By Ayla Miller
After a lengthy discussion about which coffee shop was cooler to meet in, old university friend, comedian and 2017 Billy T Jams nominee, Ray O’Leary, agreed to give On the Record the exclusive on his career in comedy, his disdain for post credit scenes in films and his secret love affair with Excel spreadsheets – and it’s all on the record.
A: Can you remember the first time you did stand up comedy?
R: August 10, 2015. I’ve recorded every single one of my gigs since I first started to listen back to most of them. I think the best advice you could give anyone is to record their own material to see if things were funny. I was enough of a comedy fan before I started to know there was a good chance I would suck and it would be a long time until I got better.
Tell me about the first gig, where was it and what did you talk about?
It was at The Fringe Bar in Wellington on a night called RAW Meat Monday which I would say is the main open mic night comedy night in Wellington.
I talked about three things. I tried to make jokes about people who make fun of small towns and a couple of jokes about incest and then I joked about the changing of the flag.
It was six minutes and I’d been to this gig before. I specifically went and watched one the week before so I would know exactly what it would be like. I asked some friends to come along just to watch but I made it sound like we were just going for a night out. I remember them saying they thought the other acts were terrible and we could be way funnier than them, or words to that effect, which I think is something a lot of people think.
I remember there was a guy at my first gig who told me I was going to be terrible, which I already believed, because it was my first time and it makes sense. Afterwards he told me that it was the best first times he’d ever seen. Now he doesn’t do comedy.
How did you get your first gig?
For open mics you always have to ask for a spot on stage and go out of your way so I just wrote an email. When I was growing up I had always wanted to do stand up and I liked making people laugh.
At the time I had an office job in Wellington and I hated waking up in the morning to go to a job. I’d much rather work for 15 minutes a night, so I thought I would try to do stand up. It’s not that I hated my job, it was more that I hated having to wake up with an alarm and go do something I’m not super interested in.
How would you describe your style of comedy?
I’m very dead pan and dry. A lot of people tell me it’s intellectual. I’m very low energy. I’m not excited. I don’t move around on stage. It’s almost as if I’m delivering a lecture.
What’s your favourite kind of reaction from the audience?
A big laugh. I try to always pause during laughs and wait them out. A big laugh is what you want. You don’t want clapping. Clapping is people just agreeing with you. You don’t want them to agree with you, you want them to laugh.
One of the nicest things someone said after a gig was that I had made them think. But you should always try to be funny first.
What was the worst gig you ever did and what was the best so far?
The worst gig was one in Johnsonville, an area outside of Wellington. It was one of the first paid gigs I’d been booked to do. I was some nerd who went on and talked about politics and criminal justice for too long.
Someones phone went off and I decided to ignore it so I didn’t look at them and I didn’t see what was happening. One of them had thrown the guys phone up into the rafters so he climbed on the table to get it and he wasn’t wearing a shirt. I just kept going because I didn’t know how to deal with it. People were a bit distracted.
The best gig might have been one at The Classic when I got nominated for the Billy T Awards. The first thing I said got a big laugh and it doesn’t normally so I knew it was going to go well. Everything I said got a big reaction. That night everyone performed their best and it was a very fun night of comedy.
Tell me about the process you go through to create a set. Do you sit down and write jokes or do they come to you through conversation/everyday life?
In the past I’ve thought of things that annoyed me and sat down and tried to write about them. Very rarely am I struck by divine inspiration.
I have to think of something silly or dumb or that has annoyed me and I sit down and think as much as I can about it and try to churn out some things that I think will be funny on stage.
At the moment I am annoyed with post credit scenes. I think they are silly. You’re in the movie theatre and you’re sitting there and you don’t know whether or not the movie is going to keep playing or not so you have to wait. Everyone else is getting up and leaving and you don’t know if you’ve made the wrong decision or not. Things like that.
Is there a particular time you’ve shut down a heckler that you’re especially proud of?
I really don’t enjoy hecklers. I think you should sit down and be quiet and listen. Well no, don’t be quiet. Laugh. But I really can’t stand hecklers. I haven’t had a lot. If you lived overseas you’d get more, but New Zealanders are more timid, so there’s less yelling out.
You studied philosophy at university. Does that influence your comedy material at all?
Yeah I think so. Indirectly, I don’t think I’d be as good of a thinker or as creative without it and it’s also influenced my values which probably influence what I choose to think about or the way I choose to approach things. More directly, I have a set about a thought experiment and about why you should donate to charity.
Do the rest of your family think you’re funny? Do you find your family funny?
Yes I think they do. I don’t know what other people’s families are like but I feel like all my family are always trying to make jokes and try to crack each other up.
Is there any subject you don’t believe should be joked about and why?
I think in theory it’s possible to make any topic funny but whether or not you should make jokes about it is a distinct issue.
I personally wouldn’t want to tell jokes, for example, about sexual assault or something like that just because there’s a good chance that a high proportion of the audience has experienced it and I wouldn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.
That being said, other people I’ve spoken to, including survivors of sexual assault have said it can be therapeutic to hear jokes about it. But I choose not to talk about it.
