If you were sitting in a comedy club and saw Mike Vecchione get on stage without knowing anything about him, you’d think that a cop or a firefighter quit the force to do comedy. You might expect a “tough guy” voice or maybe something akin to a former frat guy telling you the funny ways to chug a beer. So the shock that your average audience member might experience hearing the soft spoken voice of a fella with a buzz cut who looks like he just finished lifting weights only helps emphasize Vecchione’s persona on stage. This shock and confusion, followed by joyous laughter, is what audiences probably experience when they see him for the first time.
And there are more and more first times as the comedy veteran continues to break into the mainstream. However, the Pennsylvania-bred stand-up comedian is no stranger to comedy fans, who have seen him on Live at Gotham, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Half Hour on Comedy Central and Comedy Underground with Dave Attell. He was even a semi-finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2010. In that same year, he was invited to perform on the prestigious New Faces showcase at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. “Vek,” as some of his friends call him, is also on this year’s season of Last Comic Standing, performing on the national stage again, delivering well-constructed and uniquely-executed material. He’s already moved on to the semi-finals.
The hard work he’s put in grinding the comedy club circuit on many weekends is finally paying off. Now his debut comedy album, Muscle Confusion, is available on shelves and on iTunes. I sat down with Vecchione at Broadway Comedy Club, one of the many New York comedy clubs at which he is a regular, to talk about his new album, crafting an on-stage persona and going from road gigs to the spotlight of television.
What I like about hearing the album now, after having watched you for a long time in comedy clubs, is hearing how certain jokes have evolved over the years.
I never did an album before, and I’ve been doing comedy for going on 14 years now, so it’s just digging back to all the jokes from the past and trying to make sure that I got everything out. It’s all in the editing. If you can get the joke out clearly– I did like an hour and fifteen [minutes] for the two shows [we recorded] and they were super long sets. I know the crowd was beat afterwards, it’s not their fault. I just needed to get them out because I figured we could sweeten the laughs later. So it’s just about getting the jokes out and then editing it, which is the important thing. I think.
I’m highly self-critical, but I’m super proud of this album. New Wave Entertainment has been great. Jack Vaughn [Senior Vice President of Production at New Wave] has been great. But I gave them specific notes on how I wanted it edited. They had a great sound guy do it and put it together. I’m really happy with the way that it came out.
No one ever really talks about the technical side, the editing of an album. What do you mean by that when you keep saying that you liked the way that it was edited?
I listened to the raw tracks, and they were long tracks. Like I said, they were an hour-fifteen, an hour-twenty for two shows, which I recorded at The Stand [in New York City]. It sounds great. I asked them, ‘Okay. What’s the process here? Are you gonna edit it? Am I gonna edit it?’ They told me, ‘I guess you can send us notes.’ So what I ended up doing was I had a friend of mine, who’s a comic, and we sat down together to listen. I made the notes and we had the tracks and I sent these meticulous notes to them and then they did it professionally.
Notes are like, ‘This is what I want on Track 1.’ The time code. Like, ‘From 0:00 to 0:30, I want this. Or from 0:00 to 2:01, I want this. And here’s the name of the track. The name of the track is ‘Emergency Row.’” Those are the notes. You’re doing all the tracks and you’re letting them know where it starts and where it stops. And if there’s another note like, ‘I need more laughs here,’ if the crowd was kind of tired at that point. I might say, ‘Can you please sweeten the laughs.’ Those kind of things. Not that the laughs were sweeteend a lot! Ha. I just did a huge incredibly long set.
That really didn’t address anything about the evolving jokes! But the point is that I haven’t done some of the jokes in a long time. None of the jokes from my special I’ve done in awhile. So it’s about getting those jokes out and on tape and documented. You don’t have to deal with them anymore. They’re just done and you can do something new.
So you’re going to wipe the slate clean now and start fresh?
I’m still largely unknown, so whatever the situation calls for, whatever gets me the most exposure with my act I have to do. I’m not a guy who can just throw material away now. If I’m in a situation where I need exposure and I need to use the jokes, I’ll use them. On Comedy Central, when you use them on a Live at Gotham, then you can’t use them on a special. If you use them on a special, then you can’t use them on another Comedy Central show because sometimes they run and they don’t want to overlap material.
If you do The Tonight Show, you don’t want to use the same jokes you used the last time you were on. You’re still breaking into the mainstream, but I feel like comedy fans know who you are, through the half-hour special and Last Comic Standing. But I don’t think a lot of people know that you used to be a teacher!
