Some of the hottest comics working today discussed their influences, aspirations, and dealing with hecklers at the Just For Laughs Festival. Variety’s 10 Comics To Watch were honored at a cocktail reception on Thursday, July 28 before gathering for a panel discussion the following afternoon. The events were sponsored by entertainment law firm Cohen Gardner.
Participating comics included James Adomian and Anthony Atamanuik, Vladimir Caamaño, Cameron Esposito, Jermaine Fowler, Aparna Nancherla, Lauren Lapkus, and Lilly Singh. Roy Wood Jr. and Ronny Chieng, both correspondents for “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” were unable to attend as they were covering the Democratic National Convention, but made it to the fest in time for Friday night’s showcase performance. The only comic to not attend was Granger Smith, a country musician currently on tour.
Asked about their early influences, many cited “Saturday Night Live” and Eddie Murphy, while native Canadian Atamanuik gave a shout out to “SCTV” and Andrea Martin. Esposito, an openly gay comic, revealed that she originally thought she was going to be a priest. She added that at her college, she was not allowed to be out. “You couldn’t be openly gay or you’d be kicked out of school,” she said. “The year after I graduated, they changed the policy.” But it was at college where she joined the improv group My Mother’s Fleabag. “Amy Poehler had been in the group and she was just breaking out on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Esposito said, adding that the troupe put her on a new career path.
Most of the panel knew at an early age they loved performing. “I kind of see it as my personal therapy to get on stage and do characters,” said Lapkus, who added that she enjoys reaching people who can’t see live shows through podcasts like “Comedy Bang Bang” and her own “With Special Guest With Lauren Lapkus.” She continued, “I love getting tweets from people who say they almost crashed their car they were laughing so hard.” She then emphasized, “Almost.”
Adomian cited The Jerky Boys as an early influence, prompting him to make his own prank phone calls as a kid. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Nancherla said she was such a shy kid, “my mom would make me practice [talking by] ordering pizzas over the phone.”
Internet sensation Singh admitted to struggling with depression, which motivated her to make art. “I got my inspiration from being a sad person,” she said frankly. “I discovered YouTube and was like: I’m going to try and make myself laugh and make other people laugh. And that’s what I did; and some people call me funny.”
Singh added that many people still don’t understand what she does as a content creator, noting, “When I had to get my visa the guy at the consult said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I said, ‘I make YouTube videos. And he literally wrote on the form, ‘Owns YouTube.’”
When discussing the dreaded topic of hecklers, Singh went on to say that she has a different experience from most comics, in that her critics are people who can post comments online. “Completely uncensored, racist, sexist, terrible things.” Though she says she’s developed a thick skin, she added, “Anyone who says hate-comments don’t bother them is lying.” To help her through it, she says she keeps a note on her computer that reads: “Focus on what deserves your attention.” She elaborated, “Before I respond to a hate comment, I’ll respond to three positive ones. These are the people who actually deserve my energy.”
Nancherla then joked that she was going to open a school “to teach haters how to spell.” She admitted that she doesn’t get heckled too much, noting, “I have a very non-threatening stage persona.” Fowler told a story about overhearing someone in the audience remark on his “long-ass fingers.” While he didn’t respond, Fowler admits, “I put my hands in my pockets for the rest of the show.”
Esposito noted, “I get an enormous amount of hate that specifically sounds like the sentence: ‘We get it, you’re gay.’ I don’t know what else I’m supposed to talk about – all comics talk about their lives.” In fact, Esposito was also at the festival with her new Seeso series “Take My Wife,” which she stars in with her real-life wife, fellow comic Rhea Butcher. Speaking to the negativity, Esposito said, “I know the position I’m putting myself in. Does it suck? Absolutely. At the end of the day, I just want to be evaluated for the work ethic that I have and also for the fact that I’m f—king funny. That’s what I want people to see.”
Caamaño praised the clubs that will deal with disruptive people, rather than letting them continue to taunt comics and the mentality behind hecklers. “You think because you bought a ticket, you’re entitled to heckle me,” he observed. Asked what he does when someone starts talking back, he said, “I typically don’t say anything at first. And if you listen to a heckler, typically they’ll say something that will sabotage themselves.”
Atamanuik and Adomian were wrapping up a 40-city tour of “Trump Vs. Bernie,” and Atamanuik noted that when he’s in character as Donald Trump, it’s easy to deal with hecklers, as it fits the persona. “Trump is just a very clever disguise for the evil demon I am,” Atamanuik admitted with a laugh. “I like to claim I’m pointing out how horrible he is, but I take great delight in being so awful. But it is comedic activism, because he is the next Hitler.”
The pair have had so much success portraying the politicians, they confessed that they’ve begun to adopt some of their mannerisms. Asked if word has reached either Sanders or Trump about their act, and Atamanuik admitted he briefly met Sanders while walking through Astoria. “An SUV pulled up; a Secret Service guy got out and looks at me and goes, ‘It’s happening,’” Atamanuik recalled. “The door opens and there’s basically James getting out of the car. I tried really quickly to explain the show to him.”
And Sanders’ response? Atamanuik revealed, “He said, ‘I’ve heard of it, I haven’t seen it.’”