Behind and Beyond Comedy Central's The Half-Hour: A Conversation with the Comedians

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The Half Hour, formerly Comedy Central Presents, has entered its 18th season this year, and aside from some bolstered production values, it’s more or less the same as it was in 1998. A thirty-minute long showcase for each featured stand-up, The Half Hour consists of a comic, a microphone and an audience, leaving little room to veer off course. Despite the massive success of other programs on the network, it’s the half hour comedy special that has featured the voices of comics like Patton Oswalt, Dave Attell, Jim Gaffigan, Louis C.K., Maria Bamford and Amy Schumer, anchoring Comedy Central in its roots and inspiring the next generation of comedians. Stand-up is the purest form of comedy, and though there are now more avenues than ever for comedians to garner recognition, there’s no greater achievement than putting together a killer set of unfiltered joke telling.

The Half Hour series is currently airing on Comedy Central (for a complete schedule, click here), and we spoke with six of the featured comics before they took the stage and again after their tapings were completed about their preparation for the special, the taping experience, what it means for them to have been a part of this comedy institution and what comes next.

The Importance of The Half Hour

Mark Normand: They call it a Comedy Central special and it does feel like a special…They pick you up from the airport in a limo, they bring you to the W Hotel, and you get swag, you get a ton of money. Your name is in lights! This feels like the real deal.

Ron Funches: These are the things I watched growing up when I was afraid to even believe that I could do it. I loved watching people’s Half Hours! I watched every Half Hour from probably the last six or seven years.

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Mark Normand: It’s TV, it’s a half hour. It’s a big milestone in the career, so you can’t screw it up.

Rachel Feinstein: I try to treat it like another show. It’s another show and there will be more. I try to control what I can.

Kurt Braunohler: The thing about television is that they can just click on…If they see one bad joke they’re out. So I want it to be as strong as possible. I want to be able to just hand that half hour to people and be like, “This is essentially what I do, you see if you like it and then we can talk later.”

Mark Normand: This is in the can forever! I’ve talked to a lot of comics who are like, “Hey, you get the special you get the special, who cares how it goes?” To me? It counts how it goes.

Fortune Feimster: It’s a nice memento for me as well, because it’s something that will live on. As my stand-up hopefully evolves, I’ll always have that to look back to. Like, “Wow! Look at that! My hair was terrible and I’m wearing a sweater vest!” I’m hoping my future comedian self is a little more put together.

Rachel Feinstein: It’s not like some reality show. The stakes aren’t as high! They want us to look good so I’m not going to get smacked with a camera following me down a hallway while I’m weeping. No one’s going to vote me off!

Preparing For The Special

Fortune Feimster: I’ve been prepping for this special I guess as long as I’ve been a stand-up, because you hope that eventually you get to do something like this.

Ron Funches: I’ve been basically doing the set and working on the order that I think I’m going to do for The Half Hour. Which in some ways kind of is a little stifling. Kind of takes a little bit of the life-blood and riffing out of it.

Chris Gethard: I did write out my set in its entirety. Usually I don’t do that, but I felt like it’d be both a good exercise for me and also to get to the standards and practices people, just to nail it down.

Kurt Braunohler: At this point, when you’re just a few days out, you just have to commit. I’ve now run the set as-is twice, I’m going to run it three more times before I do it on TV.

Mark Normand: I’ve been working on this set for…woof, months now! Just running it and running it, I hate it, I can’t stand hearing it, I just want to lay it down, put it on some tape and get the hell back to the bar.

Changing Material For Television

Fortune Feimster: It is a little different when there are certain jokes where if you…not that I advocate cussing, but sometimes a certain curse-word gives it a little punch! And then you can’t say it all of a sudden, and you’re like, “Oh, now I have to think of a more clever joke that’s not a cuss word!” Which just makes me work harder, which I need to do.

Rachel Feinstein: I’ve taken out a lot of fucks but I am keeping some in when they really punctuate a point. I tried to replace one with the word screw and it sounded so stupid so it’s back to fuck now.

