Sean Sullivan is My Favorite Comic (of the week)

Sean Sullivan and Nate Johnson perform together at The Comedy Studio Holiday Show.

Sean Sullivan and Nate Johnson perform together at The Comedy Studio Holiday Show.

 

How very Boston, a guy named Shawn writing an article about a guy named Sean.  But I was really torn about featuring Sean Sullivan in this article.  I mean, I love the guy.  He’s hilarious.  He’s really nice.  But he’s been on TV, and Comedy Central at that.  So why am I talking about him on an “underground comedy” website?  Because although he has that  TV credit, I feel he is still under appreciated.  I feel like anyone that hasn’t invited him to do stand up on their show is a god damn idiot.  And that includes the guy that wrote Breaking Bad.  And while Vince Gilligan can do whatever he wants with his show I can do whatever I want with my website including calling Vince Gilligan an idiot.

Seriously though, Sean is the best.  He’s given me valuable advice over the years and is hilarious EVERYTIME he steps on stage.  He has also helped me get over bad sets.  One night I had a rough set and when I got off stage Sean said “shake it off, you’re wearing a shiny shirt”.  And I WAS wearing a shiny shirt, he was totally right.  Strangely, it made me feel better.  He didn’t lie to me and say “nice set”, I would have known that he was lying.  Instead he told me to forget about it and then made fun of my shirt.  He was like a brother to me instantly.

 

I honestly have no idea how Sean is staying ahead of the pack with his comedy.  Being a new dad and husband is enough to make lots of people quit comedy or at least get worse at it, but every time I see Sean at a show he crushes and he seems to be getting even better.  Sean was nice enough to chat with me about comedy recently and here are some of the things we discussed.  (He was very thorough with his answers.)

 

When/Why did you decide to become a comedian?
Near the end of my freshman year of college, Lewis Black came to my school. This was the spring of 2002, right when he was starting to get huge. I knew him from the Daily Show which after 9/11 became a show I watched every night. When I heard he was coming, I got tickets and was blown away. I had already kind of taken over a sketch comedy group on campus and was carrying a notebook around with me at all times to write down ideas for sketches. After I saw Lewis, I went back to my dorm and stayed up till like 3:00 am, writing down ideas which I’m sure were just words like, “Food” and “Society” and thought I’d just be able to riff based on those topics which will sound absurd especially to anybody who knows how I write now and has flipped through one of my notebooks.

 

I kept doing sketch comedy and then that fall, I went and saw the school’s big improv group cause it was going to be this really funny guy Andy Hobgood was going to Chicago and it was his last show. They gave him some time to do whatever he wanted and he opened the show with ten minutes of stand-up that blew my mind. I don’t really remember what he talked about. There was something about the old men that rip tickets at movie theaters and something about how people eat popcorn at the movies. I remember thinking it was funny but I was more blown away by the idea that somebody I know is actually doing this thing that until that time, I’d only seen people do on television. I had started to binge on Comedy Central Presents and was watching whatever I could but it was always just as a fan. It wasn’t until I saw Andy that night that I realized that anybody can do this and then it took me four more months to actually jump on a stage.

 

 

You seem to enjoy musicals, have you ever performed in one?

I love musicals. Almost as much as I love stand-up comedy. I did theater and musicals all my life but stopped in college when I got into sketch and stand-up. There was a brief point in 2008, that I dipped my toe back in.

 

My wife was doing some community theater and the quality of the shows was surprisingly good so when they announced that they were doing Jesus Christ Superstar in the summer of 2008 and then the Producers in January of 2009, I went for it and I had a lot of fun but it became very clear that I wasn’t capable of performing at the same level as the people around me.

 

Its a lot like stand-up. When I was doing those two shows, I was working with people who I thought were as good as the people you could see in New York. There are some amazingly talented people in the world of community theater who could have made a go of it professionally but were unwilling to sacrifice the quality of life that they had. That was the first time I began to realize that the process and the performance can be enough of a reward. If you can find a way to get enough satisfaction out of the work that you’re doing and keep pushing yourself artistically, all the other accolades and money become less important. That’s an idea that has really kept me going a lot in the past 5 or 6 years.

Is it ok at this point in our friendship if I stop calling you Sean Sullivan from TV and just call you Sean or Sean Sullivan?

No.

 

Will there at some point be an Untrainables reunion show?
No? I don’t think so. Will there ever be a show where the four of us are booked to do our own thing? Maybe but I don’t think there will ever be a formal reunion where we perform our one really great sketch and then four to five pretty good sketches, and then our 100s of ideas that never came together the way we wanted.

 

I think there was an amount of pressure that we were unaware of at that time to replace the Walsh Brothers when they moved to LA and to live up their lunacy. But one of the crucial things that I think makes the Walsh Brothers so amazing is that they have the passion and the bond of being family. There were plenty of times when something wouldn’t work for them onstage and they would come backstage and having screaming matches about it but they always got through it because they’re brothers. We didn’t have the luxury of being that uncivil. We were crippled by diplomacy.

 

In a lot of ways the break-up of the Untrainables is tied to the end of the Great and Secret Show and I think we’ve all moved on to bigger and better things and I don’t feel the need to go back and revisit it.
 

 

What is the hardest part of being a comedian?

Climbing the stairs to the Comedy Studio. Its 2014. Get an elevator.

 

You’re a family man now, how do you balance family life and comedy life?

I don’t know. That’s been a real struggle. I have two one year olds and they go to bed anywhere between 7pm and 8pm which means I have to ask my mom to come over or I have to make sure I’m not going to go on before 9pm. Its not easy and I don’t get considered for a lot of bookings because of the restrictions I’ve given myself. I won’t let myself do shows two nights in a row (which means I haven’t done a weekend at a club since march of 2013) and I’m trying my best not to drive more than an hour from my house.