Yes. I got a criminal justice degree and was working with gang kids. Then I went back at night and got a Masters and started teaching kids with behavioral and emotional challenges. I look back on it now, I don’t know how I did it. It was a struggle everyday for them and for me. It was really tough. These guys didn’t want to be in class a lot of times and it was very challenging to say the least.
What’s funny is I remember a few years ago, I was hanging downstairs here at Broadway Comedy Club watching your set. You started a joke with, ‘I used to teach inner-city youth–’ and someone in the audience raised their hand and yelled out that you used to teach her!
Yeah, I remember that! That was crazy! That must have been nearly five years ago! Time flies. I’ve been out of teaching for a long time now. I was teaching before all of this Facebook and Twitter stuff. It was a better time. None of this online stuff was happening.
Not like now when you could post something inappropriate to your teacher’s wall.
Yeah, I don’t know how they regulate it now. It’s crazy. I guess if you’re a teacher now, you kind of have to stay off the grid. Everything’s mixing together. It’s like, ‘What’s appropriate? What’s not appropriate?’ You just gotta stay out of it. I think.
How’d you transition from being a teacher to doing comedy?
I was teaching and I didn’t like the job that I had. In my last year, I was teaching high school and I was really butting heads with the administration, the parents and the kids. I felt like I knew what I was doing. They felt like they knew differently. So, I resigned. I got my stuff and I moved to New York. I had been doing comedy about three and a half years. I was hosting and started featuring at my local club. Then I just picked up and moved. I was 31 years old. I was like, ‘Let me give it a chance in New York.’ I started hitting it way more aggressively because there’s way more stage time here. I prioritized; I put that first.
How was that transition for you?
I was right outside of Philly and then came to New York. I was old enough to know when I moved here that it wasn’t going to be easy. I was going to have to live lean. I cashed in my retirement. I knew I was going to have to get a part-time job, which I did. I was kind of ready for it so I just started going out every night and working multiple spots, as many spots as possible.
When was that about?
End of 2003. I moved the weekend after Thanksgiving, 2003.
So it still wasn’t that saturated that it was difficult to break in?
No, it was super hard. I remember panicking thinking I wasn’t going to be able to get stage time. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Am I going to be able to get up? I need to be able to get up.’ I started scouting music open mikes. I knew I needed stage time. It’s out there, but you need to have connections in order to get it. The connections came later on as I got to know more and more people over the years. At first it wasn’t there, so I went to mikes. Music mikes were good because the musicians would listen like an audience. Anywhere you could try material, I would go. I would do it multiple times a night before I was in the clubs. And even now that I’m in the clubs, it’s like I go to bar shows and try to switch it up. Some of these alt rooms and bar shows, I feel uncomfortable. I’m not super young. I’m not super hip. So it takes me out of my comfort zone and I’m forced to grow.
It’s hard to picture you uncomfortable or panicking. Your stage presence is very calm and collected.
This ties in with the album title, Muscle Confusion. The real definition of “muscle confusion,” the reason why people do it, is that in order to grow your muscles you have to take yourself out of your routine. You have to take yourself out of your comfort zone. If you do that, and you do different exercises in order to work different muscles at different angles, you’ll get stronger. That’s the same thing with comedy. If you take yourself out of your norm and you flip it and do another room with other elements that are not the most comfortable, you’ll grow as a comic.
So were you doing any road work before you moved to New York?
I didn’t have enough time. I only had about 15 minutes of material. I guess some people can get on the road middling, but when you headline is when you really start getting on the road. I’ve gotten better and better over the years at headlining. First you just try to fill the time, and then you fill the time, and then you get more and more comfortable in that time. In my mind, it’s really just about having a killer hour. It’s guys like Louis C.K. and Dave Attell and Bill Burr who just turn hours over now. I’m not at that level but that’s really the goal.
And this album is you going, ‘Hey guys. Here’s my killer hour.’
Yeah, this is my child. People post on Facebook pictures of their families and their 13 year-old kid. This is my 13 year-old kid, basically.
People might be telling you, ‘Hey Mike! Stop spamming us about the album.’ You tell them, ‘Well, I’m tired of seeing pictures of your kids.’
I’m basically apologizing because in one week I had the album come out and my episode of Comedy Underground with Dave Attell was airing. So I was plugging both of those things. I felt like such a whore!
And now you’re breaking into the mainstream. You’ve done Comedy Underground with Dave Attell, you’ve done The Half Hour on Comedy Central and The Tonight Show. You’re doing Last Comic Standing for the second time. Do you have any thoughts about Last Comic Standing coming back? [Ed. Note: at the time of this interview, I didn't know that Vecchione had taped this season of LCS.]
