As Interviewed By Brian McGuinness
Conducted April 29, 2008 - Published May 20, 2008
One of the most critically acclaimed comics in New York, Tom Shillue has a long history of lighting up stages here in the city and all around the country. I got the chance to catch up with him a few weeks ago at Ochi's Lounge, the downstairs room at Comix comedy club.
Brian: Something I like to ask comics that have been around a while, when did you first realize that you could do comedy for a living?
Tom: I remember, after I hosted my high school gong show. I was the emcee for The Gong Show. That's another time, when you're a senior in high school you're wondering what you're going to do with your life. This is something you think about all the time. I was a visual artist at the time. There was no performing in my high school. There was no high school play or anything like that. But the one thing we had was that high school variety show. And I emceed the show and I did a little comedy and was making everybody laugh.
Brian: How'd you get to host it?
Tom: Somebody just picked me. My math teacher, Mr. Fucillo, said, "Shillue, you're going to be the host this year." And that was another thing that surprised me. Like how does this guy know I'm a good host. There was no way to know it. There were no open mics to check me out at. But he must have thought that was something I was going to be good at. And of course I wasn't very good. It was the first time I ever did it. But there was something about Mr. Fucillo, the math teacher, saying, "You're going do it." So I went at it and got some laughs. I remember talking to my friend a few weeks after the show, and I said, "Maybe I can be a graphic artist or something." and he said, "I can see you being a stand-up comedian the way you hosted that show." And that was the first time someone else said it. But of course growing up, I always admired Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby, and I used to think maybe I could do that sometime. But I never thought about it seriously until my buddy said, "I can see you doing that." So it kind of confirmed what was probably in my head anyway when I was getting laughs at that high school show. Now of course it wasn't for another ten years that I put that realization into action. I floundered around, went to college, watched stand-up comedy in college but never got up on stage. I was in a comedy group at Emerson College. I performed with the comedy group. I did a little touring with an improv troupe. And then finally, after I was 25-years-old, I finally got on stage. I must've been 26 or 27 at the time.
Brian: Oh really? That's kind of a late bloomer as far as that goes.
Tom: Yeah, and then it takes another five years before you're like, "Oh maybe I can make a profession out of this." Because when you first start, you're just looking to get on stage so that maybe an agent will spot you and you can break into show business. But at some point you realize, "Wow, I guess this is what I'm doing now." So it creeps up on you. It's almost like you look behind you and you see that there's a little career there and you think you're not just getting on stage and doing time or getting your five minutes. But also, it was probably 1994 when I booked a commercial and was on TV. So my face is on TV. Then I booked a promo for Comedy Central and club owners would see that and, it wasn't that my act got any better, but the club owners would see that I was making a living on the business, so I was regarded with more professionalism. So both fed each other. Then getting on stage more, getting a good commercial agent, getting out and doing it. It was the perception that things were going better than they were. I still didn't think I was getting much respect in the comedy world, but then when they see your face on TV they're like, "Oh, this guy has something going on." and so I started getting better spots, so it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Brian: So did you write bits for the Gong Show thing?
Tom: I did, yeah. I did impressions of the principal and vice-principal. I remember, this was back when Boy George was all the rage, I did a Culture Club routine and got laughs with that. I stole a couple of minutes from a Rich Little album. I did impressions of presidents, got a couple of laughs with that. Then did a couple of risqué jokes that I found in joke books. And I did a joke at a high school show that I didn't understand. It was given to me by another teacher, a woman named Ms. Dyre. She gave me this joke to do about Mr. Murphy, the high school gym teacher. And the joke was, "Mr. Murphy was so unpopular in high school, he used to go to the drive-in movies and do push-ups in the back seat of his car."
Now, I guess that's a joke about sex. He wanted people to think he was having sex so he was doing push-ups in the back of his car.
Brian: Oh, now I get it.
Tom: But I thought it was a joke about physical fitness. Like, he was so lonely he would go to the drive-in movies and exercise in the back of his car, because he was a gym teacher. So I did that joke and I got in trouble for doing a sex joke. The principal got all mad and came down and unplugged the camera, the local cable TV Public Access was there. He unplugged the cameras and there was this big scandal. And I didn't understand for weeks why I got in trouble for doing a physical fitness joke! I mean, you didn't get that joke when I just told it to you. The whole crowd went crazy. I remember them going, "whoa!" like it was risqué, and I was like, "It seemed like a harmless joke to me." I thought it was a joke about doing push-ups.
