Meet Nick Vatterott

“People are pretty awful.

Nowadays when people ask what I do I just say, “I sell wholesale rope”.”


 

Recently, Logan Short of Sketchpad Comedy sat across his screen from Nick Vatterott for an interview. 

Q: When did you first start doing comedy? Is that when you first considered yourself a comedian, or did that come later?

I started doing comedy up at Mizzou. I did improv on campus, wrote a humor column for Mizzou’s paper, did the local comedy club’s amateur contest up there. After a few years I moved to Chicago to work on stand up, take improv classes, all that. I think I was introduced as “a comedian” years before I ever even tried comedy. That’s generally how I was introduced, in high school/college, buddies would be talking to some girls and say, “…and this is Nick, he’s the comedian of the group.” It really is a terrible way to introduce someone, there’s suddenly an expectation of your personality that if you don’t deliver on, people are instantly disappointed by you. If someone thinks you’re just another regular boring guy, and then you say even the slightest joke, people are like, “Oh, this guy is funny! I like funny people!” But if you’re introduced as funny, people are like, “Well, I’LL be the judge of that.” or “Hmm…. for a comedian I thought you would be a lot funnier.”

People are pretty awful. Nowadays when people ask what I do I just say, “I sell wholesale rope”. Cause then if I say anything close to a joke people are like, “HA! For a wholesale rope salesman, you’re pretty funny!”

Q: Where does inspiration for your ideas and writing come? 

If you just try to sit down and write, I don’t know how you do it. Starting from complete scratch, you’re screwed.

Copyright - Lloyd Bishop NBCYou gotta give yourself at least a week head start before you write something. Hold a net out and catch any funny thought you have in a week, then look at the funny thought; is this something that could be universal that people other than me, in that moment, when I thought of it, would think is funny? It doesn’t have to be overtly universal, I’m really a fan of trying anything that you personally think is funny, no matter how obscure, you just have to find that tiny part of the absurdness that still connects to reality. But obvious universal stuff is easier to make work when you’re just starting out, especially if you got no idea what to do. So you got your net out and you catch something; it’s an afternoon when someone holds the door for you, but then they become impatient because you’re not getting to the door fast enough. They then sarcastically say “TAKE YOUR TIME!” because you’re not rushing to the door fast enough for them to do their good deed.

(image copyright Lloyd Bishop, NBC)

You laugh. It’s funny to you that someone is being a good person in such a rude way. You start thinking, “I don’t want you to hold the door for me, I can do it myself, I do it all day long myself. I especially don’t want you holding the door for me if I have to jog fast to get to the door, that’s more work than opening it myself!” Is this the funniest thought in the world? No, but ‘holding the door etiquette’ is something universal that I think most people experience, and this interaction makes you laugh, so you make note of it for next time you sit down and want to write about something.

Q: What’s your process for writing and developing ideas?

Heighten. Heighten. Heighten. What makes you laugh about the idea, and what is the most exaggerated scenario you can paint that best conveys what’s so funny to you about this idea? Take my lame holding the door idea from before. If you’re doing sketch, try to find all the angles that heighten what you found funny about that experience. For example,

1.) You laugh about a guy who does nice things, but is rude about it. Let’s see what other nice things he does and is rude about.  Someone sneezes, he says, “God bless you, you disgusting leper!” Or better examples!

2.) You laugh about how no one taught this person the polite way to have manners. Maybe it’s a sketch about a class that teaches people how to do nice things correctly. Everyone in the class is terrible at doing nice things. We then get to watch all the examples of people in the class doing nice things wrong: Guy says, “Let me get the door for you” then picks the person up, and throws them through the door, “YOU’RE WELCOME!” he sarcastically says when he doesn’t get his “thank you”.

