Meet Me In New York: Dan Wilbur
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.
One thing I've learned over my years in New York City is seeing comedians and comedy industry types rise up and out of the ranks of the business itself, starting out here with a day job behind the scenes of comedy. An Emmy-winning writer and producer worked at Comedy Central, as did at least one new TV host I can think of. Another TV programming executive first met me while working the hosting station at Caroline's on Broadway. Dan Wilbur was working in the back offices of the late Comix comedy club before he got a chance to start hosting shows there. For the past couple of years, Wilbur has co-hosted the popular Lasers in the Jungle showcase Thursday nights at UCBEast.
He since has gone on to perform in sketches for IFC, MTV, CollegeHumor and Funny or Die, and he's had some fun at the expense of his beloved hometown Cleveland Browns. He's also written and edited for Someecards.com, and The Onion News Network on IFC. Those experiences probably served him well when he created a Tumbler called Better Book Titles, which is now a brand-new book, with each page renaming and imagining a popular piece of literature. "To Kill a Mockingbird" becomes "My Dad Is Cooler than Your Dad"; "A Walk to Remember" reborn as "Teen Sex Is OK if One of Them Has Cancer."
"Never Flirt with Puppy Killers: And Other Better Book Titles" is out today, and Wilbur is celebrating with a book release party and stand-up comedy showcase tonight at Littlefield, with performances by Janeane Garofalo, Reformed Whores, Josh Gondelman, Jacqueline Novak and Erik Bergstrom.
Wilbur met up with me recently at Housing Works Bookstore in Soho to talk books, comedy and his own journey through them. Photo of Wilbur with his new book at right, by Anya Garrett.
Name: Dan Wilbur
Arrived From: Cleveland
Arrival Date: May 23, 2009, the day after I graduated from Bard College, so I really came down from Bard
Where and when did you start performing comedy? "The first I performed in New York was probably Comix. I first got up onstage at Bard College the day that classes started." As a freshman? "As a freshman. When I was 18. Because I wanted to prove that I was funny to all those people who didn't know me. Because I was funny in high school. But not really funny." And they didn't have formal stages for you in high school to do that? "Yeah, well I would host coffeeshop nights...in coffeeshops, book stores, because that's the only place I've ever thrived. This is it. This is it. Born and bred in this space. And I can't escape it. It's terrifying."
What was your best credit when you moved here? "When I first got here, I had been writing for a videogame website, and the name of the first one I can't remember. They eventually became GameSpy. And then I was eventually writing for a place called The Minus World, and they were like Onion jokes, but only about video games. So, one was about Obama saying he would use the World Of Goo material for fixing our infrastructure. One was about a kid who was constantly thanking Jesus every time he beat somebody in Wii Sports. They were really weird jokes. That was the credit that I used when I officially moved here in 2009. Before that, I was just coming down and I was like, 'I performed at Bard College. Just tell people that. I've headlined Bard College.' I went to school there."
So how long did it take you to get paid work here in NYC? "Well, I was really lucky in that Comix eventually let me host. And that was, the flushest I had ever been. OK, so I officially moved here in 2009. Working at Comix in their office. And by March of 2010, I was writing for The Onion on IFC (The Onion News Network). That was my first writing credit and the first time I wrote for TV. And then I was hosting that audition spot for Comix. They would pack 10 people on a lineup, and then there would be a no-drink minimum, and it would be $5 and then I would be able to get up and host all the new people that they were considering. I had a day job, a writing job and a stand-up gig once a week. That March of 2010 was the only month that I was buying people drinks. Offering people coffee."
Why did you pick New York over Los Angeles or instead of anywhere else before NYC? "I knew I wanted to come to New York while I was still in -- the second I got to Bard and realized you could take the train down and it was an hour and a half, you could go and see shows. I knew I wanted to be here. And then I had invited Kumail Nanjiani, he did a show at Bard, and I said, 'I'm really thinking about going to Chicago for a while.' Because he was in Chicago with all those guys. Just to start small. Because I also had been to Chicago and thought it was fun. But he was like, 'No. You already have your foot in the door in New York, so you should go.' I'm going to say it's the worst advice, because the second I got here, I felt miserable. And then he left! He went to Los Angeles! So, who can you trust? Really? But yeah, I remember that conversation in 2008 or whatever it was the year before I left school."
