Mike Matthews ’15 might never have been the class clown in school, but since he got into stand-up comedy six years ago, he’s just about perfected the art of making people laugh. Matthews, a film and English double major who hopes to one day write movies (look out, L.A.), sat down with The Argus to talk about his favorite comedy troupes on campus, why he’s OK with admitting that he’s funny, and whether humor is gendered.
The Argus: Why are you a WesCeleb?
Mike Matthews: I think there’s probably only one right answer to that, which is stand-up. I have a feeling that’s where most people know me from. I’m not out and about a lot. You’re not going to see me on Fountain, but if you go to a comedy show…. I’ve been doing stand-up for four years.
A: So you started stand-up when you came to Wesleyan?
MM: I actually had been doing it for two years before that, so I’ve been doing stand-up for six years total.
A: What group are you part of?
MM: Punchline! It’s an awesome group, great guys. We have our last show tonight in the WestCo lounge. I don’t know when this is going out.
A: Tuesday’s issue.
MM: So if you want to see the show, it was four days ago.
A: [Laughs] How did you get started doing stand-up?
MM: My high school had open mics. They were called coffeehouses. And I was signed up for a spot with a friend of mine, and I was going to play the piano, and she was going to sing—that’s what we were planning on doing. And we had prepared for that for a long time. And then the day of, at school, she said, “I don’t want to do it. I’m too nervous.” But she didn’t want to give up the spot, so she said, “You’re funny. You should do stand-up.” And I had never done that before, but she was a good friend of mine, so I said, “OK.” She was a good friend of mine. She seemed to have some faith in me. So I went home and put together a routine. It took about four hours. And I used material from a different comedian named Demetri Martin, and I said, “This is from a guy named Demetri Martin.” He uses a large pad, so it’s visual cues to go along with the jokes. I figured that way I’d be sure to remember every other joke, because I had four hours to put it together. And so I did that, and it went over really well, and then at the next open mic I did original stuff, and it just went from there.
A: When you write original stuff, how do you know what’s going to be funny?
MM: Sometimes you just don’t. Sometimes you have to tell it and find out for yourself that, OK, that was too much. I know for me personally, I very much write to what I find funny, and a lot of the time that means really esoteric humor about a particular thing that I love, but other people have never even heard about. So sometimes I’ll tell a joke, and no one will get it, and I’ll go, “Oh, there’s the line. I have to walk back from there.” People have said that they like that I dive deep into things, but if you’re going to make a joke about something, it has to be on the level that anyone can appreciate it. And that’s something I’m still working on.
A: How does it feel when you’re up there and the audience just isn’t into it?
MM: When they’re not really into it, it’s very scary. There are some comedians who will try to salvage that, improvise, do some crowd work or whatever, and I’m not good at that. I’m actually a really bad improviser. So generally I’ll just keep going. Maybe they’ll like the next one. And sometimes they don’t like the next one. Sometimes they don’t like any of it. The first time it happened, it was just a really terrible feeling, because there’s no precedent for it. It’s always been like, “Oh, they liked that!” And now all of a sudden they don’t. And I’m like, “What did I do wrong?”
A: How do you put your pieces together?
MM: Generally, if I have an idea for a bit, it’s something that really strikes me as being something that I’ve never thought of before, or it’s something that I don’t think most people have thought of before. And then I’ll kind of just go over it in my head, sort of work out all the different angles, sort it all out, and rehearse it until I’ve really got the timing and the jokes down. We in the group, in Punchline!, will workshop jokes sometimes, and they’re a big help with that. We’ll say, “Have you thought about going at it from this angle?” Or “It’s kind of like this thing….” They really help me put it together, and to finalize it. And then the day of, it’s just a lot of nervous pacing.
A: Who do you think is really funny?
MM: I gotta say everyone in Punchline!, obviously, but my favorite non-Punchline! group on campus—and I think I can say this now that I’m graduating—is Lunchbox. I love all the guys in Lunchbox. I think what they do is so great. And Desperate Measures is my favorite short-form group. I try to go to every comedy show. I just hang around with funny people, most of the time.
A: Do you call yourself a funny person? Does it make you less funny to acknowledge that you’re funny?
