Comedian Jim Hamilton is one of our all-time favorites here at Serial Optimist, and if you aren’t familiar with him, we are big time excited to introduce. His new album Poems About the Ocean (out now) is a must listen, and after you read this interview you will first: be an instant fan, second: buy his album, third: smile hard. Enjoy.
Serial Optimist: Hey Jim! How is your day going? Give us a detailed description of your current surroundings.
Jim Hamilton: Same as everyday: Tedious day job, followed by miserable performance, deliciously numbing alcohol and finally the nightly downward spiral into my hellish nightmares. Do my surroundings really matter? It’s all just going to be dust someday anyway. How was your day?
SO: You went to school at the University of Wisconsin. Is that where you first started in stand-up? What kind of clubs/coffee shops/corners were you performing at when you first started?
Jim: Yeah, I started in Madison when I was in college. I was an engineering major and saw a sign in the chemistry building asking for comedy writers for a student-run public access show. I don’t know why I thought I could be a comedy writer, but I sent in some jokes and got “hired.” The host was my age but had been doing stand-up since he was like 15. He convinced me to try it and I will never forgive him.
I started at a club called Funny Business. It was a chain of clubs left over from the 80’s boom. The owners of the one in Madison were these awful brothers who didn’t know anything about comedy. They booked the hackiest comics and it was just a bummer place to be. Then a second club opened up across town called Laugh Lines and they booked really great comics: Dave Attell, Doug Stanhope, Lewis Black, Dave Chappelle, Jake Johannsen, etc. The owner liked me and let me drink for free so I went there pretty much every weekend and often emceed for these amazing comics. It was such a great learning experience and a really fun place to hang out. The problem with that club was that it didn’t have an ideal location and none of those guys were all that famous at the time so the audiences never really showed up. We drank that club into the ground within two years.
SO: What made you head to Austin after college? That’s one of my favorite cities. Would say you really started to hone your skills there or did you show up with a solid amount of material, ready to roll?
Jim: When Laugh Lines closed, the only club in town was that miserable Funny Business, plus I knew I had to find a bigger pond if I was going to keep improving. I had visited a friend in Austin, done some sets, and really liked their comedy scene. I had some pretty decent jokes when I moved, but being in Austin around all those great comics who were taking creative chances was very beneficial. It also encouraged my weirder side, which didn’t really fly as an emcee in Madison.
SO: I don’t want to get too wiki-esque, but I would like to introduce you to our readers that might not be familiar with you, (shame on you readers!). Can you tell us a little about your career so far as a comedian? Aside from touring and performing on the constant (like some of our favorites Comedy Bang! Bang! and The Meltdown), what other projects have you been involved with?
Jim: I don’t blame your readers at all for not knowing me. I am really, truly terrible at self-promotion and the business side of it. I rarely get out of L.A. – maybe once or twice a year. I was on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend right before I left Austin, but I don’t have much in the way of other TV credits.
“Projects” is a word I’m unfamiliar with, but I’ve been trying to just get better at stand-up and futilely trying to get a writing job. I recently decided I need to start doing things on my own without waiting for the industry’s permission. The album is my first step in that direction.
SO: Speaking of touring, do you have a favorite venue you like to perform at most?
Jim: I like going back to The Comedy Club on State in Madison. It used to be that terrible Funny Business I was telling you about, but the landlord took it over and it’s really great now. They book great comics, the crowds and staff are great, plus I get to see my family.
Both clubs in Austin (Cap City and The Velveeta Room) are a lot of fun but I haven’t been back in years. Getting back to Austin is next on my list, but I would like to get to more cities too. Where I’m at career-wise, going on the road is a break-even financial venture. I’ve always kept my day job because I have expensive tastes… hey, PBR is expensive when you drink a million of them.
SO: The deliveries of your jokes are so deadpan, so perfect. You are at the top when it comes to one-liners. I don’t mean to get in depth, and I know a question like this can be frustrating to answer, but I’ll go for it anyways. What is the process? How do you come up with a joke like the cutting yourself shaving joke? You make it sound so easy, almost as if you came up with it on the spot.
