Tom McCaffrey
As Interviewed By Brian McGuinness
Conducted Mid April, 2008 - Published May 13, 2008
Many comics will say that Tom McCaffrey is one of the funniest and most underrated comics in NYC. His unmistakable delivery and hilarious one-liners put him at the very edge of about-to-blow-up. I caught up with him at a local Dunkin' Donuts a few weeks ago. We had a long conversation about comedy – too long to take notes on the whole thing – so this interview begins somewhere in the middle.
Tom: I think people rip him off a lot at first, Dave Attell, because he has such an imitatable style. And he's so funny. It's all funny.
Brian: Even his set ups are hysterical.
Tom: Yeah, almost everything he says is hilarious. So I watched him and said, "Wow I want to be that funny all the time."
Brian: People think it's a bad thing to watch people you like. That's the point. Little kids want to be LeBron for a reason.
Tom: Yeah. People said that with Demetri [Martin imitating] Mitch Hedberg. I didn't really see Demetri early on, but he definitely became a lot less like that. I think they're very different.
Brian: As far as one-liners, if you're going to base it off that, there are a lot of people that do that. A lot of people are shitting on Demetri lately.
Tom: I've heard that a lot lately. For what reason?
Brian: He's such a nice guy! When a comic gets successful or gets a Comedy Central special people shit on them. And they liked them a year ago. It's stupid.
Tom: I've heard people, maybe it's backlash, like "he's not funny." I'm not a Demetri freak, but I've never watched him and was like, "Eww, oh my god." I'm like, "Yeah this guy is funny." You can't watch him and think he's not good. He's good.
Brian: A lot of times I've seen you or Demetri, you're both trying out new stuff all the time. I've never seen you do the same act. You're always trying new stuff.
Tom: That gets really boring. It's another thing I like about him. Todd Barry too, he's always doing that.
Brian: How do you do that? What's your writing style? How do you decide what's going to be a joke? I know you blog a lot. Every night, is every set different?
Tom: I wouldn't say every set; what I do, if I haven't been writing that much, one thing I'll do is I'll go thru and try to pick stuff that I've never really done, or haven't done a lot. Stuff I know the audience has never heard. I have a lot of jokes that I've literally never done, or have done once and if it didn't do well I'm like, "Forget that." They say you have to try [a joke] three times. But if it doesn't work once I immediately hate it. Fuck that. I'm not going thru this two more times. This bombed. Or I'll try to rework it. It comes in cycles. For the past week I feel like I haven't been able to really write anything good. You're mind just gets kind of occupied with other shit.
Brian: A lot of times you'll get into a groove and write two or three new ideas a day, then all of a sudden you go a whole week without writing anything.
Tom: Yeah, that's why I started to write on that blog. I'd think of things, but then I wouldn't do them, and they'd just go away. I'm going to write everything down. I'll do that sometimes, I'll go thru my past blogs, I'll find jokes that I've never done.
Brian: There are jokes on your blog that you haven't done on stage?
Tom: Yeah, a decent amount. In the last blog, there's one or two on there. I think I wrote a joke about when movie stars make themselves ugly. Everyone admires them and praises them for being ugly, like Charlize Theron. "Oh my god you're so brave that you were ugly for a month. Here's an Oscar." But if someone's ugly all the time people just hate them. People are like, "Look at that guy, he's so ugly. Let's beat the shit out of him."
Brian: Your concepts for jokes...
Tom: ...are brilliant, I know.
Brian: No, the concepts are normal, funny ideas, but the way you bring it out is brilliant. You're taking obvious things that people are probably thinking, which make it so funny. People relate to it. That's a perfect example.
Tom: Yeah, I thought of that because I saw Charlize Theron on Inside the Actors Studio. And she was talking about that. I think [host James Lipton] said, "Oh my god. I can't believe you did that. And she said "I know." And then she said something like, "You know when I first started out, I couldn't get parts because they were always like "you're too beautiful." "Oh my god that must've been so difficult" he said. "Yeah it's an obstacle." Dude, first of all, everyone has problems and if your big problem is that you're too hot to do things, like I wish that was the reason I couldn't get jobs. You're just too good looking. It was so funny, she's like, "People don't understand. It isn't easy." Yeah it is, dude. Everyone has problems. I wish that was the worst thing going on in my life.