Brian: Nice, a scandal your first time on stage.
Brian: Reminds me of my second grade teacher, Ms. Ditzian, I remember one day she told me...
Tom: …Haha. Ms. Ditzy?
Brian: No! Ms. Ditzian. She told me, "You'll be a very funny comedian one day, Mr. McGuinness." and that was second grade.
Tom: These are things that drive us.
Brian: And since then, I think I've always wanted to.
Tom: So on the dark days, we can blame our teachers.
Brian: Yeah, people think teachers prepare us for life. No, they ruin us. So you got the stand-up going, do you think you're a stand-up for life or do you see yourself doing movies and sit-coms. I know you've done a lot of commercials.
Tom: Yeah, but I would always perform live because that's what I like to do the best. Ideally, that would be the greatest, to graduate into doing films and television and be a huge national name, but be able to go back to the clubs. That would be ideal to me. I would never be like, "Ugh." I know a lot of guys who say that once they get off [the road] they say, "I'm exhausted I could never do that again." They have fame and they couldn't wait to stop doing stand-up. Because it is exhausting, but to me that would be the ideal thing. To be known nationally in everyone's living room, then be able to go out and perform live. I would get a huge kick out of that. Either way, I would be performing live no matter what level I'm on. If I were to stay at the same level I'm on now, at least I'll be able to eek out the gigs for the rest of my life. But if I were to rise to fame and fortune, I would use that as an opportunity to just do bigger and better live shows. How cool would that be? To be an old guy, who has trouble walking out on stage, like [how] Bill Cosby sits down in an easy chair? That would be the greatest.
Brian: How has your comedy changed over the years and how long have you been at it?
Tom: I put the beginning at 1993 or 1994, so fifteen years. Now is such a great time to start doing comedy, I think. There's so much going on. There are rooms like this, Ochi's Lounge in the downstairs of a comedy club, where there's really no pressure to sell tickets or to fill a room. There are people coming out to see shows that want to see fresh material, at rooms like Rififi. And you can get up on stage without the help of these ominous comedy club owners that we used to be enthralled by. We would sit at their bar and hope they would give us a spot. Now you can kind of go out and do your own show. I mean, guys like who are at the top nationally like Demetri Martin, he went around the clubs. Demetri never even - I don't even know this for a fact - but I assume he never passed at the [Comic] Strip, the way that everybody makes it there thing to do right away. He never did it. He kind of went around them and now he's playing bigger venues than comedy clubs because he kind of made his own audience. That kind of thing didn't exist when I started. It was always like get yourself on stage at Stand Up New York, hope to be seen by the scout from a Late Night show or a festival, then take that traditional path thru the clubs, touring around the country and become "A-List." That traditional path was almost the only way to get it. But now you have guys who don't even need them. I don't even know who these guys are that are playing the mainstream clubs now. All the guys I know are off playing these small rooms. I think the thing that's changed is that people can find their own audience now and [the audience] can find out what's going on over the internet and go see these shows. They don't need that marquee name, or chain. Now you can find out on the internet who you're into, and kind of go to that show. You have comics like Patton Oswalt with his Comedians of Comedy, creating these tours, just for his fans and people who like comics like him. And so, it's much more of a vital scene now than it ever was back then. In fact I don't even know how I entered the business back then it was so grim. Now, I feel like things are just kind of getting cooking now.
Brian: Yeah there are so many ways to get started now.
Tom: Yup. I say to guys just getting out of college that I wish I was just coming out of college now. You can get yourself on stage and video tape it. Even if no one shows up to the show, you can tape it, throw it on YouTube and get ten thousand viewers overnight. I never had that. I wish I did. You have guys shooting shows basically for no budget, with their own video cameras, and they can get a deal with either a website or a cable channel. It's like direct to the consumer. It's unbelievable.
Brian: How do you feel your jokes have changed then with the times or even your approach to stand-up?
