Ramin Nazer is about as busy as a stand-up comedian in Austin can be. On top of booking one of the best weekly shows in town (Friday nights' "Live at Coldtowne"), he's spent the last several weeks making appearances at major events like Just for Laughs in Montreal and Austin's own Out of Bounds Festival.
I sat down with Ramin the afternoon before his OOB performance with Andy Ritchie and Greg Proops at the State Theater to talk about his experience at the biggest international comedy festival in the world, Just For Laughs, which is commonly regarded as a launchpad for emerging comics.
You performed thsis year as part of the "New Faces, Unrepresented" showcase at Just for Laughs in Montreal. What was it like attending the biggest comedy festival in the world for the first time?
It was great to go up and meet so many people, and you’re basically in that same hotel with all your comedy heroes the whole time. And it’s really humbling, because you’ve made it to Montreal and you’re so proud of yourself for getting picked. You feel like, “I made it to the Montreal comedy festival, I’m a badass!” And you’re feeling all great about yourself as you’re flying up there, and then you get to the hotel lobby and there’s Bill Burr and Louis C.K., Maria Bamford, Russell Peters is there, and John Oliver. And they’re all just there drinking at the bar, hanging out. And with a lot of them, if you haven’t met them before you’re almost afraid to approach them, so you have a few drinks and eventually you think, “Okay, I’m gonna see if I can say hi to them.” So you come up and you’re like, “[mumbling] Hi, it’s really nice to meet you,” and they’ll ask, “Oh, and what are you doing here?” And as soon as you mention the New Faces thing they go, “Ohhh! I tried to get on that in 2002, or 1992, and I couldn’t.” Or, “Oh, I did that in 2003, when's your show?” So they really remember it as a big thing for themselves too.
It seems like you're performing a lot since you've come back to Texas. Have you been more excited to do more comedy since going to the festival?
After Montreal I’m definitely more enthused to do comedy. It’s humbling but it's also very motivating. It's like when you start in your local scene and you see somebody in your community and you just want to be like that guy, you know?
"If I could just be like that guy, if I could just open at this club, I would be so happy. If I could just get to there…" And Montreal just started a new level of that for me. Like, "Okay, I’m opening now, but if I could just feature, if I could just headline this show, if I could just get on TV." But they’re all baby steps. And after Montreal, you realize, “Oh shit, there are all these things I still want to do!”
In previous eras, you’d hear stories of how careers were made in a single set at a huge festival like Montreal or Aspen. Is it hard to keep perspective on what a showcase like that could potentially mean for a comedy career in 2011?
The expectations have changed from the old days, for sure. And I was ready for it because I’d heard about other people’s experiences. Anybody who goes and wants to be seen once and thinks then they’ll shake hands with somebody and clink champagne glasses and then they’re going out to LA and "I’m gonna be one of these guys," I don’t think that happens.
It especially doesn’t happen if you’re not already putting stuff out there all the time. Bo Burnham was at Montreal, and he’s one of those guys where your instinct is that you want to hate him because he’s this twenty year old kid who just got super-duper famous from YouTube and he has a million Twitter followers and he’s doing huge tours and playing arenas. But he’s really doing it though. You can’t resent the amount of work he does.
Like, you didn’t get as many hits on your songs? Oh, that’s right because you don’t have any songs. You didn’t put shit out, you’ve just been doing the same open mics and not putting anything out there.
Even somebody so young has been working really hard to be an “overnight success.”
Yeah. A lot of comics get to a certain status locally and stop going out to as many open mics or shows because they feel like they’re too good for it. They feel like they’re above it, and a lot of people’s goal here is to win the [annual Funniest Person in Austin] contest and they feel like once they’ve won the contest they’ll get their Comedy Central appearance. And they’re waiting for the industry to sort of carry them off, but you still have to constantly be putting stuff out there. It’s not just about winning the contest or getting a specific festival. Because what do you really want out of this? It’s not like winning the contest is the answer to all of your problems.
People think, “If I’m famous like that guy on TV and then all of my sexual frustration will go away, all of my financial problems will go away, my parents’ disappointment in me will go away.” They think it’s all going to disappear. They don’t care that those people still have problems. It’s, “Yeah, yeah, I won’t have problems anymore though. He just takes it for granted. I’d be a bad-ass famous person. I’d write new material all the time, I wouldn’t get depressed. I wouldn’t fall into drugs.” But they would totally do all that and worse. The people who get there slowly are much better at dealing with it. And they’re better comics.
You’ve been a strong presence in the local Austin comedy scene. How was it representing “Austin comedy” in Montreal?
The comics are pretty supportive of each other personally in Austin, and I think we need to be more supportive of each other as a town. It’s cool that this year, I got to go to and Bryan Gutmann got to go. A year ago Andy Ritchie got to go. Two years before that Brendon Walsh got to go and he’s doing great now. Chuck Watkins… Austin averages about two people a year that get to go to that thing, and that’s better than all other cities with the exception of New York and LA. We’re pretty much third-best, or we’re fluctuating around that spot. Boston’s really good, Chicago’s good, San Francisco’s really good and we’re right up with them now in that spot.
It’s nice that going to Montreal didn’t make you feel like it's suddenly time to move to New York...
I remember doing an interview once and the piece said something like “…and he sees no reason why anyone should move to New York and start from the ground-up.” And I thought, “Hmmm, that sounds kind of pretentious.” But I do kind of believe that. Because they’re kind of pretentious, the New York guys. And it’s just some individuals, it’s not everyone in New York, but they’re just not eager to meet you or to say anything encouraging. And they haven’t done anything, they just live in New York. Like that’s their “credit.” And I don’t think a lot of people that move to New York are ready to move there. It’s not that they aren’t successful, because a lot of them are, but their comedy voice changes to what that city kind of demands of it. I know that I would change a lot there.
I don’t really see why anybody should move away from here when the city is growing faster than their stand up career is. I might be growing as a comic, but I think that Austin is growing faster than I am, so I don’t feel a need to leave. I’m getting plenty of things by being here. And a lot of people who moved away would probably have gotten those opportunities in place of me, but I’m the one who stayed. So in my current mode, do I want to move to New York or LA? Nah. I still want to go there and make trips there every year, definitely, but I’m don’t have plans to move any time soon.