Max Silvestri put out my favourite stand-up comedy album of 2014 and was generous enough to agree to speaking with me for 15 minutes. We ended up talking for about an hour or so. So please, enjoy this interview and listen to King Piglet.
Mike Carrozza (MC): Hey Max. How’s it going?
Mike Silvestri (MS): It’s going great. How are you, Mike?
MC: Good. Thanks for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it.
MS: Oh, no problem. Thanks for liking my album.
MC: I love your album! It’s fantastic.
MS: I really appreciate that.
MC: I’ve seriously listened to this album through and through, finding new laughs every time. The average amount of times I’ve listened to a comedy album and still enjoyed it would be around two or three times, but I’ve listened to yours closer to 15-20. Still finding new things, still enjoying it.
MC: It’s my go-to album to recommend to people when they ask me for a stand-up album recommendation.
MS: Thank you, Mike. That’s so nice of you to say. I appreciate that.
MC: Alright! So how’s your day been?
MS: It’s been good. Pretty mellow. I had a work call this morning, went to the gym, made some lunch, played some video games. Pretty much standard stand-up comedian day.
MC: Well, when that’s your job, right? Haha
MS: Yeah, my job is a mix of – sometimes it’s touring stand-up, sometimes it’s writing, sometimes it’s acting, sometimes it’s hosting things. I sort of get to have, for me, an ideal mix of jobs, all that are comedic, but all that are different day to day. I get bored easily.
MC: I learned about you through Pete Holmes’ You Made it Weird podcast. I’d also been a fan of Jenny Slate’s and then found you and Gabe Liedman because you guys run a show in New York.
MS: I still run the show. The Big Terrific. They’re both in LA. We still do the show together on the road sometimes or when I’m in LA. We’ve done it at Sketchfest in San Francisco and in Portland. But I still run it weekly in New York. We have guest hosts when I’m out on the road, but we started that show about six years ago in Brooklyn.
MC: That’s great. Let’s jump into the album. So King Piglet came out in June of 2014 and I have listened to it a lot since. It was released on AST Records and recorded in LA.
MS: Yeah, that was sort of a random decision I made. Gabe (Liedman) had gone out to record his album with AST Records in LA. His reasoning was “Hey, I do these jokes every week for free in New York so it’ll feel more special for the crowd if I go do it in LA.” I figured that was smart. It was fun to make an event out of it, you know rather than wake up and be like “it’s my album taping tonight” and walk 20 blocks to Cameo (Gallery, venue for The Big Terrific). At the same time, I ran into the problem of all my friends and comedian peers who all moved to LA, you know – when I do Big Terrific, it’s all strangers in the crowd, but my recording, I literally recognized every face in the crowd. I love that venue, the Nerdmelt showroom. It’s such a welcoming place, it’s a great vibe for comedy, they have such receptive, eager crowds.
MC: How was the layout?
MS: Well, there’s no raised stage which sometimes would not be ideal for some types of comedy, but I tend to do fast, personal storytelling sort of comedy, so I want people kind of right in my face. If I open for someone in like a huge college gymnasium or like a big theatre, I have to adjust my style a little bit, because the physics of it don’t work, you know? When sound takes about half a second to bounce back and forth.
My style is sort of like layering on laughs and jokes, you know. Even best case, you can’t expect to catch everything if you’re laughing. But the timing of it all just goes to shit if I do it that way in like a 5000 auditorium, so like I have to adjust and do a “and then this…”, then reaction, “and then this…” you know, which is arguably a good way to be doing comedy, a better, more successful way. But Nerdmelt was perfect for that though. My comedy is sort of always changing, you know my bits grow or I follow a new path or focus on another part of it. Even though a lot of it is set in stone, it never completely is and I have a very stream of consciousness style. I like that it’s always changing. With an album it was kind of like “well, it’s a bummer to draw a line in the sand, but that’s what these are” even though in two weeks, I’d probably be doing them differently. But at the same time, the recording is meant to let people hear them at home where they can listen to it again, in their own sort of way, so that they can hopefully catch all the things I put down.
