Q&A with Rory Albanese

The ticket line was out the door at the Comedy Connection Club in East Providence Saturday night, everyone eager to see the headlining performer: nine-time-Emmy-Award-Winning writer and comedian Rory Albanese. Formerly the executive writer and producer of “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, Albanese quit the television industry altogether in August to pursue his childhood dream of being a professional stand up comic. Among other appearances, he has starred in his own “Comedy Central Presents” half-hour special, been featured on John Oliver’s “New York Comedy Show” and hopes to be coming to Netflix soon.

The venue was textbook comedy club. Crowded, dimly lit, a stage with a single, spotlit microphone standing front and center. People filed in and took their seats, the bravest among them daring to sit front row (surely knowing their haircuts would be subject to scrutiny). Margaritas were sipped, nachos ordered. Murmurs of, “This guy is supposed to be funny, right?” echoed through the audience.

“Apparently he wrote for ‘The Daily Show.’

“With Jon Stewart?”

“Yeah. With Jon Stewart.”

“God I miss Jon Stewart.”

“Trevor Noah is okay.”

“Trevor Noah is AN IMBECILE.”

It quickly became apparent within minutes of eavesdropping that the audience was split into three distinct camps.

  1. People who thought Trevor Noah was okay.
  2. People who thought Trevor Noah was human garbage.
  3. Older couples who had never watched “The Daily Show,” but it’d been awhile since they’d gone out, and comedy clubs were supposed to be fun, right?

Despite their differences, the crowd still largely agreed that having masterminded Comedy Central’s longest running late-night program, Albanese had to at least be “kind of funny.”

The lights dimmed. Cell phones were silenced, heckling strictly prohibited. The host, a balding thirtysomething in a faded grey hoodie (the unofficial uniform of stand up hosts everywhere), warmed up the crowd with jokes about (you guessed it!) living with his parents.

Regardless, he was funny. Tragically self-deprecating, maybe, but still funny. By the time Rory Albanese took the stage, I’d laughed enough to excuse forgoing sit-ups for a week. 

Alas, 20 minutes (and a dozen cheesy tortilla chips) in, the man we’d all been waiting for grabbed the mic. Only pausing to take sips of what looked like iced tea, Albanese launched into an hour-long, full-throttle comedic rampage. Hampsters were analyzed, Jesus’s motives questioned and trips to the urologist recounted in gratuitous detail. Gleaning material from the absurdity within his own life, Albanese unabashedly called BS on the countless hypocrisies that exist within the strange, backwards world that is modern-day America.

My friends and I left with sore abdomens, an appreciation for solo artistry and an iron resolve to return to the Comedy Connection Club. The Uber was reasonable. The snacks? Fantastic.

After the show, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Rory to talk about his long career in comedy and what it means to tell jokes in an increasingly serious world.

Q: You started out at “The Daily Show” right out of college as a production assistant. How did you go about climbing the creative ranks?

A: Well I started as a PA, then I became the tape librarian because video tape was still alive then — it wasn’t all digital. All that footage on “The Daily Show?” It was on tapes. So I had to organize all those tapes and label them. Nobody wanted to do that. It wasn’t a sexy, cool Hollywood job, but I did it, and I did it well. And then I started working on some other little projects. I started producing Lewis Black’s segment, finding silly footage for Lewis Black to yell at. … And I was doing stand up. And Lewis Black is one of the best stand ups of all time. And he started thinking I was funny, so he started taking me on the road. So all of the sudden I was doing stand up with Lewis Black because I was finding footage for the guy. … Climbing the ladder isn’t necessarily everyone’s goal or path. But if you want to do it, you gotta be patient, and you gotta go home a lot at night and punch a wall, you know? It’s hard.

Q: “The Daily Show” was praised for pioneering political satire as a means for media critique and social commentary. There’s currently an article trending from “TVLine” speculating that if Jon Stewart hadn’t stepped down from “The Daily Show,” the election might have turned out differently. What do you think made Jon Stewart so influential in shaping public opinion, and how do you think Trevor Noah and his predecessor differ?

A: You know, I don’t think Jon would have changed the outcome of the election because it’s a TV show, and you know, people liked it, but, err, probably not. A lot of it is timing. Like, Trevor’s timing on hosting “The Daily Show” is a different timing than Jon had. Now there are a lot of shows trafficking in political commentary. … (Trevor Noah) is up against a very different challenge then Jon was at the time. He’s just been given a very different landscape to try to succeed in. And he also has the challenge of everyone loving the guy who did the job before him, so like, just because humans are assholes, they’re going to pre-not-like him because he’s not like the other guy. So, I think you gotta just give him a chance, he’s gotta find the way he wants to manage the show. It’s just a different time.

Q: You said in your set that your first love is stand up. Even when you were a big deal on “The Daily Show,” you always did stand up. What makes stand up so special for you?

A: To me, what’s so great about stand up is it’s like pure-form comedy. You write something, and you don’t have to wait for the returns on the Neilson ratings — you get it instantly. I say it out loud, and people either laugh or they don’t. The beauty of stand up is you don’t have to answer to anybody. It’s between you and the audience.

Q: What advice would you give to young people who want to break into television or other creative industries?

A: Here’s the trick I would give to anybody trying to do anything in television or in any field. Whatever job they give you, master it. If you have to be a PA or assistant, be the best PA or be the best assistant. … The Internet was still in it’s infancy when (“The Daily Show”) started. Playing video online wasn’t like, a thing. So the show grew with that technology, and that technology has changed the way that television operates now, and it’s also given the industry a completely new entry point. You gotta take the stuff you want to make, you gotta create it and show it to people. People always tell me, you know, ‘Oh I want to shoot stuff. Oh I want to direct stuff.’ Well, shoot stuff and direct stuff. You’ve got a phone.

Q: A lot of comedians have stopped performing at college campuses because of the heightened sensitivity that has arisen with the prevalence of PC culture. Do you think the country has, to some degree, lost it’s sense of humor? Would you perform at a school like Brown University?

A: No. I wouldn’t. And I think it’s a big problem that your generation is that sensitive. And I think the bigger problem is, to groan and boo at people who are telling you ideas and then call yourself liberal is silly. If you can’t laugh at your own self, and you can’t see the absurdity in the things you believe in, then we’re lost here. And I think it’s a bigger problem comedians like Chris Rock not wanting to go to college campuses. Because that’s a brilliant mind. That’s a philosopher of our time. And now you don’t get to hear what he has to say because you’re gonna groan at him? That’s sad.

Q: Donald Trump was elected last Tuesday. Like him or dislike him, he’s a showman, and the next four years are going to be a circus of fodder for comedy. With all of the drastic polarization in the country right now, do you think laughter will help bridge the gap?

A: I hope so. The goal for stand up for me is I say, my goal is to come here, some guy had a shitty day at work, and he’s tired and he’s in a fight with his wife or whatever, and I just want to make him laugh. That’s it. For an hour of your night, you forgot about all your stuff, and I made you laugh. That’s my goal. I’m not trying to bridge gaps or anything like that. But I think it’s important to have voices out there mocking this stuff. I think it’s important that people don’t go into a spiral because this guy won. I think that it’s important that comedians on both sides make jokes about him. And they will. They would have made jokes about Hillary, too. You just make fun of the people in charge. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge, your job as a comedian is to sit in the back, not really take a side and hit everybody with some spit balls.

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