By Matthew Gill and Becca Scheuer
We’ve done something a little different here. Never before, in our nearly five years online, have we presented a video interview simultaneously with a traditional Q&A. But we’ve done it here. Call us crazy, call us in love with comedy; call us poor planners. Call us thorough.
Comedian Steve Byrne’s new hour-long special (his second), The Byrne Identity premieres on Comedy Central on Sunday, July 25 at 10 p.m. EST. All you’ll need to watch and read to prep for the big day is below. You’re welcome.
And now, if you’re looking for more on Byrne, continue reading below!
Steve Byrne’s stand-up has always relied heavily on the topic of his Korean and Irish background. But through a trip to China, he began to focus on the deeper identity issues that go along with being an American of mixed descent and how our personal identities shape all of us.
Talking on this difficult subject matter proved to be the turning point for his comedic style, which has always been more observational and physical. However, now his voice has evolved to use a more mature, argument oriented comedy that tries to prove points and examine issues rather than string observations together.
A Pittsburgh native, Byrne worked his way up at New York clubs and eventually scored a half hour Comedy Central Presents special in 2006 and his hour long special, Happy Hour, in 2008. Now you can see him in his latest special, The Byrne Identity, which focuses on the identity issues that everyone faces, whether due to race, gender, or even music preferences.
Steve sat down with us at the Starbucks that fuels the great comedic minds at 30 Rockefeller Plaza to talk about his upcoming special and how he found his new voice and writing style.
Pittsburgh isn’t exactly a comedy hot spot, so how did you get interested in comedy and start doing it?
I went to Kent State in Ohio, so after I finished at Kent, my folks moved here [New York]. My father got transferred here; he’s originally from here. And I walked up and down Broadway looking for jobs, to get like a job at a restaurant, and I walked into Carolines comedy club. Someone had just been fired, and the manager was right there when I asked and he said, “Yeah, come in tomorrow, you got the job,” and I said great. So I started working at the comedy club and just started seeing all these comedians go up every night, so that was a lot of fun. I never thought it’d be a full-blown profession and that I’d be making a living doing it, but it was fun, so I kept going and going and going.
How did you learn how to do it?
The only way you can build material is by going up every night and failing. For every 10 jokes you write, one’s going to work, and for the one that works, god knows how many times it took me on stage to try to really hone it and make it funny. The wording, the pacing, the hard stuff, it just takes forever to get a joke that finally works. And I hate when people are like, ‘Oh, if I saw you last year, am I going to see you this year with all new stuff?” It’s like, gee, well it takes a while to write this stuff, you know? It doesn’t just happen overnight. I do think that I turn over material faster than a lot of guys. In 2006 I had my half hour, in 2008 I had Happy Hour, and then in 2010 I have this one, so every two years I’m trying to put out another special. So that’s the goal for the next one.
How did you survive it when you first started and were playing clubs all the time?
I don’t know that it’s surviving it, it’s just doing something you love doing and also fantasizing that it’s going to get better. I always had a positive outlook of it, thinking you know it’s gotta get better–it can’t get any worse. So I would sit back and dream of all the things I wanted to accomplish and slowly but surely they started happening.
From that beginning, how do you think your comedy has evolved in terms of style or otherwise?
I think everybody when they’re starting off, you have no idea what you’re doing. My stuff was always very observational, physical, animated, and I think that was due to a lack of experience. The more comfortable you are, the more sane you seem up on stage. I think this special has a lot more weight to it, it’s a lot more intelligent, I think, than the other stuff I was doing. And it’s coming from a place that I’m passionate about it and want to talk about it, because of my background, Korean and Irish, it’s always been kind of a big thing. Well who am I? And thinking about that became the basis of the whole thing: Who am I? And that became who are you? What makes anybody anybody? How do you identify people? And it’s through race, and music, and sex, not like sex but male female sex.
So the special has a strong focus then.
It’s split up into three chapters. Racial identity, musical identity, and then my thesis with males and females was that men are just sexually immature and they come up with terms like donkey punch and stuff like that, and women don’t. Like when I think about a guy’s first toys, they get like a gun or a bike, but a little girl’s first toy is a little girl. I think girls are always kind of forced to be the mature one, whereas guys are given free will to be whatever they want. So that was kind of the tilt I took at that and the thesis I came up with and I tried to hammer that home. It’s really in three chapters for me in this one.
