Shane Mauss is a stand-up comedian. He has appeared on Conan and Jimmy Kimmel, has Netflix specials, and headlines on shows all over the world. More interestingly, Shane does comedy about science. He hosts the podcast, Here We Are, where he interviews scientists about their work. Shane is the subject of the documentary film Psychonautics, a comedic exploration of psychedelics. He is currently touring as the host and creator of Stand-up Science which is part comedy show and part TED event.
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Writing Or Dying with Shane Mauss
Our guest on this episode is Shane Mauss. He is a standup comedian. He has appeared on Conan and Jimmy Kimmel. He has a Netflix special and headlines on shows all over the world. More interestingly, he does comedy about science. He hosts the podcast Here We Are where you interview scientists about their work. He’s the subject of the documentary film Psychonautics, which is a comedic exploration of psychedelics. He’s touring as the host and creator of Stand Up Science, which is part comedy show and part TED event. Welcome, Shane.
Thank you for having me, Peter McGraw. First of all, you forgot to mention that we’re very good friends that know each other. It’s such a formal introduction. One, I loved it because I sound much less lazy than how I think of myself. When I hear all that, I’m like, “I guess I do some stuff.”
If you’ve worked long enough, things pile up.
I also like that you said, “More interestingly, Shane does a comedy about science.” As a scientist, more interestingly for you, but not for everybody. Some people will be, “Less interestingly, he does comedy about science.” Standup comedy is way too popular. I had to throw science in there to make it a little harder on myself.
There are not many people living in that little sliver of the Venn diagram between science and comedy. I’m living there too. You are now in very good company, Shane, because I’ve only had a handful of guests break the rules of the show. You’re in the same company as Jen O’Donnell, Neal Brennan and Jimmy Carr.
Those are great people. That’s a good company to be a part of. How did I break the rules?
Most people wait for me to ask a question and those three just jumped on in before the question. I’m going to ask you still my traditional question, but I do have a rule-breaking question coming up. If you weren’t working as a comedian, what would you be doing with your life?
A crane operator.
I’m laughing because that might be true.
That is true. I think that driving forklift was, until comedy, the best job that I ever had. I didn’t do it that much, but I did a lot of factory work and some of it involved driving a forklift and a pallet card or whatever. I like working on those boom trucks way up, the telephone trucks. That’s called a boom. I’ve driven those around a little bit. I like the levers. I like being a crane operator. I still might get into that.
Is that your fallback?
It is my fallback. I love science. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a scientist. I don’t think that I am disciplined enough and I don’t think that I am resilient enough.
You don’t think you are resilient enough to deal with the rejection and constant criticism?The hugely funny big payoffs are unfortunately a lot of waiting game. Click To Tweet
I love the big ideas, like a philosopher. Someone that can completely be making things up and not to back up anything.
Comedians are more like philosophers than they are social scientists. They often get referred to as a social scientist. The difference I think is that comedians don’t care about being right. They just care about being funny, so when you don’t have data, you don’t ever have to worry about being wrong. That’s philosophy.
I would love to be a part of a brainstorming session. I would absolutely love that. I bet I’d be half-decent at it too but the actual discipline of following through on the studies and analyzing the data, I don’t think that I would be very good at it. I would like to think that another career of mine would be as a scientist, but if I’m being honest with myself, no way. I will be a crane operator.
People don’t realize what you were referring to about brainstorming session. One of the things that I can offer businesses is that I can come into a business and bring a bunch of people like you, very creative, divergent thinkers and come up with ideas that the people in the business would never come up with.
That’s the thing that I would love to be a part of.
If you’ve got a business and you have problems to solve, send me an email. I’ll bring Shane and a bunch of his friends.
I get to bring my friends too? That’s a lot of fun.
You need more than one, at least. I figured you would probably want at least four comics involved in this thing. I’ve worked in a warehouse before when I was in college, in the summer. That was tough work. I was young so it wasn’t physically taxing, but for me it was numbing.
I did a lot of working on machines. People aren’t doing well in factories. There’s a lot of clear depression issues and meth use. On my podcast, Here We Are, a guy wrote a whole book about meth use in the Appalachian region and it’s all because factory work is going under in all these rural areas and they can have a little meth that helps the day go right by. You can work a few extra hours, put a little more money on the plate. It’s a very cheap drug. There are other factors too, tree growth and everything else. That’s invading the factory in the urban space and outset. Although that guy was on Stand Up Science and I went to introduce him and I said, “Stand Up Science as a show that I do that has two scientists and two comedians on the same show and I host it.” When I went to introduce him, I go, “This next guy has a book on meth use on the Appalachian Trail.” That’s a very different book.
You can hike a little longer, put a few extra hours and get through the trail faster.
It’s mind-numbing repetitive work, but the forklift stuff, as you’re constantly getting better at it, you’re in different areas of the factory. It’s a little more varied. I like driving. I hate flying, but I like driving a fair amount, but that’s way more fun because you get to whip around as fast as you can and these forklifts and you get rewarded for going as fast as you can there. There’s a lot going on there that appeals to me.
I hope it never comes to that.
I hope so too. Factory work, generally speaking.
This is a good segue to this question about rule breaking. Speaking of factory work going away, it’s going away because of machines. One of the interesting things that’s happening, especially in the United States, is that machines have always threatened blue collar work more than white collar work. Now because of artificial intelligence, white-collar work is on the chopping block. You see some evidence of this. There’s a lot of varied evidence of this. Customer service work is increasingly being turned over to bots. We know that the world’s best chess and go players are losing to machines.