Tom: I always feel like I'm just getting going. I always feel that. Like this season, after New Year's, my act is just kind of settling into a good place for the first time ever. Now, I probably felt that a couple of years ago too, but when I started I felt like I had to write material that was going to work. How am I going to figure out how to take these ideas I had, get them on stage, and then translate them into this language of stand-up that is demanded by the club audience? The two-drink minimum audience. You have to get out there, you've got to structure your joke with a set-up and punch line, make them laugh and you need this many laughs in that fifteen-minute set or else you're just not going to get more spots and the club owner's not going to have you feature for his headliner or whatever. That was the only way to rise. Now, I don't even really think of that because I like to get up on stage and work out my material with whatever I think is funny at the time and if it works with the audience, you know, God bless America. I can work that into my act, but it's just working more organically now. I don't think of satisfying the eight o'clock show on Friday night. I'm doing more shows during the week and I like to take the weekends off. I worked so hard to work weekends at clubs, now that's like a nightmare for me - a room full of people laughing at everything you say. It's kind of a nightmare. I'd rather go out Tuesday night, to a small show with a small crowd, get up there, and work on stuff, and really see what gets laughs. It's more organic with that audience because you really are trying to make a room full of people laugh, as opposed to the atmosphere in a club on the weekends when it's sold out.
Brian: Are you saying it's easier in a club to make them laugh?
Tom: It's easier on the weekend. It's too easy.
Brian: Because they already expect you to be funny in the first place, so you think they're just more prone to laughing?
Tom: Yes. And Friday night at an "A-list" club at an eight o'clock show is no way to work on new material because the crowd is kind of worked into a weekend frenzy and they're all there to laugh, and it's just less of a creative atmosphere and more of a "knocking them out of the park" home-run derby.
Brian: Do you feel more robotic just doing your set then?
Tom: Yeah, you can work on material better in front of a group of thirty people in a bar in the East Village because the attitude is less "make me laugh" and more "hey what do you got for me tonight?" So it's a little more of an open vibe with the audience.
Brian: They're like "tell me something new."
Tom: Yeah, like "let's see what this guy has." So they're more open. It's a little more of an open atmosphere and it's a little more of a trade-off with the audience as opposed to that "I'm here with my girlfriend. This is costing me $22.50. I just bought a couple of Mojitos. Bring it."
Brian: Interesting take on that. I've never heard that side of it before. What or who makes Tom laugh?
Tom: I just this morning found a video on YouTube of Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler doing "Kristen Schaal Is A Horse" at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. And I was watching it with my coffee and English muffin in the morning. And I don't even know how I got into this position, but I was sitting there watching "Kristen Schaal Is A Horse" with my coffee in the morning laughing my ass off. I couldn't even hold it together I was laughing so hard. And I'm still not really sure why I was laughing so hard. I still don't know why that bit is funny. So, I took four of my friends from the Boston area. I forwarded it to them. These are guys that have regular day jobs and I said, "Guys, I need you to watch this video. I'm not really sure how you're going to react to this. You're either going to be laughing your ass off, or you're going to wonder why I sent this to you." And I sent it off to them. And I got one email back already today and my friend said he was at work and he said his sides were hurting because he was laughing so hard and he didn't want to disturb his co-workers in the next cubicle. So, that's the kind of bit that, to me, makes me laugh. I love analyzing comedy. I love looking at an old bit from whatever it is, like an old clip from the Tonight Show that is very well-written and dead-on. But now the stuff that's making me laugh the most are things that I don't really understand why they're funny. And that "Kristen Schaal Is A Horse" is a perfect example of that because I can't even tell you why it's funny. And I can't even guarantee the next time I watch it I laugh that hard at it, but I just know that I watched it this morning and was laughing my ass off.
Brian: Anything make you roll your eyes?
Tom: Yeah, the one thing about comedy now, the wonderful thing, is it seems like there are a lot of people that are having success again. I wasn't doing comedy at the time, but in the late 80's there was this big comedy boom and you had guys who were becoming big marquee stars in comedy. And then there was this kind of depression when I first started doing comedy where it was kind of oversaturated and things were not as funny anymore and the clubs were filled with hacks and there were too many rooms everything like that.
Brian: That might've been because of your push-up joke.
