By David Gavri & Al Bahmani
When I first started doing stand-up, there was a Houston Press article about Paul Oddo. I studied it like it was a strategy guide for a Nintendo game. —Chase Durousseau
Nominated as “Best Local Comedian” by The Houston Press in 2006, Paul Oddo’s style is different from the classic set up, punchline formula. With Oddo, there is always a story. It takes time and attention to appreciate his style, but have faith in him, he’s worth it. Plain spoken and unpretentious, Oddo weaves a narrative tapestry thas full of twists, turns, and unexpected surprises. Currently residing in New York City, Oddo takes some time off from self-promotion to catch up and tell us what he’s been up to.
How did you know you were ready to move to New York in order to further your stand up career?
I felt confident in my writing. And before I Ieft, I actually worked with a comic in Houston who was very animated. Intense on stage and just crazy with everything. After talking with him and getting advice from him, he told me how he did improv comedy before he did stand up comedy. He made the transition that way, and by doing so, it gave him more freedom with himself on stage to be totally uninhibited. After learning that, I felt that that’s what I needed to do.
So I figured out where to take improv classes and I found the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. I fell in love with New York and I fell in love with Improv as an art form. The rest is history.
So who was this comedian that inspired you to learn improv comedy?
It was Dane Cook. I was working with him at the Laff Stop before he blew up. I watched the way he worked. He was crushing it. His energy and his stage presence impressed me. People always bash his name and his talent—but funny or not—you hafta admit that he is a great entertainer. He knows how to work the crowd. And his sold out shows at Madison Square Garden prove it.
As someone who does improv comedy AND stand up comedy, what would you say is the difference between the two art forms?
Stand up is selfish, and improv is selfless. When you work with a lot of standups, doing group work is very difficult. Many stand ups don’t know how to work with other people—they don’t like to share. When you work with improv people, all they do is share. And they try to make each other look good. It’s a group effort. Due to the stage experience, I think it’s easier for improvisers to do standup than it is for standups to do improv.
Improv is a better communal thing. Although it does kinda get cult-like after a while. [laughs] But I think everybody should do both stand up and improv. If you’re involved in comedy at all, you should do both—and do sketch comedy as well. Get all your comedy muscles working.
Tell us what it’s like to be part of the New York comedy scene.
New York is super overwhelming and intimidating. This is where everything’s happening. You may see a national touring headliner at an open mic. If Chris Rock is doing a set at Stand Up New York, where he practices a lot, you get to see Chris Rock do all his new stuff.
And they’re also filming Saturday Night Live right over here—Letterman’s studios are just two miles from here. All that stuff. But the wall is still as high as its ever been, and it’s impenetrable as ever. It’s like being physically closer but not closer, professionally. It’s all an illusion.
The thing about New York and Los Angeles that I can say is that it’s like playing at the high stakes table. You can win a jackpot at any table, but your odds of winning are higher in places like New York and L.A. By being here, you are in a position to really win and get lucky.
How do you like doing comedy in New York?
I like New York now, but for a long time, I didn’t because it seemed so impossible to do anything. It feels like you’re climbing a huge mountain—and you climb, and you climb, and you climb. You take all kinds of hits—personally as well as financially.
Weird stuff happens so often, you become desensitized to it. And once you get to the top of that first mountain, you look ahead, and you see that there’s a huge mountain range in front of you. And you’re just like, “Aw fuuuck.”
Where would you say you are at right now in this mountain range of your career?
I’d say I’m deep in it right now. I have to keep going. I am beyond the point of no return. There’s nothing else I can do—I just have to keep going. You hafta be in the mindset where you do not have a back up plan. You gotta tell yourself, “I am going to do this or I’m going to die trying.” Otherwise you’re just half-assing it. If you are going to be serious about it, I think that is what it takes.
There are a lot of people here doing it and working really hard. It inspires you and pushes you when you’re among a community of artists. You see all the people that were good enough to leave their own towns to come out here. And everyone’s working on a high level of confidence—almost kamikaze behavior. And it inspires you. We all threw our lives away to do this. It’s a psychotic determination of ambition and energy—trying as hard as you can. But the rewards are higher.