Brian: I think I saw her on Inside, which was the hottest I've ever seen her.
Tom: And luckily that is the biggest problem in my life. Being so good looking.
Brian: How do you feel.
Tom: I don't want to talk about that.
Brian: Okay, next. What do you...
Tom: ...I promised I wouldn't talk about that either.
Brian: How long you been in the game for?
Tom: I guess I've been doing stand up now for almost nine years. That's a while, it sounds like.
Brian: You grew up here, right?
Tom: Yeah, I grew up around 20th and 1st.
Brian: With Adrien Brody, right?
Tom: Yeah, he was my roommate.
Brian: Really?
Tom: No. I went to high school with him. This was one of my top two stories in my life. I'm sure him telling people he knows me is the same thing.
Brian: Do you ever tell stories on stage?
Tom: I told the story once on stage, but it felt weird. Actually I told it three times. Actually, every time on stage. No. I told it once, it was a storytelling show, and it did all right. And then I told it again and it did amazing. Then I did the same show a month later, and it ate shit so bad. It's a cool story. There are some funny parts. I knew him just from school, I went to performing arts school, on 68th and Amsterdam, right by Lincoln Center. You had to audition to get in. I was a drama major, so it was all these kids that wanted to be actors. But Jennifer Aniston went there, not in my class. She was four years ahead of me. But she was one of the big ones. Omar Epps, he was there when I was there. And Marlon Wayans. Yeah they were best friends.
Brian: Well they're black.
Tom: Yeah, it worked out great for those guys. They were like best friends and both became huge, and made it immediately. Literally right after we graduated.
Brian: It's hard for a Wayans not to make it.
Tom: Yeah, he was hooked up. I think the next summer after we graduated, his brother put him in Mo' Money. I actually saw him recently and he was very nice. And he was kind of a dick in high school. He was a little obnoxious. But he's cool now. He's one of those guys that's happy that he became successful. But he was an obnoxious kid that would just run around. He actually choked me once. He used to do this thing when he'd go up to people and put them in a headlock. One time he did it to me and literally I thought I was going to die. I couldn't breathe. Like literally at one point I was like, "I'm going to die."
Brian: Kind of cool to be killed by Marlon Wayans pre-fame.
Tom: Yeah, but he probably wouldn't have become famous if he did that. He'd have gone to jail. It's kind of annoying when people are assholes and everything works out great for them. Like Mark Wahlberg, I remember reading that he beat the shit out of some Vietnamese guy. Mark Wahlberg took a stick and knocked his eye out. Then literally he went to jail for like five months. But it worked out.
Brian: He got all buff in jail.
Tom: Yeah, I had a joke about that. They were interviewing him about that. "Tell us about when you assaulted a guy and knocked his eye out with a pole." And it was a racist thing too. He was like seventeen, and he was like, "Yeah you know I've learned a lot of lessons in my life and experiences."
Brian: Like it's easy to knock an eyeball out.
Tom: Yeah, you had to learn to not beat the shit of Vietnamese people with sticks. I feel like I knew that when I was seventeen. That wasn't something I needed to experience to know. I thought instead of saying, "Yeah I was a prick." It's like, well you know. You learned...
Brian: Instead of just saying I was a big asshole.
Tom: If you were five, I can see you saying, "I didn't know yet."
Brian: But he did give that guy a role in "The Funky Bunch," I believe, to make it up to him.
Tom: Probably. Eyeless Jeff, One-eyed Steve. Who knows what happened to that dude. He must tell everyone that story. That's like his Adrien Brody story. So anyway, it was an art school. So I knew all these graffiti writer guys. It's still big now, but it was bigger in the 80s and 90s. Adrien Brody was kind of into that I guess. So he liked the friends I hung out with. So there were times he wanted to hang out with those guys. They didn't hate him, but they didn't know him that well. They would ditch him and stuff. I remember one time I saw him on the Tonight Show. Every time I see him, he's always trying to come across as a cool New York City kid. On the tonight show, he's like, "Yeah I went to this art school. I hung out with graffiti writers." I wasn't that into it, my friends were more into it.
