Rob Delaney had been a comedian for about six years when he created a Twitter account, but tweeting opened up a new world for him. Within two years, he was doing comedy full time, and now, four years later, he’s amassed more than 400,000 followers, fans who sell out his stand-up gigs around the country and voted him the Funniest Person On Twitter, at least according to the Comedy Awards, hosted by Comedy Central last month. Delaney’s tweets often read like dispatches from a deranged, disembodied id, but one-on-one, he’s thoughtful and sincere, even serious. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a performer’s persona—and a Twitter one at that—doesn’t completely reflect the person behind it, but Delaney’s long road to comedy might. A former Internet advertising executive (he sold some of the first ads on MySpace), Delaney didn’t devote his life to comedy until a serious car accident—caused by his own alcoholism—forced him to re-evaluate his priorities, get sober, and pursue his dreams. To coincide with the launch of The A.V. Club’s new comedy channel, we wanted to talk to Delaney about coming to comedy later in life, the difference between his tweets and his act, and his “’50s dad gravitas.”
The A.V. Club: Whenever you’re interviewed, people seem surprised because you’re normal or thoughtful, but your Twitter feed tends to be so unhinged. Do you get “you seem so normal” a lot in person?
Rob Delaney: Yes, but I think people become at ease with it fairly quickly, if they’re interacting with me. They realize I’m a reasonably normal person, or at least acting like one.
AVC: How does that work with their expectations for when they come see you at a comedy club? How much overlap is there between your Twitter feed and the type of stuff you do in your act?
RD: Well, when you see me live, you’re seeing me do something I’ve done a lot longer than I’ve been on Twitter, just stand-up. While I’m talking about my own life and feelings and foibles and fears—I’m not reinventing the wheel—it’s an understandable format in the tradition of many other stand-up comics. I think there’s a thing at first where I look like I could be a cop or a lawyer or a weatherman—I have a ’50s dad gravitas. So when I do start saying things that are kind of bananas, it’s a bit shocking at first, but if I’m onstage for over an hour, you recalibrate pretty quickly. At that point, I can only rely on the strength of my material, and what I’m saying, doing, and conveying.
Audiences are very smart, and they figure out the dynamic very quickly—probably in seconds, to be honest. At that point, it’s up to me to deliver the best stand-up comedy show I can, and they seem to be happy when and if I do that. So it’s not a gimmick that I look the way that I do and act in a way that at first might seem incongruous. It is who I truly am, and people get over any surprise pretty quickly.
AVC: You came to comedy relatively late, in your mid-20s. You’ve been doing it for 10 years, but some comedians start when they’re 16 or 17.
RD: Yeah, I certainly didn’t. I performed, I acted, and I sang, so I was onstage from a very early age. But 10 years ago, I was in a car accident, and when I got better, I was like, “I only want to do comedy.” I had been seeing the Upright Citizens Brigade do their acts every week in New York, and that really changed what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be, everything. I had always loved comedy, and acted out Steve Martin and Bill Cosby albums with my sister for my parents on road trips and stuff, and I loved to laugh and make people laugh. I was a big consumer of comedy, but once I started to see it live with any regularity and realized “Oh my God, this is a thing I could do,” that changed everything.
AVC: You’ve talked quite a bit about your alcohol problem on podcasts like The Mental Illness Happy Hour and Sklarbro Country. When you stopped drinking, did you find it necessary to channel that energy into something else? Was that where your drive for comedy went?
RD: I think so. I mean, I’m generally happy most of the time, but I still exhibit behavioral traits of an alcoholic or an addict. I disappear into projects to the neglect of physical health and things like that. I’m obsessive and willful, and I like to get high. But now it’s on jokes, it’s on parenting, it’s on exercise. I still am a weirdo, but in a different way, and in a way that if any of the weirdo things I do now kill me, they will do it a lot slower than a case of beer.
With alcoholism and depression, I don’t get a pass in anything I do. It’s good, but if I don’t eat well, I feel awful, and if I don’t sleep enough, I feel awful. If I don’t exercise regularly, I’m not like, “Yeah I don’t feel so good,” I feel awful. If I don’t structure my life in such a way that I’m a well-tuned instrument, my capacity to get incredibly incapacitated with total misery is always so close. I’m not trying to be a poster child for anything. It could be a sign of unbelievable frailty or weakness or unfitness for human life. I don’t know, but I know that I have to have all of my mental and physical ducks in a row, or I can quickly become a useless disaster.