Tom: Yeah, I might have started it at the high school show. But the people were a little bit weary of stand-up comedy. Now, I feel like there is a resurgence and there is so much fun stuff that's happening in comedy, but there's also been phenomenal successes and so success is back in the comedy world. CD sales, specials, TV deals, whatever. So there is a little bit of weariness in the clubs once again with guys who are, what would you say, 60% ambition and 40% talent, you know? There is a preciousness among some comics with their marketing skills, when these comics become a brand. The thing I don't like to see is when I see a new comic on Comedy Central and I want to see some new and interesting stuff, but instead what I'm looking at is some guy who's really trying to brand himself out of the gate as the "Hispanic hick" or whatever you're doing. It's a little bit much and I know that comics have to do that. And to a certain extent I do that myself, and you want to brand yourself who you are, like my album "Overconfident" because I wanted to take my material and kind of put a stamp on it. What is it about this material that is interesting and different? So you want to do that when you make a CD or something like that. But, it's almost like a "branding-fest" out there now, where you have guys that are trying a little too hard to be the X comic or the Y comic instead of just going out and doing what is funny. So, it could be dangerous. We could be at the precipice where people are going to start getting ready to get sick of comedy again. But it hasn't happened yet.
Brian: I think we see a lot of that here in NYC, because there are so many comics so you see all the different types out there. Do you feel the state of NYC comedy in general is at a good point or maybe people are kind of sick of it?
Tom: I don't know. I think it's better than ever. There may be some sort of insularity in the alternative comedy world, because you have these guys on blogs ripping on each other or whatever, so sometimes that gets a little "inside baseball" but, as far as comedy goes I think it's better than ever. When you go over to UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade Theater] and you see this group that's really funny and they have stand-up shows now that are great. Like Aziz [Ansari] used to have his show [Crash Test], a sold out show at eleven o'clock on a Monday night. It's unbelievable. What does that tell you? That never used to happen. Even in the comedy boom of the 80's, you never had that kind of scene happening. So I would say yes, it's better than ever. That's why you have groups like Flight Of The Conchords getting their own TV deal. Like, what was that? That's a crazy premise for a comedy act whether it's in a nightclub or a show and they kind of conquered both of those worlds. If that came up ten years ago as a premise, they would be like, "Uh, that sounds like a nice for the Elk's Club Lodge show. But you're not going to sell that to a wide audience."
Brian: All comics write differently, how do you personally decide what's going to be a joke on stage for you?
Tom: I don't anymore. The way I used to, I used to come up with ideas then try to convert them to jokes. But now, I kind of like to get up and really wing it. Sometimes what's funny about the bit comes back at you from the audience in a way that you didn't expect. So it's really more of testing it out with the audience and I always find stuff that's funny that I didn't expect. Because they always find other elements. Sometimes you plan it, if it's too centralized planning you're like, "Oh here's a bit. How can I make this funny?" and you plan it all and write it and you try it and it gets a laugh you're like, "Okay, that's great." But it's kind of like testing stuff out with the audience, you can get maybe a cooler idea for the bit because I'll just get up and start yapping and it seems to be heading, I don't know where it's heading. Then something will get a laugh that I didn't expect and I'll say, "OK, hold onto that" and I might bring that into the next show, and I'll maybe develop on that like a virus. Then you have this amorphous bit that you didn't even plan.
Brian: How'd you get the balls to finally do that? Just to go up there with not much planned? Or are you just a talker? Did you try it one night and it worked? Because a lot of comics need to write their set out all the time and be prepared, but you're kind of doing the opposite.
