Listen to an exclusive clip from Dan Soder’s new Comedy Central special here.
Here’s the straight dope on Dan Soder: he’s 32, grew up in Colorado, lives in Astoria, has a big head, smokes a respectable quantity of pot, waited tables for five years before stand-up paid off, also worked at a cannery in Alaska for some godforsaken reason, loves Queens of Stone Age, takes his Playstation on the road so he can play Uncharted after shows, lives in fear of the machines winning (but totally vaped during our interview), once projectile vomited in a prayer circle at church camp, and has one of the most distinctive voices in comedy, which I mean literally. It is a magnificently sonorous baritone, as rich in conversation as it is in performance, and flexible enough to contort into a surprising range of impressions. He’s got a voice for radio and a face for TV, and you can catch both in his hour-long special Not Special, which airs on Comedy Central tomorrow night.
Soder, for years a regular in the Manhattan club scene, is busier than ever. He’s got The Bonfire, the twice-weekly radio show he hosts with Big Jay Oakerson; Used People, the Comedy Central webseries he and Michelle Wolf are now developing into a full-length script; a supporting role on Showtime’s testosterone-heavy Billions; another supporting role in the upcoming feature Drunk Parents; and then, you know, fifteen or so stand-up gigs a week across New York City. (He’s even performing at Paste’s monthly stand-up night at our New York studio next week.) He’s working at a furious clip, though mostly out of fear that if he doesn’t, he’d have to work at an even more furious clip. “My work ethic is fueled by a fear of having to go back to waiting tables,” he told me in a recent interview. “Or just going back to a job that I hate. ‘Cause I have a job that I love, and it’s hard to change that.”
Not Special is Soder’s first hour; he was on Comedy Central’s The Half Hour in 2013. He’s a good-tempered storyteller and an acute commentator, weaving comfortably between the silly and the serious. In a particularly elegant bit, he spins a critique of his deep voice into the challenges his mother faced as a single parent in the ‘80s: “I had that voice as a kid—for a single mom. My mom’s just trying to catch some D on the weekend, and then I come bumbling down the hall like ughghghgh. Nope! Sorry.” It’s no-frills observational humor, and that’s not a diss—Soder has one of those stage personalities you just sort of want to hang out with, and he’s exceptionally skilled at finding new avenues into subjects that might be overplayed. (One of many dick jokes: “We can all agree that underdick is the worst part of the penis. Dicks are like bridges; you only want to see them from the sides and the tops. You see it and you’re like, that’s an impressive structure! Then you see it from the bottom and you’re like, oh god, it’s all support beams!”) He is also, crucially, totally unpretentious: some of my favorite moments in Not Special are when he giggles at what he’s just said, as though surprised it actually got a laugh.
“I’m still learning how to write,” Soder reflected on his success. “Sometimes I think I know what I’m doing, but most times I don’t. I think comedy, on the surface, is just—you see these guys go up and they’re just talking and they destroy. And then you realize, oh, it’s a joke. And then you’re like, well, how do I write a joke? And then you’re like, how do I do it again?”
Obviously comedy is mostly learning by doing, and the schedule of a club comic allows one to figure out new material pretty quickly. “That’s the best part of living in New York,” he said. “With fifteen sets in a week, something that doesn’t work on Monday might be my new best bit on Friday.” He has also honed his conversational style on The Bonfire, which is about as loose as talk shows come. “Jay and I are literally just doing that to make each other laugh,” he said. “I wish that was, like, a puppet statement Sirius or Comedy Central gave me, but honestly our show prep is sometimes just getting stoned and watching Onyx videos. Then we’ll start talking about a story we haven’t told each other and he’ll be like, save it for the show.”
In addition to the series he’s developing with Wolf, Soder’s also shopping an animated pilot written with his friend and fellow comic Luis J. Gomez. “I never felt like I was a good enough writer for TV,” he said. “Then I was lucky enough to get hired for a couple things and was like, oh, it’s just being funny. Just be funny on paper.” I asked if he could see himself as a show-runner; he was skeptical. “Nothing that would ever take me away from stand-up,” he said. “I won’t do anything where I can’t do stand-up. Even acting—I’d like to do more, but then I wonder how I’d do sets. It’s just a nervous tic at this point. I gotta get up, I like getting up. I think I get better every time.”
Waiting tables isn’t the only fear driving him to get back onstage night after night. Years ago, during his first college summer, he worked at a cannery in Alaska. “This is very hack of me, but it’s kind of where I realized I wanted to do stand-up,” he said. “It was good pot, a lot of sunlight, and it kind of taught me that I wanted to do a job that I liked—not one that I was forced to do. I saw a lot of guys doing this backbreaking labor because they had to do it to feed their families.”
Soder doesn’t yet have a family to feed—and spends a good deal of Not Special complaining about his friends who do—but he does have what he wants, more or less. So naturally he’s just a little bit miserable. “Now that all this good stuff is happening, I’m like, oh shit,” he said. “I’m always paranoid about the other shoe dropping. Man, I hope I don’t die.”
Dan Soder: Not Special premieres on Comedy Central on Saturday, May 21, at 11 PM ET.
Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.