Brian: So how do you think your comedy has changed over the past nine years?
Tom: It's just become soooooooo good. Yes, definitely. I remember when I first started. I was really bad. Believe it or not. I think there were moments even early on, when I was just looking at my set list like, "These jokes suck." This is the last show I'm going to do. That's it. The thing was, I wanted to be funnier but it wasn't happening. I couldn't be funnier. I wasn't coming up with the funny shit. Then I looked at the shit I was coming up with and it was so bad. It was so stupid. And it was the set I was doing over and over. I was like, "I don't want to keep doing these fucking jokes." I was like, if I'm not going to become funnier, I shouldn't be doing this. So I went to that show, and there was maybe fifteen people there. Wasn't a very good show. And I went up, had a six or seven minute set. I did the first four or five minutes, didn't do well. Exactly how I thought it would go. I'm like, "Oh, here's this joke that I think is dumb." One of the jokes was, "Yeah I think my girlfriend might be cheating on me. After we have sex she yells NEXT!" That was one of my jokes.
Brian: Classic.
Tom: Yeah. Just stupid shit like that. Then I had one at the end which I've never done. It was about that I've just been circumcised. I think I was twenty-five and I was just circumcised. And I did a joke about that. It was basically about the nurse told me my penis was "going to swell up to three times the normal size. So when u go home, ice it down immediately to get it back down." And I was like, "Oh yeah, that's what I have to do. Get that back down to normal size. Last thing I want to do is have anybody seeing my enormous penis. What are you talking about? I'm going to slam it in a car door when I get home. I'm having it bronzed." So I did that joke and it killed. I remember the MC came on laughing so hard. So I remember, I was like, "Okay, I'll try it again." I feel that happens a lot with comedians. It's very easy to give up on it.
Brian: We become complacent with our act. We get bored with our act doing it over and over again. And sometimes you hate the crowd for laughing at a joke you hate.
Tom: Then you'll do a joke you think is really funny, and they're like what?
Brian: Go back to the other one.
Tom: Why don't you talk about your dick!
Brian: So was it your parents' idea to have you circumcised at twenty-five?
Tom: No, I had to basically because my dick was really big. No I had to, because the skin...medically I had to.
Brian: It changed your career.
Tom: I know, totally. That joke was kind of a big joke I did for a while, but I haven't done it in years. I don't think it's that funny.
Brian: You don't know funny, the audience does.
Tom: Then I wrote a joke about George Michael coming out of the closet and that was my big joke for a while. I remember I did it and it destroyed the first time I did it. And that was what kept me going for a while. But then of course it dwindled off. It goes in cycles. I figured it out.
Brian: You figured out comedy?
Tom: Yeah. I don't think I even answered your questions. How has it changed? I feel I wasn't that good. Then figured out what's funniest about me and my point of view I guess. Cause you know people meet you and they're like, "What kind of comedy do you do?" and you're like, "I don't know." I was doing this temp assignment once and this guy was like, "Oh, what kind of comedy do you do?" and I didn't say this but I wanted to be like, "The extremely unlucrative kind. Thus here I am at a temp assignment." I don't know. Just jokes. I'm kind of sarcastic and talk about things that annoy me.
Brian: Like that movie poster for Hostel 2?
Tom: Yeah, I kept making jokes about it. The ad was like, "We dare you to see this!" Like, you can't dare me to see your shitty movie. You can't Punk me to see it. Did you see that movie?
Brian: No.
Tom: Yeah, it was really bad. Did you see the first one?
Brian: No.
Tom: Yeah, it's the same thing. I had a joke about how they pay to kidnap chicks and torture and kill them. This one girl gets away and she needed the password to get out. And he says the password is some number. And it's her birthday. And she says, "You made the password my birthday! That's sick!" He was about to drill in your face, and the birthday password thing is what you can't believe?
Brian: Is any topic off limits for you?
