. In fact the first 3, hour specials I taped, they never came to a taping so this was the first time that they were actually able to make so I said: Why not be introduced by them?
DH: Totally fair. You mentioned you were raised by a bit of a Tiger Mom. Now, you are mixed race, Irish and Korean if I'm correct.
SB: Yes. I'm Korean and Irish and my joke has been "I'm Caucasian and Asian which I learned the PC term is Caucasian."
DH: (laughs) Well calling her a Tiger Mom, you had a bit of a strict upbringing I assume?
SB: Yeah, she... Look she grew up, basically, in a Third World country. She grew up dirt poor in literally a village and she came over to America and she really instilled in me the value of a dollar, and how hard you have to work to earn it. So she would always rag my hide about that stuff. My father was somebody as well that didn't grow up in an affluent neighbourhood by any means. He grew up in Stiemesan Town New York City and he definately earned his keep so I have a very, kinda Blue Collar mentality because of my folks. I don't think you assume Blue Collar with a village in South Korea but she just accentuated what my father was always telling me: to work hard and earn your keep.
DH: That's quite wonderful. So then what first brought you into Comedy considering that was your upbringing?
SB: Well I graduated school in Ohio, I was studying theatre in Kent State. I grew up in Pittsburgh and my father got transferred back to New York City. He grew up there so he jumped at the chance, at the transfer so when I finished college I went "Do you mind if I crash on your couch for a month or two and just experience New York City?" and they said "Absolutely". So at age 22 I drove my car from Kent to New York City, I got in at 10 in the morning and I said to my folks "I'm not coming home until I get a job. I walked from 86 on Broadway all the way to 50th and Broadway. As soon as I walked in to Caroline's Comedy Club I said "Hey I'm looking for a job." and the manager was standing there and asked me "What do you want to do?" I said "I will do anything." He said "Fill this out, come back tomorrow." and I got hired at a comedy club answering phones, sweeping the floors, and then being exposed to the young talent working their way through the club scene at the time. Like Dave Chappelle, John Stewart, Jimmy Fallon, Margaret Cho. They hadn't become household names yet. And I watched these guys and thought "That looks like a blast." and I'd never been to a stand up show before. After about 4 months I worked up the nerve and did stand up. It went well enough that I did it a second time, and the second time I was on stage, there was a manger in the audience and he gave me his card saying: "Call me tomorrow, how long have you been doing this?." and I said "Twice." He goes: "Like, two years?" I'm like "No, this is my second time on stage." He's like: "Come meet me tomorrow." So I went to his office and I started working the road right away.
DH: That's absolutely incredible. My follow up would be: what was the best set you've ever done? What sticks out as, "That show, I just nailed it"?
SB: Well there's two that come to mind. The first was kind of a pivotal one. When I first moved to LA I didn't really know anybody but I got passes to Comedy Store and I got to know a lot of the comics there, and Vince Vaughn's Western comedy movie had just wrapped and a lot of comedians on the show were touring with Vince doing this follow up tour after the filming. One of the guys got sick and someone said "Let's call Byrne." So I went. I showed up and performed for 2500 people, like Vince was dating Jennifer Aniston at the time, she's sitting right in the front row and I'm just going "Please god let this go well." and it was one of those nights where just everything clicked. I got a standing ovation and I was the first one on stage and it couldn't have gone any better. From then on Vince and I have been super tight. As well as Peter Billingsly, his producing partner. And the second one, I was at Gotham Comedy club just 3 weeks ago in New York City and I was there to headline, which means you're there to do your 45 minute or an hour set and I walk in the club and Seinfeld was going to do 20 minutes. Goes up, kills, and Seinfeld comes off, just then Dave Chappelle walks in. They go "Chappelle's gonna go up" and I'm like "YES! Of course he is. I'm gonna sit back and watch." I watch Chappelle go for 30 minutes, murdered. Then I'm like "Oh shoot, I have to go up." I completely spaced and then, you know you go up and you're holding yourself to this standard that these other two comics are but all those years at The Comedy Cellar in New York taught me: it doesn't matter. Once the prior guy leaves, it's all in your head but the audience is just thinking: "Come on, make us laugh". I went up and it was, just once again, one of those just everything just clicked and I got a standing ovation that night too. It was pretty sweet. But for every one or two of those every few years, trust me, there's a THOUSAND that go south and you're just questioning why you got into this business in the first place.
DH: Well, you already answered why you got into it but I would then ask, what keeps you in it? If the amazing sets that you feel good at are in between a thousand where you go "Okay, that could have gone better." ?