MM: There are plenty of people who can be really funny when they’re trying to be, and then when you’re hanging out with them, they aren’t. I think I occupy a middle ground. I do think of myself as a funny person, to answer your question, but there’s a range. I can be really funny if I’m intentionally being funny performing for an audience or hanging out in private with my friends, but there’s that middle ground: I’m not funny in class or in public. I’m more reserved and I try not to make myself the center of attention. I was never the class clown in school.
A: Do you get stage fright?
MM: There’s always that nervousness. I’m never afraid that I’m going to fail completely—but, again, with stand-up you never know—but there’s the nervous tension, the butterflies in your stomach. I still get that every time.
A: You’re a film major. Anything else?
MM: Yeah, I’m a double major in film and English. I’m most interested in narrative in writing, so I tried to be a creative writing major, and I couldn’t quite get that done, but I did wind up finishing the theory major, largely by accident. So I finished that last year, and this year I’ve been focusing on film.
A: Are you interested in writing or directing films?
MM: Writing? Yes. Directing? No. I’m terrible behind the camera. I took digital and made five short films, and there are maybe two that I’d be willing to show people. I can appreciate what other directors are doing, but I just don’t have that, so I’d be more than happy to write something, hand it over to someone I trust, and say, “You take it from here.”
A: Do you write funny scripts?
MM: Generally, yeah. I try to not write exclusively comedies, but everything I write ends up being funny, because a sense of humor is so important to me. Bleakness is not something I’m interested in investing my time in. I actually wrote a screenplay thesis, and it’s a normal coming-of-age type story, not a screwball or slapstick comedy, but it’s funny and has lots of jokes in it, because my idealized world would have people who behave that way.
A: Are you ever really offensive? Does that make it more funny?
MM: I will go on the record saying that there’s room for jokes being funny, if they’re pointed in the right direction. There’s a concept called punching up versus punching down. If you punch up at the person who’s committing the atrocious thing that you’re joking about, that’s fine. I don’t tend to do that. I’m more, “Let’s have fun and explore this weird possibility.”
The closest thing to an offensive bit that I think I’ve ever written is one that I love, and love to break out whenever I get the chance. It’s another “what if?” type thing, and it’s “what if Hitler went to Disneyland?” After I told that for the first time, so many people came up to me afterwards and said, “You just talked for nine minutes about Hitler and didn’t say anything that made people groan.” It’s all about how you approach it. I didn’t try to be like, “Hitler at Disneyland would kill everyone there!” It’s [that] he’s scared to go on the Indiana Jones ride. He’d want to go on the Submarine Voyage because he loves boats. I like to find an angle that most people wouldn’t think of.
A: Is everyone in Punchline! a man?
MM: No! There are three men and four women right now.
MM: Yeah! We didn’t plan it that way. We say that we’re the most female-friendly comedy group on campus. We didn’t mean to do it, but we’re fine with it.
A: Do you think men’s senses of humor are different than women’s?
MM: I think that there is a distinct female experience that men are not going to be able to talk about, and maybe vice versa, but within Punchline! There is an actual distinction between the types of jokes that the men tell and the types of jokes that the women tell, and neither is worse than the other. I mean, I wish that I could tell some of the jokes that Regen [Routman ’16] will tell after a weekend out, or Theodora [Messalas ’15]—she’s more conscious in our group, which is great, because she’s the one that brings that to the table and has knowledge of all those issues. And then there’s me, who will make a Scooby Doo joke. And there’s Peter [Cornillie ’15], who makes his one-liners, and Willie [Zabar ’16] and his weed jokes.
A: Can people learn to be funny, of are you just born with it or without it?
MM: That’s really interesting. I’m glad you asked that, because I do think that everyone has the potential to be funny in some way. Not everyone can be funny the way that Robin Williams is funny or the way that John Stewart is funny, but everyone can be funny in some way, and you have to figure out what way that is. That’s why there’s not just one stand-up comic that does all the comedy for everyone. Everyone has their own take on the world, and if you work hard enough you can create that unique take. Some people have really bleak senses of humor, and that works, too. If people tell you you’re not funny, try being funny by doing something else. And eventually, you’ll get it.