The doctors trying to diagnose lung cancer and stuff are losing.
The radiologists are going away rather quickly and even highly specialized things like surgeons.
Imagine going to school for sixteen years after high school and all of that for a section. I had a friend that has a very specific specialty in eye surgery, all that and then a bot comes in and can do it better.
Lawyering and accounting, I laugh that we have accounting students because all the basics of accounting are going to be done automated and so on. What I like to say is that the people who are going to be successful in the world are going to be people who have jobs that are non-rule following work. The World Economic Forum has this interesting report about this. These are activities that don’t have a set of rules, if X, then Y. A lot of supervising people work that requires creativity and so on. One of the nice things is that comics, their jobs are the last jobs that will be taken over by AI.
Even if AI can write a joke, unless we give them genitals, what are they going to be joking about?
We know this because computer scientists use jokes as the Holy Grail of these computer programs. In my opinion, it is the highest standard. The Turing test stuff, as we know these chatbots can pass the Turing test nowadays but creating something that can create comedy is very difficult. They are trying and they’re failing. It’s a very difficult thing to do. Comedy is about breaking the rules fundamentally, whether it be, from my perspective, as a benign violation account of comedy. The violations come from breaking norms and rules and so on and so forth, but I think even the approach to comedy.
As you’re talking about this, I’m following the trajectory of putting all this research into making AI funny. A lot of the concerns out there with AI is you’ll program it to get rid of spam or something and then AI will make the “mental leap” to be like, “Humans are the creators of spam, so the only sure way to get rid of spam is to get rid of humans.” If something’s that smart, it’s probably going to be able to overlook a misunderstanding. The singularity looks very different if the AI finally figures out how to construct good jokes and it’s insanely funny and we just can’t stop laughing. That’s a different robot apocalypse than I had ever pictured before.
The nice thing about that is knowing what I know about comics and how much they enjoy having an audience laugh, at least the robots won’t destroy us. They’ll want to keep us around. They’re not going to turn us into batteries like in The Matrix. They’re going to have us sitting around laughing at their funny jokes. This is a serious digression, but my opinion about this is, I think the worry is if you create robots for war and law enforcement and stuff. They’re at risk for over-generalizing. I’ve had this other opinion about what would happen with AI or is it as threatening as we think it is? My thought is as societies progress, what you tend to find happen is that they become more caring. They start caring more about the environment. They start caring more about animals. They start caring more about people unlike you. My question is, will AI just treat us the way we treat dogs and how we’ll someday may be hopefully treat chickens?
If you look at the natural progression, a scientist’s ultimate dream, like an animal-behavior person, is to study these behaviors outside of a lab setting because there are all sorts of problems with it. I had an episode recorded about prairie and meadow voles. These meadow voles that are promiscuous, you put them in a cage in the lab and then they won’t mate for you anymore. They hate being cooped up. You would think that they would want to be a less invasive, if anything, to learn and understand as much as there is to learn and understand from all of life that exists on this Earth. You’d want to not even be seen. That’s probably why we’re living in a simulation.
We’re not going down that rabbit hole, but who knows. I’m thinking it’s a fanciful thing to think of like, “These robots are going to turn into people killers.”
It’s also such a human thing. These are the reason why we have war and aggression is because these are instincts that evolved over millions of years for specific goals to that environment. If we are programming the goals, the concern is making war drones and police and then seeing them be out of control because that’s the goal that you’re setting for them. People are like, “Once they wake up, then they’d go to war with us.” Aggressions is a very mammal thing and it doesn’t get us very far either. It’s one of our worst traits.
The ratio of movies in which the robots turn evil to the robots that are turned good is probably 100 to one. That’s the obvious path because it’s part of our consciousness.
The singularity is not going to look too much different than us staring at our phones quite a bit.
When you say the singularity, what are you referring to exactly?
That’s the Ray Kurzweil idea. That’s Moore’s Law of the exponential growth. Computer’s double in processing power every eighteen months and half the cost. This isn’t a linear graph. This is exponential growth. Then there’s eventually a point at the curve where it’s going straight out and that’s the singularity. Once robots do that one double where they are smarter than us, potentially there’s nothing stopping them from rapidly advancing, faster than we could possibly imagine. I think it’ll either be we’ll become zombies because it’ll be so incredibly entertaining. VR stuff or whatever will completely suck us in. It might be like you use all these medical AI things. We are already are slaves to ourselves and to our genes already. Once your toilet is your doctor and every time you’re going to the bathroom, it’s giving you some reading and telling you what you need to change in your diet and this and that. You should run at this time and you’ll feel better and you’re wearing all of these things, you’d be crazy not to be following these instructions after a while.
We might eventually be mindlessly following these strict medical instructions so that we can feel good for 100-year lifespan or whatever it will be. Either way I think the singularity, the robot will takeover or whatever is going to be either way more boring or way more fun. Other than the transition of what do people do when they’re losing all their jobs. It’s like the self-driving car thing. Having all cars on the road be self-driving is not that hard to do. Having the transition of having half the cars be self-driving cars and half the cars not is that you have to manufacture a self-driving car that’s so much better than it would need to be if all the cars were self-driving. Because now it has to calculate other human errors into it all of the time. That’s going to be a brutal transition with figuring out the minimum livable wage or whatever it might be and what is our new incentive structure look like. I think that’s going to be a rough patch that will hopefully be ripped off like a Band-Aid at some point and we’ll all be working 25-hour weeks and that’ll be considered full time or something. It’ll transition in that way is my hope.
