Brandon Wardell and the Relationship Between ASMR and Comedy

Comedy Features Brandon Wardell
Brandon Wardell and the Relationship Between ASMR and Comedy

To an entire generation of comics, there’s a big question mark in their head next to Brandon Wardell. I’ve heard older stand-ups say that they hate this weird “millennial character that he’s playing.” I’ve always thought that was reductive and disconnected, because Wardell isn’t doing a character at all. He’s just a millennial doing Peak Millennial performance, and if you think that’s for show, you’ve become An Actual Oldperson.

I almost become An Actual Oldperson this week, because in prep for an interview with Wardell, I was sent a copy of his new comedy album. The album is called An ASMR Album and it is an entire comedy album… performed as ASMR. I downloaded it and began listening, thinking that perhaps this was misdirection. Well, I don’t know what I expected.

I realized I should step back and define terms here. ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response” but obviously no one knows that. The ole Wikisite calls it “an experience characterized by a static-like or tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine.” What it translates to is a movement of YouTube videos and recordings from people doing close-mic’d whispering and activities with the intended goal of calming you down—or getting you super horny if you’re a pervert. Or maybe hitting some weird middle ground. Sure, that’s not the most nuanced description of the movement, but let’s all agree it is very accurate.

So. A comedy album. Done as ASMR. It’s an idea that goes high concept and equally alienating to anyone over the age of 25. Which is fine, because why should Wardell be trying to impress or entertain anyone older than himself? And if it clicks with anyone else, so be it. And it did click with me. And I am equally surprised by this turn. Not that I don’t find Wardell funny, it’s just an obvious challenge to the audience and luckily I’m someone who also has a slight level of ASMR dabbling. It is, of course, a stupid thing. Wardell got high and recorded an album in one take where he is also breaking throughout, but it is both an effective ASMR recording and a studio sketch comedy recording in a time where that genre is completely dead. It also elicits a shocking amount of laughter with no attached intention, and it certainly does not overstay its welcome. And, for the record, it is an entire honest recording. It is the mouth rampage of a stoned 25 year old comedian and it never pretends it is more or less than that. In a time where “clap if you agree” stand-up albums are in flux, something this one dimensional is a welcome reprieve. Also, if I don’t find things to appreciate about it, all the young hip kids will know that I am bad and old so maybe I’m stretching a little bit. That’s fine. Just stay off my yard.

Here’s my conversation with Wardell. We did not whisper through it, although we should have.

Paste: What’s the connection between ASMR and comedy?

Brandon Wardell: I don’t know if there was one. It really takes a genius to combine those two things—no honestly, I’d wanted to do this for a while. I like ASMR a lot. We planned out the album late last year. Ricky Reed has this label (Nice Life) and reached out to me about this album—and I don’t want an album coming out unless there’s a Netflix special coming out around the same time. So I wanted to do something dumb and fun to stand on its own. I think comedy and ASMR are antithetical… Is that a word? Is that the right word? I don’t want to sound like a dumbass. Should I be using that word? ASMR is supposed to relax you and comedy is supposed to take you by surprise. I’ve gotten reports of people falling asleep to the album. Listen to it on good headphones and fall asleep to it.

Paste: What’s your genre of ASMR?

Wardell: I do genuinely love it. I do use it to fall asleep sometimes. It’s video drugs. I like having a Russian woman whisper to me. My shit? It’s haircuts or scalp massage stuff. I think real ASMR-heads would possibly call my tastes very entry level…

Paste: Are you worried about being called out by the indie ASMR crowd?

Wardell: A little bit. I do like that the real ASMR fans do like it. I hope that some ASMR fans find my comedy through this? I don’t want to stoke the ire of the genuine ASMRers. My favorite performer is ASMR Darling. She’s just a lady who is very popular on YouTube and she’s my favorite. I think ASMR is done best by a woman, which makes sense, because women inherently put you more at ease. There’s not a lot of male ASMR. I’m willing to break that glass ceiling.

Paste: You mean that glass floor?

Wardell: Yes. Yes, a glass floor. I am in hell.

Paste: I appreciate that as the album goes on, the sounds that you’re describing that we’re going to here warp in this very Lynchian way where pretty quickly we aren’t listening to anything that sounds remotely like the actions you’ve described.

Wardell: Thanks, man. I appreciate that. We did this whole thing in one night and we recorded it back in January. I just got really high and went into the booth. Everything except jokes from my stand-up was improvised. I smoked a lot and drank a lot of Peach Ciroc and then whispered in a room by myself for two hours and this is the by product.

Paste: How many people were in your line of sight as you recorded?

Wardell: Maybe two. Later, Ricky added the Tiny Band stuff. Ricky has produced so many massive songs so this was cool that he was willing to do a comedy album and also a comedy album that is extremely niche. But accessible, I hope? Anyone can listen to it and understand it. They might not like it but they’ll understand it.

Paste: I appreciate that as you get to the end of the album you acknowledge the fact that it is maybe for no one, and that it doesn’t burn your material either.

Wardell: My reps did not want me to use my material on this, and I think they thought I was going to burn an hour of material alone in a studio on an ASMR album. I used about five to ten minutes of TV set material. That’s the move.

Paste: We killed off the idea of the sketch comedy album a decade plus ago. No one does that anymore. Did you have anyone you were looking up to here?

Wardell: Neil Hamburger, Andy Kaufman, Norm MacDonald. I’ve never heard the Adam Sandler albums. My favorite comedy album ever is Neil Hamburger opening for Tenacious D at Madison Square Garden where he bombs and gets yelled at by everyone.

Paste: Do you feel like you’re attacking your audience or doing an antagonistic character?

Wardell: That’s probably up to other people to define. I don’t know man. I’m chilling.

Paste: That’s perhaps unfair in how I phrased it. I’m asking—look, an ASMR challenges people in a way that most comedy albums don’t. That’s feels like a choice and I’m asking what’s behind that choice?

Wardell: I don’t know.

Paste: You did the Bob Odenkirk album and then you got to meet Senator Al Franken…

Wardell: Oh my god. Killer pull, on your part. I remember that. He was a nice guy. They were friends from SNL and I was tagging along. I don’t know if Al Franken would remember me.

Paste: Do you have any feelings about Franken?

Wardell: Well. You know. Uh. That’s a rough—I think. It was—I don’t think he should have stepped down. I wish he didn’t have to step down. I wish that sacrifice didn’t have to be made because our President has done much worse things.

Paste: I haven’t had a chance to read it yet but I know Pitchfork has reviewed your album. What’s your response to what they wrote?

Wardell: Post Malone’s album got a 5.6 and that’s all number ones on that album. Pitchfork even reviewing it is hilarious to me. It having a Pitchfork review feels like I’ve won. I think the scores on Pitchfork are so arbitrary—scores versus the words are like, excuse me? There’s a bunch of nice shit and then “SIX!” and you’re like what? The new Kanye got a 7.1 which, that’s a good score, but the body of the review shits on it. You guys really do not give a shit. You’re down to say whatever the fuck.

Correction: Originally this piece quoted Wardell as saying that Ricky Reed’s label, Nice Life, was affiliated with Atlantic. That’s no longer the case, and we’ve updated the interview accordingly.

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Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.

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