MC: Well, in my experience with the album, I’d say that definitely paid off. I find new things to laugh at with each listen. You keep the album going with variety, like you have more linear based bits with the Sarah Palin/Glen Rice closer, but you also go on a lot of tangents on the album.
MS: Aw, that’s great! That’s the ideal. Thank you.
MC: Out of curiosity because the album is seamless, was it a single set?
MS: It was! It was a single set. AST has a bit of a philosophy about their albums, they put out so many and they do do multi-set recordings that you can cut together, but it’s really just about getting it all out there. This is a mark in time.
MC: They’re also behind Put Your Hands Together, the podcast of just a full on night of stand-up in LA.
MS: Yeah, kind of like a “this is what it is now.” I understand the whole idea of wanting to wait for the new hour to be perfect to record it, but especially for younger comics, let’s just draw a line in the sand, this is what an hour was. After mine, would I like to rerecord it? I don’t know maybe. I would want to rerecord it forever so I just had to pick a time and say “well, you know, this is what it is!” It’s going to be different every time. There is no perfect iteration. It’s different set to set.
MC: As you said earlier, you change things up quite a bit.
MC: Having done comedy for about ten years and after discussing how your bits are always changing, are these changes that you think about beforehand or do you just let it live on stage? Are you a “put it to paper” guy or do you figure it out as it happens?
MS: I’ve never written a joke down ever before. Having a weekly room in New York, I’ve been lucky to have the freedom an the luxury to let bits grow organically over time in a welcoming space. I almost never start a joke from a place of “Well, I noticed this thing about the human condition. How do I connect it to a crowd, make it personal and have a great punchline?” It tends to start from me and I try to make other people connect to it. For a long time, I just sort of let it all happen organically and so much of the other work I did in comedy was not stand-up based so I was fine to not be precious about it. I think putting this album down, for better or worse, has made me realize to really bring to the next level, you have to be critical and you have to treat it like work. And I think stand-up, I always just liked being on stage and like what I was doing. I liked kind of riding it and not being like “oh, I gotta build this perfect five minutes.” It just kept it fun and I’m someone who loses interest in things quickly. So keeping it on my own terms for so long definitely helped keep me invested in it. Now, just over 30 years old, I really want to be escalating so I’m thinking “what kind of hour-long set will work in Minnesota and New York and online?” Since the album, I’ve been treating it more word perfectly. I always want to follow tangents, because that’s how my brain works. That was actually originally going to be the name of the album, Tan Gents.
I’m never going to be a one-liner type comedian, my style isn’t going to fit in a four panel image macro on tumblr. That’s not going to be my style and that’s fine, there are other people who do that very well.
MC: Let’s talk about the track listing on the album.
MS: You’re the first person to mention anything about the track listing.
MC: Am I really?!
MS: I was so impressed with my own creativity and cleverness. And no one said a word about it.
MC: I enjoyed it. I noticed the pattern of it and saw that the last track, the Glen Rice bit, was the only one that was true to the content.
MS: It was just a bit of a zag. The rest of the track titles are a Facebook spam message I received, verbatim. It literally was exactly that. I just included the last part as a hyper specific reference to an eight minute bit about Glen Rice’s penis, whereas the rest is vague and you know spam. Because I mean, that’s never how I refer to that joke in my head (Glen Rice’s penis). You know how comedians have their own nomenclature for how they write their set lists.
MC: Yeah, we’ll touch on that again in a bit. But before we do, let’s talk about the album cover. I came up with a larger image and saw that it’s you in a very nice suit in front of lovely green scenery holding a pizza with a piece of fried chicken in it. I noticed it was chicken when I found an image of the back of the album…
MS: Where I’m actually eating the chicken leg.
MC: That’s right, because before I just thought that was some sort of like shwarma meat of some sort rolled into the pizza.