Tom: Just Hostel part 3. That I will not touch, until they make it. I usually don't do any race stuff.
Brian: That was racist just saying that answer.
Tom: I know, you might want to tell them I'm in black face right now. I think you can make that funny. I've just never come up with a joke that's funny enough. I've seen comics kind of trying to be outrageously racist, like saying the N word. It seems pointless, if you're doing it just for shock value. I wrote one joke that's sort of borderline. It just felt not me. Now I'm going to say it - it's really not racist. When Eminem was really popular, people were like he's trying to be black. I was like I don't think so. But then I saw he married a white woman and I was like c'mon dude. Be yourself.
Brian: What makes you laugh?
Tom: Like what comedians? Well, guy over there. I saw Louis CK right before I started stand-up, and I feel like that was one of the first times I felt I wanted to try to do that. He was my favorite for a long time. I still really like him, I just feel like I haven't seen him that much.
Brian: Do you miss him?
Tom: Oh yeah. I think he's definitely one of the best. Todd Barry, too. Every time I see him he's really good. You know that Dave Attell special he just had on HBO. That was really good. I kind of got out of the loop watching stand-up. I got burned out on it. I've been in it a while. I was bitter. But recently I've tried to watch it again. Jim Gaffigan is another one. He's great.
Brian: He came to La Boca when you did it last.
Tom: Yeah, that happened to me like three times that week, he would show up in the middle of my sets.
Brian: Is he on your MySpace page following your schedule?
Tom: Probably. I guess he was getting ready for something. Nick Swardson for a while I really loved. I haven't seen him a lot though. I was living in LA five and a half years ago and he was really big out there. He was someone who I was like, "Man he's awesome." There are a lot of guys.
Brian: You mentioned bitter.
Tom: I don't think it was bitter. I think it was more burned out. I've been around it so long and I was kind of getting tired of it. It's obviously really easy to get bitter. 'Cause you just see, it's a real shitty business. And you meet a lot of shitty people. A lot of people in charge are not the nicest people. When that started happening, it was a time when I was doing shows that were making me miserable. I was like, I'm done. I'd rather just not do comedy than become this. This isn't why I got into comedy. I didn't want to become a bitter comedian. Maybe I just went through a phrase.
Brian: Graffiti again?
Tom: Yeah, I called Adrien again. Yeah, us guys want to hang out with him now. I'm still friends with them and we're like, "Damn why weren't we nicer to him?"
Brian: So you just signed a CD deal?
Tom: Yeah, sort of. I'm getting a little bit nervous about it, now that I actually have to do it 'cause this one guy is putting money into it. Not thousands, but I still don't want to be shitty. I've done the venue [Pianos] before. You know the Invite Them Up CD? They taped that there, not at Rififi. That was almost three years ago. That set was good. I'll have to do like thirty more minutes; basically what happened was someone said I should do a CD. And I was like sure. And they knew someone that worked in recording in the music industry and have been doing some music production, and this guy talked him into comedy production. And I could be the inaugural comedy debut CD. This guy I guess has some experience in the industry and production and he had all the equipment.
Brian: Crazy Hair is the company?
Tom: Yeah, they've done music, but this is the first time in comedy. But it's funny because when those things came out, they put out a press release. They made it sound like I was signing to Warner Bros. I did sign with them, and he's going to produce it. I've wanted to record a CD for a while, but I didn't want to do it on my own. It's good, this guy approached me, hooked me up with another guy.
Brian: Any challenges working with a new label?
Tom: Not really. I met with him, I guess he liked my comedy. That's what I was talking about with this guy. I guess I have somewhat of a following. Not really. I'm somewhat known in the alternative New York comedy scene. He also wants to try to get a tour together at colleges when it comes out. And maybe go along with a couple other people and try to promote it that way. So for him it sounded like a good way to start. He could hopefully build on any small name I've made. Which is very small. He'll probably do music still too.
Brian: Hopefully if yours takes off, he'll do more comedy.
Tom: That's what we were talking about, yeah. I feel not too many people do that with comedy. Comedy's really big in these Indie Rock venues. Why not make a comedy label or CD that has that Indie Rock venue. Fans of the alternative comedy scene love discovering that new thing.
