Alums who do cool things: Stand-up comedian Max Silvestri ’05

One of Max Silvestri‘s ’05 funniest stand-up bits involves him watching a very old man moving through a crowded bar to ask the bartender for five nickels in exchange for a quarter. Silvestri is a seasoned stand-up comedian, opening for SNL writer John Mulaney and hosting “Big Terrific,” a weekly comedy show in Brooklyn. Silvestri was recently published in GQ’s January issue, and he will be co-hosting a show on A&E’s new channel, FYI, called The Feed, which is described in a press release as “part road show, part buddy comedy, part talk show.” Silvestri sat down with BlogDH to talk about his time at Brown, his stand-up, and being part of the comedy community.

BlogDH: What year did you graduate, and what did you concentrate in?

Max Silvestri: I graduated in 2005. I majored in Art: Semiotics, which I think somebody told me isn’t technically a major anymore. It was interdisciplinary between modern culture and media and visual arts. I just took it so I could take lots of video production classes. I wasn’t a big theory head or a big visual arts guy. I just liked shooting videos.

BlogDH: Were you involved in the comedy scene while you were here? Did you do Brown Stand Up?

MS: I wasn’t really involved with Brown Stand Up. As soon as I got to school, I knew I wanted to do a lot of comedy, so I got into IMPROVidence immediately. I got into a sketch group, which at the time was called “Beasts of Funny.” It doesn’t exist anymore. I also got involved with the Brown JUG.

At the time, IMPROVidence was a really big deal on campus, and it was for four years. We had shows every week and always at capacity. I met some of the best friends of my life through IMPROVidence who were very important to me in starting comedy.

I ended up starting to do stand-up, but I did it in Boston like at clubs. I never did it really with a group on campus. I did a couple of shows on campus in the Underground with a bunch of comics that I knew from Boston and a Brown alum, like Jordan Carlos.

BlogDH: What made you decide to go the stand-up route rather than improv?

MS: I really enjoyed doing improv in college. There is so much training of becoming a performer, being comfortable with my voice on stage. I don’t think I would have started stand-up had I not done already done improv where I was comfortable walking on stage and having an audience.

I guess I have never really liked watching improv, to be perfectly honest. Obviously amazing actors and writers have come out of it, and as a writing tool, there’s nothing more compelling. But I didn’t grow up watching hour long improv specials on TV, I watched stand-up specials. I’m an only child, so it’s my own lack of teamwork. My favorite of the improv shows were jokes that I made, and that was my own problem.

My stand-up has always been very improv-y. I don’t write bits down first. Things usually just come out of riffs on stage, and doing them a million different ways, and they’re always changing. Improv is in my bones, but as a performer, I’ve always liked just walking on stage and just having it be on my shoulders.

BlogDH: I know you’ve opened for John Mulaney, and then you were on Pete Holmes’ show “You Made It Weird.” What’s some of the best advice you’ve received from a fellow comedian?

MS: The best advice that I probably ever got was maybe not delivered just to me. But I think I read Eugene Mirman in an interview say something like “Just don’t quit.” Someone I think was asking Eugene (I think this was a couple of years ago, and I’m probably misremembering it) that there was a whole group of guys you came up with like Jon Benjamin, Leo Allen, and Kristen Schaal and you’re all doing so well. So, what is it about you guys? So he said, sort of tongue firmly planted in cheek, “We didn’t stop.” It will work out in its own way. You will get better if you keep doing it. I think that was really important to know – the idea of a timetable. It’s always very silly. Comparing yourself to anyone else’s past is pointless. While Brown is pretty liberal, kids are still overachievers there and still really want success in whatever field they’re in. I think there’s any idea that if I don’t get an internship here, I’ll never get a job there. And I’ve got to do this by the time I’m 23 because so-and-so did that when he was 23. It just doesn’t work like that, and it’s not something to stress about.

That’s something I learned slowly. There were a lot of young people who got more successful quicker and differently. It was like “Why didn’t I do what they did? Why don’t I have that?” and I didn’t want that. There’s no point in being nervous about it because you’ll get what you get when you’re ready for it.

Don’t quit, and do whatever. That’s my favorite advice, I would say.

BlogDH: Can you talk a little bit about the comedy community? 

MS: To be honest, I don’t know if I would have stuck with comedy had I not had the community I formed in New York. I was very lucky to have formed the one I did.

One of the great things about the improv communities in New York and L.A. is that they’re really communities with built-in structures and hubs. You take classes, and get put in groups, and you’re at the theatre and then everyone goes to get drinks at this bar after. It’s a built-in system of people who often share your point of view, and I think that can be a little harder with stand-up because that’s more spread out. Stand-up can range from fifty year olds at really dirty clubs to one-liner touring comics to strange people who put on chicken costumes and do characters downtown.

