With his very own one-hour Comedy Central special in the can,
a major national comedy tour at full steam and a movie to shoot — not to mention a rabid fan base — comedian Steve (or Steben to his mom) Byrne is poised to become the breakthrough comedy star of 2008.
On the heels of a successful showing at November’s Las Vegas Comedy Festival, Los Angeles-based comedian Steve Byrne is now crisscrossing the country in the name of the Jameson Comedy Tour.
But when those dates close in New York City in late March, the 33-year-old Pittsburgh native will have plenty on his plate — his one-hour Comedy Central special will air this season and he’ll be hard at work on the feature film The Goods: The Don Ready Story, wherein he’ll act alongside Jeremy Piven and Ving Rhames.
The former door-to-door knife salesman recently took a few moments to talk with Punchline Magazine about his Korean mother, the first time he had sex and what he really thinks of Dane Cook.
I know you’re in the process of moving right now, but when did you actually come out to LA?
Three years ago.
As an East Coast guy, what do you miss about that way of life?
I still love being in NYC because the true comedy scene is there. You’ve got 12 to 15 clubs just in the heart of Manhattan. It’s where you can really work out your stuff. LA is a place to be showcased. Everyone in LA is centered around entertainment. You’ve got every homecoming king and queen who ever had a dream of being a celebrity coming out to LA. And as a comedian, you audition a lot, but at night, even if you didn’t get the audition, you still have The Comedy Store.
I know you grew up in Pittsburgh. So you must tell me, what’s the deal with the fries on the sandwiches?
Yeah, actually they’re on the sandwiches, they’re in the salads. It’s awesome. It’s perfect for me, because I love junk food.
In your stand-up, you sometimes talk about what it’s like having an Irish father and a Korean mother. Tell me a tale of growing up in your household.
My mom – I never really realized it, but now I do – pronounces my name Steben with a “b” instead of Steven with a “v.” How are you messing my name up? You named me. You can call me Mark or something. But how do you name me something you can’t pronounce?
OK, you’re doing the Jameson Comedy Tour, and I see you’ve done the Camel Cigarettes Comedy Tour. Are you making peace with your vices?
[Laughs] Weird thing is, I don’t smoke at all and hardly drink. All I have to do now is the High Times Tour and I’m set.
How’s the Jameson tour going?
It’s going on until March. It’s great. I really love working with Billy Gardell. I just think he’s an amazing comic. Danny Bevins, Nick Griffin, Bert Kreischer — they’re the kind of guys you work with who make you better.
Since last October, I’ve been on the road 52 weeks straight. When you’re on tour, though, you have a lot of camaraderie, which is the biggest plus. The best thing with the Jameson Tour is we were in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. You’re drinking Jameson whiskey the whole time. We’re in Dowtown Dublin on
St. Patty’s Day — it was crazy. And Danny and Billy are cracking jokes all the time. It was a lot of fun.
Speaking of camaraderie, you were also part of a group called Kims of Comedy.
Yes, we just did the HBO Comedy Fest in Las Vegas. The group is a Korean spin-off of The Kings of Comedy or The Blue Collar Tour. There’s Kevin Shea and Bobby Lee from MADTV and Dr. Ken, who has four films in the can. They’re just a great bunch of guys. We’re all so busy, but when we can get together, we really enjoy each other’s company.
So you identify yourself as a Korean, then? Or are you an Irishman or just a crazy comedian?
I just think of myself as an American. I joke around about my mom or Korean relatives. When I first started, I thought it was a crutch. But I also talk about other stuff in my stand-up besides that. I don’t need to do impressions of my mom every two minutes.
Do you have one defining comedy moment that you said to yourself: Yes, I definitely chose the right path?
The first time I tried it. I remember the date: Sept. 30, 1997. It was my first time onstage in New York. For three or four days I had practiced in a mirror. It was actually a lot like my first time having sex — quick, disappointing and I even cried afterward. I was hooked. So I put the blinders on and pursued it to the nth degree and never looked back. I worked seven nights a week, four or five shows a night for seven years in New York.
So do you have any advice for those who want to break into comedy?
There are a lot of people who want to do it and pursue it. And there’s always going to be those coffee shops and bars that you can hit. On the whole, if you’re good enough or talented enough you’ll be at The Improv or The Comedy Store and eventually headlining. It’s like the plight of the salmon: You’re constantly going upstream. There are two types of successful comedians — you’re either talented or extremely motivated.
So you’re obviously on MySpace. Do you think it’s helped you as a comic, or is it just so saturated now that it’s become annoying?
I think it’s helped me. This past summer, I headlined a MySpace comedy tour. I do think there are some comics out there — because of somebody like Dane Cook — that it becomes the more friends you accumulate, the more famous you’ll become.
You brought up Dane Cook. I’ve read trades and blogs and comedy forums on which other comics have ripped on him. What’s your opinion?
I personally think he’s very talented. He’s a driven individual, and that’s the reason he’s as successful as he is. But he’s a means to an end. There are some teens who really like his stuff, but in four or five years they may all outgrow it, and then he’ll be 40 and will probably have to talk about real things besides shitting on a jacket at a party.
Which comedians do you admire?
I have to say that when I first started in New York I was awestruck by two people — Jim Norton and Bill Burr. They’re just so damn funny. They’re intelligent and extremely opinionated. It’s always difficult to have such a strong point of view and have intelligence behind it. That’s making yourself vulnerable and really throwing yourself out there. As a comic, I would still pay to go see those two.
What inspires you as a comic?
I just really enjoy doing it, and I have a lot of fun. There’s really nothing else for me to do. I actually sit around all day waiting to work 15 minutes to 45 minutes a night. My whole day revolves around it. Not
a day goes by that I don’t lay my head on the pillow and say, “Thank God.”
If you weren’t doing comedy, what other job would you be doing?
I don’t think I could do anything else. I had a lot of shitty jobs out of college. I sold kitchen knives door to door. I’d be like, “Hey could I come in and show you knives? I’m a complete stranger, but let me bring knives into your home.” I worked at a buffalo wings place; I washed cars; I was a waiter, a cook. I worked the night shift at a grocery store. But now I can wear whatever I want, I can swear or drink at work and the only prerequisite is that I have to be humorous.
What do you do in your spare time?
Since coming to LA, on Mondays and Tuesdays I’ve been going out and auditioning a lot. I just got a part in this movie that Neal Brennan [a writer from Chappelle’s Show] is directing. It’s called The Goods: The Don Ready Story.
Has the writers strike affected you in any way?
I’m friends with people affected by it. I had gotten booked on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and I got to do it a week and a half before the strike was initiated. If it would have been eight days later, I may not have had my first appearance. That was one thing I kind of thought about; I actually breathed a sigh of relief. Comedians will always be able to put food on table. They can be at a club making a few bucks, but actors need to get on TV or make a film and audition or they don’t make any money.
And what else of yours should we look for ?
In late February or March I’ve got a one-hour special on Comedy Central.
What’s the name of the special?
It’s called Steve Byrne’s Happy Hour. I was gonna call it Chinkgasm, but I didn’t want to get sued.