In a lean but not very mean 40-minute special for HBO Max, Ian Lara not only scores laughs but tells great stories that are, really, contained romantic comedies.
It’s just a smooth special. From beginning until the end, it’s consistent, not to mention gracefully crafted, thanks to director and comedian Aida Rodriguez. Sometimes when comedians step behind the camera for specials, like Rodriguez, they just know how to instinctually respond to the material and performer best.
I digress, but if you haven’t seen “Romantic Comedy” yet, check it out and consider seeing Lara on the road. He has several upcoming tour dates. Recently, the comedian talked to us about his material and his experiences on the road in NYC and elsewhere.
High Times: When did you first start feeling comfortable on stage?
Ian Lara: I’ve always, from day one, I was always happy doing it. I wasn’t one of those dark, sinister comedians who are great but then hate the art. I always just loved stand-up and I was always having a good time. I was always like, this is great.
Where did you first test out material in the early days?
Well, those early days, it was just open mics where you would go pay $5, buy a drink, and do five minutes in front of comedians who hate you and themselves. So, it was tough. Now I’m at a different point where when I write a new joke, I’ll usually just throw it in the middle, I’ll try it somewhere at the Comedy Cellar or The Stand, New York Comedy Club. I’ll just throw it in the middle of the set and see where it lands.
I like the caricature of the self-loathing comedian, especially the ones that turn their noses at people who are very joyful about comedy.
Yeah. I mean, it is a very strange thing when people try to neg you, or mock the fact that you’re being funny, or attempting to be funny in the art of comedy, where you’re like, “I thought that’s what we were doing.” People say things like, “Oh, you do jokes, you have jokes.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I thought that’s what this was.”
It’s weird. There are great comics with that mentality.
To each their own. Everybody has their own thing that they feel works and everyone should be doing. Because everyone thinks that their way is the right way, which is fine. But yeah, I enjoy jokes. This is who I am. That’s the thing, I do that for me, but sometimes I’ll see somebody who has a more one man show-ish type of thing and I love that, too.
So, you’re still working on getting there with comfortability, but when did you start having more confidence in your performances and writing?
Maybe within the past two, three years. I’m joking a little bit about the comfortable, I’m pretty comfortable on stage. I’ve been doing comedy for 11 years. I do it every night, mostly every night. Recently I’ve been telling myself, take nights off, it’s okay. I do most nights, three, four times a night all over the city and the country. So if you do anything that much, you’re going to get a certain type of comfortableness with it no matter what it is. So, I do have that.
Recently, within the past two, three years, you have achieved a couple of accomplishments and it kind of reassures you that, all right, you’re on the right path. You know what you’re doing and it gives you that ability. So I would say probably after I did my first Tonight Show set, I was kind of like, okay, you are a comedian and you are doing this right.
Congratulations on your recent special, by the way. It’s very good.
Thank you so much, man. I appreciate it.
When did you know the material was ready for a special?
I think in this business, people just start to tell you. You have an idea. Even when you have an idea about it, you’re not really sure. I was taping the sets and then I would watch it over and I was like, all right, well this is hitting from start to finish. At least from my perspective, there were no lulls. People were into this from start to finish and then you start going on tour, you go on the road and comedians start telling you, in different markets, comedians will see you do the hour and they’ll be like, “Hey man, that’s ready.” You start hearing that more and more and more, once you get to a point where you’re hearing it, I feel like a lot, then you convince yourself, I think this is ready.
I always like to ask comedians, which cities do you enjoy the most performing in?
I love Minnesota. I like San Diego, I enjoy Sacramento. I like Texas. I go to El Paso, that was one of the first places that was working for me before a lot of the credits, El Paso, Texas. I like Austin, Vancouver in Canada, Philly. Those are the ones that I’m like, all right, these people get me. I feel like any major cities are fun, but even in more rural places that I go to, I have fun. I was just in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which you wouldn’t think, but the audience was a lot older than me and was still a lot of fun.
I think they like their whiskey and good jokes there.
Yeah, that’s the thing. When I was coming up in stand-up, I started going on the road at four years in. I was hosting and featuring on the road. I came up doing these B and C comedy rooms where the audience is generally older. They’re not really these young comedy fans. So, I learned how to work them before I started doing the more mainstream rooms.
How old were you when you first hit the road?
I was 20.
Oh, wow. How do you look back on year one in comedy?