I think what we’ll probably end up happening more is that you’ll get this polarization. Where there’ll be large swaths of people who are doing no work and then other people who still are doing valuable work. That’ll be the painful transition, but to this point, comedians will still have a job in a sense because that’s very difficult to replicate, whereas Uber drivers won’t. Even though they’re paid the same amount right now.
Most comedians are Uber drivers. I think that humanity has always had a fair amount of dead weight attached to it and it’s something we’re going to have to come to terms with. In ant colonies, some crazy percentage of ants don’t do any of the work. 20% or something never work a day in their lives. This happens. In a lot of social colonies, there’s always going to be some hangers-on and stuff. I live outside of Portland. In Oregon, they have a job creation program, which is you can’t pump your own gas. Now, you show up, you got to wait for this idiot to get over here and it’s a whole thing. You’re inclined to tip them. I can do all of this so much faster. I’d prefer to do it on my own and now I’m paying more for my gas and tipping this person that I wish wasn’t there because of this job creation. I wish they were at home doing nothing instead of in my way and making my gas more expensive.
Back to this rule-breaking idea. I think your strength as a comic is your joke writing.
I’ve gotten to be a pretty darn good storyteller as well.
Your primary strength, I would say. Do you have a system? Can you articulate an approach? I realized you have some natural instincts that are better than most people and you probably have had them for a long time, but do you have a more formalized approach?
I remember when I started. It’s almost better for me to go back to the origins because when I was a late-night joke writer, trying to get that perfect five minutes together and tighten everything up, I used to record all of my jokes. I used to time exactly how far away. I don’t do any of that anymore, but I used to time how far away each punch line was. I would rate the level of the laugh that each beat got and calculate how long the setups were. Especially with the timing, math was the only thing that I was ever good at in school and it felt so mathematical and formulaic for me in this way. Maybe they will be able to with AI eventually, but if you look at my writing pad, it’s not a bunch of numbers and things but it has a math quality to it when I’m writing jokes. I think that I look for natural opportunities as much as possible.
Number one, I try to write what I’m interested in writing or sometimes I free write, which is utter nonsense just to get the juices flowing. I usually will free write the thing that I’m interested in. I make a point to not attempt to be funny. I’m not sitting down to write jokes right now. I’m writing. After that, I go through and I look for opportunities of little twists that you can put on things. An easy and great way to do that is you have a page with multiple paragraphs, taking it line by line and you twist a space in there and how can I make this one sentence funny? Maybe you can’t. You move to the next a sentence or breaking sentences in half and finding out.
Anytime you are presenting a fact about yourself or you’re having a little bit of information, there should be a little bit of opportunity. A line popping into my head is about how I’m not into horoscopes. I’m a Gemini, so I’m skeptical by nature. It was a part of my act when I was going to say something critical about it. I was setting up that I was a skeptical person and within the setup, I was like, “How can I put this?” It’s a little awkward. Those aren’t necessarily always the biggest and grandest joke but that’s a good way to get the laughs along the way that you’ll need to get the big payoffs. A lot of times for me, the hugely funny big payoff things are unfortunately a lot of waiting game for things to pop into my head.
Here’s an example of something that seems like it popped into your head. I sometimes ask you to give me a hand being funny and punch something up. I have this talk, a shtick of business that I’ve given at Stand Up Science. It’s a crowd-pleaser. It’s certainly the best business talk I’ve ever designed.
I’ve shared it with people in conversations outside of Stand Up Science.
It has a one-two punch. It’s entertaining and it has a very clear takeaway. A useful thing for everyday people.
You got to play other comedians’ funny jokes as well. It’s a little cheap being someone who’s a huge fan of science and loves watching lectures and stuff. Whenever I do see a scientist, which is pretty often using some other comic’s jokes, I wish I could be like Chris Rock.
I do a tribute. They do get credit. One of the lessons is about reversal. It’s a very common comedy technique but reversals are useful in business and in a variety of professional settings, etc. I talk about clicks to bricks. I talk about these internet retailers who are starting to open brick and mortar stores, even in the same category that they’ve put brick and mortar stores out of business. For example, Amazon opening up bookstores as an example of a reversal. I remember telling you about this and then you quickly were like, “I got one for you.”
What if Netflix had a store that you could go to and rent DVDs?
You gave me this critical line that I enjoy. I don’t like making fun of Millennials very much, but it’s still a fun thing. Let’s not get carried away. I’m sure there’s a Millennial in the audience right now.
I should make a list of these and then use them in my own writing because certainly, once you have the thing that you care about saying, which is what I do now is I do comedy about things that I care about. That wasn’t always the case, but I find it’s a much more natural form. You then go through and you find things like that and then you go, “What’s next?” The What’s Next formula is very common. We’re talking about this with AI and I’m picturing the inevitable outcome of following this idea to its natural, ridiculous conclusion. Politicians do this all of the time with, “They’re going to take this away. Next, they’re going to be coming for this and that.”
Improvisers have this thing, “If this is true, what else is true?” It’s a perspective that improvisers have.