AVC: What are the advantages of coming to comedy later? Are there any?
RD: Well, for one, I think you’ll be funnier—just because you’ve lived more life. You’ve had more bad things happen, you’ve lost things you cared about, you’ve made mistakes and bad decisions, you’ve caused yourself a lot of pain. Maybe you’ve figured out one or two ways to do less of that, so you can offer something of value to an audience.
Comedians who are 22 years old can certainly be funny and clever, and be capable of telling jokes—but are they talking about their favorite TV shows, or a particular brand of shampoo? Whereas when you see someone who’s 42, and they’re talking about how much their adolescent son hates them, and is like, “We were fighting, and my son knocked over my television, and it broke my foot, and then he gave me a ride to the hospital, and he’s not allowed to drive, but I couldn’t, because my ankle is broken, and then we stopped and we shared a cigarette.” You know, there’s just more recipe for laughs—you’ve had more time to collect ingredients, and there’s more of life’s tapestry that’s been woven.
AVC: Do you think there are any disadvantages?
RD: I really don’t, because the odds against success in comedy, and in most things that are difficult to achieve, or are “dream careers,” are so severe, so stacked against you, that any asset you can have, you just have to snort up and internalize and use. Having life under your belt and a work ethic that you have honed—maybe you were lazy until you were 27, and then you looked around and realized, “Holy shit, if I don’t get my act together and produce dependably, then life will definitely pass me by.” You know the value of a dollar.
Four years ago, when I started tweeting, people would say, “How do you feel about giving away material for free?” I said, “Well, no one will pay me for it, and I’ve got to get it out there.” So I would constantly churn out jokes saying, “Hey, look at me, I have a work ethic. Please, please, please world, hire me so I can afford pants, and cheese, and heat.” That was another thing, being married—my wife was not yet pregnant, but I didn’t have a choice but to succeed. It was either that or the unthinkable, a fate that I associate with death, which is not doing comedy. That was the other choice, so I just had to work furiously to get out there, with no promise of success. When I thought about other careers, I thought about death. I know that might sound morbid and not funny at all, but it is truly how I felt.
AVC: Well, there’s a certain sort of soul-death involved if you’re a creative person stuck in a cube farm. Some people can adapt, but for others it can be like death.
RD: Another asset for me was that I did do that for years, so I knew that was unsustainable for me. I had evidence, I had done fieldwork. I had been on the other side and realized “Oh, this will not work and cannot work.”
AVC: What was your material like when you first started?
RD: I think like a lot of comedians when they’re first starting, it was more esoteric and more concept-based. You know, quirky things like trying to play tricks on the audience, or exploration of existing songs. I remember I would deconstruct Christmas songs and stuff, which is just such a beginner thing to do. Or I would read email correspondence or something—isn’t that awful, when you’re at a show and people do that? It’s hiding. That can be like a sauce or a spice, if you’re hosting a show and you can bring out “look at this crazy email I got,” but if you trot that out when you’re doing an hour, that’s like a criminal offense.
AVC: How has it changed over the years?
RD: Now I just go out and talk about what I’m thinking and feeling. I’m a dad now and a husband. I’ve lived a little bit of life, so I’m more inclined to try to talk about problems, fears, concerns—visceral stuff I hope everyone can relate to, so that we can all commune together and point at life’s vicissitudes and have a laugh.
AVC: So it’s more personal now?
RD: Oh yeah. That’s another thing: People will ask me—and I’m very grateful that Twitter exists and has allowed me to go out and sell tickets and stuff, Twitter is fantastic—but people will write me and say, “So are you just going to read tweets onstage?” The answer to that is no, because I’m going to talk about things I think are of greater value, and you’re going to see a cohesive person onstage, a unified human being talking about things that make sense, and me being me for better or worse and talking about my life. My stand-up is far more rooted in reality than my Twitter.
