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.
When I first saw Drew Michael as a “New Face” in Montreal a couple of summers ago, I knew right off the bat that he “has a lot more to say than a few minutes will allow.” So you really want to hear him out. And seek him out. Since moving to New York City from Chicago, he has racked up credits such as a TV appearance on Gotham Comedy Live for AXS and a win at the Laughing Devil competition, plus appearances around the country at festivals such as Bridgetown, RIOT L.A., and Laughing Skull. Michael’s monthly showcase at Q.E.D. in Astoria where he performs for an hour — “An (Exhausting) Evening with Drew Michael” — happens again tonight. Before that happens, I caught up with him at the Olive Tree Cafe above The Comedy Cellar the other night to give him some additional time to shine.
Name: Drew Michael
Arrival Date: November 2013
Arrived From: Chicago
When and where did you start performing comedy? “Technically the first time I performed was a multi-purpose room for one person, in college. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.” What year was this? “2007, 6? Something like that? I saw a – it was like a talent, a variety show at this theater that they were doing to raise money, some cabaret show to raise money for the acting program. And I saw a guy who did stand-up. I had never seen someone my age do stand-up before. I had seen Seinfeld do stand-up once. Other than that, I’d never seen live stand-up, I’d never seen someone who was my age – 18, 19, whatever it was – do stand-up. So I talked to him afterward. I was like, ‘How did you do that?’ He told me he auditioned with this guy and got to do the show. So the guy he knew, the guy he auditioned with, was someone I knew. So I asked him, ‘Can I do stand-up?’ He was like, ‘Do you have material?’ I’m like, I can write five minutes. ‘Write five minutes and come do it for me.’ So I wrote five minutes and then he met me at like three in the afternoon at some music room. Just him on a chair and he was like, ‘OK, go ahead.’ So I did my five minutes and he was like, ‘OK, yeah, you can do the show.’ And then, so that was technically the first time I ever did it. And then I did the show, which went great. I remember. I think. I remember I was wearing a hoodie and flip-flops. I was a mess.” And you were hooked instantly from that? “That was really good and then the next few were terrible, and I stopped for a while.” Then when was the first time you went back. “I think I did it here and then…it was the end of 2007 in Chicago, then when I was there, the beginning of 2008.”
What was your best credit before moving here? “I’m kind of devoid of credits. I have been, and I think I always will be. I think it’s just the work. So I had an album that I released a few months before I moved.” So that’s what you’d have them say when they introduce you onstage? “I have them say nothing. I just have them say my name. Yeah. I don’t think it matters…” Not that you’ve done Montreal or? “It would matter if it were something – but I don’t want it! I don’t want the crowd to be, what, are they going to give me more attention because I they thought I was on something? Let’s say I wrote for The Daily Show. ‘This guy writes for The Daily Show,’ and people go, ‘Ooh, I like The Daily Show, I’m going to..’ That doesn’t. I don’t need that. I still gotta be up there, you know? So I guess they give you some sort of established credibility, but I’d rather just have that myself as, establish that during the set, or have somebody know me, because they know what I do.”
Why did you pick NYC over LA or anywhere else? “I was really thinking about three places out of Chicago. There’s New York, L.A. or the woods. Legitimately. It’s either we take the next step in this comedy career, or we just end all this and get off the grid. Stage time was the biggest reason, because I just talked to too many people in L.A. who were established, credited comics who were not getting a ton of stage time. Three times a week? That’s not enough for me. I’d go crazy.”
How long did it take to get your first paid gig in NYC after moving here? “Well, I mean was always working. In the city, club spots you mean?” Yeah. “Here and there, but consistently, it was probably only when I started working here at the Cellar, which was last January. So about a year-plus.”