In terms of reversals, another easy one is, “What’s the good news or what’s the bad news?” This isn’t my strongest joke, but it’s a perfect example. If global warming predictions come true, the sea levels could rise so high that it’d wipe out the entire state of Florida and then there’s some bad news.
Do you tell that joke when you’re in Florida?
I haven’t. I probably told that joke five times. I do it during Stand Up Science when I have a climate person on, which isn’t all that often. The structure there is you have this negative news, what’s the silver lining? If you have the positive thing, then you go, “What’s the downside of this?” That’s a very easy reversal to look at and things. That’s a common comedic tool.
There is some natural instinct to comedy. Some people are better at doing this naturally. Probably what happens is that even if you do think about these things, they become automatic. You’re not going, “if then,” you naturally go to these places in the way that someone who’s less funny doesn’t.
I wouldn’t say it was that natural for me early on. I think that I had some natural inclination, but at the same time, I would walk myself through a lot of these and dissect things and analyze them. Whereas now, it is very natural and genuine. I don’t know that I’m more or less prolific now.The first ten minutes of your writing is usually garbage. Click To Tweet
Exaggeration is one I’ve heard comics talked about a lot. It’s how you take this little thing and make it enormous, so to speak. Do others come to mind?
Oftentimes, an understatement or an overstatement of taking these vile things or disturbing acts and then adding an understatement or during the opposite. I remember early on I had some joke about how I’d read about something sex move called the Canadian Pipeline or something. I was like, “Call me old fashioned, but that’s one seems weird to me.” You’re taking this ridiculously vulgar and putting this cute little charming thing on it and then you can do the reverse of that as well. You talk about comedians like Seinfeld doing that in your book The Humor Code, but it’s true. You’re doing the exact opposite. Instead of understating, you’re overstating.
The Seinfeld strategy, pointing out what’s wrong with the norm. For The Humor Code, I got up and did stand up at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal and it was super intimidating because I wasn’t well-prepared. There was a joke you helped me with that I think is that if this is true, what else is true or what’s next thing? We were talking about Joel Warner, who was my co-author and I going to Osaka. Osaka is a comedic city. It’s the funniest city in Japan. In Osaka, if you walk up to someone and you point your finger at them like it’s a gun and you go bang, they’ll act like they’d been shot. They’ll hold their chest like it’s a normal thing. It’s nowhere else but in Osaka that it’s a thing. The joke was you can go in and rob banks.
The world’s funniest bank heist.
You walk into a bank with your fingers blazing.
That’s like the robots taking over through laughter. It’s a similar strategy.
Yes, that’s right and you helped me with the tag, which was that you were going to put the money in these imaginary bags. You mentioned writing. Do you have a writing practice? Do you have a set way?
When I’m focused on writing, I would say that it’s a great thing if I’m like, “Shane, here’s what you’re going to do tomorrow.” My ideal writing practice would be to wake up in the morning and there’s a program called Write or Die.
If you stopped writing, it starts deleting what you wrote or something?
You enter the parameters that you want to write. I would often put in 20 to 25 minutes at 30 words a minute. That’s not insanely fast. You can’t stop writing at that speed. You set that or even at twenty or whatever. You set whatever parameter you want, you hit start and it’s your regular old Word document, except when you fall below that pace, alarms start going off, the screen starts turning red and beeping at you. Spiders fall on the screen. The first ten minutes of it is usually like, “I have nothing to say. I’m trying to get this stupid thing to stop the alarm. What is the point of any of this?” for about ten minutes. After that, a lot of that resistance gets broken up and it’s a little more freeform writing. Not that you’ll necessarily get anything out of that, although you certainly can.
I would say the first ten minutes is usually garbage. Ten minutes after that can be okay. The main thing is that it gets the writing juices going and then journaling at the end of the day. I would say if you’re doing twenty minutes at the start of the day and twenty minutes at the end of the day, no matter what, then all through the day, you’ll naturally be writing more. You’ll naturally be coming up with more ideas that you’ll have the inclination to jot down and expand on. You’re not trying. You’re not like, “I’ve got to sit down and write for four hours.” It comes out pretty naturally. That’s juices flowing at the beginning of the day and then you’re living your life like you want to have something interesting to say about it at the end of the day.
I use this thing called Freedom app, which blocks out the internet. It doesn’t incentivize writing, but it dis-incentivizes distraction. You can’t surf the web and check your email and stuff during it. It’s interesting hearing that idea because I would say my strength as a writer is my consistency. I get up every day and write in the morning. My weakness as a writer is that I’m often too critical and too editorial. I’m too editing-focused. I don’t do a lot of that shitty first drafts, first writing. All I’m doing is getting ideas on the paper. My tendency is I write a sentence and then I fix the sentence and then I started writing another sentence and then I do that until I have a paragraph and then I fix the paragraph.
That’s not at all how I write.
Which I like to do. To me, editing is about solving puzzles. It can be fun but it’s not a great way always to get ideas.
In that the ideal scenario, I go back through the second half of that Write or Die thing that I did and go through it and read and look for those opportunities and expand on them and go through old notes and expand on things that I think are funny. I’m still pretty editor-free for the first early parts. I would have a little more strict editing process after that. The editing’s the last step for me. That’s the thing that I often don’t even get to. I have so many pages of stuff that I have never looked at. I have so many notebooks that I’ve never once looked back at or anything ever again. For me, it’s about creating all of the time. I’m not a big finisher. I like starting things. I love chasing new ideas. My big fix in life is the epiphany whenever I feel I’ve had an epiphany or have read something and that’s mind-blowing. That feeling is this single greatest feeling in the world.
