Comedian Sean Donnelly is on the road from New York City, at his hotel room in Montreal, getting ready for a weekend at The Comedy Nest. Donnelly is staying in room 911, which is kind of funny because everything is seemingly going great for him. His Comedy Central half-hour just debuted and his first album, Manual Labor Face, came out last month.
“I’ve never felt more like an American than when I come here. When I was in line to check in to the hotel, the woman before me walks up and the woman behind the desk says ‘bonjour!’ I thought, that is so nice! Then I walk up and the same woman says, ‘hello.’ I don’t have a bonjour look to me.”
Donnelly has appeared on Letterman, Last Comic Standing and co-hosts the podcast “My Dumb Friends” with fellow comedian Dan St. Germain. We talked about his career so far, the importance of the Comedy Cellar and what the so-called “comedy boom” means for the scene.
Paste: Where do you like to write and grow your material?
Sean Donnelly: New York. I am home enough so the material I am coming up with is stuff that is going on every day,
Paste: Is there one joke on your album that you had to test out a bunch of different crowds?
SD: I have a recent joke about being a gay bear and how I wish I were a gay bear because it’s badass. I think it’s really funny and it does well but when I go to places where it’s an issue—either the people are homophobic or people who are aggressive and think you are going to be homophobic with the next line out of your mouth. It’s a pro-gay joke!
Paste: How long have you been working through the jokes on your album?
SD: The album I’ve been working on for six years. It’s my first album. It’s exciting and now I want to start from scratch and step it up a notch and keep getting better.
Paste: I think that is a good attitude. I always feel sensitive about asking comics about “what is next” because I know how hard it is to hone good material for an album.
SD: Yeah, I just want to write as much as I can and get funnier. Comics always want to get better.
Paste I loved your promo for the special with all your friends from the Comedy Cellar. Todd Barry shrugging you off. Dan Naturman offering you $10 when you asked if he wanted to buy your album, but not for the album. Tell me about your connection to the Comedy Cellar. When did you first hear about the Comedy Cellar?
SD: I heard about it from Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn. In the early twenties I would go to the Cellar and when I got into comedy, the Cellar was the place to go. I got passed ten years in. I had a recommendation from Kevin Brennan. Kevin saw me and liked me and recommended me to Estee, I auditioned and it went well. When that happened that was a life goal. It was like Christmas! It is the number one comedy club in the world. I have been working there for less a year and the warmth from the club is so nice, it makes you feel like you are part of a comedy family.
Paste: Who were you inspired by when you started doing stand-up?
SD: Brian Regan and Jim Gaffigan. I was also a big Tough Crowd fan, so Patrice O’Neal, Jim Norton, Colin Quinn and those guys I looked up to. Dave Attell—Skanks for the Memories, I’ve probably listened 400 times, probably one of the greatest comedy albums of all time. And now I know some of these guys and it blows my mind. I work with them a bunch. It’s such a strange feeling to think about how I felt about them, not even ten years ago.
Paste: Do you think it is a good time for a comedy boom?
SD: I think it is a great time but I get nervous sometimes when people use the term “comedy boom.” I think it refers to an online boom, because there is a lot of content and a lot of comics and a lot of stuff online. I get nervous because there is such access.
Back in the day the boom was more of a nightlife thing but now I think people are relating on a more personal level to comedy and hopefully they will stick with it for their life and stay a fan.
Paste: How about social media? Has it helped you? Can a working comic without being bothered with Twitter?
SD:I think it is important—using 140-characters to create a reaction is a great skill but it is not stand-up. It’s weird when you have celebrities that are just based off social media who are just famous for social media and they end up being called comics. ”I have 400,000 Twitter followers, I’m a famous stand-up comic now!” But it is very different than being a stand-up comic. So I think that can be dangerous. But a comic needs some kind of presence on there. You are always poking your head up like, “Hey I am here, hey I am here!” because of the landscape you can be forgotten about very quickly. But if you want to keep working, you can do it on your own terms. When you are in a room and you have to make a room of physical people laugh and you can’t—there is a problem. It is all about context and Twitter is its own.