The concept of burying an act, of abandoning the jokes that you worked so hard on, is relatively new in stand-up. The first I ever heard of such a thing was Seinfeld’s I’m Telling You for the Last Time in 1998, and even Seinfeld has declared his amazement at the new-hour-per-year regimen that many comics adhere to these days. Personally, I like when comics crank out new stuff, especially if it’s good, but even if it’s raw, there is a certain authenticity to it that can be lost over time with polish. On the other hand, there is something very comforting for both artist and audience in a well-crafted if also well-used joke. It’s almost enough to just make you quit and go back to firefighting.
I recently sat down with my friend Dallas McLaughlin to talk about just this (comedy, not firefighting). His album, An Evening of This!, recorded last year at the American Comedy Co. San Diego, was the last hurrah of all of his one-liners that he had written over six years’ time. While backstage during a weekend at the aforementioned ACC, we talked about throwing away those crutches, and also about crowd work, having an Emmy, and also we insulted each other a lot but it’s all in good fun, nothing personal at all. As we began, I was operating my own cellular telephone and the recording device therein with the usual ease.
Serial Optimist: I’m going to delete my entire phone. Hey, everybody!
DALLAS MCLAUGHLIN: Gonna wipe my phone clean.
SO: I’m here with Dallas McLaughlin. Hi, Dallas, how are you?
DALLAS: I’m great, Jimmy Callaway, how are you?
SO: I’m also doing all right.
DALLAS: Dude, so dope.
SO: So I’m afraid the interview we did a few months ago has been lost to the sands of time, but around that time, you had just finished a one-man show. Dallas, tell us about that.
DALLAS: It was—thank you, Jimmy, for remembering—it was called The Velocity of Celebration. I’ll be releasing it in audio form probably sometime in 2018, and it was really fun. It was a story about going through an awful break-up, and then finding out I was an awful person and how I needed to change that.
SO: And was this before you met and married your wife?
DALLAS: No, well, I’m gonna break up with my wife, so really it’s a prequel.
SO: Oh, I see.
DALLAS: Not a prequel, but like…a fortune-telling story?
SO: It’s like an issue zero.
DALLAS: Yeah, I haven’t told my wife
DALLAS: Yeah, but she’ll see it.
SO: Oh, I see, okay, this is all getting cut out for sure.
DALLAS: That’s too bad, this might be the best part of the interview.
SO: But the one-man show, I was going to ask: Is it funny? Or is it like the rest of your material?
DALLAS: It’s a combination of—it’s a dramedy.
DALLAS: It’s definitely funny, and then there are some serious moments of self-discovery. I know that sounds very pretentious, so much so that my underwear just got tight. But then there’s a lot of dark humor in it, I’m a fan of dark humor. So yeah, there’s a lot of different styles in there. It’s still a work in progress, that’s why we just did it for a workshop, and now we’re gonna do it a few more times, and yeah, next year, I hope to have the product solid.
SO: And we touched on this before, but this is kind of a departure – because your album…which is called what again?
DALLAS: An Evening of This!
SO: And that is all one-liners. So that’s kind of a departure from this story-tellingish thing that you’re doing now.
DALLAS: It is.
SO: Well, what do you know about that.
DALLAS: Well, Jimmy, I’ll give you a quick backstory.
SO: Please to do.
DALLAS: When I started doing comedy in 1937, it was me and the young Jerry Lewis—
SO: Yeah, he was only ten.
DALLAS: I said he was young. And he was doing this vaudeville act, and I said, I like that a lot, what is this act? And he said, Well, it’s about going through a terrible break-up and realizing I’m a horrible person and I need to fix that and change that. A lot of self-discovery, and I know that sounds pretentious, he used to say, and then he’d be like Laaa-dyyy!, and again my underwear would get very tight, and that’s how we came to where we are.
SO: Uh-huh. I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.
DALLAS: Neither was I. When I started doing comedy, I only did one-liners. I was a one-liner comic, and I really enjoyed it, but as time goes on, I just got bored of writing one-liners, and honestly, I wasn’t doing it at a speed that I should have been doing it. So I stepped away from it, and I started doing a lot more crowd work, because Don Rickles and Jimmy Pardo are huge influences of mine, even before I started doing stand-up. And so I went into doing crowd work, and out of that, I wanted to start building stories, more long-form bits and stuff that is a little bit more personal, and so that’s what my stand-up has gone towards. And then with this Velocity of Celebration, the one-man show, I definitely wanted to bring that to a head and see what I could do with that.
