Comedian Rory Albanese Performs
at Levity Live on Wed Nov 9 at 7:30p
You’ve probably heard Rory Albanese’s jokes before — albeit, coming out of Jon Stewart’s mouth. Albanese worked for The Daily Show from 1999, when he joined the just-revamped show as a production assistant, through 2013, when he was the show’s executive producer (with Stewart). More recently, you may have heard Albanese’s jokes coming out of his own mouth — albeit in quick segments and on panels. He appeared on Larry Wilmore’s short-lived but fervently-followed The Nightly Show as a correspondent and frequent panelist (he was also the show’s executive producer).
While Albanese, 39, was obviously disappointed when The Nightly Show was abruptly cancelled this past August, the cancellation also presented him with an opportunity: to forge a stand-up special of his own, free of conduits and tight time constraints; one in which he could talk about the hypocrisy of the political media, yes, but also lighter and more personal subjects like Uber and his relationship with his nephews.
I spoke with Albanese over the phone on Sunday night, ahead of a show he’ll be performing at Levity Live comedy club this Wednesday. In some ways, the show’s timing could not be more perfect: We’ll all need a laugh after Tuesday, and who better to deliver it than a Daily Show alum? Fear not though, Albanese promises that the show won’t be “too Hillary, Trump heavy.” Instead, like the rest of us, he’s looking forward to the end of the episode of Black Mirror that we’ve all been living in. “What’s kind of nice about this run of shows I have coming up after the election is, I think for everybody there’s a catharsis in it just being over,” he said. “There’s just exhaustion at this point, that it’s still here, and it’s all we’re talking about, and it’s all we have been talking about for over a year now. I think we all just need a break.”
The show is the day after the election. Have you planned out how it will be different if one candidate wins versus the other?
My show’s not so election focused. I think what’s striking to me more than anything is us just being in this situation where it’s so divided, but everyone in the country thinks they’re so right, that we’re past the point of being able to have a conversation. What I’ve noticed more than anything — and I had a conversation with Jon Stewart about this last week — is that people only think the thing they like is funny and people are seeking out what they agree with. People only want to hear news they agree with. That’s why Fox and MSNBC both have different news. Everybody wants stuff catered to what they already think.
The thing I do, which I learned at The Daily Show, from working with Jon Stewart for all those years, is I really hit both sides, I think pretty evenly. One of the things I’ve worked on in the hour is making sure that it’s clear that as a comedian I take pride in sitting in the back of the classroom and making fun of whoever’s teaching. That was a big lesson for me. I was at The Daily Show for so long, and everyone was like “You guys just hit Bush, make fun of Bush.” It’s like, “No, we’re just making fun of the guy who’s in charge.” And then Obama came in and we went right after him too. What’s been really fun for me is to go to places like Arizona or St. Louis or Atlanta and talk to people who have different political viewpoints and point out you thought that was funny, now here’s something about your side! And what I’ve realized is that at the end of the hour most people have the same reaction, which is “You know man, that was fair.” That’s been very fun.
On one side of this race you have a psychopath. But then it can be easy to overlook the faults of the other side. So what are some of the things that the left is getting wrong?
I couldn’t agree more. I think there’s a lot of faults on the other side. The odd thing that’s happening is that people are defending Hillary on things that really shouldn’t be defended. The email thing, for instance, is a big deal. That’s not nothing, you know? It’s easy for people to then compare it — but you can’t compare one person’s negative stuff to the other person’s. There’s a lot of garbage in this election. To me it should be an awakening for the country to say “We deserve better across the board.” We should not be in a situation as a first world country, a leader in the world, where we’re choosing between the lesser of two evils. Looking at the two and saying, “Well Hillary’s emails versus Trump’s hornet’s nest of hatred” — to me it’s really just a matter of Hillary’s email thing is terrible. And the fact that there’s a chance — or in fact it did occur — that Anthony Weiner has stuff on his laptop. That’s a mess. So when I hear people on the left going “Here’s why that’s okay” — no, it’s just not okay.