3.) Sometimes it’s fun to reverse the object of your ridicule. Instead of making fun of the person holding the door, maybe look at it from their perspective and find a scenario where they are actually justified in their rudeness. Imagine “what if someone was taking so long getting to the door that it genuinely warrants that statement of “Take your time!” You write a sketch about a guy holding the door for some woman, who is literally taking forever; she’s on the phone, she’s dragging heavy furniture, she’s having a baby, etc. And the whole time she’s making the person hold the door for her by saying, “please hold the door, I’ll be right there!” Guy holding door sees that she’s in labor, “Umm, are you having a baby?” “Yeah, just real quick though, hold the door and I’ll be right there!”

There’s an infinite amount of directions you can go, but taking note of the things that make you laugh and stockpiling them, are a Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 8.02.34 AMhuge help when sitting down and trying to find a place to start from. And once you start playing with the idea, see how many different ways you can pull it, from there you’ll find which one works best when you find the one that makes you laugh the most.

I just wrote the cold open sketch for this year’s Critic’s Choice Awards (click here to watch the opening w/ TJ Miller). Basically I watched the openings of a bunch of award shows leading up to the week of the awards. (It was good that I had this in the back pocket because we had another sketch planned, but had to bail on it week of because of production logistics.) I saw that a trope of award show openings, was the host “getting ready” for the awards show. They always have these montages of the host getting ready, and I thought it would be funny if the host got stuck in the montage. He puts on a jacket, then another jacket, then another jacket and so on… screaming for help to get out. It’s a pretty absurd concept, but I was able to ground it by mapping it with the traditional “normal person gets stuck in experiment gone wrong, giving him super powers” cliché. I pitched the idea to some other comedy writers we had, and them along with the director added some nuances to the idea to make it ever stronger.

Maybe the most important part of writing sketch is finding people that you enjoy working with, collaborating with the right people I’ve found will almost always make the sketch funnier and more fun to do than writing it just on your own.

Q: So I know you do a lot of standup, but the first time I saw you perform was in an improv show with Mark Ratterman and some other people at iO Chicago, and your podcasts seem to be more like character sketches. How does each form of comedy influence the other, if at all, and do you think it’s important for developing comedians to experiment in each form?

Any stage time you can grab in any format helps your overall sense of ease on stage.

Improv allows a stand up to be more comfortable veering from material in a stand up set to exploring an organic comedic moment on stage, it allows stand ups to be more comfortable immersing themselves into a character during a story or bit. I think one of the most valuable parts of stand up applied to improv is all the writing that you do. Now, I’m not suggesting you write down a joke and plan on doing it in an improv set, but there are comedic ideas that you explored in your stand up writing that may inspire something in a scene.

I saw a guy washing windshields at an intersection (regardless if the person wanted it or not). If people didn’t give him money, he would respond with a very aggressive “GOD BLESS, GOD BLESS NOW!” He was saying “GOD BLESS” but with the tone of “F You!” I thought that was funny (I know this example is very close to my holding door example, but hey, there’s a lot of passive aggressive people out there!)  I wrote a little bit about it for a stand up, but never found a way to present it. A few weeks later I’m in an improv scene and someone made me a guy on a bus with a bucket of water and a squeegee. Because of my stand up writing, I instantly had a source to draw from for inspiration for my bus squeegee character, the type of guy that aggressively yells “GOD BLESS!”

Being a good improviser is about being able to tap into your knowledge, emotion, observations, life experience, etc. to order to move a scene between two people forward. And sometimes a fully explored idea in stand-up can be the inspiration for a character in your improv. There’s a myriad of ways the various forms help each other. Not everyone has the passion for both, but if you can do as much as you can, it really does create a more dynamic performer and provides more opportunities than narrowing yourself down to one form.

Q: You’ve performed at a lot of different places. Has performing in different cities and venues affected the way you approach your work? What about performing on Fallon vs. a smaller venue, does that affect your choices?