SO: So as I am one-liner comic, I will ask you this: Do you think you’re better than me or something?
DALLAS: I just want to make sure I know what we’re talking about: In comedy or just, like, as a man?
SO: Oh, either way.
DALLAS: Okay, both.
SO: Okay. I actually was just talking to someone about this today, that I don’t have the attention span to write longer form stuff, but I’m relatively new, compared to you especially, so do you think I will get bored of that, or do you think it’s a natural progression for a one-liner comic or just for you?
DALLAS: No, I don’t think it’s a natural progression. I think there’s still one-liner comics out there who commit to the format. I mean, Dan Mintz, even Demetri Martin, to some degree. Hedberg and Steven Wright, they were like machines. Everybody says you’re going to find your voice. And when I sat down to start writing stand-up, I only started doing one-liners, that’s what came to mind. As you go, you find out—you learn what your voice is, what you’re comfortable with, and I just couldn’t keep up. Like you yourself, you write a lot of one-liners. I think—I don’t think—you obviously do it way more than I did it and much more consistently. There was like a period where I went two years writing a buncha one-liners, and then I didn’t write any for two years. And I was like, Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this anymore.
SO: So what do you have in mind next after this Velocity of Celebration?
DALLAS: I think the goal is to try to work it and see how I can make this material work in clubs. I’m getting there slowly, my bits are getting longer, I’m trying more things, trying to pace the crowd more with stories, which is very difficult. But when you watch people who are masters at it, it’s awesome. I’m just trying to mix in some more emotion to the stand-up I do in clubs and see if translates. If it doesn’t, well, fuck, what a mistake that was. But if it does, great, I’ll feel good about it.
SO: It’s a calculated risk, especially in an art form that no one cares about.
DALLAS: And it’s a low risk too because no one cares about me as a performer. So if it doesn’t work out, it’ll be like, “Who was that guy that wasn’t funny?” and if it does work out, it’ll be like, “Who was that guy that was funny?” So it’s fine.
SO: I wanted to ask you a couple specifics about the album. There is a track that is entitled—make sure I get this right—“Jimmy Lied to Me.” Can you tell our readers what that could possibly mean?
DALLAS: Well, I think they’re your readers, but—
SO: Oh, when we bought them, they were our readers.
DALLAS: The album is all one-liners. Basically, what I did with An Evening of This!, which is now available on iTunes and Amazon, is I took all my one-liners and I decided to retire them for good, so it came out to an hour, a little under an hour of material. I did all of them, so there was no editing of like, This one never really worked so I’m not going to say it. I did all of them, whether they worked or they didn’t, so I could retire them. And there was one joke I was particularly fond of, and you were here in the green room, and I said, I think I wanna tell this joke, I’m gonna tell it. And I said it, and then you said, Yeah, it’s funny, you should say it. And then I went out there and I said it, and no one thought it was funny. Even you didn’t laugh at it.
SO: I did laugh, it just wasn’t the usual hyena cackle.
DALLAS: But you could have, as a friend, noticed the room turn on that joke and maybe kicked it up to the hyena thing.
SO: Oh. Now I see where it is, because you were thinking of me as a friend.
DALLAS: This is where Jimmy lied to me.
SO: I don’t remember ever expressly telling you I was your friend.
DALLAS: But I felt it, and so when I went out there, I realized you’re not my friend, and hence the track is called “Jimmy Lied to Me.” So now those one-liners are retired. I don’t say them anymore; in fact, I’ve only maybe done them twice since the recording, which was almost a year and a half ago.
DALLAS: Yeah, and I’ve only done them twice because I was at a bar and it was just turning, and I was like, Y’know what, I’ll win them back.
SO: See, that’s the thing. Like when Seinfeld buried his act, I was like, But I mean c’mon, if you need them, just use them.