I think anything that can break comics is good. In 2010 when I did Last Comic Standing, it got me a lot of road work and a lot of exposure. So I’m grateful to them for that. Anything that does that to a comic, whether it’s Last Comic or America’s Got Talent or any of these other shows that can get these guys like us who are club guys some national exposure, I’m all for.
So you’re not one of those guys who have criticisms about the way that show has run in the past?
I get it and I understand that. I’m coming from a place where guys like us who are unknowns, we have to take that chance and we have to let the chips fall where they may. If it’s not a good deal, it’s not a good deal. Being in the position that I’m in or that most of us are in, we have to take that chance. The payoff is national exposure versus failure, which all of us are used to on multiple levels. It’s worth the risk in my mind.
I always like that you have this very specific ‘character’ on stage. And that’s hard as a straight, white guy without being outlandish and high energy. It’s hard to have a character who is still different and stands out. It’s almost this over-patriotic, very over-confident guy.
Over-confident but super insecure at the same time. That’s what I try to portray on stage. Guys usually fall into these categories where some guys are just really good joke writers and some are better at delivering the material. They don’t have strong material but they’re super charismatic. I was more of a joke writer, even when my jokes weren’t that strong. It was just working that and the charisma on stage just comes through stage time. I find that to be funny. I find sarcasm to be funny. I find being super over-the-top to be funny, but also vulnerability. First of all, I am vulnerable. I’m an insecure guy. It helps to bring that out so the audience can see it because I have an aggressive look. I’m a super intense guy, but on the shy side. I was raised to it, though. I’m trying to write to it now, but my father was a super intense guy. He attached all this anxiety to things that shouldn’t have any anxiety. It’s like, ‘Finish all of the food on your plate. There are people starving!’
Looking back at it now, I don’t know why there was so much stress assigned to eating food. It really was. Same thing with driving a car, he taught me how to drive. I was so fucking nervous driving because he was going, ‘This is a weapon. Everybody could die in the car!’ I’d be on a date and I would just be sweating because I was anxiety-ridden because I figured we were going to be in a death trap if I made one wrong fucking move. People identify with that vulnerability. But the jokes have to be strong, too. The crowd will tell you what’s funny and what’s not. It’s largely, as you know, trial and error.
We could definitely call you a veteran at 14 years and I’ve always noticed how nice you were to the younger guys. Years ago, I was just a seater at the club working for stage time and you immediately learned my name and shook my hand every time you walked in. It’s like, you don’t have to know who some kid is!
You guys are the next guys coming up. The way that the industry is, you could be doing the job you’re doing one day and then have a show the next day. It’s just whatever the industry deems you’re right for. I understand that there’s a certain order of things stand-up comedy-wise. We all have a number of years in, and that’s where you are. Except some guys are outliers who are just crazy good at seven years. But I was just never a guy like that that would look down on anybody because I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to look down on me.
Did you experience any of that when you were coming up?
It wasn’t like that but when you move to New York and you start immersing yourself in the clubs, you could see that there’s a hierarchy very quickly. There’s definitely a who’s who in the way that people are treated. Like I said, when I came here there wasn’t Twitter or Facebook or anything. There were very few alt rooms. Now it seems like everybody has a bar show. Stage time was harder to come by back then. You could tell that there was a very definite order of things. There were the guys who had the years in and put in the work and I respected those guys and I watched them. I wasn’t treated terribly by anybody and a number of comics have helped me a lot over the years. We all kind of have to help each other. That’s what works best, at least in my eyes. It’s such a grind. It’s so tough, the way that it already is, to develop without extra negativity.
Now, is a sitcom or anything like that something that you want to do?
I think I want to write or create something, whether it’s a sitcom or something else. The CD was a big deal because it was such a long process. I was involved in the editing. It was a project that started and it had an end to it. I got to see the results and I never had that experience before. When I did The Half-Hour, that was mostly me just doing it and then Comedy Central doing all the post work, which they did an amazing job on. So with the CD though, it was me. It was me making the decision as to where I wanted stuff. I think, whether it’s a Web series or it’s a show or something, I would like the opportunity to do that again. I think I could write something, I could create something. It’s something we do every night in our acts, so I figure if I can do it in my act, I can take it and pour it into a different container.
Mike Vecchione’s album, Muscle Confusion, is currently on stand and available on iTunes. He also co-hosts a podcast called The Passive Aggressive Podcast that he records with fellow New York City comedians Bobby Haha and Ben Rosenfeld.