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 8.01.03 AMI think how you approach doing Jimmy Fallon (See Nick forget his next joke (wink) on Fallon) vs. smaller venue is more about the stakes of this situation. I’m not going just go up there and crowd work a 5 minute TV spot, I’m not going to do my greatest 5 minutes for an audience of 2 people on their cell phones at a show in the back of a bowling alley. I don’t think cities affect me too much, I don’t think that’s the best mindset to have, “NYC is too liberal, the south is too conservative, etc.” are bad generalizations to buy into. I’ve been blown away by the open mindedness from different cities.

The best my religion stuff has ever gone is in Salt Lake City, Mormon capitol of the U.S. I have a long bit about how I think America is the place where anybody can become anything, and that’s why I would vote for a female republican Muslim president that’s Asian and has a British accent. I went to the south thinking, “Man, they’re not going to like this joke”, but they went crazy for it. I think different venues affect me more than anything else. I think early on I dreamed of pushing the tired conventions of what stand up comedy could be. But now, I’ve settled for “there’s a time and place”.

Black box theaters, music venues, alt spaces; I think these are the places where comedians are allowed to truly be free, where they aren’t shackled by audience expectation of style (as well as jaded club owners that are against their comics doing anything theatrical, but that’s a whole other tangent). Most audience members don’t have a preconceived notion of what comedy will be like at a rock club or a theater. They don’t have a previous experience watching stand up in such a nontraditional space to compare it to, so they’re often more open to whatever.

I was just at the New Orleans Comedy and Arts Theater at the La Nuit Comedy Theater. I was able to do this time traveling bit where every time I grab the mic stand, the lights go crazy, electrocution sounds happen, and I bounce around doing stand up in different time periods. Last year at The Firebird I had a pre-recorded director’s commentary that played at different moments in the set that commented on the act as a through line of the whole show.

To me it’s fun to play around with the form like that and try different things, and the audience at theaters and rock clubs are more open to it. I’ve done that kind of stuff at comedy clubs and I just get heckled, “Stop doing that, just do stand up,” some one once yelled. “What is happening?” said this lady at a casino gig last summer. People who go see comedy shows at rock clubs/theaters, are generally a more comedy savvy audience. People who go to comedy clubs will probably only go once or twice in their lifetime.

Doing something less traditional in an alt room is almost preferred by alt audiences. If they wanted traditional comedy, they’d go to a comedy club. Conversely, club audiences hope to see what they’ve seen before, or some version of it. Laughter is all about a primitive response to the passing of danger, or release of tension. Classic example, a comic tells a joke that bombs, he says, “by the way, not all of these are jokes.” The audience laughs. The danger is that the audience is afraid that the comic doesn’t know that the joke bombed, when he makes the joke about it, it releases the tension of the moment and the danger that he didn’t know it bombed then passes. So when people are at a comedy club, there is this subconscious fear, or danger, that the comic is going to be bad. When the comic begins with something that is not in line with what they’ve seen on David Letterman, or how stand up is portrayed in movies, the danger sets in, is this guy bad? Is it going to be whole night of this? Where’s the part he makes fun of us? Where’s the part where he tells dick jokes? Why is he time traveling? Why is there director’s commentary happening?

They get uncomfortable, their tension is never relieved, they yell “stop this, just do stand up!” Conversely alt rooms want to see something a little different than a club. That is their expectation, and if they get something very “club like” another tension sets in, the danger of something derivative, and a different version of “is this guy bad?” Now that’s not to say that you can’t open a club show with a super alt bit, or an alt show with a “man vs. women” bit, I mean funny is funny right? These are obviously generalizations at least, but this difference in expectation between the two audiences is why different material works at different places.

As a comic you just have to be aware that not all club bits work in alt rooms, and not all alt room bits work in clubs. I have a club act and I have an alt act. The downside of clubs is that comics sometimes get these hacky/derivative jokes, tag lines etc. that become part of the act, because since most club audiences don’t see a lot of comedy, they’ll laugh super hard at some hacky bits. The downside of alt rooms is that it often breeds lazy comedy. Because the audiences are often so patient and open, it lets a lot of comics get away with a lot of air in their sets, a lot of indifference. You’ll see an alt comic do about 6 minutes worth of material in a 10-minute set. That’s why I think it’s good for comics to do both rooms.