DALLAS: Yeah, I think the problem is that since I decided not to do them anymore, and even after I did those a few times at those shows, I can’t. I can’t go back to them because it’s just a crutch. It’s my out if a bit’s not working, then I can just go, Oh, I’ll get out of it by doing this. By tying my hands and saying I can’t get out of the bit now, I have to figure out the bit. It helps. I just can’t go back to them. If I go back them, I’ll be admitting defeat. Like this weekend, for example: It’s a great weekend, audiences have been awesome, all three of us have been having great sets. And I haven’t once been tempted to, y’know, I should throw a one-liner out there.
SO: But you’ve also been writing a lot more.
DALLAS: I have been, but I write onstage, so my process is a little slower. Because I only take certain gigs—I’m very selective, because I’m extremely famous, so it takes me a longer time. Like I just finalized a bit that I’ve been working on for seven months.
SO: So, speaking of your fame and celebrity—
SO: —you are probably one of a handful of people I know that have an Emmy award, and one of the very few I still talk to.
DALLAS: Thank you for that, by the way, I know you’ve turned your back on a lot of award-winning writers.
SO: You’re welcome. But as you just said that you write onstage, so how does writing for the small screen translate?
DALLAS: I don’t appreciate you calling it ‘small.’
SO: You’re right, most TVs are quite larger these days.
DALLAS: When I’m writing a script—because I started writing as a sketch comedian, so I started with writing scripts. So that’s kind of where I’m much more comfortable writing. When I sit down to write stand-up, it just doesn’t work. Like even the one-man show I did is a very story-form narrative, but when I sit down, I can’t just write “set-up set-up joke,” I can’t do it.
SO: Why is that, do you think?
DALLAS: I don’t know. I wish I could figure it out, I’d be much happier.
SO: But you were able to do that at one point, right?
DALLAS: No, so the one-liners I would do, I would write the set-ups in my head, and then on a piece of paper, I would just write two words that would remind me of the joke. And then I would say that joke. But I would never sit down and write it all out.
SO: See, I write everything out. Occasionally there’s a joke that I won’t, but I’ll either tweet it or actually write it down.
DALLAS: I wish I could write like more stand-ups. The people who can sit down and write out their bits, I think it becomes better. But at the same time, you look at someone like Patrice O’Neal—not that I’m saying I’m Patrice O’Neal, in any sense.
SO: No, no one is making that mistake.
DALLAS: Well, I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to associate myself with him like that.
SO: Oh, I see.
DALLAS: But the way he would do it was to write a lot onstage and change up bits, and I really loved watching that. It was very inspiring to me because it was like, Hey, cool, man, this can be different for everybody every night. And I really like that it’s a test for me, and hopefully, people come back to see me and I did something different.
SO: I feel like my act is pretty rigid, which I’m fine with, but talking about crutches, since you don’t have that discipline to sit down and write, you are a lot quicker on your feet than a lotta comics, you do crowd work, but that’s not a skill that you sit down and develop, that’s something you have to throw yourself into.
DALLAS: I love working on my feet, and that’s definitely Rickles and Pardo. I get approached by some young comics who say, How do you do crowd work so well? And I say, Just go listen to Pardo. I can’t tell you—I ripped off everything from them, the way that Pardo and Rickles work a crowd is magic.
SO: I don’t think that you’re a rip-off. Maybe when you started and were beneath my notice—
DALLAS: Not ripping off their words, but the techniques they used—they mastered crowd work. I think Rickles mastered it and Pardo took it a step further. If you’re going to master it, you better follow the framework they created.
SO: But do they have a daytime Emmy?
DALLAS: You’d be surprised. I can’t believe you’re texting with friends while we’re doing this, it’s the most unprofessional thing.
SO: You don’t know I was doing that, I could have been playing Sudoku. How do you know they’re not texting me questions about your album?
DALLAS: I’m excited the album is out because no one will ever be able to see it live, and I’m proud of those jokes. As you do with your one-liners, you kinda fall in love with a joke which works all the time. So please go buy it on iTunes, An Evening of This! It’s cheap, I think it’s like $8.99, and it’s fun.
SO: Well, I think on that desperate plea for money—
DALLAS: Well, I can make it more desperate.
SO: Would you mind?
DALLAS: Please fucking go buy my album, are you kidding me right now? I’m a working comic, you have no idea how much money I don’t make.
SO: Sorry, wait, my friend is texting me.
DALLAS: Can your friend buy it?
SO: I’ll ask, but…