Now, at the end of the day one of these people is going to be elected president, and I do think Hillary has a better resume for the job… I really feel like the difference between her and Trump is that we put a lot of anger and hatred in this country under a carpet. We didn’t solve it, we buried it. And Trump came in and was like, “Check it out! I found a carpet! Look what’s underneath!” And everyone underneath was like, “Woohoo!” So I think he has shone a light on something we have buried in a corner and not really fixed. That’s what’s so scary to me about him. It’s not just him as a person. I think he’s a completely incompetent buffoon. I do. He’s the original Kim Kardashian. The only reason anybody knows about this guy is because he was rich and wanted to be famous, so he made himself famous. He’s a guy who was spending money trying to prove that President Obama wasn’t from here. Those are all — those aren’t values! That’s not a side in politics. Those are extreme conspiracy theory, asinine level things. That’s frightening to me, that a person would be on the side of proving that Obama is a Muslim from another country. That’s not only ignorant, it’s dangerous. And he was doing that stuff years ago.
As someone who travels a lot and, I would think, interacts with people in a variety of cities, how have you experienced Trump’s support and people’s feelings of disenfranchisement?
What I’ve found in traveling is that the reality of life versus the reality of Facebook and Twitter is that when you get boots on the ground and talk to people face to face, which I always do after every show, most people are actually very reasonable. Take an issue like gun control. I think most people feel like guns are okay to have if you want to protect your house, but there’s a difference between being able to own a gun and being able to walk into Wal-Mart on a Tuesday at 1:00p with an AK-47 over your back. One of those is okay. And one of those seems like you’re just pushing it to push it. And I always tell people that the only time when you would need an assault rifle in a Wal-Mart is on Black Friday, because that’s when you need to fight for a blu-ray player.
That’s been very heartwarming for me. Whether I’m in St. Louis or Philly, [people are decent]. Arizona was so nice and so friendly. I thought it was going to be like One big Mexican round-up! — but no, it was very nice, reasonable people. I think that’s the thing that’s nice about actually going to places and seeing people. It’s not what the media wants you to think it is. It’s actually very different. But rage kind of feeds content. Even on CNN, they put people on their panels who used to run Trump’s campaign, and obviously if you put these Alex Jones-level conspiracy people on a regular news network and put them against David Gergen, a brilliant political strategist, you’re going to just end up with people making noise at each other. Some of these guys say things that people used to laugh at because there would be people yelling in Times Square with tinfoil hats on their head. And now they’re backing a mainstream candidate for president. It’s weird.
Well you literally have Newt Gingrich in an interview saying we’re in two alternate realities.
Yeah, the other day there was a thing in [one of Hillary’s emails], and then “spirit cooking” started trending. And then there were all these people that seemed to be serious saying Hillary was a Satan worshiper. And look, if more than 50 percent of America really believes that Hillary Clinton worships Satan, then we deserve Trump to be our president. Because there’s a difference between saying there’s a little stink behind some of the things that the Clintons do and saying she worships Satan. To me, that weakens the argument.
I also don’t think it’s a good idea for people to be frowning upon this idea of education and knowledge and facts. Because if there’s no such thing as a fact anymore then we’re really in trouble. It’s really frightened me how Trump has created fiction and then said it enough times where people start to think it’s real. I remember Obama making a joke while he was running for president that he didn’t know how many states there are — “All 57 states…” — and then I talked to people who said, “How about Obama? He doesn’t even know how many states there are.” And I go, “Well if you really think that a Harvard educated soon-to-be-president really doesn’t know how many states there are, then, I don’t know, I can’t help you.” And I feel like Trump doubled down on that energy. Historically speaking, when countries get angry and then start believing in fiction, then you get into some trouble. This country’s not immune to that.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
You know why I’m optimistic? I wen on a USO tour a couple of years ago, and I was in Afghanistan, hanging out with the troops. I was there for about 10 days, I was with John Oliver and a couple of Daily Show writers, and I saw this group of men and women that are young and smart — think about the narrative you think of with a soldier: You think of these jarhead type people — no, these are sophisticated thinkers. People who sacrificed and volunteered to do something for this country. They believe in it. And I went, “We’re going to be okay.” There’s a whole wave of young, smart people getting back to this country, getting back to the workforce. So I feel good because I don’t really think that millennials are idiots. I really think the younger people in this country are smart and we’ll be okay. Ultimately at least. I don’t think that means we won’t have some bumps in the road. It’ll be interesting to see how either side handles the election. My hope is that whatever side wins, the other side will realize that they’re American and that Thanksgiving is coming up and that what they really want to do is eat and watch football. That’s my hope.