That moment of insight.
The rest of my life has been slugging it out, waiting for one of those to occur. I also recommend the Pomodoro Technique quite a bit. That’s a big increase in both productivity and creativity.
That’s the 25-minute bouts of creative work.
I do this consistently. I set the alarm for 20 minutes and 30 minutes. At twenty, I have to go until the twenty-minute alarm and I have to have stopped by the 30-minute alarm.
Your average is 25 minutes?
I can stop anytime I want to after the twenty minutes, but I have to stop by the 30. One that they say that’s maximum attention, some people have up to 45 minutes to an hour of attention. I don’t. The other aspect of it for someone like me who is not necessarily a self-starter is that twenty minutes seems a very small bite out of life. It seems very un-intimidating. I joke about being lazy and stuff, but often I’ll get to that 30-minute mark and I’m like, “I’m going. I’m going to keep on working.” Then you set the alarm for five minutes to ten minutes and take a break and get your mind off of it. That makes all the difference in the world. It’s counterintuitive when you’re in the groove and you’re working to fall out of it, but if you’re doing something like creative writing, going to wash the dishes or stretch a little bit and trying to get your mind off of it in some way, maybe TV isn’t necessarily the best way.
You can go for a walk or take a shower.
That’s when most epiphanies are going to come. That’s what you’re doing everything for, usually. That’s where the gold is, it’s in the breaks.
I’m going to make an observation as a good friend of yours who cares. I think you should stop saying you’re lazy.
I am a little hard on myself and you’re supposed to be like, “I’m experiencing laziness.”
Here’s the comedic technique. It’s self-deprecation. There’s this tendency to make fun of yourself in general. I’m sure there have been times in your life where you were lazy, but you’re not a lazy guy.
I sometimes get burnt out and I procrastinate.
Look at this list of credits? You’ve been on Late Night, you have a Netflix special, you have multiple albums and you’ve toured the world. You’ve got this podcast. You’ve got this show and you have a documentary.
I have a lot of hours of material that haven’t been recorded.
You are not lazy. You should stop saying you’re lazy. I say that as someone who cares about you.
I appreciate that.
If you were lazy, I wouldn’t be saying this. I’m not going to fall asleep. I’ll pump you up. I think these things matter. I became more creative when I started referring to myself as a creative person. The way you think about yourself and the way you behave, those things interact with each other. Why are you laughing?
No, I’m just reflecting. I had a Stand Up Science where someone was talking about the fake news and how all of the studies where you repeat some made up facts to some people a couple of times and then they believe.
The more you say it, the more likely they are going to believe it.
It also had to do with the false memory stuff that gets inserted. It’s fantastic and interesting studies. In the Q&A, an audience member brought up the question. “Can you do these positive mantras about yourself, say these positive things about yourself until you believe them?” I was like, “That makes sense.” The academic said that as well. It seems a pretty logical leap to make. The next morning, I woke up, looked in the mirror, did these stupid mantras and I told myself that I am capable and smart and funny and all of these things. I went out that night and had the worst show of the tour.
Motivation’s difficult. I’ve stopped using motivational techniques largely. I think all of this is about habits. That’s the secret sauce. With that said, a little bit of false modesty is fine.
I’m pretty hard on myself. I always have that.
This is a little bit offbeat. You don’t strike me as a comic who has hecklers often.
No, and I have no patience for it.
When on rare occasions you have a heckler, how do you deal with it?
Every situation is different. People often want to know, “What happens with the hecklers?” The truth of the matter is, first of all, that doesn’t happen very often to anybody. This isn’t me being, “I’m so good at it. I don’t get it.” I’m saying even when someone’s doing poorly, rarely do people actually heckle.
People are surprisingly polite.
A much bigger issue in comedy is people getting on their cell phones. They don’t even mean anything by it. They’re checking in on their babysitter or something and texting and it didn’t even occur to them that this is a potentially rude thing or disruptive or distracting. Table talk can be the same thing. Those are much bigger issues. “Good luck to you, heckler. You’re going to have a rough go at it.” I’ve been doing comedy for fifteen years and I have a lot more experience than most comics that I’ve been doing it for fifteen years because I got moved along quickly. I’ve been headlining shows for many years.
It usually takes people a long time to get to that.
People with fifteen years are just starting to headline shows. I’m probably going to shut you down. I’m probably going to make a fool out of you, but it doesn’t happen. I would prefer heckling gives me a chance at least. I would prefer your general table talk.
How do you deal with table talk and people checking their phones?
I don’t very well. One of my biggest flaws as a comedian, is I can get the little hot-headed. Here’s what will often happen is there’ll be someone in the front who’s disruptive, too drunk, being obnoxious or whatever it might be. Someone will be completely turned around, their back is facing you and they’re talking to their friends or something through a show. I’ll be on stage. What the rest of the audience doesn’t know is that I was watching the show ahead of time. The host already made comments about this person. The feature already made comments about this person. I know this person’s going to be an issue already. I walk up there and I already have it in for this person. I already know they’re going to be a problem. I try to tell my jokes looking at them so they need to look at me and pay attention so they know that I’m watching them. That’s pretty subtle.