Tom: Yes and I hope that I can keep doing that because I think that it's like trading your reputation, cashing in your chips with the audience. So as you get better and more successful and you get credibility with an audience, there is a certain temptation to just bring the A-game because people are kind of like, "Okay, I've reached this level and I have this funny material, so I have to really now work all my material up into a certain level before I bring it on stage." But sometimes you can take your credibility with an audience that they give you. They'll be like, "Okay, this guy's been around. He's done this and that. I've seen him do that special on TV or I've heard some of his bits. He's funny." So the audience thinks you're funny and you can kind of - you don't want to exploit that and just really get up like the comic great and icon, Lenny Bruce. He would just come out and read his court transcripts. Because he knew these people loved him and they came to see him. So he said, "I don't care if I make these people laugh. They're here to see me. I'm going to tell them what's going on about my legal troubles." And it was boring as hell. It was terrible. So his last shows were horrible. So that was kind of taking advantage of that. But it's kind of like taking advantage of your credibility with an audience and they will give you an inch and then you can try new stuff with them or you can really wing it with them and use their trust to be not so polished. And they will give it to you. And they'll be like, "Okay, I see where you're going with this." And they will laugh. Those are the comics I like. Bill Cosby is great. There's that scene in Seinfeld's movie "Comedian" where he marvels at the fact that Bill Cosby gets up and just sits up there and talks about his life in front of this audience for two hours. And he's incredible. And he gets laughs everywhere. Because Bill Cosby is cashing in all the good will that this audience has for him. If you're unknown, you can't just get up there and yammer about your day. But Bill Cosby is, first of all, very talented and has a lot of stage presence. And then you combine that with his natural ability to tell a story and engage an audience, and the important element is that the audience is willing to trust him and he's willing to cash in on that trust and kind of take his show to the next level. So he doesn't write the kind of jokes that he used to write in the 60's. He comes out and sort of lets it unfold organically in front of an audience and they have a great time. You can say, "Hey, shouldn't a comic be out there hammering out jokes? Isn't it all about your act?" No it isn't. Because that's not what they come for. People don't come to a show to see a well-written joke. Some people do. Some comedy nerds love that. But most people come because they want to share something with the comic. They want to get inside their head. And when you're unknown, the best way to get someone inside your head is to write something crafty that captures them. But you can take it a little bit deeper as you become a better performer, as you take advantage of the trust of the audience. You can get up there without as much polish. And I bet a lot of comics would disagree, they don't like that attitude that as a lot of comics get older. They see a lot of "A-list" guys as getting lazy because their act gets looser and it's not as joke-oriented. But there's something weird to me about a comic who, no matter how successful he gets, he's still just all about the joke. To me, it's ignoring the possibility of what you can do with an audience.
Brian: The freedom you have as a comic.
Tom: Yeah. That's what they want. If I go to a club and see a guy I've never seen before, he better have something to capture my imagination. But if I go in and see Cosby, I don't need him to do his old routines from his albums. I might want to hear him.
Brian: Just talk about what happened yesterday maybe.
Tom: Yes. And I'm with him. I'm hanging on every word.
Brian: Do you think it's a level of comfort? Comics have been doing an act for fifteen years, they know it works and it's just complacency on their end?
Tom: Yeah. And I think that there also is some risk to that. It's risky. There is a comfort to getting up and slamming your material that you know works and just getting your laughs and getting off stage. But then you begin to miss it. If you get to a certain level of success and you only do those weekend shows, and you're knocking it out of the park, but you're not out at the clubs on a Wednesday night, working in these small rooms, there's something you're missing. Like I said, it's hard to work on material when you're killing.
Brian: Yeah, it's kind of like a double-edged sword. The thrill of killing on a weekend night is awesome. But the thrill of trying a new joke out and having it kill too is a pretty good feeling. Depends on which one you want to do more.
Tom: Yeah, and figuring it out with an audience. That's the thing they will unexpectedly be laughing at things that I didn't even think were funny. But I wouldn't have known that if I didn't get up and try their patience a little bit with my loose material.
Brian: I think it's a blessing and a curse nowadays. I think the audience tries harder to be included as part of the show. They like the fact that they can talk out loud and sometimes engage in conversation with the comic. It's a good and a bad thing.
Tom: Sometimes there are people that want that heckle atmosphere. At Rififi the other day, somebody was like, trying to have this snap contest with me on stage. And the guy was kind of heckling and he wanted me to rip on him. But I didn't do it. I started talking with him and it was kind of burning him a bit that he wasn't getting into a snap contest with me but I ended up having a conversation with the guy and kind of neutralizing it a little bit. But that's the only way I can work now anyway. I can't get into a snap contest. I'm not very snappy.
Brian: What do you do when you're not on stage?
Tom: I've got husband and father routine that I'm playing now. I have a two-year old. We do a lot of zoos. We go to the park. A lot of times I'm out auditioning all day, then I'll go home at four o'clock, then I can have dinner, put the kid to bed, then drive in and do my spots at night. So it's kind of ideal. I can kind of be the family guy and comedian at the same time. But basically it's just that. All I do is audition, do spots, then do daddy stuff.
Brian: What was the experience like with the New York Comedian's Coalition?