AVC: You tweeted a few months ago about a bad gig you had, that some comics you respected saw. You said it was still terrifying to you, even after time had passed. Some people don’t realize you can do this for a long time and still feel gutted after a bad show.
RD: Yes. I did this show where the comics were asked to wear suits and ties, and one reason—it’s a smaller reason, but it’s a benefit I really enjoy—I do comedy is so I don’t have to wear a suit and tie. I hate wearing suits and ties. I viscerally hate dressing up, and I know some people who do that. I know some people prefer to do their comedy that way, and that is absolutely fine and fantastic. I enjoy comedians who do do that, but for me, I won’t wear that stuff.
I resented that I was asked to wear a suit and tie, so I started my set kind of pouty and feeling sorry for myself, and I’m only admitting that because it could probably be of use to another comedian—that was very wrong of me. I should relish any opportunity to perform and respect the fact that I was asked to do the show, that there were people who came to see it. So I started off my set from a sense of self-pity. If there’s a commandment for comedy, that has got to be at the top: “Don’t you dare.” As such, I got into a hole I had difficulty pulling myself out of. I don’t think the set was the nightmare I felt that it was afterward, but my mindset was unhealthy and not conducive to enjoying myself onstage, which you must if you’re going to deliver a show people like. My main yardstick for if the show went well is, “Did I enjoy myself?” As a steward of this audience, of any audience, you are showing the people what to do, and it should be having a good time.
Anyway, I remember T.J. Miller and Hannibal Buress were in the audience, guys I love, and I remember getting offstage and immediately realizing this was my fault, I sabotaged myself, because I had a little fit, because I didn’t wanna wear this little suitie-pie, and I’m actually glad it happened. I’m very glad it happened, because it made me re-evaluate how the audience is at least 51 percent of the equation. They are more important than, you, the performer, and they must be respected and loved. They don’t give a donkey shit if you’re wearing a suit and tie or if you’re fucking wearing Saran Wrap—make them laugh, you fucking idiot. So that was good for me. I’m glad I had a little ego flare-up, and that I was swiftly and effectively punished, and that I learned my lesson. That will become one of my more instructive stand-up experiences, actually.
AVC: You’ve mentioned losing a certain number of Twitter followers after something you said. How closely do you watch your follower count?
RD: Pretty closely. Not to be too technical or even mercenary about it, but the more followers I have, the more easily I can sell tickets on the road, and that’s the thing I most want to do professionally, regularly perform stand-up comedy for large groups of people. First and foremost, I use Twitter to write jokes, but then a close second is, I function as a clerk, deleting tweets that weren’t popular, not really doing lots of @-replies with people. I want to have my Twitter feed be a place where people can go and reliably read jokes exclusively, and then tell their friends. So I do want a large number of followers, not because I like to look at big numbers and jerk off to ’em, but because I want to jerk off to an audience of human people two months from now because they bought a ticket because they read some of my jokes. I’m very grateful that anybody follows me on Twitter, and that it’s such a large number is an amazing gift. My feeling is the way I can best pay people back is to go and physically perform in front of them, and hopefully make them laugh harder than they did reading a fake tweet I wrote to Dr. Phil.
AVC: How often do you read people’s replies?
RD: I’ll say this: I try to read them all. Maybe I shouldn’t, maybe one day I won’t, but I do try to read them all. And the people who write me are overwhelmingly funny and smart and nice people—I’ve met people in real life from Twitter who are great. And I’ll star people, things that they write to me, if they’re funny. I can’t interact with everybody, because that would be a full-time job, but I’m always happy when people write to me.
AVC: Is it a minority of people who miss the point or don’t get the jokes?
RD: Yeah. I did a thing yesterday where I said celebrities are the only people who suffer from exhaustion because they work much harder than soldiers, teachers, etc. Most people who wrote were like “ha ha,” or retweeted, but I was surprised that a few people were like, “Fuck you, man, that’s insane. How dare you!” There were a few people that really were serious, and that was amazing to me, because there are people out there who are… I’m gonna have to say stupid. I’m gonna have to call those people stupid, because you should be able to recognize abject insanity in this world, which is what that tweet is an example of, and say “That must be a joke, and even, to preserve my sanity, I’m gonna decide it was a joke.” And if you didn’t do that and you thought that was serious, then you are stupid and you need a little help—you’re stupid or you’re 5. Well, to speak specifically, my guess is that—since that was widely retweeted—someone who doesn’t follow me saw it, and was like, “What the heck?”
