Busy everyman comedian Tom Shillue is more than confident in his ability — he’s Overconfident, the apt title of his new CD. So exactly what stokes the jokes in this husband, father, comedian (and admitted dork)?
By John Delery
It’s lunchtime on W. 14th and 9th in New York City on the sort of unseasonably cold, heck, unreasonably cold March day that would make even the cheapest person ante up to send Old Man Winter somewhere so south he’d have to wrestle Satan for the one melting cube in the ice machine. But nothing, not even OMW’s severe cold breath, can eclipse the California-sunny disposition of New Englander Tom Shillue, the Pathologically Positive Comedian.
He blows into The Diner (apparently, judging from the recognizable customers, the off-duty hangout of comedians working Comix around the corner) on the force of his breezy personality. He’s here to refuel before another voice-over audition and to discuss Overconfident, both the title of his new CD and the where-does-that-come-from adjective that nevertheless succinctly describes his comic persona and evidently the offstage Shillue, too.
“I suffer from high self-esteem,” he confesses, borrowing one of the funniest lines from his stage show, Dad 2.0, while removing his jacket and a corduroy newsboy cap, hardly body armor in the war against winter.
“A lot of comedians superimpose a character on top of themselves,” Shillue resumes after ordering an omelet and french fries. “I’m not playing a character. I’m playing myself. I am cool — at least in my head.”
Shillue, taxiing toward 40, if not there already, sounds like a comedian, in that he tells jokes for fun and profit. But he looks like the kind of harmless, agreeable softie (Translation: succccccker) that aggressive comics aim potshots at from their sniper’s position onstage. Absolutely nothing about his appearance (Sears-catalog-male-model slim, not GQ buff) or bearing (affable but not Ryan Seacrest cloying) even whispers cool or suggests an upbringing other than “Brady Bunch-ian in the ‘burbs.
So if necessary to label him, then consider Shillue suburbane, i.e., someone too cool for private school but otherwise the entertaining Hobbbit-reading, flashlight-tag-playing-in-his-teens-no-less dork next door. Then again, Shillue need not peer into a mirror to see himself; he’s in on the gag.
“I’m cool,” he announces early on Overconfident, available on March 27. “That’s clear, right?” he asks, a leading personal question that the audience at Gotham Comedy Club in NYC answers honestly, with laughter, the desired response, really.
It turns out Shillue has become the hilarious neighbor, his aspiration, sort of, while navigating childhood in Norwood, Mass., an exurb of Boston, where he spent lots of time, make that plenty of prime time, watching acrobatic Dick Van Dyke and button-down Bob Newhart on their TV shows.
At the time, though, he clearly saw more of his father than himself in those two workaday comic gods (whose characters, both familiar family men, wore suits to work and left for the office at 9 in the morning and came home at 5 every evening) because what didn’t Shillue want to be when he grew up?
“I didn’t want to be an entertainer,” he says while spearing three french fries with his fork. “I envisioned myself as one of those guys with a briefcase, like Dick Van Dyke or Bob Newhart. I thought I’d become an ad man or an architect like Mr. Brady.”
Like Van Dyke tripping over that inescapable ottoman, Shillue fell into comedy after graduation from Emerson, a prestigious communication and arts school in Boston, and the equivalent of clown college for Steven Wright, Denis Leary, Anthony Clark and David Cross, among other conspicuous comedians and alums.
After singing for a while with an a cappella group at colleges nationwide and later reciting corporate speak at Universal Theater in Florida for 20 minutes of every hour, seven times a day, Shillue’s career in comedy sprouted in 1993 – apparently from a seed planted several years earlier by another Emerson graduate, Spalding Gray, an actor and screenwriter known best for his monologues, though not the type Leno, Letterman and Conan deliver. No, instead of spouting one-liners one after the other for five minutes, Gray would take audiences on two-hour journeys through his subconscious and life.
“I remember seeing him in college,” Shillue recalls, “and thinking, Wow, I didn’t know that was possible.”
Shillue, like Gray, enjoys talking about himself and the characters in his funny life story to strangers who pay for the updates. So on Overconfident, he personalizes jokes from all the major comic topics: sex, dating, race, though in a PG style befitting this sweater-vest-wearing (a heckle-able offense in at least one comedy club in New Jersey) husband and father, who carries a photo gallery of his young daughter in his BlackBerry and has been known to launch a spontaneous exhibition at professional gatherings.
“I’m pathologically positive about things,” he reminds his audience of one, making Shillue an anomaly in an occupation teeming with mopes and misanthropes who cleverly disguise their loathing (of themselves and others) in laughter.
He makes parenting sound like the most amusing job on the planet in Dad 2.0, his hour-long stage show at the Ars Nova theater in NYC. It seems the updated Dad has the same hardware as the previous version, but, for better or worse, is wired differently.
So Shillue kicks in the double doors and brings the audience with him into the delivery room, for generations the mysterious birthing chamber off limits to The Impregnators. (“When my sister was born,” he recalls in his act, “I remember exactly where my father was: at home, spooning out spaghetti to my brothers and me. When the phone rang, he said, ‘Hello. Uh-uh. OK, yeah.’ Then he hung up the phone and said, ‘Well, you’ve got a sister; pass the cheese.’”)
His being a father and a comedian, writing a funny show about parenting should have been easy for Shillue. It was a positive experience for him: positively painful. “I’m used to going onstage, getting laughs and leaving,” he says, fittingly rocking forward and back while discussing his other “baby.” “Suddenly,” he continues, “I’m being told I need an arc. Suddenly, I’m being told, ‘Those jokes are funny – but cut ‘em Somehow, I was tricked into writing a show.”
He does not carry the telltale briefcase to work, but Shillue is a businessman nonetheless. He is building the Shillue brand onstage at clubs, in theaters and through his wry contributions to DailyComedy.com.
“It’s weird that the biggest show around these days is American Idol,” says Shillue, who, instead of speaking in comic bursts, measures each syllable. “It’s like this Schwab Drugstore ‘waiting to be discovered show’ in a time when so many other entertainment outlets are available. If you’re not using them, if you live and die just playing clubs, you’re being about as productive as someone who buys a lottery ticket every day, hoping to become rich.”
Someday, somehow, Shillue wants to win the Seinfeld lottery and cash in. But until then, he earns more than enough money to support his wife, their child and his habit. He’s a comedy addict, confirming: “This is my life’s work!”
Of that Tom Shillue is positive.
For more information, check out Tom’s official site at www.tomshillue.com