This week Comedy Dynamics released Henry Rollins’ Keep Talking, Pal on a variety of streaming and digital platforms, including iTunes. It’s billed as a stand-up special, which is a bit surprising—not just because of the angsty tough guy rep Rollins earned as the frontman for Black Flag and Rollins Band, but because he’s been performing spoken word shows for over 30 years without ever calling it stand-up. When I first heard of Keep Talking, Pal, I immediately wondered how it was different from his decades of spoken word performances.
Rollins doesn’t hesitate to answer me when I ask him that. “It’s not,” he says. Mystery solved.
Keep Talking, Pal is an hour of Rollins speaking directly to the crowd in a way he’s been doing since the mid ‘80s. He shares stories of his life and career, frequently departing on tangents and asides, with political comments peppered throughout. It’s more focused on laughs than his spoken word usually is—“it’s more the funnier material of that year’s tour,” he says of the material he chose for the special—but anybody who’s seen or heard Rollins talk before will recognize it as his work. It’s not quite stand-up, as Rollins immediately admits, but it’s not too far removed from it.
When asked how he feels about Keep Talking, Pal being marketed as stand-up by both Showtime and Comedy Dynamics, the always-gregarious Rollins again doesn’t pause before snapping into an answer. “I’ll take it,” he says. “I’ll take it, if it gets somebody’s eyeballs on what I’m doing.
“If you were to see me tonight in a theater somewhere in the world, a lot of it would be like [the special],” he adds. “But it’d be mixed in with some stuff that’s not necessarily trying to make you laugh. [This] show is specifically targeted with the more humorous material. I just left out the other hour, the stuff that was a bit more… otherwise. It’s the truth but not the whole truth.”
Despite self-consciously avoiding the comedy tag in the past, Rollins isn’t a stranger to it. He’s long used humor in his spoken word shows, but usually to lighten a mood that can otherwise get very heavy. “The way I register information quite often the funny parts occur to me,” he says. “However I’ve never wanted to call it comedy because I talk about stuff like when you’re in South Sudan, pulling dead soldiers out of the soil—not funny!—so I need the room to talk about that stuff without some guy yelling at me ‘hey you’re not making me laugh every seven seconds, what are you doing in this club.’ So I would never dare call myself a comedian.”
Here’s how it came together. A few years ago Rollins’ agent told him Showtime was interested in filming one of his spoken word sets to air on the premium network. A network executive had seen Rollins do a set at a festival, one that was shorter than his typical spoken word show, and wanted to basically put what they had seen straight on the air. So they shot two performances that were both a little bit over an hour, and as typical with stand-up specials, edited the two together into the best possible hour-long. And today, six months later, Comedy Dynamics has released it for wider consumption.
Still, he staunchly avoids calling himself a comedian. Part of it is respect for true professionals and the years of hard work it takes to master stand-up, but part of it is his own anxiety over that kind of performance. “I’m around comedians,” he explains. “I see that kind of pressure. I wouldn’t want it for all the money in the world. Like if you put me in a comedy club and said go, I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d have to hope that my ‘thing,’ whatever that is, would get me through.”
Keep Talking, Pal might not be true stand-up, per se, but it’s obvious that Rollins could have succeeded if he had pursued a career in comedy. His timing might not be that of a world-class comic—if you’ve heard Rollins talk before, you know that his words flow out in torrents, which is good for story-telling (and interviews) but not always optimal for landing a punchline—but between his strong presence and his impatience for society’s bullshit, he’s got the “speaking truth to power” part down pat.
Rollins might self-consciously avoid the “comedian” tag, but he isn’t entirely modest about his comedic instincts. “This is going to sound really lame,” he says, “but it comes naturally to me. I’m not saying I’m a natural comic, but comedic beats, that’s a lot of time how I see life. So I’m not trying to be funny but it ends up going there pretty often, and more often the older I get. And that very well could be—and you’ll see when you turn 60—you start to let go of some things. Where you’re not necessarily as self-absorbed or precious about things. Once your hair goes and everything hurts, you’re like, okay, screw it. And so you can loosen up a little. I think that has been part of my particular aging process, where if I see a bad review of something of mine when I was 20 I’d need to come over there and straighten you out, now, honestly, I laugh my ass off.”
Keep Talking, Pal is available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and elsewhere.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He also writes about music, travel, food, theme parks and more. He’s on Twitter at @grmartin.