On The Couch with Mike Lawrence

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Mike Lawrence

The subject is a self-proclaimed nerd who, until recently, wrote jokes primarily about his perpetual loneliness. Now married with an impressive comedic résumé, which includes Conan, the Comedy Central Half Hour, and his own weekly podcast, he has replaced loneliness with a fear of being left behind. So it goes. Although a seasoned comedian, the patient is unafraid to be brutally honest about his fears, his slow climb to success, and his anxiety about what the future holds for him. It is fitting, then, that he opened for a famously insecure comic, Marc Maron, on his recent tour of New York. Mike Lawrence may maintain that he is working on his comedy bucket list, he has already surpassed many comics in terms of self-reflection and maturity, even when he is telling AIDS jokes.

What was the impetus for you to start performing stand up?

I started November 5, 2005—remember, remember, the fifth of November. I wanted to do it because I had done poetry for years and that was going nowhere, but I liked being on stage and the attention that I didn’t deserve, so I was like, “Why don’t I do this, but with jokes, and try to make money?” And slowly, that’s been happening.

How has your comedic style changed since you first started?

It has gotten more personal, more political. When you start, you’re just trying to get a laugh. And when you’ve been doing it a while, you’re just trying to justify why it’s okay to do it. If you just go for the easy laugh all the time, or you don’t like your jokes, it’s going to feel like any awful job.

You’re from Florida, which is more of a conservative state, has that informed your politics at all?

Well, it’s easy to rebel against it. The instinct of young people is to rebel against everything anyway, so it’s a lot easier to do that when it’s awful. It must be harder for people in Portland to rebel—”Screw you mom, I’m gonna start thinking weirdly about gay people and not support small businesses anymore!”

How else has growing up in Florida impacted your comedic style?

The whole point of comedy, in some ways, is trying to work out your issues and figure things out. And that’s Florida; we’re all just trying to figure it out. What is this place? Why does it exist? Why are there so many unjust murders?

What’s the comedy scene like in Florida?

When I was there, I felt nothing but hopelessness, which was great because it forced me to leave. But when I look back on it now, there were comedians that started in Florida that have moved to New York and LA and have been doing things. I see how talented some of the people there were. There’s Al Jackson who just did a Comedy Central special, and he was kind of a mentor to a lot of people and really nice. It retroactively seems better than it was.

You worked at McDonald’s for seven years, did that provide inspiration for jokes?

Oh yeah. It provided an inspiration for jokes, it provided a work ethic, and an inability to ever say, “This is the worst thing that has happened in my life.”

Is there any overlap in the skills you use as a comedian and your work at McDonald’s?

Yeah, I mean, what’s the difference between a heckler and some guy being rude at the drive thru? I was the drive-thru guy and people would yell at me all day, and I had to find a way to keep going, so same thing.

Some of your jokes are self-depracating and depressing. When you write those jokes, are you trying to work through real problems? Or do you feel like you’re playing a character who’s sad?

It’s mainly the first. It only becomes “playing a character” when I’m having fun in the green room and I’m joking around. But it’s all written from a real place. I do wake up every day in this prison of a body and part of me wishes I was dead. But I’ve also been doing comedy for ten years, and in that time I’ve gotten married and made a living so my perspective has changed a little bit. The great thing about life is that your sadness grows with you. You go from, “Man, I hope I can afford this sandwich” to, “Will I ever be able to provide for a family?” to, “Well, now I have this family, am I going to be able to get them into college?” And then your last thought is, “Did any of them love me?” But I think that that’s awesome. It means that things change and grow. I just saw Inside Out recently; did you see it?

Yeah. I learned that sadness is good sometimes—who knew?

Oh yeah, that’s exactly it. I love that there’s a $160 million dollar summer blockbuster produced by Disney that was basically, “Sadness—it matters!” And [Phyllis Smith, voice of Sadness] was great; I love how it was a woman who hadn’t acted until she was 55.

I love that there’s a $160 million dollar summer blockbuster produced by Disney that was basically, “Sadness—it matters!”

Do you feel like a lot of comics are depressed? Is the big trend in comedy to be more self-deprecating?