Fifteen minutes of that goes by and it’s distracting the people around. Sometimes I’ll stop the show and I’ll be like, “I’m not looking at anyone in particular. There are a couple of people in here that are disrupting. I don’t like stopping the show, but I’ve heard some other people shushing and once other people are shushing, now it’s like a whole thing. I’m concerned about all of the people that paid for tickets, not one or two individuals that are being disruptive.” Now, if I’ve said five subtle things and this person is not getting it and then I lose it. Because all of those things that happen were so subtle and people in the back of the room, they aren’t hearing or seeing any of this, I look like a lunatic. All of a sudden, I lost my mind at a snap out of nowhere at this person over nothing. I would say that’s one of the hardest things. It’s not a big deal at my Stand Up Science show. I don’t have to worry about that.
The audience is so into it.
My good trip tour that I toured around with, the people were super into that show as well. The biggest problem was people wanting to record the show because they liked it so much. They want to show it to their friends and it’s an awkward thing because you can’t have people doing that. A lot of people have never been to a comedy show before. They don’t know the proper etiquette. They think this it’s their birthday or bachelor/bachelorette party and the nights all about them. No one else in the world exists. They’re too drunk. Comedy clubs will wear you down. There’s a lot of shitty comedy clubs out there. There’s a lot of them that don’t pay attention to curating a good audience and just want to make a quick buck by papering the room.
Papering the room?
It’s a short-sighted business practice where you give out a bunch of free tickets and sell people drinks and then they don’t have the vested interest. There’s a lot of things are around that all of that should be on the clubs and shouldn’t be happening from Jump Street. Your one heckle that you’re going to get out, that’s one out of twenty shows maybe that someone’s going to heckle. It’s worse when someone says something trying to be funny, trying to help you and you couldn’t quite hear what they said either. Maybe it makes sense to them, but it doesn’t make sense to you or that sort of thing. It’s like, “I don’t know what to do with that.” They either shouted a weird random sounding thing to me. The funny thing is you go, “What’s that? What did you say?” They shut down and they won’t tell you because now the spotlight is on them. I’m like, “No, I’m not mad. I just want to know what you said.” That happens and it’s awkward, but the cliché of movies about eighties standup comedy or something, where this idea of hecklers came from, I don’t think that exists anymore.If you're only looking at things from an evolutionary psychology point of view, you're missing out on a whole lot. Click To Tweet
I want to ask you a couple of other quick questions and then and we’ll draw this down. You’ve talked about this pivot that you made in your career. You started off as a standard late-night comic. You did some off-color type stuff.
The stuff that worked well for me early on was I had this sweet, innocent Midwestern face. I could say these outrageous things and I did it well. My jokes were much more mechanical. I was much more of an absurdist comedian. My favorite jokes we’re absurd ones.
What’s an example?
I don’t remember how the joke goes but the premise is that that if I ever heard someone breaking into my house, I would try to pretend that I was also breaking into that house at the same time. It’s this silly, absurd self-defense idea. That’s a good example. This is an important comedy lesson. I think you’re going to find this fascinating. You could do a study on this. I had this weird joke. It was from speaking of futurists. It was inspired by Michio Kaku, who is a physicist who writes all of these futurist books like the Physics of the Impossible.
It is a good book and it breaks down, “Here’s where we are right now in terms of taking all these sci-fi ideas like invisibility. Here’s where we are right now. We have camouflage. Here’s where the future of camouflage is heading. Here’s what’s going to happen in the next hundred years. Here’s what’s possible according to the Laws of Physics as we know them.” Time travel is one of those. That was where the cut-off was into stage three, which is the as far as we know, this isn’t physically possible like the perpetual motion machine or something. It breaks all these down well within that. He had this idea of getting a sex change, going back in time and impregnating yourself. I ran with that idea in a joke.
Why am I not surprised?
It was this joke that I think was well-done. It was weird and potentially offensive and stuff and edgy-ish. Comics would like it. It was too weird for most audiences. People will be looking at each other, “What’s this guy talking about?” I knew it was funny. When other comics like a joke, either that means it’s revolting, but this wasn’t the case. It was structurally sound. Anyhow, I go to record my first album and I had four shows to do it. The first show, I got it. It’s perfect. That’s an album. The second show is even better. Who could believe a second show Friday night is a good show? That never happens. The first show the following day, I’m so relaxed. It’s even better. I got hammered because I’m like, “I already got the album recorded. I’m going to get loose and maybe I’ll do some bonus stuff or some other material that I haven’t been doing and threw that joke out there. It worked for the first time ever.
It would basically never work in a club before or not well and it did well for the first time ever in a club. I liked it enough and it got a good enough reaction. I was like, “I’m putting that in the album.” Every reviewer was like, “If you’re going to listen to one track, listen to this one joke.” The reason is because when you’re in a group and something’s strange and weird and potentially fun, you don’t want to be the only person laughing at the weird or gross idea or whatever. If you’re alone in your car and you can laugh at whatever you want to, it changes everything. I’ve made so much money off of that bit in royalties and stuff because it’s always played on XM radio and everything else. It’s only done well once in a club ever. It happened to be recorded and I happen to be brave enough to put it on my first album.