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Ron Funches: They’ve just been like, “Hey, we’re going to have to bleep this. As long as you’re okay with us bleeping it, you can say it.” I’m fine with it, it’s just making sure I don’t have a half hour that sounds like an N.W.A album, you know?

Mark Normand: I want no bleeps on my set. I don’t know why, it’s just a personal challenge…I want no bleeps! I’m just picturing Seinfeld watching it, twiddling his thumbs going, “All right! Good for you!”

Chris Gethard: I kind of feel like to strategize for it being a special would be probably a disservice to everybody—myself and the audience—in the sense of the reason I was given the special is because of a certain style that was appreciated by the people who book the specials.

Ron Funches: A long time ago, I lived in Portland I would also do shows in all Southern Oregon, Oregon Coast, different Moose Lodges and I would just learn that I can only give you what I have. I can’t change, I can’t all of a sudden turn into a different comic because I think you’re going to like that better. I can only present you what I have, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Taping The Special

Mark Normand: Great room, great crowd. My only beef is that the warm-up guy, they were crunched for time and the warm-up guy only did two and a half minutes!

Rachel Feinstein: I think they shortened [the opener’s set]. I like that guy, Andy Woodhull, I think he’s funny. Hopefully he gets a special one of these days, because I think he’s really talented.

Mark Normand: I told him, “Dude, I’ll give you some money!” Backstage I was just like, “Fuck the crew! I gotta have a warmed up crowd here!” My first couple jokes I had to really get the crowd into it.

By the third minute I was good to go, but it was touchy for the first three.

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Ron Funches: I remember doing it and getting off stage and thinking I’d only done like 10 minutes because it just went by so quickly. It was really fun. It was one of my favorite performances probably.

Chris Gethard: I tried to stay super focused day of. I went and watched a bunch of the tapings in the days before mine to kind of get the lay of the land and have a sense of how to handle things. I saw how some other people handled some missed cues and things like that, so I knew how I’d handle things if I misspoke or if there were glitches.

Kurt Braunohler: You hear nightmare stories and I was just really lucky. The crowd was incredibly warm, it was the ideal situation for recording a special.

There was never a moment [during the taping] where I was like “Oh that didn’t work that great.” It was more than I expected. And so that’s exactly the place you want to be at.

Fortune Feimster: I feel like the audience and I had a nice little friendship that happened in 30 minutes. It was cool.

Working With The Audience

Kurt Braunohler: You also have to realize with a TV audience they are revved! up! to! go! They know they’re being recorded. They’re performing for the camera in a way.

Fortune Feimster: In a way it’s kind of cool to be doing something like this in front of a whole crowd that’s never seen you before, I feel like it makes it a little more authentic for them as well. Comedy’s unfortunately not like music where everyone’s yelling, “Play our favorite song, we love it!” They’re always like, “Do something new!” So I don’t at least have that pressure, since it’ll all be new to them.

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Rachel Feinstein: There are definitely places I go where people just stare at me like I’m suspicious and confusing. I didn’t feel like that—I felt like they were a receptive crowd. I definitely have that feeling plenty of times where I get off stage and all the time I’m on the road, there’s plenty of places where I go where I just feel, “These people don’t relate to you.” I just feel fully judged.

Chris Gethard: [Audience members] were chanting “Sandwich Night!” We do an episode [of The Chris Gethard Show] once a year the night before Thanksgiving where we eat sandwiches on public access TV. We’ve done that three times, so we’ve invented a holiday! They get really into it, and a lot of times at the public access show when an episode starts [the audience] will be chanting “Sandwich Night!” It calms the nerves a lot to hear them all doing that. I was not in my hometown, but it felt like I had a hometown crowd vibe, so it felt very good. It was pretty surreal actually, to hear them bust out doing that, but in the best possible way.