As you’ve gotten “more intelligent” with your humor, is the thesis statement something you try to use as an organizational tool?
Yeah, because before it was just a collection of observational thoughts, and you put the strongest stuff at the end, whereas with this one I’m really trying to tell a story and write about a particular subject. It became a lot easier for me to write this. I basically wrote this in one year. I had about 30 minutes of other material, and it was going to be basically a sequel to the other one, just observational stuff, and I said no, this can’t be what I keep doing, I’ve gotta up the ante and be better. And that’s when I started saying, well, what do I want to write about? What makes me me? And maybe somebody can relate to what I’m talking about. So that was kind of the basis of how it started.
You spoke about your evolution from using observational humor to finding more of a thesis, but how did you find that individual voice?
I think it literally just came from–well it started from taking a trip to China. And one thing that everyone kept asking each other is, “What are you?” And I’m like, “I’m American.” And then I come back to America and it’s like, “Oh, I’m Korean and Irish.” Or you might be Irish and German, Swedish, whatever, and it’s like why can’t everybody just be American? And that’s kind of how that started, with who am I.
Well I’d like to be, and I consider myself, American. Not Korean and Irish. I never wanted to be an Asian comic, because I’m not all Asian. And I don’t want to be an Irish comic, because people look at me and go, “Well you’re obviously not all Irish, what are you?” So it just became a thing–I’m an American, I’m going to write about that, here’s how I view things and here’s what kind of ticks me off about everything. And I just started writing, and it was kind of like I opened the floodgates, and I started writing and writing and writing. So that’s how I discovered the voice for this particular one.
It gave me a lot more license to say, Oh, well I can write about anything now, if I hone in on a subject and start going off on it. So that became how I discovered my own voice, or my new voice, I should say, and really how to write for myself, which has always been kind of difficult for me.
Was there any reason for the trip to China, or was it just for fun?
For fun. Yeah, I went with a buddy of mine; he had two tickets to the Olympics, and he said, “Do you want to go?” And I said, “Hell yeah, I’ll go!” So I went and it was an amazing experience; it literally became the starting point of the special. If I didn’t go I’d probably be doing the same stuff like observations.
You taped the special in November of 2009; since then have you been working on material with this new kind of style?
I’ve actually been working on a new special now that I hope to have out in another two years.
You’ve also done a couple movie roles?
I’ve had a few bit parts in movies; it’s always like 10 seconds. It’s a nice pay day, it’s a break to get off the road. It’s nice. It’s good for the credits. I haven’t done anything that’s really stuck with anybody, that’s like, ‘Oh you were in that great scene.’ So you know, maybe someday I’ll get one of those.
Do you want to break into acting? Or is stand-up your biggest focus?
Well, I’m a comic. To get notoriety, to get people to come see you, you have to have something, whether it’s film or TV, that’ll draw people back into clubs to come see you. You almost need to get to that point.
So you said you’re working on a special; is there anything else you’re working on right now?
Well I just wrote a script for a pilot that my friend and I are going to start shopping around, and we’re looking to sell that. In a few weeks I’m going to Chicago to film a little role I have with Vince Vaughn and Kevin James in a movie they’re filming. Ron Howard’s directing that, so that’s pretty exciting. So right now I’m really concentrating on getting that script sold for a TV show and really just writing the next special.
Is there anything else you want our readers to know about you or about the special?
Just that some people go on these late night talk shows and read a couple jokes to promote a movie, and they might have had a small hand in it. But comedy, you could spend two years, you could spend 10 years working on an hour of material. And all you’re asking people to do is not leave their house; they don’t have to pay for anything, just turn on your TV and tune in.
I really busted my ass on this one, and I think that it’s as good as anything I’ve seen come out in the last five years. So I’m really proud of it, and I hope people get out of it what I put into it. It was really backbreaking at times, some of these jokes. So I hope I see the payoff at the end of it, from all the work it was. We’ll see what else comes out of it.
The Byrne Identity premieres on Comedy Central on Sunday, July 25 at 10 p.m. EST. For more info on Steve Byrne, check out his official site at stevebyrnelive.com. And to order the uncut DVD version (with bonus features), click the image below.