What do they say about New York City: There are eight million stories, and sometimes it seems as though eight million of the people telling them think they’re comedians? No, that’s not it. It is a fact, though, that America’s biggest city is also its biggest comedy mecca. Hollywood may be Hollywood, but New York City is where comedians are born funny, become funny or arrive to thrust their funny upon us. I think we should meet some of these people. This is a recurring feature, a mini-profile of newcomers, up-and-comers and overcomers of New York’s vibrant comedy scene. It’s called Meet Me In New York.
I first started telling you about Jim Tews when he still lived and performed in Cleveland, thanks to a fun webseries he produced and starred in back in 2008 called “The Opener.” Because that’s what he did often at Hilarities and elsewhere around Ohio and the Midwest. Tews since has moved to New York City, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots; in fact, he has made a documentary about the scene he left behind, Make Fun. He also has gone on to perform at Montreal’s New Faces (class of 2011), as well as the Bridgetown, SF Sketchfest and Eugene Mirman comedy festivals.
This week, I saw Tews perform for the first time at the Comedy Cellar. Except it wasn’t just the Cellar. It was on the TV. On Louie. Tews was onstage telling a joke as Louis C.K. was offstage, confronting his fears and demons once more. But enough about him. Let’s find out more about Tews!
Name: Jim Tews
Arrival date: March 2011
Arrived from: Allentown, Penn., where I squatted with my sister for six months because I literally ran out of money, but just before that, Cleveland.
When and where did you start performing comedy? Cleveland, OH. May of 2003. My first performance was at an open mic at a sports bar in a strip mall.
What was your best credit before moving here? Probably the series of local commercials I was in for the Northeast Ohio chicken franchise, “Mr. Chicken.” I got recognized a lot because of those commercials. I was also a finalist in the Boston Comedy festival in like, 2007, maybe. That’s where we met!
Why did you pick NYC over LA or anywhere else?
I’ve always liked New York. Growing up in Allentown, Penn., I wasn’t too far away. I came into the city a lot as a kid. Then when I got into comedy, it was pretty clear this place was the heart of stand-up. I considered L.A. for the weather, but the initial move to NYC seemed a little easier. If you can get here and find a couch or a cheap room, you don’t need a lot of other resources to just start doing stand-up and get to know people in the community.
How long did it take to get your first paid gig in NYC after moving here?
It was a few months. I think it was a paid spot on Hannibal’s show at The Knitting Factory. Either that or this weird show I did in an activity center at Stuyvesant Town, with Michael Che, Sam Morrill and Harrison Greenbaum. That was weird. But the paid stand-up spots in the city for me are still few and far between.
How is this scene better/same/worse than the scene you moved from?
It’s better because you’re among some of the greatest comics in the world. You get to watch them, you run into them, you end up performing with them. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. And it’s not the same as when headliners come to town, it’s a very different vibe. You end up on a show with Gaffigan and Mulaney and you’re in the midst of it, you’re playing on the same field.
That’s also the thing that makes it worse, or more challenging. Because you have to try like hell to stand out and get better. And on top of that, you have to pay crazy rent. It’s worth it in the end, though, because you’re around so many people who are really into comedy, instead of three or four people in your small scene, you have hundreds of comics, and a bunch of people who just like watching comedy. You don’t get much of that in a smaller market.
Can you describe an “only in New York City” moment from your experience here?
There’s quite a few of them. Crying pedestrians are the worst. You don’t see that anywhere else. New York can also be incredibly loud all hours of the night. I lived at 125th and Lenox when I first moved here, which is a really busy area of Harlem. During the summer I didn’t have AC so I’d leave the windows open. I don’t think I slept that summer. I was hot, and constantly being woken up by trucks loading and unloading, or on several occasions, people screaming at each other. I also got trapped in a bodega one afternoon because two guys decided to have a knife stand-off right in front of the door. Myself and another guy were about to walk out and realized what was going on, we both looked at each other and just shrugged like “Well, at least we won’t get hit by a stray bullet.” Then we waited a few minutes until they ran off.
What tip would you give to any comedian who moves here?
Just do it and get out there. Figure out what you can do to get better in every aspect. Don’t worry about others and what they’re doing. Also, it takes a while for people to embrace you. People show up and disappear so frequently here, which is why people don’t bother getting too friendly with you for a good year or so. I moved here on my own, not in a group of people from where I started, which is how most people do it. Initially that was very difficult because I just didn’t have a lot of people to lean on or run with, but it also forced me to focus and get out of my comfort zone.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
That’s tough, because if you’d have asked me that five years ago, I would’ve said I’d be a full-time comic, probably all over Comedy Central or something, but that’s not where I am now. I still have a part-time day job and I’ve never been on Comedy Central. My first real TV appearance as a stand-up was on Louie, and I never in my life could’ve imagined that happening. I just want to get better at comedy, that’s always a safe goal because I’m the one who has control over it. So, in five years, I see myself being a better comic. Hopefully without the need for a part time job.
As he added, via Twitter, regarding his appearance on Louie: “There’s a punchline to that joke I set up. It’s pretty great.” Here is a stand-up set from Tews uploaded earlier this year. Perhaps you’ll see the full joke if you give it a watch:
Tews also appears in The Undone Sweaters, a webseries about “an embarrassingly sincere and sociophobic Weezer cover band. Together, Jim, Andrew, and Reid work through their problems and general pathetic-ness with friendship and the power of decent Weezer covers. Inspired by heartbreak.”
And this is the trailer to his documentary on Cleveland comedy, Make Fun:
But you won’t have to wait too long to see Jim Tews on your TV again. Here he is in the promos for Last Comic Standing, which means you’ll see a little bit more of this guy starting either May 22 or May 29! How much more? A little bit more.
Which NYC comedian would you like to see me style and profile next for Meet Me In New York? Send your nominations to: thecomicscomic AT gmail DOT com