Brian: Do you consider yourself an alternative comic?
Tom: I feel other people look at me like that. But I've done the road, I do clubs. I do fine. There are certain things I feel won't go over in a real club, just for the attention span. For a while, clubs looked at me like an alt comic, and alt clubs looked at me like a club comic. I did an audition at the [Comedy] Cellar almost two years ago and didn't pass. And someone said, well you did all this alt material. No I didn't. only reason I started doing the alt scene is because those were the only rooms that let me go up. Those were the shows I was getting. I tried to doing the clubs more, but it's hard to get up. Alt clubs were more responsive. I feel people try to go out of their way to be an alt comic. But that wasn't me.
Brian: I don't consider you an alt comic either, but I think you have that reputation for some reason.
Tom: Yeah, it's funny. When they put me on the Invite Them Up CD, they said they wanted me to open one of the nights because I was a more straight forward comedian and it was an easy way to transition to the weirdness. There's some weird shit on that. Not stand-up, just like, whatever. They looked at me as more of a main stream comedian. I could do well in either setting. I wouldn't go up there and do some weird thing. I was just doing jokes that were funny. It was great though, I did Comedy Central before that, but that CD was a thing I get e-mails about. Like people in Canada even messaged me about that CD. People were like, why don't you make your own CD? Why don't you do your own half hour special? I'm like I dunno. Why don't you e-mail them and ask?
Brian: Were you looking to make a CD or did they kind of find you?
Tom: I wasn't really. I was looking in the sense that I wasn't looking. I wanted to do it, but I hadn't even though about how. And literally right when that happened, it worked out.
Brian: You've written some stuff for "The Onion" also.
Tom: I wrote this thing like four years ago. They approached me to write this column they used to have that they would approach comedians to do. It was a weekly thing. It's not in there anymore. But then, last summer, I was freelance writing for the Onion News Network. When I first got the gig freelancing I thought it was great. I thought I'd become a big Onion writer. But it's really competitive. And they had staff writers. I was just freelancing, about eleven of us, we all would just e-mail our ideas in every week. They'd give us an idea of what they wanted. It was so competitive. Yeah you're competing with the staffers that have been there a while. I think they maybe used four of my ideas. And I did it for like five or six months. And it was hard. You had to come up with like fifteen ideas every week.
Brian: Did that help your stand-up at all?
Tom: I don't know. I think it helped my writing. Another political website that my friend was writing for, asked me if I had anything and they used all my shit that the Onion rejected. When I did that I was trying to build up a writing resume. I was getting down in stand-up. I didn't want to be a road comic. I'd written a book and was trying to get it published. I figured if I had more writing credits it would give me more credibility.
Brian: What's the status with the book?
Tom: I wrote a book proposal for it. It's a story about me; I was a nanny for my sister for like two and a half years, and so it's just about that. It's ridiculous that I was a nanny. I'm not a nanny. It's sort of like a dark, male nanny diaries.
Brian: Is it currently being pitched?
Tom: Yeah, I talked to a few people I knew that had books published. They helped me write a proposal. And I've been submitting it to agents, and it's been getting rejected, which is good. I'm still submitting it. It's out to some places and still kind of being looked at. That's one thing I'm excited about.
Brian: What else do you see yourself doing?
Tom: Everything. But I really like stand-up. I like that type of writing. It's very fast. You can do it immediately. I really would like to get this book published - that's what I've been focusing on for the past year, trying to show it to people. I've written a bunch of screen plays too. And I kind of gave up on those. That's why I started writing that book. Because it was so hard to get anyone to read your screen play. I feel everyone was writing screen plays. I knew people who've gotten books published. But I never knew anyone who's sold a screen play. It's easier to sell a book than a screen play. And if it's a good book, they'll make it into a movie, because they don't have any ideas. When I told people I was doing it, they were always like, "Oh my god you should write about it."
Brian: And they're all true stories?
