This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting, challenging, amazing things. This is the story of Eliot and his career making people laugh.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am 30 years old, I’m originally from Queens, and I am a comedian and writer. For fun, I like to explore and hike. My favorite thing to do is take day trips outside of the city to find hidden gems or quirky places off the beaten path, ESPECIALLY if that place sells doughnuts. But, for the most part, I spend time writing and producing content.
I’m also a proud owner of a 9-year-old Schnese (Havanese + Schnauzer, I think) mix named Atticus, who is a weird, wonderful little old man.
Did humor play a role in your childhood?
Humor played a big role. My sister is a comedian, too, and that’s definitely attributed to my parents, who are really funny. My dad is on point with impressions, and my mom is really funny, but doesn’t even know it. Brent Sullivan, my friend and writing partner on It Gets Betterish, still insists that the funniest thing that ever happened was when my mom wanted to set me up on a date with a guy who wasn’t my type. When I told her that, she said, “You wanna be alone? Be alone! See what I care! You’re a fucking idiot, you know that?”
That’s like her way of saying hi.
Tell us about the path that lead you to comedy-as-a-career.
I actually blogged for a living from 2008-2013, but always had trouble juggling those two roles: writer vs. comic. A good deal of comics have maintained their living that way, as well, since so much writing work is now available online, but I got worn down.
I just couldn’t do it anymore – keeping up with my RSS feed, following a news cycle of irrelevant nonsense, and being forced to write in a way that catered more and more toward gif and listicle-fueled content meant explicitly to be shared on Facebook by people who are like, “OMG! Remember Ring Pops?”
I’ve always been ready to be funny full-time, but I was too afraid to go for it until this year. And rightly so, because it’s scary. But it’s worth it. I think?
There are lots of ‘types’ of funny and lots of differents ways to get paid to be funny. How would you describe your sense of humor? And how do you use it to pay the bills?
I have established enough of a web presence that I am trusted with making content for others – I have HBO-sanctioned YouTube videos coming out soon in preparation for the show Looking, which is their San Francisco-set dramedy about a group of gay friends. They sent to San Francisco to mingle with the cast and crew, which was a little odd only because I auditioned for the show. So I’m sort of toeing the line between comedian, content creator, and your traditional writer-actor.
Ultimately, it’s a little bit of everything that gets the rent paid: writing marketing copy, accruing book sales (on My Parents Were Awesome, based on the blog) making videos for digital channels (like Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video, which airs my show Eliot’s Sketchpad), creating content for companies (like Forbes), being paid per joke for TV (i.e. Best Week Ever and Billy on the Street), and building an on-air career in television (I’m in the upcoming National Geographic comedy game-show Duck Quacks Don’t Echo).
It’s an ongoing, atypical business – my manager is constantly submitting me as a writer and actor, so it’s as much about talent as it is luck, chance, timing, and networking.
What makes for a funny ‘bit’?
Darkness. Absurdity. The unexpected. Crossed eyes.
How long does it take you to develop a joke that you’re really happy with?
If we’re talking about a sketch, it’s usually 4 or 5 drafts before I’m happy. So…a week?
In your opinion, what qualities should a comedian possess in order to be successful?
I think that anyone can try and be funny for a living, which is all about cultivating an audience right now, be it on Twitter, at a theater, through touring, etc. But there is, in my opinion, a “funny gene” that people either have or they don’t. It’s in the face, the eyes. If one is naturally funny, you can see in his or her face a vulnerability that lets a joke land, even if it’s a bad joke. Anyone can be comfortable onstage or in front of the camera, but if you can’t make your eyes vulnerable in a way that works in accordance with your body and voice, then it’s a lost cause.
Man, I sound like a DICK.
Do you tour?
Not yet! Hopefully in 2015!
For you personally, are there any topics that you won’t write jokes about?
I’m not a traditional stand-up comedian, so it’s not very cut-and-dry for me. But I don’t think jokes about rape are ever necessary. It’s not that they’re not funny – sure, a rape joke CAN be funny, I’m sure. But, like, what’s the end game? Even if the idea is to use a joke as a “counter cultural” or “meta” tool, there is so much other stuff to mine for humor. Focusing on a joke about the abuse of women or children just feels lazy to me. We have Duck Dynasty. We have Rob Ford. We have Bruce Jenner!!! There is SO much to work with right now besides rape.
In a perfect world, what would you career look like in five years?
In a perfect world, I’ll have sold enough projects in five years that I’m well-liked and respected as a comedy writer-performer — just enough that I have an awesome fan base, but I can still live my life without ever having a tag on TMZ.
I’ll have made a solid dent in the TV industry as a comic voice who’s helped level the concept of “funny gay guy” to “funny guy (who happens to be gay).” That’s most important to me because, even if it seems like a minor struggle, TV is still the medium, and the medium is the message. I want to suck the minstrelsy out of “Will & Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and even the buttoned-up martyrdom of “Modern Family,” and introduce the world to Judd Apatowian-Lena Dunhamesque gay dudes like me: flawed, funny people who struggle with their sexuality and how much it shapes one’s life.
That’s the kind of gay guy people need to see to realize that we don’t all wear sweater vests and “always” brush our teeth.
Who are your five favorite underappreciated comics?
David Caspe, who created the role of Max Blum (on Happy Endings), literally THE ONLY gay TV character I’ve ever found to mirror my life — and, by far, the funniest. I need this guy to have another TV show or movie or something into which I can invest time and money (call me, David!).
Patti LaHelle – the creator of a Got2BReal, a web series that I can barely describe, but can promise is the sharpest, most disgustingly-clever sendup of R&B divas since …well, since the showR&B Divas (which, yes, of course I watch)
Jamie Denbo & Jessica Chaffin – their podcast, “Ronna & Beverly“, can cure clinical depression
Naomi Ekperigin – I’ve told Naomi this, but the way her life experience has shaped her stand-up comedy could make her the face of our generation. It doesn’t hurt that she’s naturally hilarious, either.
John Early and Kate Berlant – yes, they’re two different people, but they’re also best friends who often perform together (and who share a “brain trust,” as I’ve told them). The way they see the world is unlike anything you could possibly imagine, and it’s as thought-provoking as it is gut-busting.
What are the best aspects of working in comedy? The biggest drawbacks?
Working in comedy means your work can inform others in what they consider funny, or what has the power to be funny. That’s a strangely tremendous amount of potential responsibility that feels great when something you say or write make other people happy.
The biggest drawback is bombing. It’s unbearable. UNBEARABLE.
How much money does the average comedian earn in a year?
If you’re Louie, you can probably buy a condo.
If you’re Eliot, you can probably buy a bag of Combos.
What’s one thing you’ve learned from comedy that any of us could apply to our daily lives?