Fortune Feimster: A big part of my live show is that I do a lot of crowd work, and I feel like it’s something that makes my shows different and special, specifically to what I do. I know nobody else does crowd work during their special because some people aren’t into that, but I was lucky because the audience was totally on board. They gave me some pure gold and as a result there was some bond that formed between me and the audience that might not have happened if I hadn’t reached out to them and included them in my performance.

Re-Shooting Material

Occasionally, the comics are asked to return to the crowd after they’ve finished their set. A technical error or a slip-up on their part requires a re-shoot, and a crowd who just heard a joke is asked to listen again.

Rachel Feinstein: Obviously at a comedy club if somebody was like, “Okay, they’re going to come out and do a joke again,” [the audience would think] “What’s going on?” They sort of understood it, and seemed to let themselves enjoy the joke.

Mark Normand: It took some of the magic out of it! You’re like, “I did it, I nailed it! It’s in the can!” and then they’re like, “Oops, you gotta re-do it.” And then the crowd knows it’s the same jokes again, so they have to fake it. You really feel stupid! You feel like you’re wearing a fake fire hat and your mom’s going, “You put out the fire! Good for you!”

Kurt Braunohler: Literally there’s just a guy! He’s a stagehand essentially, and he’s like, “Wait wait, stay there, we’re going to have you go back out,” and you have no more information other than that. So I’m just like, “Uh, okay?” And then he touches your back and you’re supposed to walk out. I really was just like, “Oh… okay! I don’t know what’s going on!”

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Rachel Feinstein: I was in heels! And I was afraid I was going to trip like last time. For some reason that was the part that made me the most nervous, just walking out there like that and you’re supposed to wait and let everyone just behold you, and feel like such a jackass just standing there.

Out of Their Control

Once each episode of The Half Hour has been filmed, Comedy Central is responsible for the final edit. Comedians see their set for the first time when it airs on television, and have no input on which of their jokes makes the cut.

Rachel Feinstein: I think Comedy Central is better than some other networks with that because the Comedy Central executives that have chosen us to do our specials and they are out at shows a lot in New York so they’re pretty familiar with our acts and have seen them a lot so it’s good to know that they’ll be overseeing the edits.

Mark Normand: Oh man, I gotta tell you that kills me! I hate not having a final say! I mean these sets are like little puzzles. You’ve got to have everything in the right order and everything leads into one other thing, so it terrifies me to know they could just cut something out and ruin my perfect plan!

Rachel Feinstein: It’s hard when you’re a storyteller. Sometimes you can get something cut in half and it doesn’t mean the same thing to you anymore. So I’d rather they take out a whole joke then use half of this joke and half of that.

Kurt Braunohler: The thing about stories like that is that unless they’re super punchy they’ll never work on television.

Chris Gethard: It’s definitely nerve-wracking, but in a way where it’s like, well, if I want to get to a point where I’m given opportunities like this, I’m going to have to understand that it’s part of the process, and that the people who are given that responsibility take their jobs as seriously as I take mine.

Ron Funches: It’s just about trusting the people you work with, and I know that they do a good job with those types of things, and as long as I present it in the best possible way, in the order that I think is the best, then hopefully they’ll agree. But once it’s out of my hands I just gotta let it go. In a way it’s like a baby. Maybe that baby will do drugs! It’s not my fault.

What Comes Next

Mark Normand: I’m just trying to get some new goddamn material. I burned like 95% and the rest of the 5% is kind of shitty “B” stuff. So I gotta get back to some “A”!

Fortune Feimster: You do want to have new stuff for people, so that when they come see you live they’re not looking at stuff they just watched on the Internet. So that’s my biggest goal! If you have any jokes, let me know.

Kurt Braunohler: I mean, [I’m] just terrified about having to write so much! I just got engaged and that provided a good story, so I think that’ll get me four minutes. [laughs]

Chris Gethard: I’ve kind of been lucky in that with The Chris Gethard Show, and with my time at [the Upright Citizen’s Brigade] and all that, as a stand-up I’ve been able to take a ton of time—years—working on some of those jokes. It’s a real big challenge to have to step up to the plate and write a whole new bunch of stuff that I’m proud of.

