You ever wonder who is one of the guys responsible for making that pasty and ginger late-night host get all the laughs every night? Well, I have a few hints for you. He’s a former resident of Michigan. He co-produced the weekly “Beauty Bar Comedy Show” in New York for 5 years. He taped a Comedy Central “The Half Hour” special you surely watched. Give up yet? He’s got a comedy album out called “You Stink” which you plan to buy. He’s probably delivered your newspaper, repaired your roof, measured your feet, parked your car, or sold you bath salts in Detroit. OK, maybe that last one was a fib. It’s Jesse Popp for goodness sakes! If you want to know what makes this sarcastic wizard tick either expend all that extra energy wiki’ng him or simply scroll down and feast your eyes on the gift that awaits you. Merry Christmas, you filthy animals!
Serial Optimist: Hi Jesse! Okay, I’ve gotta ask. With all this Apocalypse talk in the news, which city would you most enjoy spending those final hours in before Sir Zombie Bath Salts chews off your face? Would those final hours include some standup?
Jesse Popp: Well, as much as I like stand-up, if I knew I was done for, I probably wouldn’t set aside time to work on new stuff. I guess I’d just go back to Detroit. At least then there’s a chance the zombies would think they’d already hit that town and keep moving.
SO: You have a point there. Growing up in Michigan, did you always have dreams of working in comedy? What did you do before you got into comedy? At what point did you decide that you might want to be an entertainer?
Jesse: To be honest, I never consciously thought about doing stand-up as a career. I first did it in 2000 when I was 23. It somehow just became something I wanted to do at least once, and then twice, and before I knew it, I had all my eggs in one basket.
All told, before I started stand-up I worked as a paper boy, roofer, cashier, shoe salesman, movie theater usher, vacuum cleaner salesman, truck loader, parking attendant, data entry clerk, courier and customer service representative. After I started doing stand-up, I continued working office and labor jobs, but minus retail, for 11 more years. That all sounds crummier than it really was. I had a lot of fun.
SO: Well, there’s certainly enough fodder there for a lifetime of material. You co-produced the weekly “Beauty Bar Comedy Show” in New York for 5 years. How challenging was that? Do you think you’d put on another show again?
Jesse: Getting strangers to come to a show every week is an inexact science at best, so we (Vince Averill and I) did what we could but also did our fair share of screwing off. And the bar was good about letting us endure the swings between great shows and duds.
It didn’t make us any money or put us over in the business, but all and all, that show’s the most fun I’ve had doing stand-up. So I think I’ll just let it be and not start up anything else. Perhaps the occasional one-off here and there.
SO: Fair enough. What venues do you most prefer performing at? Where have you encountered the worst hecklers? Do you have a heckler anecdote that is still stapled to your brain that you can share with us?
Jesse: Well, there are pros and cons to almost every kind of room. I basically like to go up anywhere that isn’t just a bunch of filthy animals yelling at me.
As far as no fooling hecklers go, I feel like that’s a problem that’s somewhat overblown. Don’t get me wrong, hecklers can be annoying, but most of them are not malicious. More often than not, even though they may have stepped on a joke, they’re just being silly and trying to have fun. So, unless they’re very drunk or severe rubes, you can usually ignore them or talk to them for a few seconds and move on.
I’d say the worst hecklers are at any place that attracts meatheads and/or drunk girls that yell “Woooo!”
Off the top of my head, here’s one heckler story. Years ago, I was doing a weekend at a club in Windsor, Ontario. At the late Saturday show, a guy in the back of the room started yelling, “Go to hell!” at me. I’d been bombing all weekend, and this was the last show of the weekend, so I decided to ignore him and just plow through until I got the light.
After the show, he walked up to me and said, “Hey, I was the guy that kept telling you to go to hell!” like I was supposed to be excited to meet him. Then he said, “You know, it seemed like you were having some trouble getting that big laugh.”
I said, “Well, it was sort of because you kept yelling ‘Go to hell’ at me.”
Then he pulled out a notebook and tried to sell me some of his jokes. I still wish I had bought some to see what they were. Anyway.
SO: The nerve of some people! Jeez. What’s it like being a staff writer on “Conan”? What is your writing process? Can you describe a day in the life of a staff writer?
Jesse: Writing on “Conan” is busy but fun. I’m one of the monologue writers. Basically, we collect premises from the news and then write and turn in a few batches of jokes throughout the day. Then we all meet with Conan and the rest of the crew, he picks the jokes he likes and it gets whittled down to the final monologue. Then, when we have time, we also pitch in ideas for sketches and desk piece jokes and stuff like that.
My writing process here is a lot different than what I do for stand-up. My stand-up writing has always been very slapdash and streaky. But here it’s very regimented. You have to write every day no matter what. It’s tough, but I like the challenge. And I get to eat a lot of free candy.
Jesse Popp “The Moon Landing”
SO: You taped a Comedy Central’s “The Half Hour” episode. What was that experience like? Do you get nervous onstage or in front of the camera?
Jesse: I don’t really get nervous anymore. I definitely did for a while, though. It probably took ten years off my life, but at least I got those sweet drink tickets!
I will say for a TV taping, I do feel a lot more self-conscious of things like my gestures and trying to stand in the right spot, etc. That’s all stuff I’d never think about otherwise.
Also, you know the show is going to be edited and the TV audience will ultimately be much larger than the live audience, so in a strange way, you almost have to ignore the crowd and just stick to your jokes and try not to fart around too much.
But anyway, I was thrilled to do it and the only downside was getting lumped into the same season as my old roommate Nick Vatterott. What a jerk!
SO: You have a digital album out called “You Stink”. This album is a culmination of years of material. It must be quite satisfying to put together your best work and release it out to your fans. What are some of your favorite jokes/moments from the album?
Jesse: Yes, I was glad to finally put something out. I recorded an album in 2005 that, long story short, never got released. There are a few minutes from that, but most of this album is jokes from the last 1-4 years.
I don’t like listening to myself, so while I was editing it, my favorite moments were everything that didn’t make me want to puke. That’s pretty much the gimmick.
SO: Ah, the puke factor. An excellent meter of joke excellence. You’ve written that your favorite board game growing up was Pursue the Pennant, a tabletop baseball game. What are some contemporary games you enjoy playing and why? I like to geek out with some Munchkin personally.
Jesse: Ah, Pursue The Pennant. This could only mean that you’re one of the few people who have read my blog. Thanks! I haven’t played that game in years. For a while I had a similar computerized game called Diamond Mind. These things are basically Dungeons and Dragons but with old baseball players instead of wizards and junk.
As far as contemporary games, let’s see. I don’t have a video game system. I recently got an iPhone, though, and I play games (procrastinate) on that. Angry Birds, Flight Control and chess mostly. And I like to play poker, blackjack and bet on sports, but almost always legally and in moderation.
SO: What does the future hold for Jesse Popp? Any other projects on the horizon?
Jesse: Oh boy, I’m pretty bad at planning ahead. Stand-up wise, I have a couple more hours ready to go, so I’d like to record another album or two as soon as I can and then start over.
Other than that, I just plan to continue trying to have fun and not suck eggs. And then maybe be President of The United States of America.
SO: Way to set the bar high. Thanks so much for talking with us Jesse. Please don’t suck any 1000-year-old eggs!