So you were at The Daily Show from the beginning, correct?
My story’s kind of funny. I always wanted to do stand-up. I got out of college at 22, and I’m from working people — I’m an Italian Jew — and so when I came out of college my brother and I were the first two to go away to college. My parents went to school but locally. So there was a lot of pressure to not let my family down. And to go from graduating to now I’m going to stand on stage and tell jokes, that wasn’t an option [laughs]. My dad wasn’t like “Yeah that’s a good idea!”, he was like “Get a job.” So what I did, luckily, was I got a job as a production assistant at The Daily Show, which was comedy-based but it had a paycheck.
I didn’t think that that job would last me 14 years. I honestly thought I would get to The Daily Show and six months in Jon Stewart would be like “Who is this kid? Let’s get him on the show!” I didn’t realize that you had to work. I wound up being there for 13 years, but for the first seven or eight I did every crappy job, I didn’t make any money. I was doing stand-up simultaneously, but not full-time because I had a job and I was working 12 hours a day. And I worked my way through that show. I wasn’t just a writer. I did every grunt job — lugging tapes, footage guy — and then ultimately through time, blood, sweat, and luck I grew with the show. And Jon became like a mentor to me. By the seventh or eighth year I was in a position of managing an area of the show, and then that turned into me running the show with Jon. Me and him were the two sole executive producers on the show in the last three years I was there.
At what point during that run did The Daily Show begin to feel special and hit its groove?
For me, what put the show on the radar was Bush versus Gore, that election. The idea that folks mattered all of a sudden blew people’s minds. Remember that hanging chad? That stuff was comedy gold, because nobody knew how to handle it. And then all of a sudden you end up in a position where there’s like 500 votes and these old men in Florida are holding up these dangling pieces of election punch card. So I think that people who were fans of comedy didn’t know where to turn or how to process it. And Jon was like, “I’ll help you process this.” And it really put the show on the map.
And here’s the thing about Jon Stewart. I stayed there as long as I did because as good as the show was, Jon was in his zone, man. When you see somebody at the peak of their game, that’s like Steve Jobs running Apple at the peak of Apple. And when you’re around that — and I’m about 15 years younger than Jon, and an aspiring comedy writer — you go, “Holy shit! I’m learning how to produce, write, and run a show from Steve Jobs,” so you don’t go anywhere. So the show, when I think about it now, which I often do, you need somebody with that much passion and that much brain power for it to be that good. And he was the guy. And for me, I was kind of growing and learning with him.
It really hit its groove in 2000. But I would say by like 2008, for me personally, was when it really became clear that we weren’t just a show that made fun of George Bush for a living. For me ’07 to ’13, having a big part in shaping the direction of the show and running it, that window of time for me was as good as it could get. And with the 2012 election — I was the executive producer, so of course I’ll say this — but I thought our convention shows were some of the best shows we ever did. And I felt very good that I was able to grow with the show, take that position of authority, and not let it fall to shit. At that point I felt like I’d done everything I could do and it was time to go.
Were there specific flabbergasting moments with Jon Stewart that viewers and people who didn’t work there didn’t see?