Tom: Yeah, basically my life fell apart all at once. So that kind of gave it a good arc. This dude whose life sucks all at once and his best friend becomes a two-year-old girl that saves him. That became the story. I wrote this screen play like two years ago. I thought it was a good idea. And I couldn't get anyone to read it. This is really premature. My sister had a connection, and I got it to this guy. And then a guy from the office read it. And liked it. And this went on for months. Then five months went by and I hadn't heard from him. But literally like two hours ago, I got an e-mail from him and he said, "Hey so and so read it and he liked it. Are you going to be in LA we want to meet with you and talk about it." That just happened two hours ago. Not that that means anything, but I was like "Oh shit, that's cool." If nothing else, he read it and wants to meet with me. That was something for a while I wanted to do, screen writing. It's so hard though. So I think I'm going to go to LA to meet with them. I'll try to not get too excited though. People sell screen plays and they don't go anywhere. Movies are the craziest thing. Someone will buy a screen play and shelf it. Or they make a movie, and it doesn't come out. People spend years on these things and nothing happens. I had this thing a few years ago...I wrote this script and through a connection I had Tim Robbins read it. He liked it. He gave it to Susan Sarandon to read and she didn't like it. They passed on it. So I had a joke about it that said, "I don't know why Tim Robbins liked it and Susan Sarandon didn't. The name of it was Tim Robbins is awesome and Susan Sarandon is a cunt." I don't know what it was about that script that Susan Sarandon wasn't into.
Brian: What's it like reading the blog comments?
Tom: I love them. I think it's great. Sometimes, these three girls I didn't know were consistently reading and leaving comments. The same three chicks. And then they just stopped. I don't know if they still read them and just don't comment. I do get about seven consistent people that always comment. Actually this chick just messaged me like four days ago that lives in LA. She's like, "Oh I think your blogs are brilliant." So that's cool. I've never gotten a shitty comment. I feel if people don't like it they won't bother to comment. I put up a few videos on YouTube and people were leaving mean shit. I wrote this video that was supposed to be Aaron Stoltz starring in "Back To The Future". That's a real thing. He was fired halfway through. And I was fascinated by that so I made a video about it. I want to do another one. Aaron Stoltz in "Casualties Of War". Just a series of movies that Michael J. Fox was in that Stoltz originally got fired from.
Brian: Do you have a worst gig story?
Tom: Yeah, La Boca. And the other time I did La Boca. No, I did this gig in LA, it was right outside of LA, like Huntington Beach. It was one of my first one nighter gigs at this bar/club. I was brand new to comedy. I just didn't know how to handle it. I feel that was kind of my weird baptism into stand-up. After that I was like what have I gotten myself into. I went there and no one was there to see the show. There were like forty people just eating and drinking. The guy brought me up during happy hour and the people were like, "What is this?" It was bad. I had no idea what to do. I tried to do jokes up front about how crazy and shitty this situation was going to be. And they immediately started to heckle me. In like six minutes I got them all to hate me. They all started to insult me. So I just insulted them back. And they were light hearted insults. Everyone was yelling me. Like I HAD to get off stage. One time I almost got into a fist fight. This one audience member, I didn't fight him, but I got off stage saying I was going to fight him. But I was really going to. There was literally no one there. Like five people, and this one dude and his girlfriend. And immediately they started insulting me. Like really bad insults. Personal. And I was like trying to do more jokes. And then the girl goes, "I feel sorry for you." And I said why. And she said, because your life sucks. And then the guy started saying I sucked. And they started talking. So I asked why they said that. And they kept talking. So I said if you're ignoring me, can I fight you? And I really wasn't going to. But I just wanted his attention. So I said, "Okay, I'm going to get off and we'll see what happens." So I put the mic down and I sort of started walking towards him. And exactly what I'd hoped happened happened. Everyone grabbed me and was like, "Stop." So I was like, "Ok." That was pretty bad. It's funny, people yell things at you when you're doing it and they think they're helping. Like if you did that at another job you wouldn't think you're helping. Like during surgery, throwing shit. "I thought I was helping that operation." How would that help me with what I'm doing? I feel like that never goes away either. Even the biggest people have shitty gigs.
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