SB: When I first got into it, it seemed like fun and I was young, I was single, it was a great way to meet girls. I mean in New York City it was just an incredible ice breaker. You're young, you're on stage, you're making people laugh and they're paying attention for 15 minutes. Then you go up to the bar and these girls wanna laugh. It's just like, the greatest! But as I got more into it and took it more seriously, the challenge of eliciting laughter from a simple thought was the greatest high I've ever experienced in my life. It can be so daunting to take an idea, a concept, scratch it down on a napkin go up on stage in front of a group of strangers and live or die by those words and then slowly over time, for every one joke that works there's 10 that fail, you accumulate 60 minutes of jokes that work. For me it took about 2 and a half years so I really thoroughly enjoy the process and I truly love the struggle and how painful it is to go through but it's so redemptive at the end of the day when you get to see an hour special.
DH: Well you mentioned some titans of comedy that you've been able to share the stage with. Who is it that makes YOU laugh? Who really gets you side busting?
SB: Oh my god this profession is just littered. I'll be honest with you. There isn't a comic I've ever seen or come across, even if i dislike them, they'll always have at least one thing that I will go "Oh that's a great joke." And I get jealous like every other comic in the world would. Like MAN that was a good one, and its just so obvious. Look, Brian Regan was probably the first guy I ever saw that just made me buckle. The Amazing Johnathan is a comedian but is also a magician. His comedy comes from absolutely sucking. It's a clever way of doing magic, and the twist at the end is the joke fails instead of it succeeding and he gets such laughter out of it but there's such a creative way and an intelligence to how he does it. Like a bunch of people I started with in New York City. Like, Bill Burr was somebody, even though he was maybe a year or two ahead of me I knew early on that guy has an authentic, real, honest voice and that's what I want to aspire to myself. I've always admired, not only his humour and his voice, but also his work ethic. He's worked so hard for everything he's ever got and Kevin Hart is just so damn likable on stage, but i don't think people realize how much he struggled. How much, he was begging for late night sets at clubs all across New York City. Just up and down, driving in from Philly on a nightly basis to make it. So when you see that guy succeed, he earned every second and every penny of his success.
DH: Has there ever been a subject that you won't joke about? Something that, just isn't for you?
SB: Not really. You see I learned a lot of lessons with these hour specials. My first hour, Happy Hour, was really observational. It was energetic but there was no authenticity, you didn't know anything about me afterwards. The Byrne Identity I really kinda got more cerebral and talked about my identity. Like how when I go to China, I'm considered American because I'm a tourist but when I come back to America, I'm Korean and Irish and it was looking at how we identify one another and if you're a citizen, start with a clean slate and look at each other as Americans. That was the core foundation of that special. And my third special that's now on Netflix, Champion; I wanted to see how far I could go and I pushed the boundaries and there was some darker stuff in there. It was a darker hour special and that's why I don't think it resonated as much because it wasn't truly me. I was trying to walk the line, but then walk past the line and I think I got burned for it. So this fourth hour is, I think the most authentic version of myself and it's shown a lot of growth an maturity, especially from that first hour to now.
DH: You did mention that over the course of the 4 hour specials you've done, the latest being Tell the Damn Joke, and I LOVED the way that you end the show. Your final statement alone was I think worthy of the standing ovation you got. I have to ask, is there a goal to your comedy to your mind and if there is, what is it?
SB: There truly is a goal to my comedy. I'm of mixed ethnicity, okay? I got made fun of all the time when I was younger and it was a tough childhood but I wasn't crying every night so it was a good childhood. So I understand what it is to be bullied and made fun of because you look different or you come from a different background. So even with Byrne Identity I was trying to put forward a very inclusive message in my stand up. And also break down and make fun of stereotypes and even in Champion I was defending stereotypes because they exist for a reason. People continue to act a certain way and I'm not saying all, I'm saying most and even through stereotypes I was trying to get people to laugh at each other. I started in New York and in New York City no one gets offended by a Muslim joke or an Asian joke or a Black joke because you're literally compacted in the city with like 8 million people and you're so used to seeing people, you just joke with each other all the time. But in a place like Montana or Ohio or the Midwest, cities don't have that comfortability factor. So again with this special it was trying to put forth an inclusive message, but this time it was a lot more on the nose than in the past, where it's done under the guise of jokes. This time it's literally just straightforward, this is it, I hope to god my children grow up this way because this is ultimately how I feel about my love and appreciation for the country we all live in. So why don't we all just respect and love each other.
DH: Well the fact that you got that message on tape for them to refer to any time you need to teach them a lesson just makes your job that much easier I think. (laughter) Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. The show is hilarious and I'm sure you're going to get a great reaction from it.
SB: Oh jeez that really means a lot to me. Thank you so much I'm a fan of the site and I'll be checking it daily as I always do.
Check out Steve Byrne's new comedy special Tell the Damn Joke on Showtime for an open, authentic and hilarious hour of stand up.