One of Austin's funniest people talks stand-up and his newest endeavor
If you follow stand-up comedy in Austin, you’ve likely seen a set or two from Mac Blake, one of the funniest guys in town. In addition to being the 2013 winner of Funniest Person in Austin, Blake is known for being hilarious with his sketch group Stag! Comedy and as half of the podcast team Mascot Wedding.
As if he isn't doing enough, now Blake is releasing his first stand-up album, Bird Drugs, with Austin's own Sure Thing Records on March 3. (As of press time, Bird Drugs was already one of the top albums on the iTunes comedy chart.)
We caught up with Blake to talk about his start in comedy and what went into recording his album.
CultureMap: How did you get started doing comedy?
Mac Blake: I did stand-up like twice when I was in college, but didn’t think of it as something I would do. My friends and I started making funny short films and I did a radio show in college. Then in the period after college, John Erhler gave me and a friend a tryout with Master Pancake. And one of the Master Pancake guys had a sketch project. And if something looks like fun, I'll do it. (I don't really understand this rift where people think they can only do sketch or improv or stand-up or vice versa.) Then I was unemployed. So I was like, “I wanna do everything!” So I started taking improv classes and around the same time, started doing stand up for real. Started doing sketch with the Master Pancake guys. This was in December of ‘09.
I was 29, so I was late to the game. But I was doing all three around funny people, and I wanted to be one of those funny people. That’s how I got into it. I didn’t have a moment when I was a kid where a lightning bolt struck. I didn't watch a lot of comedy as a kid.
CM: Has doing improv and sketch impacted your joke writing?
MB: It's made me more comfortable on stage. Doing so many different things has helped me as performer. Everything has helped everything. And doing so much of it has helped.
And I started doing stand-up the same time I started grad school for advertising — and also with improv — all three sort of beat it into your head that you're going to be terrible for a while, but it’s okay. It's okay to suck. It's okay to have a dumb idea. I was okay with being bad. If I had a bad set, it might ruin my night, but I'd be okay the next day and I could still go out. Sometimes I hear people say they want to try stand-up , and it's like, just go to open mics and be prepared to suck for a while, because you will. You might be funny, but you may still be terrible because you've never done it. Thick skin, I guess.
CM: How did the Sure Thing guys (Duncan Carson and Brendan K. O'Grady) approach you about doing the album?
MB: I was starting to think about doing an album. But I hadn't told anybody; I'd just told myself. I started thinking about it in December 2013, and then in January I got an email from them. They said, “We’re thinking of [starting a label] and we want to record your album.” I’d just been thinking about it, and the fact that they wanted to help with it was awesome.
A comedy project lives or dies on enthusiasm. That’s true of anything. Because if someone’s not enthusiastic about something, it makes doing it such a slog. So the fact that these people were on board, and they wanted to be enthusiastic for me, was awesome. I trust those guys' intentions, too. And I understand their mentality about it, too.
CM: How's it been working with them?
MB: It’s great. They’re really enthusiastic. Brendan and I have some similar traits. We both have a tendency to think a lot about things. It’s funny to have someone else over-thinking about something you’re working on, too. It's nice to have someone like that. They're both really funny stand-ups and they get it. We know this isn’t like we’re putting on sunglasses, renting a limo, and driving around town.
I also appreciate they have a maker mentality. I was originally thinking of just a digital release. They’re the ones who were like, “We want a physical CD.” And the feeling of holding that in your hands, like, "I made this," is a great feeling.
CM: What’s your approach to writing?
MB: When I first started out, I'd write everything out. Every word I said on stage would be written out and then I'd memorize it, which is a really dumb way to do it. At that point, you're not in the moment, you're performing. I was really stiff ...
For the album, I wrote out every word and took a magnifying glass to every word. I realized I hated most of them, but it did help. I guess my approach now is, if something makes me laugh, then I'll trot it out on stage, and if it works, then it’s worth writing out. But you don't know anything about a joke until you do it on stage. Because there’s stuff where you don’t realize this part is the funniest part of a joke until an audience reacts to it. Then you can edit it and it’s like, “Oh, that’s the funniest part of this joke?” Then you can heighten it.
Which, that’s what’s maddening about recording an album, because you have to be sure ...
I reached a point where I wanted to stop trying to be funny. And I really was trying to think, like, what do I honestly think about this? Or what do I think is funny about this, not what do I want to be funny about it? Just being true to my own sensibility. I'm a little embarrassed that so many of my topics are the Ninja Turtles and Batman. I’d like to move toward more life-based stuff, but I can’t really force that.
It’s super hard to make something that everyone’s talked about forever really funny. I talk about what I’m into and what I like, and clearly that goes into pretty dorky territory. But I also want everything to be accessible. I have a Choose Your Own Adventure joke, and I ask who’s read the books. But then I say, “Well, for those who don’t know ... ” You have to get everybody on board. It’s similar with sketch — you want to get the set up out of the way as fast as possible so you can get to the joke.
And on the record, I thought it’d be fun to have a little interview at the end where this comedy partner of mine, David Jara, would ask me about the visual jokes and I’d describe them while he made fun of me. We haven’t written it yet.
CM: I was wondering about that, because in one string of jokes, you hang back and let the audience fill in the final punch line. And it’s so funny, but I wondered how it would play out on audio.
MB: Yeah, because I do make a quizzical face like, “Where’s this going, guys?” Hopefully it will.
CM: It sounds like with the bit at the end you’re looking for ways to take the album beyond the live performance.
MB: Yeah, a few other people have done stuff like that. I was thinking about it and realized: this is my album, there’s no rule that I can’t do something. And I do a lot of sketch, so I thought maybe I could cram some of that in there. So putting a bit at the end feels like putting more of myself on there. It feels more like a Mac album, maybe.