Have you performed in Cleveland? "Yeah. And now there's a real scene. The joy of performing at Bard was that I didn't know anything. And I was in charge of the shows. So we didn't know what a light was. We would let comics go as long as they wanted. And it was basically an open mic with four people and audience. Because people just liked us and saying let's go see this. I was writing a new 15 minutes every week, because people would give me shit for repeating jokes. They were like, 'I saw this. I saw this last week. C'mon! Write a new one.' And I couldn't get up anywhere else, we were just in our cafeteria, basically. So New York is definitely different from that. Once I saw a club and realized, oh, you can tell people to shut up. You can just wave your phone. So I know I'm telling you I was in three scenes now. I was in New York. Back in Bard. And then I went back to Cleveland that first winter break, and I went to an open mic, and they screwed up, and they had 15 comics on the list, and I put my name at the bottom, and they screwed up and ended the show before they announced me? So I watched this whole open mic, and it was the worst. Like, I had never seen anything worse than this. But there were still so many comics! There were still so many people trying to do it. It was at a Panini's restaurant, and I don't even think the stage was lit. I think everybody was in the dark. In the back room of this sandwich shop. It was just really awful, and I'm really happy I didn't do it. And then it took -- it was literally one guy, Ramon Rivas, whom I'm sure you've met. He just comes to New York every once in a while, but he and Jim Tews just built a good mic, and then they built a good show, and then Ramon started to work Hilarities and started to host, and Jim would open for everybody at the Improv. And all of a sudden, all of these guys who were bad started to get in front of audiences and they became good. And Ramon is basically in charge of five or six shows around Cleveland, and it's a small town, but there's packed crowds and it's a scene that he built himself. Now I go back and act like I've always been there. I'm like, ah yeah, Cleveland! Cleveland did it for me."
When you go back there, what do you cite to them as an "only in New York" experience? "In comedy or life? For me, Cleveland I still think is nice and Midwestern. There's still a few things that I think of are only in Cleveland that I miss, and it's stuff like if you walk outside your house in Cleveland, there's someone who will start talking to you. As if they know you. As if they've known you forever. And the difference between that and New York is New Yorkers are nice because nobody wants to be in your shit. Nobody wants to be up in your business. And that's actually polite. That nobody cares. Everybody wants you to get out of the way and move faster, and nobody -- sometimes someone new will randomly talk to you on the subway and you're like, 'What, is this person a psycho? What is going on?' But if I was in Cleveland, it'd be completely normal. And then the scariest -- we all have horror stories, and then stayed through them, right? One time I was in a rush-hour train, and I saw a dude, everyone was piled onto one side of it, and it smelled like cigarette smoke, and it was just a dude smoking. And no one told him to put it out, because they were like, that guy's clearly lost his mind. Let's all stay over here. New Yorkers are very, much more timid than they let on. I think also because they're not trying to get in that guy's business because what else could come of it unless a fight? Nothing good. A drunk dude at 8 in the morning smoking a cigarette? And you're going to go up and go, cough cough, excuse me, sir? That's what would happen in Cleveland. Five Clevelanders would have gone up and gone 'Could you wait?' And then they'd all have a cigarette with him after the train got there, and said, this guy's great. We all got to know each other, because this guy was smoking a cigarette. Not in New York."
What advice would you give any comedian who's moving here? The same advice Kumail gave you? "I'm thinking about it more now than ever, which is, you don't need to seek the validation of established anybody. And that sounds really egotistical, but I mean it. If I could go back, I would have spent less time trying to get specific things -- writing packets when I really wasn't ready. To work on shows where there was almost no chance that I was getting it, but like really stressing myself out for two weeks to put that stuff on paper. I'm glad I did it, because now I have the experience of doing it. But if I had just taken all my buddies from college, and kept our sketch group together. Maybe nothing would have come of it. But we would have had a really nice show, and then we would have had a bunch of us hanging out. Instead they all ditched it and decided not to do comedy in New York, and I wish they had -- I wish I had spent more time on my own stuff. And that's a weird tension for every comic, right? You want to be validated by clubs, you want to get on TV, you want to get your five minutes on a late-night show. Really, if you just stuck to doing the stuff that you loved doing, and you got really good, and then all of a sudden people were just coming to your show because they just loved you, then that's not, you're not seeking the validation of anybody else. You're just doing your own thing. And it's all anyone wants from you."
Do you feel you have that with "Lasers" and Better Book Titles? "Yeah. Especially Better Book Titles is a thing I didn't think would blow up the way that it did in that first year. I was just trying, I had just gotten out of school, and was like, I don't read enough. I'm going to do something funny about this one thing that I spent four years on, just consuming books, and I'm going to make fun of it. Even though it's the nearest and dearest thing to me. My dearest hobby I will just ruin and exploit for comedy, which is what I do, and if I had pitched that to? Like Comix was trying to make more blogs, or if I worked at a website and said, hey let's do this, it might have been a post that didn't do that well. But it wouldn't have been a site that was mine that I poured love into. And it wouldn't have been as successful or notable. It definitely wouldn't have been a book. It would have just died. Right? And that's what everybody is looking for, is to do the thing that you love and you don't care what other people think about it."
Where do you see yourself five years from now? "If I'm not the spokesperson for Tesla automobiles, I don't know why I'm going on these commercial auditions. Why even bother? A normal guy, driving a Tesla."
The book is out today. The show/party is tonight at Littlefield.
You can also catch him Thursday nights at UCBEast for Lasers in the Jungle. Here's a set from Wilbur at his Lasers in the Jungle show from earlier this year:
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