Comedy clubs keep you strong, Alt venues keep you honest.

Q: The comedy scene in St. Louis is growing, but sometimes people can still feel limited in their opportunities toVatterott_FAO_CCDIRECT_AudioOnly_1920x1080 write or perform. How often do you create your own opportunities? How do you create them? 

Opportunity seems to gravitate towards people that do as much as they can on their own without the aid of anyone else.

The scene in St. Louis is what it is now, from people creating something for themselves. Take advantage of where you are and utilize it and focus on that rather than concentrating on the things that aren’t there. St. Louis is a great place to hone your skills, and have fun with comedy. Work on stand-up, make videos, shorts, animations, whatever you’re into. I had no idea till I went to Chicago that you could just make a show happen.

I lived in Columbia Missouri, and since there was no place to do stand up there (there was no open mic at the comedy club there), I would drive 2 hours to St. Louis or 2 hours to KC to do 3 minutes of material at the comedy club open mics, turn around and drive 2 hours home. I had no idea that I could just approach a bar and ask if I could use their stage on their least busy night to run a comedy show. Most of the stand up I did in Chicago was in the back of bars. Most of the sketch I did was independent groups that booked a slot in some small theater. Most of the improv I did was at theaters that I didn’t even know existed till I looked around the scene, and checked out some place I knew nothing about.

Create your own opportunity, stage time, figure out what it takes to make it come to fruition and make it happen. Take advantage of the opportunities created by the comedy community that is already there. Be collaborative, not divisive. Don’t have a chip on your shoulder towards comics that do this certain venue, or this certain type of comedy (i.e. enough with all the stand ups vs. improvisers division, you’re all fighting the same war). The Grawlix are a group of comics in Denver that created their own stand up show, contributed to the amazing scene that is in Denver now, made their own videos, made a successful web series, then got picked up by Amazon, and now have a show coming out on TruTV (See Trailer for Those Who Can’t). And these are guys that did it not by being in NY or LA, but out of Denver by creating their own opportunities. And they’ve helped create an amazing comedy scene in their wake.

Q: If you had a single piece of advice for aspiring comedians, particularly from St. Louis, what would it be?

I’d say be prepared for the things that you want, so that when they come your way you’re ready for them. Don’t blow you’re chance to be seen by a club owner by getting an audition when your not ready, when your comedy is still hit or miss. Wait to get the audition when you’re killing on a regular basis. You don’t want to do an audition just crossing your fingers hoping you get it, you want to destroy and walk off the stage leaving them with no choice but to book you. If you want to be a writer, then write.

Don’t just hope your stand up will one day get you a writing job. Have a pilot, a spec script, an SNL packet, a Daily Show packet, a screenplay, IF that is something you want to do. I just see so many stand ups that want to be writers, who’ve never written anything besides stand up. You want to act? Have a reel, have a web series, have some proof you can act. A lot of comedians think that someone is going to see them being funny on stage, then automatically cast them. If you want to act on camera, then buy a camera and start acting. But these are just things to think about in the overall scheme of being prepared for opportunities, the most important thing, is be happy. Easier said than done for the self-loathing comic, but find happiness in the work itself, not what you think the work will bring you.

Also, drink water. Drink lots of water.

Q: Do you have anything you’d like to plug (shows, website, etc.)? We love to know what people are up to!

My stand up album on Comedy Central Records ‘For Amusement Only’ has just been put up on Comedy Central’s website this week! Buy Nick’s albumhttp://nickvatterott.comedydirect.com/

If you’d like to learn more about Nick Vatterott and all the cool stuff he’s up to, check out his website as well.

Thank you Nick for that amazing interview!

Interview by Logan Short

Images c/o Nick Vatterott & Lloyd Bishop, NBC

>>> Want more Sketchpad Interviews? Read Meet Jo Firestone<<<

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