I think the trend now is definitely happier, sillier, goofier things. But I think that as far as depression and comedy goes, our jobs are just the most scattershot things sometimes. You can hear the best news at 11 and the worst news at 11:01, and a lot of things that you’re promised end up not coming true, and trends happen. There can be a lot of happiness in comedy, when you see your friends become successful and you get successful yourself, but there is a lot of roughness in this career as well. Sometimes you get on stage, and you’re like, “I don’t want to make these people laugh!” And our jobs just get harder. Cell phones have made it so much more difficult to be a comedian. The difficulty of my job has tripled, if not quadrupled, since I’ve started doing it.

Because of cell phones?

Oh, absolutely. Because now paying attention is optional. And the thing is, the reality is that someone may be lost in thought during your set, but now with cell phones, you can see it. You can see how little you matter, and that sucks.

On the other hand, tons of comedians use Twitter…

Oh yeah, there’s plusses. But the physical act of standing on the stage and telling a joke has gotten more difficult.

You wrote an advice article to new comics a few years ago. What advice would you give to yourself as a young comic?

Don’t do so many AIDS jokes! They’re not funny, and they’re irrelevant.

You’re a huge comic book nerd, were you nerdy throughout your childhood? Did you get bullied because of it?

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Do you think you formed a sense of humor as a defensive mechanism against that?

In some ways. My theory with most of nerd culture is it’s being made by the bullies. You look at that Batman Vs. Superman trailer and realize that it was made by bullies who are trying to appeal to nerds. They don’t even hide it. I was at Comic Con this year, and they didn’t even call it the Superman panel—it was the “Warner Brothers Entertainment” panel.

Is that what has kept you in New York? Are there more nerds here?

I like LA, but I’ve been able to keep working in New York. My stuff’s there, my wife’s there. I definitely feel like I will end up in LA, but I also am still learning to drive, so New York is great for me right now.

Do you think the styles of stand up are different?

It depends. There’s more money in New York stand up, but there’s more money in LA for everything else. But being able to go from club to club in New York is awesome. But in LA, the alternative scene is incredible now. I feel like I get better as a stand up when I’m in LA. When I’m in New York, and I do clubs, and I have to make tourists laugh, I feel sometimes like I do some of the same jokes, or I go too fast, and in LA I can take my time more and take more risks, because if I know I’m not getting paid anyway, I have to find my own rewards. But when I’m getting paid, I have a job that I need to do. There’s less room for experimentation, but experimentation is what makes you better.

In terms of narrative, the person who has something to lose is more interesting than the person who has nothing.

A lot of your jokes are about the struggles of being alone, and getting a girlfriend. Now that you have a wife, do you find it makes it harder to create jokes?

The great thing about life is, your fear and sadness just changes. So it went from, “Why can’t anybody love me?” to, “What if this person that loves me leaves me?” It’s just a more mature thought. I feel that it’s important to grow and to have that evolution. I was still playing single on stage three and a half years after I started my relationship, and the moment when I proposed, I was like, “I can’t do this anymore. This feels weird.”

Did your girlfriend know you were pretending to be single on stage?

Oh yeah. She had to talk to me about it, like, “I just want to be acknowledged.” And I was like, “But I’ve been running this thing for a good while” and I just realized that I wasn’t being honest on stage. And in terms of narrative, the person who has something to lose is more interesting than the person who has nothing.

Do you find that comedy helps you work through your sadness?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I think I’d be the same person I am without comedy, I just get to express it.

Where do you see yourself going forward in comedy?

I think I’m going to be writing more. I like doing it, and I have a bucket list in my head of things I want to do; I want to write for the roast, things like that, and hopefully that happens, and I have a long career.

How has comedy affected your mental health?

It’s probably been more harmful than good, but it’s just something I accept. The amount of stress you go through and your worth is constantly questioned, and people look through you or walk past you. That part of it is horrible. Getting validation can be good, but needing to find validation can be harmful. So, it’s probably been worse. I mean, I’m sure comedy is going to take 15 to 20 years off my life, but also give me one that’s worth living.