Feeling Kind of Anxious: Joe List on Comedy and Anxiety

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Writing comedy from truth and anxiety is hard to do well, but for Joe List, working through what ailed him onstage has finally paid off. For a clinically anxious guy, List has a great ability to find humor in it.

“I went to a therapist because I kept having panic attacks. The therapist told me that a panic attack is a ‘fight or flight phenomenon.’ That’s when your body prepares to fight or flee from whatever you’re afraid of. But I get panic attacks when I’m talking to girls so it’s a little awkward. After the show some girl will be like ‘you were really funny tonight,’ and I’m like, “I might have to fight this bitch,” he jokes on his half-hour special on Comedy Central, airing this weekend.

List has been doing stand-up for fifteen years, but it’s all come together over the last two years have been the best for him. He was a memorably funny semifinalist on this year’s Last Comic Standing, and now he’s making his Comedy Central half-hour debut. List co-hosts a weekly podcast with Mark Normand called Tuesdays with Stories; it’s become so popular that Sirius is giving the boys airtime to test out the show for their subscribers. We recently talkd to List talked about grappling his anxiety to find what’s funny about it, and why it’s easier to follow Chris Rock.

Paste: Who would you say influenced you, comedically?

Joe List: George Carlin. I knew Carlin’s special by heart as a kid. I didn’t know half the things he was talking about. He did a blowjob bit, and I had no idea what a blowjob was.
And then there was Seinfeld—and then the TV show Seinfeld, which was the biggest influence in my life. Watching that as a kid I saw stand-up comedy as a job. And I wanted to have a wacky neighbor and a great apartment in NYC. That was a huge inspiration. And then the humor of Seinfeld bleeds into everything I do onstage and on my podcast as well.

Paste: Do you have a dream to make a sitcom?

JL: Not too much a dream but more of it would be nice to have a show and sell a show.
I always wanted to be fictional Jerry Seinfeld—do comedy and have funny friends and a sweet apartment in New York—and I am getting there. But it would be nice to have a show. But it just is not as big of a dream as having an hour comedy special for me.

Paste: You do have a show that is popular, Tuesdays With Stories. How has that evolved?

JL: My podcast with Mark Normand is very much a tribute to Seinfeld—it’s a very George and Jerry kind of relationship. The podcast is doing well. We are doing a month trial with Sirius and hopefully we will get picked up. It’s going great so far!

Paste: That’s excellent. I don’t mean to be a downer but I want to talk to you about anxiety. It seems you’ve made your anxiety work for you. You make anxiety feel cozy. How did you manage to work through your anxiety to create material you were satisfied with?

JL: It’s weird because I have been riddled with anxiety and panic disorders my whole life but onstage is where I am the most comfortable. I think it is a control issue. I know what I am doing, I know what I am saying and I feel like I have confidence there. I have been doing comedy for fifteen years now and have spent so much time onstage now—it’s definitely the least amount of anxiety when it is going well. People who try to call me out and say, “You don’t seem anxious up there!” they don’t understand. I am anxious offstage, talking to them. I have a lot more anxiety offstage. I do yoga, and I got sober and I’m in a good relationship. I am having some success. So my anxiety has gone done but I have enough experience with it to write about it because I was riddled with it for so long.

Paste: I am curious if anxiety fuels creativity or does it work the same way depression often does? It’s almost always impossible to create when you’re depressed. Has anxiety every triggered a good joke for you?

JL: I can’t write jokes when I am anxious. While I am having a panic attack I am not thinking of jokes, but after I can find what is funny. I have a panic attack joke in my special which came from having anxiety, the idea of fight or flight.

Paste: Do you feel like stand-up in particular helped you through your anxiety?

JL: Definitely. It has gotten me through every problem I have ever had. It made it easier to get through. It’s the ultimate therapy—to make pain into comedy is a wonderful tool, even when I was a kid.

Paste: You’ve seen comedy change, you’ve been at it for 15 years. What do you make of this so-called comedy boom?

JL: There are more shows and clubs available to do. I think it has a lot to do with podcasting—Maron brought people into stand-up. There are a lot more people doing stand-up, which makes it harder but in a lot of ways it makes really good comics stronger because the best of the best keep getting better. There is a lot more shit but it raises the bar.

Paste: Would you rather follow a comic you admire onstage?

JL: Yes. Definitely. Ultimately shows are better when you are following a good act. Following Chris Rock is good because the crowd is so high and happy.

Paste: Do you remember your first spot?

JL: Chops Lounge in Boston, inside a Howard Johnson Hotel. It was an open mic and to this day it was the truest open-mic I have ever seen. Everyone went on, homeless people, poets, drug-addicts and comics too. I think I did four minutes. The jokes were terrible, and the guy running it, Larry Lee Lewis said, “Hey, you’re good” and handed me his card. I remember thinking I was in show business and had made it.

I didn’t tell any of my friends I was doing comedy. I would say “I can’t hang out” on X day.

Paste: Moonlighting secretly as a comic and then doing what else?

JL: Nothing. I was living at my parents house. I bartended. But I lived at home, made $100 a week.

Paste: When were you able to move to New York?

JL: In 2007, I was getting stand-up work. I was working at Sears and I saved up some money. I knew I had to do stand-up so I moved with not much of a plan with two of my buddies who were comics in Boston, Ira Proctor and Dan Bulger. We had a three-bedroom apartment in Queens.

Paste: So now you are getting married and you have a special. What is next?

JL: I think an audience. And to perform for that audience. People who come to see me, not just comedy. I’d like to have an hour special. I want my podcast to grow. I am proud of that.

Paste: How would you like someone to describe a Joe List show?

JL: Funny is number one. I would like to say it is personal. That’s all I really want to be.

Comedy Central’s The Half Hour with Joe List airs tonight at midnight.

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