Robert Kelly On Power, Vulnerability and Comedy

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“When you are on stage talking about how fucked up you are and people relate to it, I don’t know if there is anything more powerful,” says Robert Kelly, whose new special, Live From The Village Underground, airs tonight on Comedy Central.

Originally from Boston, Kelly came up with the likes of Bill Burr, Patrice O’Neal and Dane Cook before moving to New York. He landed in the city in the late 90s, living on a mattress in a hallway and working as much as he could. Nothing mattered but getting stage time. For Kelly, these were the golden days, a highlight of his life.

Times have changed, however. Kelly plays Louis C.K.’s brother with no boundaries on Louie, and hosts a successful podcast, YKWD (aka You Know What Dude). His new special has been in development for the past three years, and after playing a few film festivals debuts on television tonight.

Paste: Let’s talk about your album. Congrats. What was the process like?

Robert Kelly: It’s been a long three years. It was two hours mixed into one hour. To have Comedy Central air it is a badge of fucking honor. It’s kind of a catch 22 with doing a special. If you want to do it your way, you have to have the money to do it. You have to have someone to back you. The Village Underground has always been a music venue, that’s why I wanted to do it in the West Village in a small club. That’s where modern day comedy was born, in jazz clubs and these little places. With cigarette fucking smoke and dim lights, and we would just tell jokes.

Paste: That’s the way it ought to be!

So, you came from Boston. When did you come to New York, and how did that go? Did you already have a network in the NYC scene?

RK: My class of comics was Dane Cook, Patrice O’Neal, Bill Burr. Dane went to New York first, and immediately found success. Everybody loved him. And then Billy came and he booked a pilot just six months in New York with Molly Ringwald. And then Patrice came and I was back in Boston by myself. It was ‘98. Someone called me up and liked my acting, not my comedy. (laughs) He said “If you come to New York I will try and get you acting work—and I’ll try to get you comedy work.”

I was the last of our group to move, I lived with Burr at a shitty shit-hole on 97th and Lexington.

Paste: Lets talk a bit about your acting work for a bit. You’re on Louie, how was that experience?

RK: Louie was the first thing that I did acting wise where people would say, “oh, you are good.” The acting I have always loved but when he put me in the show, and as his bro, and not as Bob Kelly, it was insane. It was so subtle and so small, these parts that we did, the mother episode. He called me up and said, “can you cry?” I said, “What are you talking about?”

He said, “Can you cry on camera?” For the next two months that’s all I panicked about.

The day of the shoot, Louis came up to me and said, “I probably shouldn’t have done that to you.” Louis shoots the scenes from beginning to end, like a play.

Paste: Lets go back to your roots. It seems like a lot of you guys shacked up when you were starting out. Didn’t Colin Quinn live in a bunk-bed with a few…

RK: Yup they did. Colin had a girl across the street. Louis C.K. and Nick Dipaolo lived together. The only thing you needed as a comic when you first came to New York was stage time. Nothing else. Food, clothes, whatever. As long as you could get a key to a place so you didn’t freeze. It didn’t matter how shitty it was, how small it is. My bed was in a hallway. I had to put a curtain up because my roommate had to walk through the bathroom and kitchen to walk outside.

Paste: Do you miss those days?

RK: It’s funny you say that. I miss them but I did more, probably three or four years ago. I have a family now, my wife and my kid, I’m in the best place I have ever been in my life—spiritually and emotionally. Five years ago I probably missed them a lot more because life got complicated and there’s a stage where you go, “what the fuck am I doing?” Back then was easy. I was shredded. I was young. I had hair. I would do comedy every single night.

Paste: Was it like an addiction?

RK: When you are young doing comedy, you’re funny and working at The Comedy Cellar, and the Boston Comedy Club, meeting girls. I would hang out until the birds chirp (makes chirping noise).

That’s when I went home. When the birds woke up.

It was just…crazy.

Paste: Was comedy always as cool as it seems to be now?

RK: Comedy is cool to people but Chris Rock said “cool is the enemy of funny.”
Once you become too cool, once you are a badass, you’re fucking finished! Once you think you can release a real album of songs, you are done.

Paste: Comedians are cool when they are raw.

RK: Yeah, we are cool motherfuckers. We are rockstars—when it comes to what we do. But we are fuck-ups, but we know it. We know all of our flaws. We know all of our dimples and zits. We use it, and use that to make you understand us more. It makes people like you more. When you are on stage talking about how fucked up you are and people relate to it, I don’t know if there is anything more powerful. That’s how people get sober off drugs, just being completely honest. That’s what kind of power lies in stand-up comedy.

Being as vulnerable as you can on stage. And then adding making people laugh at it. That’s why I get mad when people get offended at comedy. It’s like wait a minute, the person that gets offended, okay fuck you, but what about the other person that it helped?

Paste: What offends you?

RK: I don’t like watching videos of people getting hurt. Like some heavy girl falling off a tree and landing on her stomach, it makes me feel bad. Anything with kids getting hurt, because of my shitty childhood and now having a kid of my own. But comedy, I do not get offended. And I don’t not like comedy and comics. I think when you are coming up it’s all, “That comedy stinks, and we are the fucking funny ones!”

Paste: Would you say you are supportive of other comedians?

RK: Look, I remember when we were coming up someone said to me, “Talent isn’t afraid of talent.” When you know what you can do and your abilities, you don’t really give a shit—as much anymore. I try and have as many guys on my podcast—-guys I would never hang out with at a comedy club, they go places I don’t go. I love learning about other funny now. Some yap the whole time, some are aggressive. I know how hard this business is. To make a human being laugh for a living is nuts.

Paste: And to do it well, especially. How have you learned good timing and segues?

RK: Twenty years in, I like details. I always was good at crowd work. Some people can do that, some can not. When I moved back to New York after living in LA, you had to learn how to write a joke that was funny and stand up there and not talk to the crowd. That had to be done which is very hard. After that I learned how to mix to the two, because there is nothing worse than a comic going up there with nothing but crowd work and kill it and then go back to their act which wasn’t as good.

Paste: The segue has to be tried and failed enough times to be good, then?

RK: If you see Louie, Kevin Hart or Burr, there is a thing that they do and only they do when it comes to segues. I am starting to find it.

Paste: When did you feel like you could call yourself a comedian?

RK: When I got paid for it. When I had a day job working tables, or delivering flowers, or working with juvenile delinquents, I did comedy at night but never introduced myself as a comedian. When I could pay my rent with the money I made from my stand-up, that was the day.

But a good comic? Maybe last year. I just realized that I am a good comic. Not one of the greats, but I am good. I am funny as a motherfucker.

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