Tom: It was great. A lot of comics were like, "Oh are you having trouble with the clubs now that you're in there, up against them negotiating? It's going to hurt you with the club owners." But actually it helped because it was a great way to have a peer relationship with club owners and sit down with them, talk about their business and get their feedback and negotiate mano-a-mano. So I think me, Ted [Alexandro], Russ [Meneve], and Buddy Bolton all came out of it with stronger relationships with the club owners than we had before. So that element of it, which I think a lot of comics were even reluctant to get involved or be seen as a leader of the coalition. But once we started, and comics saw us at the clubs with the club owners that we were negotiating with, and we would be standing there talking with them and doing spots, they saw that you can kind of negotiate with these guys and still have a good relationship. I think it gave them the confidence to stand up and stand with the coalition. The whole experience was strengthening relationships with comics and club owners. So it was a win-win for us I think all around. It was a great experience. In the end I remember sitting down with the other guys, the months of times we spent together in diners hashing out all these issues and things like that, it was one of the most satisfying things that I'd ever done in my life. To kind of have an idea, follow it through, and do all the stuff that people do, like organizing, making phone calls and then following up the phone calls even when they don't want to call you back, going in and sitting down and hammering it out. And then hearing it from comics on the other end that you're not getting everything you want, settling for that. The whole thing was very satisfying to see something through to fruition that can benefit you and all these other guys that you know. It's fantastic.
Brian: What was it like getting your Comedy Central Special?
Tom: It was great, and funny. Because for years before that you're like, "Where's my special? Where's my special?" That's just the way comics are. I remember I wanted to get Premium Blend. Then in '99 I got that. And I was like, "Oh cool. I got that." Then I was thinking, "What was I in such a hurry for? I'm glad I didn't get it back in 1997 with my crappy act." And then I wanted immediately my half-hour. After I did Premium Blend I said, "Give me my half hour. I'm ready to go." Didn't get it. 2002, nothing. 2003, "Where's my special?" And then I get it, and then I was like, "Wow, I better get ready for this." I felt like I wasn't ready for the six months [before the taping]. Because they said, "You're on this Fall." And now I have the summer to prepare for it and I'm running around, July, August, and I'm thinking, "Shit, I could use a couple more months for this." The closer I got to it the less ready I felt. And then bang, I did it, and was immediately in a funk. I don't even use the word depressed...
Brian: …I've never seen you not smiling…
Tom: …I know. I'm generally upbeat. But I can say what I had after shooting that special would qualify as the blues for a couple of weeks, because it was like, "That was it? Now what do I have to do? Now I have to write another half hour. An hour? Damn." So I immediately set out the day after the special, I went out to the clubs again and started working on new material which I hadn't done. So I thought, "I've been working on this damn half hour for months. Just running through this material over and over. So I can't wait to work on a new act." So instead of taking that funk that I had and kind of respecting it and taking a couple weeks off, I went right back and started working on material because I said, "OK, I want to have a new half hour by Christmas." So I started working it like a maniac and got a little burnt out. Weeks went by where I was working on new material in clubs and I didn't give it that separation. I was trying too hard. I should have taken the down time and respected it and just chilled and reassessed. Which I did eventually. A few months later I said, "Okay enough of this nonsense with the rushing to try to get a new half hour under my belt." It was a little much. I think I have to respect these ups and downs and maybe if I hit a plateau after doing the special. I wasn't coming up with anything good. I was dying for a new half hour. The stuff I was coming up with was measly scraps. It was terrible. Because I was burnt, I'd been running and running and working emotionally up until shooting the special. So, I had to kick back and reassess. Everything since then has been a major kickback. I've been so mellow and unproductive. No, I've been working on a lot of stuff. Just in a more laid back way. And so, hopefully that's what I'm heading for is another special, and my vision is for an hour long special. And if I work up to that, you better believe me I'm going to do it and take a month off. Go to an island for God's sake. You can't rush this productivity. Respect the plateau. You're going to go up. Your career is going to rise creatively as well. So there will be moments when your career stuff will be getting higher, but creatively you'll be going nowhere. Then your career will plateau, but creatively you'll hit a stride. So I say to comics respect the plateau. If it's level. If you're not coming up with good stuff, relax. You'll get inspired in a couple of weeks. Let it go.
Brian: Golden advice. I like it.
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