Do you remember the first time someone told you about Jerry Seinfeld? It was probably a coworker — let’s call her Karen — and chances are, she was a fan of Seinfeld’s stand-up long before “Seinfeld” was even a twinkle in Larry David’s eye. As soon as Seinfeld hit super stardom, Karen became an insufferable gloater. Karen is the worst, right?
But don’t worry! You won’t have to suffer that fate again. Comedy Central’s Up Next show at Clusterfest is introducing the next generation of major comedians, and we caught up with them. And now, Karen can shove it.
Imagine getting in Karen’s smug face, telling her how great Up Next comedian Teddy Ray’s weed-rolling gospel choir impersonation is, or about how Ramy Youssef draws inspiration from his Muslim heritage in a way that’s both heartwarming and hilarious. Karen is going to be so f**king jealous.
Before their performances at the first-ever Colossal Clusterfest’s Up Next, we sat down with showcase comedians Anna Drezen, Curtis Cook, Devon Walker, Joe Kwaczala, Mo Welch, Rae Sanni, Teddy Ray, and Ramy Youssef to ask them about how they found comedy, why they keep getting up onstage and what it feels like to be on the verge of making it big.
Comedy Central: Do you remember the first time you got up onstage to tell jokes? What was that like?
Mo Welch: Yeah, I was at the Bovine [in Denver]. I took a stand-up class, and then at the end, we got to perform. And I remember pounding PBRs because I really got stage fright.
Curtis Cook: I started comedy in the eighth grade. I did it for the first time for a career project. I did stand-up in front of a room of attentive PTA moms. They were very sweet, but I don’t think it went well because they didn’t laugh.
Rae Sanni: The first time I was onstage, I’m sure I was terrible. But I was 21 and arrogant, and you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t awesome.
Joe Kwaczala: For me, it was in college at the University of Notre Dame, and there was a student stand-up night, and it was very easy ’cause the student body was such a hot crowd. They were impressed that any fellow students were doing stand-up — that they could even stand onstage and speak coherently. So it was a super safe, comfortable environment.
Teddy Ray: The first time I got onstage to tell jokes, I just remember I caught the bus, I lied to my family about where I was going — I think I said I was going to the store — and I ended up at an open mic in Santa Monica that I had googled. I waited in line for an hour. I had my notebook — I was trying to look professional. It was not going that good when I got inside. I didn’t know how things go. People’s names were just being called at random. [But] I prepped like I was going to shoot an HBO special, when really I only had three minutes. And then when it came time to get onstage, I forgot most of my jokes! I gave them two “being black is uncomfortable” jokes…and then the rest just fell off.
Anna Drezen: I had a theater class in college where the final was you could either write a 10-page paper or do one minute of stand-up. It seemed like the easier choice since I had been doing improv for years, and one minute of stand-up was easier than writing a paper. But I was bad at it, and that really bothered me. I don’t care about being good; I just want to be less bad. So that’s my life’s mission!
Devon Walker: The way that I remember it, is that it was as good as I think it could go for your first time doing stand-up. I certainly didn’t crush, but I had some loose ideas, and the audience was moderately receptive to it. The second or third time that I did stand-up, I went up and got nothing at all. Not even a sympathy laugh.
CC: How did you get interested in comedy? When did you know it was something you wanted to do?
MW: The third time I did stand-up, this guy in Denver — my jokes were so bad, but he was like, “Just don’t stop doing it!”
JK: There’s a story with that. So I did a lot of these student shows, and I would perform with other students. And I was clearly the most focused of all the students. A lot of them were just kind of f**king around. And I knew I wanted to be a comedian. I was taking it seriously. And I would, like, crush — because, again, the bar was very low. So I thought I was hot s**t. I thought, “OK, I don’t have to suffer bombing or anything.”
AD: I did skits at camp, and people laughed at me, which was the most conversation I was comfortable having with people. I think I was 10.
RS: I’ve been a stand-up fan since I was about 11, when my brother found a VHS of Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” in our parents’ video cabinet. I always wanted to do it, but it wasn’t until college that I knew I ought to try it. Nothing I was doing made me happy, and I figured this might be the thing that would.
TR: By about my third mic, I knew. I had performed at this club called the Downtown Comedy Club, [which was] owned by Garrett Morris from “SNL.” And he was the host, and I was like, “What? He hosts an open mic?” That tripped me out. But I really just wanted somebody who was professional to see my set, because I saw how the first two open mics went. It’s just all new comics. So this is a dude who is solidified, he’s got a name, let’s see what he says… And that’s when I knew it was for me; I was good that night.