Who are your comedy idols/role models?
Stewart Lee, which is embarrassing because the worst people like him and he also makes fun of the people who like him. Norm Macdonald, Ellen Degenres. She was the first stand up special I ever saw. She is so good. Tig Notaro’s specials are really good. Seinfeld, or maybe not Seinfeld, no I like Seinfeld. Scott Aukerman. There are loads of New Zealanders I think are very, very funny. I particularly enjoy watching Guy Montgomery.
What was the last thing that really made you laugh?
There are a few things. I don’t know that I can explain it in a meaningful way though.
It was when my flatmates were going through the drive through at KFC and we started talking about ‘Little Fockers’ which is the trilogy in the ‘Meet the Fockers’ films. It answers all the questions the first ones didn’t.
We just started making jokes about it and then my flatmate went to order KFC and he couldn’t get through the order because he was laughing at his own joke about ‘Little Fockers.’ That made me cry with laughter.
There was probably a podcast I listen to that makes me laugh. You know that song that goes ‘It’s been awhile…’? They make fun of that song. That makes me laugh.
Is there anything you’ve learnt along the way that you wish someone told you before you started getting into comedy?
That’s a good question.
I hope you take notice of that compliment and don’t take anything I say out of context. I hope that’s on the record. And I also I gave you a chocolate fish. Let the record show I also gave her a chocolate fish.
I’m still learning. I mean I don’t know very much at all about comedy. I still think recording your sets and listening back to them is the most important thing. Sometimes I’ll change my delivery or I’ll drop jokes that didn’t get a laugh. There’s probably things about how to structure a one hour show that I would like to learn.
Where else have you performed comedy and do you get different reactions depending on where you are? How do people’s collective sense of humour differ?
Wellington audiences are generally very supportive. I’ve had good gigs in Palmerston North and Tauranga as well. And all age groups. It’s not only young men like me. It’s just more likely them, but lots of people, middle-class middle-aged women, my dad.
When you’re not doing stand up what else do you do? Do you have a day job? Are you working on any other projects?
When I’m not writing stand up I write shows for television. It’s a lot harder to be full time just doing stand up. Most New Zealand comedians supplement their income with some kind of writing job. Whether it’s writing a column for a paper or writing for TV. There are a few who just survive on stand up in New Zealand or by appearing on ‘7 Days.’
New Zealand is lucky that the industry is so small that everyone knows everyone. You get noticed soon enough.
What do you hope people take away from your gigs?
The main message I want to get across is that I’m funny. When I first started I definitely thought that if you’re going to be getting on stage you should be saying something important or trying to make a good point.
I think that less now because I’ve noticed that when I watch comedy I can watch very silly things and cry with laughter. If you can get a message across then that’s good, but provided you are making people laugh, you are doing your job.
Like, I recently watched my flatmate do a new set and he was making fun of some lyrics in a Pitbull song and it was very funny. There was nothing more to it other than Pitbull writes very bad lyrics but it was still very funny.
What motivates you to keep doing comedy?
It’s my favourite way of making money. I hate office jobs. When a gig goes well it’s just a really, really good feeling. When you’re on stage and you drop a line and it gets a huge reaction there’s not a better feeling.
What’s your biggest strength in comedy and what’s your weakness?
I feel like there are two big parts to comedy. Joke writing and delivery and I think I’m definitely stronger in joke writing than I am in delivery.
I think because I’m low energy it’s harder to get the crowd excited so I have to be even better at joke writing to compensate.
I feel like there’s no one else who delivers jokes quite like you at the moment.
Aww that’s very sweet. I think Angella Dravid does kind of. She constantly creates tension in the room and then releases it and then squeezes that tension again, releasing it, creating laughter.
I find repetition very, very funny. That’s something Stewart Lee does a lot. Comedy is just incongruities or benign violations.
It’s some guys theory that when you violate the rules of logic or rules of morality and if you do it in a benign enough way, that’s what makes it funny.
So you’ve read up a bit about the theories of comedy?
There’s the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which is a very good resource online if you want to read up about philosophical things. It’s free to access and written by different academics. It summarises different issues and there’s one about the philosophy of humour.
The incongruities theory is about putting two ideas together that don’t really fit. I remember thinking as a kid that’s what makes a joke funny. When you surprise someone. You do the set up and then give the punchline they didn’t expect.
Do you have a hidden talent/party trick? If so what is it?
I was going to say comedy.
No! That’s not hidden. We’ve just been talking about it for 40 minutes.
I like to think I’m interesting to talk to at parties. I am good at remembering music and lyrics and I might know Excel spreadsheets better than the average person.
How did you learn so much about Excel spreadsheets?
I just operate them a lot. Spreadsheets are a good way to keep track of things.
Do you use spreadsheets when you’re working on your material.
I thought so.
I have a colour coded system to keep track of… oh no I don’t want to..
Is it like green for good?
No it’s more complicated than that.
Oh ok. I wouldn’t understand.
It is a colour code system but it’s more than just green and red and it’s a number code system. I can’t believe I just said that. Take that out.
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