We talked about this in The Humor Code about engineering a comedy club to maximize laughs. One of the things that you do is you keep the lights down. It helps with this anonymity thing. When people are in the darkness, they feel more anonymous and so they feel more comfortable laughing. It’s hard to identify them. Obviously, when you were in a car, you can’t at all tell what someone’s laughing at or not. Where I was going with this idea is so you started off as this particular type of comic and you’ve made this pivot into science and as I was alluding to earlier, it’s pretty blue ocean. There’s not a lot of other people doing what you’re doing.
Matt Kirshen and Andy Wood have Probably Science Podcast. David Hunsberger does a lot of science. I haven’t listened to his stuff in a while, but he’s a very funny guy. I think he does like a lot of physics jokes and stuff.
Tim Lee was a scientist. He does a bunch of PowerPoint-related jokes, funny crowd-pleasing type stuff, which I think is pretty fun. In general, compared to what you were doing before, there are hundreds of people behaving that, competing for stage time, etc. When you’re doing blue ocean it’s harder in one sense because you’re doing very new, you’re creating stuff that doesn’t exist. There’s no formula and so on. On the other hand, it’s easier because there’s less competition. If you do it well, you can have an audience. You’re the only person they can turn to for this, which I think we see with Stand Up Science. Was this a well thought-out decision? Did you sit down one day and go, “This is not working. I need to do something different,” or did you find yourself drifting?
It was more of a drift because things were working at the time. Things were working maybe better that they are now. My career was looking pretty good at the time I started having these ideas. There were several things early on. One, I started traveling internationally and I was like, “I want to do that more often. How do I do that?” They have these festivals where people do these solo shows. I had never considered doing a solo show before. Part of this was me wanting to challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone. When I started headlining, my jokes worked well for 30 minutes and then people got too used to my rhythm. I’d throw in a story here and there to break it up. Then I focused on storytelling for a while.
I sing in my act now because it’s one of my biggest fears in life is singing in front of people. When I first started out, I could barely talk into the microphone. I was horribly nervous and that’s why I had a dry Steven Wright-ish disposition early on. I was getting looser and I wanted to do themed things. I remember I had all these jokes about time travel in my act. It had never occurred to me that I did have that many jokes about time-travel until I started thinking about what a themed thing would be. I tried to put together a show about time-travel and turned into, “Maybe I should make one about physics instead and have it be broader.” I was doing a lot of research.
You eventually landed on evolution in dating and mating.
This was in my head. I caught breaks and I wanted to like, “No, I had a voice and I wanted to be saying more important things.” I had a religious upbringing that I was pretty angsty about still at the time. When I started learning more about evolution, I was like, “People either believe evolution or they don’t. Even if people that believe in evolution, they don’t know how it works.” They don’t like to understand it like this. That’s what people need. If people heard how it works better, maybe they would understand the impact it has on our lives. I became obsessed with this idea. At the same time, I went through this horrible breakup. I was in this new relationship having all this fun, exciting sex. I was watching a lot of Animal Planet stuff at the time. I was writing a lot of relationship jokes and a lot of animal jokes at the same time. I was like, “This could be a science of sex show or something.” I started looking into what that would look like, which got me into evolutionary psychology and biology.
My whole career trajectory is like a stretched out Wikipedia wormhole that you get into and you keep on clicking one link into another link and like, “That’s surprisingly interesting. That’s interesting.” That’s where it went and there was a lot of pressure on me at the time to create a TV show or something, which I didn’t want to do. It was just to appease my management at the time. I’ve already done the edgiest abortion jokes or whatever and I’m bored with, “What’s the vilest thing you can think of? Genocide? How do we make genocide funny?” This is this formula of think of this revolting thing and tries to make it funny, which Louis C.K. did pretty successfully.
I always talk about, “It’s difficult to out Louis C.K.”
Sarah Silverman was doing a similar thing. Sarah Silverman was getting pretty popular, but no one knew who Louis C.K. was at the time, even though he was writing some stuff and working with Chris Rock. Daniel Tosh was an unknown. He had just released his first album, which is fantastic. One of the best opening jokes I’ve ever heard in my entire life is on Daniel Tosh’s first album. I was ahead of Anthony Jeselnik. I caught my breaks and stuff before him, but then he was starting to get a name.
These guys are all in the same vein in a sense.
Doug Stanhope was this comic like, “Too bad that guy’s burnt every single bridge in the business and is never going to go anywhere.” Skip forward five years, all these guys are the heads of comedy. Bill Burr’s now taking off and all this and people already know them. They’re already doing this better than I am and they have the market cornered and I’m getting bored with it at the same time. I was 30, less of an angry person wanting to yell at people for how stupid their beliefs are and a little more interested in educating people. Sharing and trusting ideas rather than being like, “You’re stupid.” For a while, I thought maybe I’d be a political comedian as well. I’m happy I didn’t, talk about oversaturated. That’s how I stumbled down the evolutionary psychology and biology.
At first, it was half interest and half like, “Here’s an angle for a TV show that I can sell.” Once I started learning about it, it completely changed the way that I saw the world and changed the way that I thought. I think I was naturally set up to be a pretty critical thinker anyway. My brain ran with it and it blew open the way. It was such a natural progression to get into behavioral economics and all of these other things. All of a sudden, evolutionary psychology, which was my first love, it has endless holes in it. If you’re only looking at things from an evolutionary psychology point of view, you’re missing out on a whole lot. I learned that over time. I figured things out on my own, but I was like, “Now, I need to learn about neuroscience.” Then it became this never-ending thing and that’s when we met.