CCook: There’ve been a couple moments like that for me. Just because a lot of failure and rejection kinda goes into putting yourself out there — trying to tell jokes and going to open mics and shooting for showcases and all that. Then there are moments where you realize that all that effort is paying off and you are improving, and you feel a sense of confidence. And this is definitely one of those moments for me. I’m very happy to be here, and it feels like things are coming along.
CC: What excites you the most about being a part of Comedy Central’s Up Next?
JK: I’m furious. [Laughs] Yeah, no, it’s great. Very exciting. This is a nice little badge of honor: Comedy Central knows who I am and also likes me. So that’s a nice achievement.
TR: What excites me most about performing at the first annual Comedy Central Colossal Clusterfest is that I’m performing at the first annual Comedy Central Colossal Clusterfest! Like, what?! It’s Comedy Central. Like, Comedy Central called me!
AD: Honestly, I love being picked for things, so that has been truly fun. The lineup is a bunch of really smart, really hardworking people who have earned it.
RS: I’m excited to be included in Comedy Central’s Up Next because it’s an honor to be up next. It’s so nice when you’re in line for a bagel or on the phone with customer service and they’re like, you’re next! I’m delighted. Honestly, though, this is so cool, and I’m so happy to have been included in a list of such great comics.
CCook: People have been talking about Clusterfest for a while now, and it’s very exciting to be a part of it and have this opportunity and to work with Comedy Central.
MW: You get a hotel room. Anytime you can say that you’re gonna make more than $7 for a set, it’s really exciting for a comedian. But also, I know most of the people in the showcase.
Ramy Youssef: What excites me most is that now I’m famous. Before…people weren’t sure, but I think now it’s pretty clear because people were wondering when I was up. They were like, “Are you up later? Were you already up? Are you up next?” And now everyone’s like, “Oh s**t — you’re, like, you’re up next!”
CC: Did you do any research on the other comedians? Did you Google them?
CCook: When the list came out, I took a look at what some of the other Up Next comics were doing online, and it was really exciting. A few of them I had met and done some shows with. And I’m really excited to see what they do tonight. But from what I can tell, it’s a great group, and I’m very humbled and excited to be a part of it.
JK: The first time I auditioned for this in September, Curtis Cook was on that showcase with me. And I know Mo from Chicago. We came up in Chicago together.
CC: Do you have any comedy influences that aren’t comedic?
DW: Yeah, I do. I have a bit. It’s about me talking to my cousin about Vampire Weekend, and her just sort of being like, “What? Why are you bringing this up to me?” I have a bit about how I date white girls — but not because I like white girls better, but because I like Mumford & Sons.
I’m a pretty big music fan. Look at me, super original. I like music. I’m not like the other comics out there; I listen to music. A little bit of a Renaissance man over here. [Laughs]
CC: How do you write? Do you sit at a desk or just take notes on the fly? Or do you do something else entirely?
MW: Mostly, like, on the phone, on the go. I’ll write down an idea, and then I’ll try it out at a show. And sometimes, I’ll just sit at my desk and write paragraphs, and forget that the piece of paper exists and never see it again.
CC: Have you ever written a joke that no one else thought was funny, but deep down inside, you know is funny?
CCook: Yeah, in my heart, I love it. I guess the audience is the ultimate decision maker. A couple times, I was like, “I think this is really special to me.” And everyone was like, “Just keep it to yourself.”
JK: One time, I was opening for this great comedian. And then, yeah, I ate s**t. Because now, the bar is set with professional comedians. The bar is set to be, like, “OK, we want good s**t, and you suck. You’re a 19-year-old a**hole.” So that’s how I learned, OK, maybe I’m not that great. But at that point, I wasn’t too in, but I felt too in to give up. I loved doing it so much.
CC: Now that you guys are on the verge of stardom, what advice would you give to a comedian just starting out?
CCook: It takes a decent amount of effort. I always have a hard time saying it takes a lot of work. It’s still pretty chill. The worst day of it is still relatively chill compared to a lot of other things.
MW: Don’t stop, and have your blinders on. Think, “I’m just trying to be funny; I’m just trying to get better.”
Catch the Colossal Clusterfest special for an inside look at the festival.