MS: Originally, I had this higher concept idea for the cover. As I mentioned before, it was going to be called Tan Gents. I was going to be spray-tanned in front of all these modernist settings, and photoshop them all into one picture. It was going to be really complicated and I think I was touring with John Mulaney and telling him all about it. It was one of those things where you know, anytime you have to explain an idea like “haha how funny is this idea”. He was like “yeah, no – that’s funny. It’s really important to just have a clear picture of your face. Whatever crazy idea you have, how you want to do it, just make sure – with stand-up albums people want to see who they’re looking at while their listening. And so we shot it at this friend’s farm and it was a beautiful day and it looked so good, it looked unnatural.
MC: It looks amazing!
MS: It looked unnatural, because I was lit from the front with a light, it looks like a green screen. So people were like “Oh, that’s neat, you got a nice stock photo beautiful background.” And I was like “No, that’s a real place! It’s that beautiful there.” Yeah, but the pizza was just like “hey, this is gross next to beautiful things.”
MC: It’s a great suit! I don’t know, how this is in this part of the notes, but here goes anyway. You brought up Mulaney earlier and I feel like there’s a similarity in cadence at the end of both your album and Mulaney’s New in Town. It’s not super obvious, I listened to both albums back to back at some point. That said, both albums have a similar speech pattern for endings which I thought was interesting. I don’t know if this is something really, but it’s in my notes.
MS: Well, he’s someone who is one of my favourites, he’s one of the best comics in the world.
MC: Oh, he’s incredible!
MS: I’ve toured with him a bunch and we kind of started together. I’ve seen him as much as I’ve seen anyone else. I’m sure we have many similar influences. I imagine we think a lot of the same things are funny. I mean, Jenny, Gabe and I we have so much of each other’s cadences that we’ve absorbed and I couldn’t tell you where they came from originally. We were spending a lot of time together trying to get each other to laugh both on stage and socially. It’s one of those things, you accidentally absorb cadences. I know for me, I’m so not a punchline comic, I mean like I like to think that my bits are packed with jokes. Like there are enough jokes in there for a lot more than an hour of comedy, but my timing is such that I just tend to not let things sit. I’m sure I should more. I don’t remember who, but some comic once said “your closer should have one applause break so that the audience feels like they got a show. Then you’re done.” You know? You’re not ending on the funniest line of the night. You’re culminating on the energy of the night, the time spent together.
MC: That’s interesting.
MS: So the “three yards” thing to me, I feel like that’s true. It’s not like a herald where all 30 minutes is building towards the end piece. And some do! And do it well. I mean, Mulaney’s got this bit in his new hour. I think “three yards long” is very much like – you mentioned that it’s a bit that’s on track, like I don’t have a tangent in that bit – the Glen Rice bit does do that, but it very much moves forward. It follows my own weird train of thought, but just forward this time, instead of out and back.
MC: Sure, I can definitely track that as one of the more direct bits on the album.
MS: Also, when I do that bit live, there’s a bit of physical work done: the mic is in the stand. It’s kind of like “this is the closer” kind of physicality.
MC: So the Glen Rice bit as a whole is an eight minute bit for you. Not just smaller bits that are sequenced that way.
MS: Sure is. It’s also an eight minute bit with me talking just so fast. If you imagined that bit in the hands of somebody that properly spaced and slowed down their style, it’d be a 20 minute bit.
MC: Well, your whole album would be three times as long if you paused at every part that deserves laughter.
MS: I love the idea of the onslaught feel of it where not everybody is laughing at the same thing, if you’re laughing at one thing, maybe you miss something else, you know? I like that feel.
MC: I think that’s what draws me into it a lot. The fact that it’s an album is super helpful. It’s what I admire and appreciate about the album: It’s coming at you and there’s new stuff to latch onto with every listen.