AVC: You said one of the reasons you write sexual stuff on Twitter is that’s what people want to read, but occasionally you’ll send out something that’s more serious, or advocate a political or social issue. What kind of feedback do those generate?
RD: Mostly positive. It is nice that people can unfollow if they don’t wanna read it, so the bulk of people reading you are doing so because they’ve become attuned to your sensibilities, and they want more of what you have become known for doing. So most people respond pretty well, some people don’t. They’ll write me—and I love it when people don’t agree, and they write a thoughtful, nuanced response. That’s almost my favorite thing to get; just because I have a large number of Twitter followers, that in itself doesn’t mean I’m smart, or know what I’m talking about, or adding a useful group of facts to the discourse.
I’m happy to get into it with people, but I also am happy to tweet a combination of non sequiturs, classic jokes, silly observations, fake replies, and then incredibly sincere things. I tweeted like three quick tweets in a row while crying on the toilet when MCA died, and they were obviously things I really felt. And I don’t care if people know I have feelings, if people know I cried, that I’m happy to be a dad and a husband, that I wanna fuck the lady I saw at the post office, that I have political opinions. I don’t give a shit about how people are going to integrate that into one person in their mind. I don’t mind. I don’t give a shit in a negative way, like “fuck you,” I mean I trust you people to piece that all together and contain sometimes-contradictory things in your mind, because people are capable of that. So I’m not worried about that.
AVC: “Edgy” comedians who employ a lot of irony when it comes to race, sex, or religion tend to encounter people who seem to be laughing for the wrong reason—has that been your experience?
RD: Not too much. I haven’t gotten a lot of meatheads that… oh, and I meet people frequently after shows and stuff too, so I can get face-to-face, straight dirt from people, and what they really think and what they’re like. I can’t think of an example. They may exist, but I can’t think of an example where someone used my tweet in a way that I feel isn’t compatible with my worldview. I’m sure it could happen, because I tweet in so many voices. I’m happy to, and will again, tweet things that are outlandish and bananas, and things a person shouldn’t say, but as of yet, I have not seen people taking things I built for one person and using them for another.
AVC: You’re working on a book that’s coming out next year, right?
RD: Yeah, it’s a memoir, not essays, and it’s funny. I don’t know how much to say about it other than it will make sense to people who’ve seen my stand-up, and/or read my tweets, and/or read my magazine articles. It’s a memoir from the guy who made all those things. It’s not an “I was born and then this happened.” It’s completely out of order, and I meander catastrophically into insane anecdotes and feelings and thoughts.
I tried to use the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy by Henry Miller as a template, where if he wants to talk about a book he liked for 20 pages, he will—or like a campaign. You know how a politician will put out a book a couple of years before they run for office, and they’ll be pretending it’s like their autobiography, but really it’s a way to couch their megalomania and burnish their biography? So for me, it’s sort of like that, except I’m not trying to push my worldview. I’m just trying to make people laugh. So anything I don’t think is funny or at least compelling, I absolutely cut out and throw in the garbage.
AVC: What’s your ideal situation, work-wise? Would you want to be performing in theaters regularly, or just working on TV, working on film?
RD: Doing stand-up all around the English-speaking world forever, and then writing, producing, and being in TV and movies. So, you know, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, career-template people I admire tremendously.
AVC: Besides the book, what are you working on right now?
RD: Oh, I just shot a stand-up special in New York, at the Bowery Ballroom. So I’m editing that, and I’m finishing the book and continuing to tour.
AVC: Is the special for Comedy Central?
RD: No, I’m gonna self-release it, like I was saying about Twitter followers earlier, [they] have allowed me to sell out all over the country, and so if that’s the case, hopefully I’ll be able to self-release the special, and have people buy it who I might not be able to perform for in the near future—like people in Christchurch, New Zealand, or Adare, Ireland, or Tallahassee. Places I would never go. I’m just kidding. [Laughs.]