 

What has happened though is that I’ve grown to appreciate my time onstage so much more than I have in the 11 years I’ve been doing this. The way my calendar looks, I might only have one 10 minute set booked and then nothing for two weeks, so I’m going to make the most of those 10 minutes. If I have new stuff I want to do, I’m making sure that I have thought that new stuff out and worked it out as much as I can because its going to be two weeks before I pick up a mic again. The irony of it all is that I’m performing less than I ever have but I’ve never felt funnier onstage and I think that just might be a result of appreciating it and not taking any of it for granted anymore.

 

I’m only 31. When my kids are 10, I’ll only be 40 but I’ll have been doing comedy for 20 years. I always keep that in mind. I’m taking my lumps now. Its hugely important for me to be with my kids when they are this small and rely on me and my wife for almost everything. As they get older and more self-reliant, hopefully I’ll be able to come back to something closer to full-time but who knows. Right now, its averaging out to about one set a week and I’m working doubly hard to make sure that one set counts.

 

Lately you’ve been helping newer younger comedians in Boston by giving them feedback on stand up videos they send you.  What is your motivation for this?

 

It started because some dickhead from Oregon or something posted in the Boston Comedians Facebook group that he was offering a discount for Skype comedy coaching sessions for $600 and it really bugged me.

 

When I was in college, I got really good at reading plays or watching people do scenes and offering up critiques that were a little more sophisticated than, “This stinks” or “Do this.” So when I watch someone’s set, I’m not offering them tags or jokes. I’m trying to give feedback that’s a little deeper and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I think I’m good at it and if people think its helpful, I’ll continue to do them.
Whenever I have a tape I’m thinking about trying to do something with, I send it to guys like Myq Kaplan and Eddie Brill and get their feedback. I think its really important for your development to be hearing critical feedback and then choosing whether to use it or not.

 

The other reason is that I’m not out there as much as I’d like to be and I don’t know who’s who anymore. I get in these long heated discussions with people on that Boston Comedians Facebook group but I have no idea who I’m arguing with because I’ve been out of it for a year. There’s a new wave of people who seem to know who I am but I don’t know who they are. This has been a good exercise for me in terms of seeing what’s happening right now.

 

Also its another way to feel connected. I’ve seen too many guys get married and have kids and lose that connection to the scene. Once that tether snaps, you’re gone. The turnover of headlining talent in Boston is really slow but for open micers and hosts, its fast. If I don’t know who’s out there and more importantly if the people that are out there, don’t know who I am, when I’m finally able to get back into this, it’d probably be too hard to try and continue.

 

Was I the best mail man to ever deliver to your house?

 

No. I don’t think you can be the best at anything if you only do it for three weeks. You’re certainly not the worst but far from the best.

 

You have twins,  which is your favorite?
Jimmy Whitman.

 

Since you’re a family man that seems to be rooted in Boston.  I’m very interested to know,  what do you think Boston comedy needs most right now?
I don’t know. People keep asking this question and I struggle for an answer. I think we need stronger overall comedians. I’m doing all these reviews and I think the biggest piece of advice I keep giving people is to cross out of their comfort zones. Too many people are calling themselves “comedians” who won’t venture out of Central and Harvard Square. We need comedians who are able to maintain their voice and point of view in any venue. If what you’re doing at the Comedy Studio doesn’t work at Nick’s, don’t go, “Well, I guess I only play the Studio.” Figure out how to make it work at Nick’s without compromising your identity.

 

You need to bomb and you need to struggle. Otherwise there’s no growth. If you’re killing on a Wednesday at the Studio, fuck off. Who cares? You’re supposed to kill there. Its the most supportive room with the most supportive audience and its great and its my favorite place to perform in the world but don’t bask in your own glory like you did something amazing.

 

Top 5 all time comics?

1. Don Rickles

2. Jim Gaffigan

3. Bob Odenkirk

4. Tony V

5. Conan O’Brien

 

We have some great comedians here in Boston.  Was there a comedian that really helped you with advice or just by watching them when you first started?

 

Dave Walsh really took me under his wing very early. I remember in the summer of 2003, I did the Monday night comedy contest hosted by Kim Davis at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. It was basically a weekly booked open mic but at the time I thought everyone on the show was a legit superstar.

 

The first time I did it, the lineup was something like Erin Judge, Dan Sally, Sam Walters, Chris Walsh, Dave Walsh, Ben Murray, Erik Charles Nielsen, Peter Dutton… Paul Day was probably there. Rick Jenkins was definitely there and Dan Sulman was there because I remembered hearing a bit he did from one of the three opening acts at that Lewis Black show that kind of started me down this road. I asked him about it and it turns out that the three comics that opened for Lewis Black that night were Chris Walsh, Dave Walsh, and Dan Sulman.

 

So Dave saw something and invited me to do a spot on the Great and Secret Show which was terrifying and then I just kept coming back and he kept inviting me to perform and made sure I met everyone and that I was part of the conversation. I really admire his approach to this business. He’s very methodical and cares about what he’s putting out there and always wants to be better. That level of self-awareness is something I always want to have. Dave knows how funny he and Chris are but isn’t willing to rest on that. They showed me how to be honest with yourself and push to the next level.
 

 

Who should I feature in the next article?

Rich Gustus. I love that guy.

 

You can find more from Sean Sullivan on twitter @MrSeanSullivan, or you can catch him on Saturday August 9th at either The Comedy Studio on Mass Ave in Cambridge or The Mendoza Line in The Dugout on Commonwealth Ave in Boston.

Also check out his website:  http://www.seansullivancomedy.com/



Shawn Carter

Shawn is the owner and creator of UnSceneComedy.com