MS: Thank you! And it is – that is – I mean, that is how my brain works. I talk quickly, I think quickly, I want to process things fast. I enjoy multiple streams of information. I think our generation can handle, for example, Colbert’s The Word. He would throw out a word or phrase for a rant but everything he said would be undercut by titles in the sidebar and messages. He’s already playing a character of two levels of irony deep and then they’re undercutting that persona with The Word. I remember how excited I was for The Colbert Report to come out because that was a show built for someone obsessed with jokes. As much as that might be a lot to handle in a live setting, stand-up is the one place where I don’t have to slow down or be edited. It’s fun because I want to express how my brain works and I get to do that. People can give me rules, but I can not do that and still be fine. It appeals to some and others, it won’t. But hopefully, it appeals to more than it doesn’t.
MC: Sure, on a certain level, it’s about the audience having a good time, but stand-up is really where you get to present yourself and how you think in the way you see fit.
MS: Yeah, there aren’t any limits. I mean, I saw a tweet, a friend of mine tweeted about web series. He said something like “why are you making a show with a sitcom set up and premise. You’re making a thing for free on the web, you can make it whatever you want!”Why would you adapt into that form? There are so many opportunities in life where you’ll be forced into these situations where you need to adapt, but to have this one space where basically the only rule is that you perform, that’s crazy freedom!
MC: That last comment just reminded me of the surge of the alt scene and how that’s become more of a mainstream now, and now if we’re looking for something that deviates from that new mainstream that isn’t the old school, we’re looking at acts that are truly going all out in what they’re doing. I’m sure you know Kate Berlant.
MS: Yeah. She does Big Terrific pretty often.
MC: She is fucking fantastic. What she does is on such a forefront that it makes me want to orient towards that level of newness. It feels like she’s at the cusp of something that isn’t quite here yet, besides her. It’s so amazing to see her work.
MS: I mean, she’s one of my favourite new comics. She’s been great for a bunch of years…
MC: But she just got Montreal’s New Faces, so it allows us to call her new again.
MS: Right. It’s kind of like what are your markers for success in stand-up. It used to be a late night set would lead to more late night sets and then an hour long special. Those are all great, but those things don’t mean anything at all on their own. Late night sets don’t mean much anymore. I mean, unless like Conan has a shift or something, they won’t be the space for someone like Kate to be like prime Kate. It’s a bummer, but it’s a bummer for the late night shows because they’re missing out. I mean, Kate is someone who is undeniable when you see her and you’re sort of smart enough to be into it or whatever. She’ll have plenty of opportunities and it doesn’t necessarily have to be like five minutes on a talk show hosted by a white man. She will make her own and that’s great. People are doing such different interesting things. I mean, the overhead to do a Netflix style special is so low now. Morgan Murphy put hers on and had it filmed and it’s up there. If you want to create something, you don’t have to wait to be invited anymore. I feel like a younger, different crowd who blur the line between improv, stand-up and performance, like Kate, don’t have to worry about those lines as much. They often tend to be savvy, ambitious people. So if she wants to shoot, I don’t know, a special on the roof of the MoMA, it’ll be within her power and no one else’s.
MC: It’s gotten to a point where specials have become a little bit more (for a lack of a better word) strange. I know David Huntsberger’s new special is going to have animation, Wyatt Cenac put out Brooklyn that has puppetry. A lot of interesting stuff is happening in the comedy world and I can’t wait for it.
MS: It’s really exciting. I was at the taping for Nick Kroll’s special a couple years back. He’s one of my favourite stand-ups, but he’s also brilliant at characters, so for him to find this organic way to film these fantastic short films interspersed with two-three different characters who actually part of the stage special. That’s impressive. This guy Dan Klein, he used to write for The Onion and does a bunch of sketch and acting, he filmed this thing for some comedy website. He basically filmed a fake one hour special. He doesn’t do stand-up he just made up this character, and I’m going to screw it up so I apologize to Dan Klein – Dan, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. It’s basically himself as a crazy famous comic. The special is a mix between actual stand-up and then footage of him coming home to his parents who live uptown. He wrote a whole hour of stand-up for it, like non-sense stand-up, but still jokes and things. But, I guess, in this world of this super famous comedian, he has this famous bit where people get his name wrong at Starbucks, calling him like Darnush or whatever it is. So people go nuts for his bit about “Darnush”. It’s so brilliant. It was one of those ideas where I was just mad at how good an idea that was, to just completely fake an hour special.