Every day. He would do this kind of stuff: He would do the show. We would have a script and a teleprompter. He’d be reading the script in real time and performing it for the audience, and then he’d get to a joke that we had written during the day that was in the final script of the show, and he’d realize that that audience wouldn’t be into it or that he no longer liked that joke, and he would change it on the fly — even though the words on the teleprompter were something different. He would deliver a new joke and kill with a new joke. And then later in the script there would be a call-back to the joke he changed on the fly and he would change the call back to make sure he wasn’t making a call-back to the joke he had skipped. To be reading prompter at pace and then as you’re reading it performing it, and then also processing what’s coming next and realizing that the thing you’re performing and reading isn’t going to work two minutes from now because of this thing you changed earlier, and then to change that to make sure it matches the other thing — to have all of that happen without anyone at home going “Is he reading?” is a phenomenal thing to watch. For some kinds of people this kind of thing is effortless and for Jon — he worked harder than anybody I ever met, but he was just born to do it.
That sort of super human ability is tough to learn. Were there other things you learned from Jon Stewart?
Many things. Just his day to day work ethic. And treating everyone at the show identically — which I think we had this in common and I would’ve done it without having met him. He talked to everybody. There was no difference to him if you were a PA or the EP. And he wasn’t an abusive leader. He wasn’t moody and wouldn’t pull Hollywood bullshit. Like, I always think about how when I first started working there a few people knew who Jon Stewart was and when I left everyone knew who he was. And in that fifteen year time he didn’t change at all — sometimes to a fault: I’d be like, “Dude, buy some new pants.” He just dressed the same, acted the same. He’s not motivated by like fast cars and loose women. He’s just a good guy. I always say he’s like the Bruce Springsteen of comedy. He’s a grounded, down to earth guy. Like, I learned from him that comedy’s not a competition. There’s no rule that says that if that guy’s good you’re not. It doesn’t work that way.
And then there was also learning how to write jokes. My jokes in my set are well written because I know how to write jokes: I was funny and then I learned from Jon Stewart.
Do you have any recommendations of young comics or unknown comics?
One of my favorite comics is Ryan Hamilton. There are few comics I know that are just fantastic, who are proof that being very famous and being very good don’t necessarily coincide. And Ryan Hamilton is one of them. Michelle Wolf — she’s on The Daily Show now so people are getting to know her, but she’s amazing! Dan Soder is another guy who I think is fantastic. The list goes on. And I can’t forget Mike Yard and Ricky Velez. Velez is 26 and is just a hell of a comic. And Yard, man, he’s been at it a long time and no one knows him. I brought him in to meet with Larry and people love that dude.
What would you tell someone trying to get into stand-up comedy today?
The thing that’s cool about stand-up comedy is that there are no rules. It’s not like getting a job at a law firm, where first year you sit in this office and do these kinds of jobs and then you’re trying to make partner by the third year or whatever. So it’s also what makes it scary as hell though, that there’s no track. It feels like the Wild West. And it feels really scary and chaotic. But the thing I always tell people, and what I’ve learned from Jon and Lewis Black and all these people, is that that feeling never goes away. So you have to accept the fact that if you’re going to do this there’s no net below you and that the floor is made out of balsa wood and that any minute you could fall through to your death. So you either need to embrace that you’ve chosen to live that way because it’s something you can’t live without, or you can’t do it. And if the goal of it is fame you’re in trouble. Trying to be famous and being a good comedian are not the same thing. The way to become a good comedian is just to do it. I subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory. It takes 10,000 hours to get good at something, which is ten years. And you can’t expect to be doing it for two or three years and be great at it. It takes a long time. You have to be on stage all the time.
And also, just don’t spend time looking at what other people are doing on the internet and comparing where you’re at to them. That’s a surefire way to drive yourself insane.
I’m still learning. I’m learning more than anything that all the stuff I did behind the scenes and all the stuff that I was a part of over the years that people enjoyed, that doesn’t translate necessarily to a lot of people coming to see me. I have to earn that a whole new time. I have to go “Okay, I’m 39 years old and I don’t care.” I believe in what I’m talking about and I’ve found that whenever I go to a comedy club, whether there’s 15 people or 1500 people, more people than not leave and go “When are you coming back so I can see you again?”