You talk about in Stand Up Science and speaking of breaking the rules, you started emailing scientists. Their email addresses are on the university website. You’d email them questions and they’d respond with very thoughtful answers because no one ever does that.
They’re like, “This comedian that’s been on Conan and stuff.” That’s fun.
It’s such an interesting thing because it’s non-normative to do that and you did it and that led to here we are. You’re like, “These people not only answer my emails and they’ll show up and talk to me for an hour.”
I was having the best conversations in my entire life. When I talk about, my being an angsty person, much of that was because I always seemed to be thinking about bigger ideas than most of the people around me and I couldn’t have these big conversations.
In the break room at the futon factory, “Supposed you had a sex change and went back through time.”
I was always frustrated with that and I met academics who were all of a sudden bigger thinkers than I am and telling me about these deeper understandings of things. Looking back, I was patting myself on the back for what a deep intelligent thinker I was, until I met academics. Some of these scientists, I was like, “This is amazing.” This isn’t like learning a couple of facts about what dates in American history this and that happened.
This is different than when they teach where they’re just giving information.
I got to record these conversations and that was how Here We Are started. Stand Up Science is my new project, which is seemingly a pretty natural next step.
It’s a clearer extension of this. Now, the audience is in the room with you. What are you reading, watching or listening that stands out? Not just good, but great.
Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. I am embarrassed to say that I started it when it came out and then I put it down because I had other books that I got into. I’ve read all his other books, so I was like, “I already know what this book is going to say,” but if you’re going to read one book to learn as much about how life works as possible and done in a funny way. Not only is he, in my opinion, one of the smartest people on the entire planet, but also he has a very a layman’s way of expressing things, but he’s also funny. Robert Sapolsky is funnier than probably me and most comedians out there for sure. His lectures are great.
He’s not showing Chris Rock videos like I am.
He writes his own stuff. On YouTube, there’s a Human Behavioral Biology Course. It’s his course at Yale. They just set up cameras that you can watch. I’ve recommended it to a number of people. Lots of people have said that course changed their life. That is fantastic. On TV, Billions on Showtime is good. It’s a much better House of Cards but about Wall Street. The similar-ish idea of your getting this look inside of all these different strategies and better acted and better written and everything else.
The interesting about Billions, I’ve only seen the first couple of seasons. I lose interest in these series. I often think they’re too long. They’re probably best topping out at two or three seasons, typically.
You’ve watched The Leftovers.
No, that’s come up a number of times.
I bring it up because they ended at three seasons. When they wanted to end, not like, “Let’s keep the money train on the way.”
Billions remind me a little bit of The Wire.
The Wire took me a long time to get into. It’s good but I didn’t like the first two seasons.
That’s fair. I don’t think it has aged well.
I didn’t think there was anything interesting or novel about it in the first two seasons.
I didn’t have that experience. I think it’s visually not interesting in the way the TV is very visually interesting now. It feels very nineties in terms of the way it’s filmed. The thing about The Wire that I found very compelling is that it’s not clear who the good guys are. Both sides are flawed. It’s not the classic Hill Street Blues, give it to them before they give it to you. It’s very clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. This is true of House of Cards, as you say in the sense that the bad guys are even more interesting than the good guys. They have that going for them. You have this nice tug between the two. I went to a comedy show in New York last week and there’s Andy Slater or something. He’s on Billions. He’s one of the hedge fund guys.
No, this is embarrassing because he’s a friend of mine, but not a super close friend. It’s Dan Soder.
Dan Soder, I wasn’t completely off.
He is also co-host of The Bonfire on Sirius XM radio, which is the funniest radio talk show that I’ve heard in our modern era.
He walked into the bar. Luisa Diez who was a guest on the show, she books that show. It’s at Lucky Jack’s on a Wednesday in the Lower East Side. He walks in and he is a fairly bit part. That looks like the dude from Billions. He got up and he’s very funny. Speaking of reversals, he has a bit about crying and about a good cry and it’s a good comedy.
He does fantastic impressions and I don’t normally like impressions but does terrific ones. He does all these characters.
That’s a digression. Having you as a guest was long overdue. I’m surprised I went 50-plus episodes before you’ve got on.
I finally made it.
Thanks so much, Shane.
Thanks for having me on. It was awesome.
It’s good times.
- Shane Mauss
- Here We Are
- Stand Up Science
- Jen O’Donnell – Previous episode
- Neal Brennan – Previous episode
- Jimmy Carr – Previous episode
- The World Economic Forum
- The Humor Code
- Just For Laughs Festival
- Write or Die
- Physics of the Impossible
- Probably Science Podcast.
- Louis C.K.
- Daniel Tosh
- Anthony Jeselnik
- Bill Burr
- Human Behavioral Biology Course
- Dan Soder
About Shane Mauss
Shane Mauss is a stand-up comedian. He has appeared on Conan and Jimmy Kimmel, has Netflix specials, and headlines on shows all over the world. More interestingly, Shane does comedy about science. He hosts the podcast, Here We Are, where he interviews scientists about their work.
He is the subject of the documentary film Psychonautics, which is a comedic exploration psychedelics. He is currently touring as the host and creator of Stand-up Science, which is part comedy show and part TED event.