MC: So to come back to the point we were reaching before, what are the names of your bits from the album? What do you call them?
MS: I dug up my setlist. I’ve got it in front of me.
MC: Alright! Let’s do this.
MS: I Know What You Did Last Summer; Geena Davis; Turned 30; Facebook Birthdays; Tattoos; Nickels; Bathroom; Bumper Stickers; Pregnant; Hurricane; One Meatball Place; Dictionary; John Travolta; and Glen Rice. Some of them might have been cut out, because we did edit some stuff out of the album.
MC: Interesting. So is One Meatball Place also the Nacho Party/King Piglet bit?
MS: No, that’s Dictionary. That’s the Nacho Party bit. They often have to do with how I wrote the bit. When I first wrote the Dictionary bit, it was just about me spelling that word wrong. Then it grew into this whole intro about nachos and me eating. So if you were listening to that bit, it’s probably more about me eating and King Piglet than the dictionary. But I still call it Dictionary.
MC: I’ve got Whale Dictionary here. As if it’s a dictionary for whales.
MS: Haha whale dictionary. More correct.
MC: So you said you cut a few things from the album. How much of it was cut?
MS: Not much. I can’t remember my own edits.
MC: Let’s wind it down with this: Any recommendations for contemporary comics?
MS: I’m not a very good student of comedy in that I don’t listen to a ton of it, I don’t watch most of it. I guess, I just spend so much time in it that – I don’t listen to podcasts and rarely listen to albums. I watch like Scandinavian shows on Netflix about children being murdered. I have a lot of recommendations in that category, there’s a new Danish film called The Keeper of Lost Causes that just came out that’s really good. It’s about a woman who was in a pressure chamber for five years. Haha so that’s the kind of shit that I consume. I feel like all the names that I’m into that are people that I sit in the back of the room and watch are probably names that you know. I love Kumail and Mulaney and Joe Mande and Nate Bargatze and Jenny Slate. They’re some of my favourite people, but everyone thinks that so that’s not all that original of me to say. Someone who has not done a lot of stand-up in recent years, Jesse Popp, he wrote on Conan or something. We were friendly, but Jenny and I would put him up on Big Terrific every other week, we loved him so much. We loved watching him so much. His shit is pretty bulletproof. He’s such a good writer. His album –
MC: You Stink!
MS: You Stink! That’s right. It makes me laugh so much. I put that album on often. It’s like the only album I listen to.
MC: I think he also did a Half Hour last year or a year before.
MS: Yeah, he did. I mean, Pete Holmes and Anthony Jeselnik, those guys are bulletproof.
MS: Younger guys who you maybe don’t pay attention to, but it seems like you already know everybody.
MS: Jared Logan is so, so fun.
MC: His album is great.
MS: Yes, his album is fantastic. We’ve travelled a little bit together. He crushes me. Nick Turner who I think is working on the John Oliver show. He hasn’t done a Half Hour yet, but it’s coming.
MC: Oh, yeah. He’s killer. I saw him at New Faces a couple years back.
MS: Do you get to see a lot of stuff at the festival?
MC: The last three years, they’ve sort of had me handle a few odd jobs and generally be an atmosphere guy just talk to comics and be me, so I get a pass and get to see all the shows I can. It’s been really helpful and interesting. A hell of an opportunity.
MS: I bet.
MC: Max, thank you so much for doing this interview and I’ll be up in New York sometime to see you at Cameo for The Big Terrific.
MS: Please do. Thanks for the chat and enjoying the album so much.
MC: Honestly, thank you for putting an album out. It’s fantastic.