Talk about what it’s like to get in on the New York comedy circuit.
You have to be very patient. You have to hang out until they notice that you’re hanging out. And then they’re like, “Okay are you a comic?“ And even then they still won’t let you go up. You have to have a lot of references from the people that work the clubs. Comics that you know have to put in a good word for you just to get an audition. And if you pass that, you can move up and do a check spot every now and then.
Check Spot? What exactly is that?
The one who does the check spot performs while the crowd is getting their check. The crowd is not paying attention because they’re doing math and they’re trying to figure out who owes what. And that is your initiation into the New York comedy clubs. You hafta do check spots for a long time. Then eventually, you HOPE to get a paid spot. It takes a lot of time to do that. It’s an insulting, annoying process.
Sounds like a tough road ahead. What made you want to pursue comedy in the first place?
All I’ve really wanted to do is to hang out with funny people, laugh all the time, and make other people laugh—and stay a kid. So what job provides that? Oh, comedy. One day a friend took me to a comedy show for my birthday. The performer was Joe Rogan. He crushed it. Everyone was laughing and going crazy. As I observed the audience and their reaction, I was like, “I want do to this to people. I want to do this to an audience.”
So I started to go to the open mics, watching people kill it, and also eat it. I think I went to the open mics for about three or four weeks before I worked up the nerve to actually do it. I wrote everything out and put it on index cards. Did the open mic with my baseball hat pulled over my eyes. It was fun, but it was terrifying. Once I got that first laugh, I was like, “Oh yeah this is my drug. This is what I need.”
Drugs cost money. And comedy doesn’t make money for a very long time. What do you do to help support your comedy struggles?
I work three jobs—at three different bars. I work at a bar close to where I live in Astoria, Queens. It’s like a little wine beer bar. And then I work at a crazy NYU sports bar. I also bartend at the new UCB theater in the East Village.
What are your next goals for comedy?
I’ve been working for a long time on writing a book. All funny stuff—cartoons with short stories, stupid things like that. Just a collection of all my goofy stuff that I’ve been doing for years. I am putting that together with a CD that I’m trying to produce by the end of the year—and I am going to sell them together when that is all said and done.
Describe your creative process
I record everything now. I always record my sets. And I’m doing as many sets as possible. I’ve gone on stage more in the past six or seven months than I probably have in the last three years. I’ve been cramming as much as possible. I want to do as much as possible. I examine everything and listen to it, then I trim the fat and keep writing.
Speaking of trimming the fat, you’re the one who started the “Shredder Show”. Tell us about that.
The idea was to have a show where you really only did new material. You were encouraged to bring your notes up there and there was no shame in it whatsoever. There was also no shame if the joke didn’t work. If you do a joke and it bombed, then you’d put it in the paper shredder and you’d get a fallback laugh from that. Everybody else enjoyed it with you. It was a no-fail zone.
I basically just got tired of saying the same thing over and over again at the open mics. There needed to be an incentive for people to write more. To be able to do material and try new material and have an environment where it’s not so risky. So me and “Houston’s Funniest 2001” Robin Weinburgh actually produced that show. It was a fun thing and I wanted to do it more often. Do the Gibran thing and “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
What advice can you leave us with?
Don’t perform in just clubs, or just alternative rooms. Perform everywhere. Alternative rooms may be more casual. The crowds at the alternative rooms are more giving. To the comics, they seem to want you to win a little bit more. But in the clubs, the audience members are a little more uptight—they expect more, and they have higher standards.
So the best way to look at it is that you should be doing both. You should be doing everything. You should not be a specialized act that works in only one environment. You should be able to move in and out of all these worlds. You need to be able to do any room, anywhere, anytime.
Click Here for the official website of Paul Oddo
Interviewed & Written By: Al Bahmani
Edited By: David Gavri