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Ron Funches: I’m losing about fifty minutes, so I’m pretty much losing everything! But it’s exciting, it gives me a new motivation to work on new stuff.

Kurt Braunohler: I’m kind of always writing, just for Hot Tub [Ed: Hot Tub is Braunohler’s weekly variety show in Los Angeles], but now I just really have to focus on it.

Mark Normand: [The process is] mostly just putting every idea I have on paper and noodling with each one until something…It’s like panning for gold. You keep swishing that pan around and eventually something comes up, then you try it on stage and it gets a twinkle, then you try it again and it gets a little more, then you polish it up… it’s a long process! But it’s worth it.

Ron Funches: It’s kind of refreshing to get back and go, “Oh I can still do this.” I can still go into a shitty open mic and do three minutes and make people laugh, it’s not a problem. It’s like leveling up. I’ve gotta go back to basics, I don’t have my sword, but I have the experience of knowing how to use it like in RPGs!

I think I’ll always love doing stand-up every night, you know? Going down to The Comedy Store and hanging out, late nights with my friends. I don’t think that’ll ever change. I’ll just do it cause I like doing comedy; I don’t do it for money, I do it because I love it. I don’t think that’ll ever change, if anything it’ll give me new perspective, new things to talk about. Things that I’ve never…I met Minnie Driver last night! I never thought! Why would I ever meet Minnie Driver?! So I’ll talk about that.

Rachel Feinstein: During that process you grow so much as a comic because it forces you to look through everything and cut out extra stuff, and I ended up writing a lot. I am trying to embrace the process a little more. Because really, I’m very lucky to do this. I love it. These nights are like little rewards for the work part.

The Bigger Picture

Kurt Braunohler: You have to constantly hustle, there’s no resting whatsoever. I mean, I did rest. That night we really partied. Then I got to hang out, and I had a few days off afterwards. Wait, what am I talking about, I didn’t at all! I went right to Portland!

Chris Gethard: I’m doing the release show for my album tonight and that’s the first time I can really come up for air and take a breath in the past four or five months, so I’m very excited about that. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining because it’s been a great year and those are all good, good things to be busy with. But I definitely need to relax a little bit.

Rachel Feinstein: All these ups and downs, it’s a sort of bipolar sort of a life, stand-up. It’s nice to stop for a second and be like, “Oh, I worked on this stuff and now I get to present it to these people!” And the next day I’m on a plane, staying in a comedy condo in some heinous city.

Ron Funches: I just want to keep doing comedy, and doing this and then going “Okay, now I want to do an hour.” Can I do a solid hour on TV? This is the first step towards that.

Chris Gethard: I’ve learned that many times over the years that you have to earn opportunities in this lifestyle, and then you have to also I think remember that you earned those things.

Ron Funches: To me there’s just certain markers in comedy where you go, “Okay, no matter what you say about me, you can’t say I didn’t do this.” You can’t say I didn’t go to Montreal [for the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival], you can’t say I didn’t go to Conan, can’t say I didn’t do The Half Hour.

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About the Comics

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Chris Gethard is a New York based comedian, published author and creator and host of The Chris Gethard Show. He released his first album, My Comedy Album, in April.

Ron Funches is a Los Angeles-based comedian and current series regular on the NBC show Undatable

Fortune Feimster is a Los Angeles-based comedian who frequently appeared on Chelsea Lately and recently filmed a role as a regular in a Tina Fey-produced television pilot.

Kurt Braunohler is a Los Angeles-based comedian who recently released an acclaimed album, How Do I Land?, in 2013. Also recently, he jet-ski’ed down the Mississippi River for charity.

Rachel Feinstein is a New York-based comedian who appeared on this season of Inside Amy Schumer and is currently touring and preparing an hour-long special.

Mark Normand is a New York-based comedian who appeared on this season of Last Comic Standing. His podcast, Tuesdays With Stories, is available on iTunes.

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