When I first got to New York, because of people I already knew and looked up to from comedy, the center of New York alternative comedy at the time was this little club/movie rental place/bar/theatre called Rafifi. It’s named after this French movie. There were all these shows going on every week like weekly alt shows. Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale had a show every Wednesday. Nick Kroll had a show every Thursday with Jessi Klein and then John Mulaney. I sort of met this group of young comics that remain my best friends, like Jenny Slate and Gabe Liedman and Joe Mande and Noah Garfinkel. It was really tight group of people that all were doing slightly different things. Joe is a bit more stand-up, Noah is a bit more of a writer, Gabe Liedman was like doing sketch stuff with Jenny, and Jenny wanted to be an actress.

We all liked comedy and had similar tastes, but all had our own interests. We all felt comfortable trying a lot of different things. All of us together made it feel very safe. Even if you weren’t doing well, you were like “Well, I know that my taste will all pan out because these people are all doing well, and we’re similar.” It’s very encouraging to have that community. Personally, it makes me less anxious.

Gabe Liedman is now a writer on Brooklyn 99 and The Kroll Show and Jenny is an actress now. We hosted a show together for five years and after hanging out together for two or three. Our voices, I think, developed together. We’re all so similar and clicked so intensely. It made us more confident in what we find funny. That was essential.

BlogDH: I know you mentioned that your sets are improvised a little bit. How do you know something will become part of your material?

MS: Occasionally things happen onstage. I host a weekly show, and I’ll tell a story that happened to me that I think is compelling that maybe I don’t have a funny ending to yet. But on stage, you find it. You find it with the audience’s reactions. So, this line they all respond to, so now I’ve got a bit of a framework.

My style of stand up is that I tell stories that are grounded in my life or reality but have a lot of tangents and a lot of weird fast asides. It’s a nice style to write in because I can have a pretty funny story, but the real fun is running off the path however my brain works. My style allows me to follow the path however far I want to go to. It gives me a lot of freedom to make myself laugh and surprise myself as much as possible, which I think makes it fresher and funnier.

Anything that happens to me that I think is funny or someone else says “That’s crazy that that happened,” is enough to be a germ of something. I’ll usually write one word in my notebook and then go onstage and start talking about it with no plan. I never rehearse a line or figure out what the ending is. I find that when I plan it, it’s never how I want it to go. Finding it onstage naturally is the best for me.

BlogDH: Talking about finding your voice, what do you think the importance is of social I0000niWqc0zlljcmedia to comedians? 

MS: Honestly, from a promotional stand point, they’re great. People, your potential audiences, have a lot more time. It’s much easier to waste time on Twitter and with podcasts than to go to a show all the time and see new people. It’s not a big commitment to download an episode of Pete Holmes’ podcast with someone you’ve never heard of rather than going to some show in a club in your town. It’s nice to build up an audience.

Comics are lucky with those formats in that my voice on stage is the same, ideally, as my comedic voice across all the platforms. There are certainly some differences. I’m not a one-liner comedian on Twitter. I don’t try to write absurd little stand-alone pieces. They tend to be somewhat biographical. Someone could really get to know me, I think, through a mixture of stand-up, a mixture of Twitter, a mixture of my writing online, a mixture of captions on Instagram. If you like me in one, I think you’d like me in another. Anywhere that’s a platform that people can hop over and follow along with you is great. It’s nice to be comfortable in your voice across those different outlets.

Comedy is all about voice. I think another great piece of advice I once heard was Patton Oswalt once said that he was pretty good seven or eight years he did stand-up before he realized it was all garbage and wasn’t really honest. I think all comics are on a constant, lifelong search to find that real voice. What is it about them inside that is slightly different than everybody else? How do you portray that onstage in a natural way where the things you’re saying only you could say and make total sense? It’s almost like creating a character, but a real character.

Do you watch True Detective?

BlogDH: I don’t. It’s on my list of shows to binge watch this summer.

MS: Well, you should watch it, it’s great. There’s a line, and I promise I’m not spoiling anything. Matthew McConaughey and Harrelson have an exchange about something like “It takes nearly a whole lifetime to get good at something.” and Woody Harrelson says “Or longer.” Matthew McConaughey says “You have to be careful at what you get good at.”

It takes forever to get good at one thing. You have to be comfortable with idea that you’re always growing.

BlogDH: Looking at your new show The Feed, what are you most excited for?

MS: I’m very excited to have a television show. The most exciting part of it right now is that I get to film and be on a TV show being myself. It’s going to be very fun.

BlogDH: You mentioned you host a show now, can you talk a bit about that? 

MS: I host a show now, and it’s been going for six years. It’s called “Big Terrific,” which is the weekly show I started with Jenny Slate and Gabe Liedman in Brooklyn. It was like one of the first weekly Brooklyn live comedy shows. They moved to LA.., but I still do it every week. We have different guests each week, and I host it. Occasionally Gabe and Jenny and I do it on the road, like we’ve done it in L.A., San Francisco, and Portland. The show is really about the three of us, but I still host a version of it in New York on Wednesday nights.

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