How is this scene better/same/worse than the scene you moved from? “Oh boy. Chicago, I really have nothing but good things to say about my experience with the Chicago scene. What I liked about it was, it’s kind of the perfect blend of opportunity but lack of pressure. So you get the ability to really, really try stuff. Because nobody’s watching. There’s no industry. There’s no that’s the booker for this, or this guy talks to this guy, it’s all just – where there is some of it. This person books a really good show, so you want to do well in front of them. But for the most part, it’s pretty independent of all that. But it’s still Chicago. Still a big city. There’s club spots, independent showcases, every night of the week, there’s multiple mics every night of the week. There’s six comedy clubs in the city and then there’s a bunch of comedy clubs within 200 miles. So it was a very good blend, North Side, South Side, an abundance of opportunities. But none of the pressure, which I think hampers creativity. I think it hampers experimentation, because even if it’s subconscious, you’re thinking someone…I need to do well, so I can move up this ladder. Because I’m in hell or whatever. New York, everyone is in hell, so you just want to escape. And you see the way to do it is, they’re afraid to fail because they don’t want to be stuck in hell, so they don’t reach past what they’re able to do, and that’s where growth happens. Because when you try something, you’re like, ‘Oh, fuck. That was, I’m not ready for that.’ But in doing that, you get yourself better at that. So I saw a lot more of that in Chicago than I do in New York. And I think that has to do with, entirely, the inherent pressure of industry and just the fact that other people rock that you watch even at an open mic here.” You have to rise to the level of the competition? “You get in your head that this guy has done this, that guy’s done this, but I like, you’ve got to go at your own pace. I think for the most part the people who are emerging are doing that, but people would benefit from time away from New York or Los Angeles. At the beginning. To really find out what you’re about and what you want to be doing, rather than what works early. Sometimes people find what works early, ok, cool, that must have been easy, rather than if you find out what works 10 years from then, you know what I mean? That took you 10 years to figure out how to even make that work, so there’s probably something interesting about that.” Do you feel like you’ve figured that out? “Enough to where I could move to New York with some kind of established point of view. Although, I mean, that process never stops. I’m constantly – so I recorded that album at the end of 2013, and I’m ready to record again and do something. I want to shoot a special, and I think about letting all that stuff go. Recording it, and then doing something completely different. But changing the approach a little bit, changing the energy and the emotional spot from where all of it comes from. But who knows? I’m constantly thinking about what could be different, what could change. How I could grow as a performer.”
Can you describe an “only in New York City” moment from your experience here? “Nothing comes to mind off the top of my head. There’s the classic train car, smell I never existed before, kind of thing. But I definitely don’t. The only New York thing, day to day, there’s feelings I’ve never had before, that I have here. Just extreme anxiety. There was, when I first moved here, a set, and it was a bad, empty, poorly-attended bar show. And I was awful. I bombed. It was my only show that week. So I remember walking home, or walking to the train from the show, and I just felt so small. The buildings are all around you, the city is bustling, it’s like a Friday night so everyone is out. I’m like eating some shawarma, walking down and holding the tin foil, because the hummus is dripping. And I just felt like the buildings were mocking me. You’re not going to make it. That feeling is something I’ve never that was an I’ve only felt that in New York, that extremely.”
What tip would you give to any comedian who moves here? “I don’t know if I’m the person to give this advice, but I probably have not done it the most effective way. The best thing you can do is be around, be social, be nice to everyone and do well onstage. Do what you do. Bring whatever you bring. As much as you can. People seem to get mad when you take their show for granted. Everyone takes themselves a little too seriously, a little bit. Where it’s like, you feel a little more pressure because…there’s this mix of people who’ve been doing it for 12 years, and people who’ve been doing it for two months. And so someone who’s been doing it for two months will run a show and think this is everything, you’re supposed to kill, and then someone who’s been doing it longer will come in and that show might take place in a series of shows. They might be doing newer things or trying things. Sometimes people don’t get that. Just be aware of that dichotomy. So, you can make the choice you’re going to make, and do what you want to do, but be aware that people will talk. People talk a lot here. To an annoying level. Where it’s like, how did you hear about that? Some miniscule thing. It gets around. It’s a small community. It gets around the city, and then it gets around the country, too.” Facebook, or. “People work together all the time. ‘You know that guy? You know how it is?’ Yeah, so don’t be sociopathic about it, where you’re managing your image.” We talk more about Facebook (which you can hear on the audio version).
Where do you see yourself five years from now? “No, I don’t work that way. Which is why I never fit into college, the workforce, that kind of thing. I wake up, and if I keep wanting to do what I’m doing, I keep doing it. I’m inspired by something or a series of things, and so long as those things are there, I’ll keep pursuing it. I like to create, and make shit.” You mentioned a new album and filming a special. “I have a concept for it, it adapts stand-up into the visual medium. I don’t know if shooting an hour of straight jokes, I don’t know how well that reads on screen. Especially now that TV is so well-made. It’s so detail-oriented. You have Game of Thrones, and then you have a guy talking for an hour with a bottle of water. I think it needs something. Another component. But not to take away from it. I do want to try stuff like that, you know with Mash-Up, and different things where they tried to blend elements…so I have a concept for that.”
You can see Drew Michael monthly in his own showcase at QED in Astoria, and weekly at The Comedy Cellar. His other show dates are posted on his site.
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
Top: Photo of Drew Michael at 50 First Jokes, 2016, by Mindy Tucker