Tom Shillue’s Year of Stories

Comedy Features
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Tom Shillue is just like any other working comedian. He wakes up in the morning, puts his pants on one leg at a time, and then starts working on the 12 albums he’s going to release over the next year. Of course, that’s substantially downplaying the thought process that led to his ambitious project. “At first I thought of doing a three-hour album,” Shillue tells Paste. “Then I thought maybe I’ll do five albums instead, and price them really low, and people can collect them all. Then I thought, ‘What about 10? Why not? I’m sure I can do 10 albums if I dig deep. It will be a creative challenge, which always gets me going.’ Then I thought, ‘If I’m going to do 10, I might as well make it a dozen.’ Why not?”

Previous to this epic set of material, the NYC stand-up has worked with The Daily Show, created a two-man show with Jim Gaffigan, founded the storytelling show Funny Story and done countless shows over the year. All of which is to say: He’s not been wanting for work, exactly, which perhaps makes it less surprising that he’s tackling such a massive undertaking now. But his first comedic inspiration was his upbringing in suburban Massachusetts. “All fodder,” Shillue says in describing his time growing up in The Bay State. “Of course, one doesn’t think that when they are experiencing it. It’s just life, then later you take the experiences up on stage and people are laughing, and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is funny.’ Massachusetts must be funny—a lot of comics and presidential candidates have come from there.”

But his surroundings weren’t his only inspiration growing up. Comedy classics were around him early on. “I used to listen to the old albums at the library when I was a kid,” Shillue recalls. “Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby. We could only listen to the clean stuff. When my fellow comics talk about growing up with Pryor and Carlin, I’m like, ‘You were allowed to listen to that?’ I couldn’t even listen to Meat Loaf records in my house. Which was fine, really, because I loved the Carpenters.”

Funny Story is Shillue finding his niche. The series, which bounced around various venues before settling on Brooklyn Brewery in June, gives talented writers, comedians, and storytellers a place to showcase their words. Notable comedians like Bobby Tisdale, John Mulaney and Gabe Liedman have graced Funny Story’s stage. “It’s a really fun show,” Shillue says. “It gives me an opportunity to have some of my favorite comics and storytellers onstage together, and serve good beer. The show is always a blast. I never know what anyone is going to do—I just tell them to bring a story that’s funny. Then I can sit and enjoy the show along with the audience.”

For now, though, Shillue’s main focus is on the dozen-album project. Two are finished already and on sale for $1.99 via his website tomshillue.com. “I’m editing number three now,” he says. “I’m sketching out the theme for four and five. The second album was totally changed at the last minute. I had most of it done, and then I recorded two live shows when I opened for [Gaffigan] in a big theater, and they went well, so I just used those recordings for the two long tracks on the album, which I titled Big Room. Then I edit the album in GarageBand and knock it out. I can’t fuss too much, I’ve got deadlines!”

Stand-up comedy comes in many forms, from one-liners to music to avant-garde weirdness. But much like Kyle Kinane, Tig Notaro, and Dylan Brody, to name but a few modern-day contemporaries, Shillue prefers a long, elegantly unraveling bit as opposed to a quick-and-dirty setup/punchline combination. “It’s what I’m interested in,” Shillue says, in a rather large understatement. “I want to hear people’s lives. And I’m patient—I like listening to comedy as opposed to watching it. I like listening to a story on a long drive. And the kind of person who likes that, they like my style. I think part of the reason people are enjoying [storytelling] lately is we’ve pretty much mastered the short-attention-span style of entertainment, and it’s all around us. People want to slow down, take in more of a meal.”

Shillue doesn’t know what will happen after this whirlwind year ends (“Hopefully I’ll have some other ridiculous project I’m excited about,” he says of the lack of material he’ll have at that point.), but his attitude for the creative process sure is in the right place, perhaps best evidenced by his description of his time working for Jon Stewart & Co. “I pitched them an idea, and they bought it,” Shillue says of his time as a Daily Show correspondent. “That’s the way most things happen for you as a performer. Very little comes by way of an audition. I think a lot of young people now, they know this. That’s the way you get things—you create stuff.”

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