Jim: Thank you for asking, because this gives me the perfect opportunity to name-drop. I was performing at Matt Braunger’s (1) birthday party last year and Dan Harmon (2) asked about that very same joke. He asked if I was doing cartwheels after I wrote it and I told him what I will tell you: I wrote that joke along with about four other jokes in like three minutes. I think I also wrote this other joke that I sometimes do, “I came into some money… but now I can’t pull the bills apart.” I just wrote a bunch of jokes with that same structure and rhythm, but I really had no idea that the shaving joke was any better than the rest. The writing is definitely not easy though. In the above example, which was one of my most fruitful writing moments ever, I still only batted 2 for 5.
When I watch other comedians, the bits that really make me laugh fall into one of two categories: they’re either so obvious I wish I had thought of them or they’re so outside of my thinking that I could never have thought of them. Unfortunately, the very nature of those options makes it impossible for me to write a joke that actually makes me laugh. So now you know the hell I‘m living in.
Also, Woody Harrelson (3) once offered me a ride home in his chauffeured SUV, but the party we were at was walking distance from where I was staying. I know it’s unrelated; I just needed a more impressive name-drop.
And you’re right, my delivery is perfect.
SO: Have you gotten a lot of Mitch Hedberg comparisons over your career? Is he someone you looked up to? Who would be some of your biggest influences?
Jim: I don’t get compared to Mitch all that often, probably because we’re not that superficially similar. However, Mitch’s wife, Lynn Shawcroft, has told me that we’re similar in terms of how we both kind of “see” the joke in everyday sort of things. Actually, just this morning, I watched a short documentary with Lynn talking about Mitch’s writing process and it is pretty similar how we attack joke writing. The video is also well worth your readers’ ten minutes: watch here.
Starting out, my biggest influence was easily Emo Philips. I just thought he was head-and-shoulders better than everybody else. Since I’ve been doing stand-up, there have been a lot of comics (many of them mentioned earlier) who I think are great and have certainly influenced me, but Emo was my guy from the very start.
SO: Your debut album, “Poems About the Ocean” just came out, and it’s amazing. How exciting is that?
Jim: It’s exciting that you called it amazing. Um, I don’t know if I would call it exciting. I am super glad to finally have a product that I’m proud of and that other people can own. Stand-up sets are usually like farting in the wind, but having an album is like farting in an elevator. It’s nice to create something that will be around after I’m gone.
SO: What was the process in putting “Poems About the Ocean” out? How long has this been in the works, and how has the response been so far?
Jim: Jonah Ray convinced me to do an album right around the New Year and I agreed with the record label in January. We recorded in April so I had a few months to kind of think about it and put together the set. If a cop had walked into my house in that last month before the recording, I would have surely been arrested for a bunch of unsolved murders because there were papers with arrows connecting scribbled jokes all over my house. I really enjoyed the process of picking the material and tying it into a somewhat cohesive album.
The few sites that have reviewed the album have been frighteningly complimentary. My friends have had some nice things to say about it, but they’re my friends. And my friends are not bright. Other than that, I have no idea what anybody thinks or if it’s selling. I like it, so that’s pretty good.
SO: If you could describe Poems About the Ocean but only had one sentence to do so, what would that sentence be?
Jim: It’s like a fart in an elevator, but in the best possible scents.
SO: Would you consider yourself an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist? Why?
Jim: I’d consider myself a realist, but this world is the pits so it just sounds like I’m a pessimist. To be honest with you, I’m probably an optimist at heart, because I keep chasing this silly dream.
SO: What daily things in life make you smile?
Jim: Did you see that pun I dropped two questions ago? I’m still smiling.
SO: Any other projects coming up in the near future we should know about?
Jim: Again, you with your “projects.” I’m still trying to figure out my next move. I definitely want to get some more TV appearances, but that’s easier said than done. Maybe tour a little. I’d like to get on a writing staff. In the meantime, I’m performing at FYF Fest on Labor Day Weekend. Last year’s festival was seriously the happiest day of my year. My brother flew into town for it, I got to see some of my favorite bands like Ty Segall and Death From Above 1979, and I performed in front of an amazing audience with some of the best comedians around.
You can use those last few sentences for what makes me smile, too.
SO: Thanks so much Jim!