It’s borderline embarrassing. You look back at the first year, I don’t have any of those jokes. I will never tell any of those jokes. You don’t know what you’re doing. That’s why when people ask me about starting comedy and they’re so worried, they’re like, I want to start, but I don’t know how to start. Or I want it to be perfect. I’m like, being perfect, that goal is irrelevant. You have to just go up there and do it. There’s no joke that you’re going to write for day one that you’re going to keep in your set that’s going to make it to your special, or your Tonight Show set. So, just start.
I feel like that advice could apply to so many different fields. I wanted to follow up on the Comedy Cellar. It’s one of the best spots. Any special memories there?
That place is just a dream to perform comedy, especially for somebody like me. Like I said, I’m the kind of comedian that’s like, I have jokes that I have written that I want you guys to hear, that I want to perform for you guys. Some comedians like a crowd, a wild crowd, so they can interact with the crowd. I’m not saying I don’t do that, but I wrote jokes that I want you to hear.
At the Comedy Cellar, you’re just set up for that. It’s a club that’s literally set up for them to hear your jokes. Their phones are put away, there’s security making sure people aren’t talking. The waitstaff knows what they’re doing, and knows the room. It’s just a perfect setup for me. From day one that I was in there, it’s been such a great experience. From meeting some of my idols, like Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, to having conversations with them, to following them. It’s just been amazing for me.
How does performing there, where a lot of hardcore comedy fans go, compare to maybe some clubs elsewhere with more casual fans?
I think the thing about a club, like the Comedy Cellar, they’re a world renowned comedy club. The people that go there, they’re comedically savvy. I’m not saying that the people at the other clubs around the country are not savvy. But these people […] have a favorite comedian, they watch comedies. So they know more or less where we are as an industry. So for your jokes that work there generally, you have to really give them a good show because they’ll be like, “I’ve seen this type of stuff already.”
When you go to some places who aren’t really known for comedy locations… For example, in Kenosha, the audience was great, but generally speaking that audience is not watching a ton of stand-up. So those audiences are great too, because they’re not as snobby. They’re like, “We’re just here for a good time, man. It’s Friday night, we came out, we just want to laugh.” Those crowds are good for that. You could have great shows. But then the New York crowds, I feel like they keep you honest when they’re like, “Hey, that bit you’re doing is hack.”
New York City just seems like a goldmine of material for comics, too.
I was born and raised here. I’ve always lived here. I do have a lot of stuff about being from New York. But again, I’m from here, so this is all I know. When people visit, they’ll see a guy naked on the train and they’ll be like, “What is going on?” I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s the guy that’s naked on the train. That’s what he does.” That’s it. It’s no big deal. Harmless.
What’s your experience with cannabis?
I have gone through phases in my life where I aspire to be a smoker, but I couldn’t find the right thing. I did edibles a couple times, and everybody has their disaster stories about edibles. I found that’s not for me. I’ve tried the pens and then I’m like, I do the pens and I’m like, I’m not high. I don’t think I’m doing this right. And even the actual thing where I’m like this, I just can’t do it, so I’ve given up. Maybe it’s not for me, because I can’t find the right thing. I’m either way too high, or not high at all.
I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of different suggestions, but the CBD-THC mixes, have you given those a shot? It’s a nice middle-ground.
Everyone has a thing that I need to try. Everyone that I speak to has a thing that I haven’t tried yet. I’m always like, all right, send them in. I want it. Some people tell me they have anxiety and they’ll smoke weed and it’ll help them. Some people say that it helps them write. I’m like, I would love that. I would love drugs to help me write. But in my 32 years of living, I have yet to find the right thing for me.
Hopefully one day. Is cannabis as prevalent in NYC clubs as LA?
Yeah, yesterday I was just sitting in a green room and I had to literally, I was like, “Guys, I’m going to go wait outside because I’m getting high. I don’t smoke, so I’m getting high on the second hand, so I’m going to just go wait outside.” Now, when I go to LA, or I’ll go to someplace where weed is legal, I’ll go to the weed shops, try to find a weed pen. A pen is the neatest thing. You don’t have to roll or anything.
I’m with you. Nice and convenient. What do you hope to accomplish in 2023?
First, I want people to watch this new special. I hope people see it and enjoy it. I want to build more fans. I want people to know more about my work, and when I come to their city, I want them to want to come out and see me. I just enjoy the entertainment business. I just want to keep growing in it, whether it be in a TV show, or I’m doing some voiceover work. I’m trying to sell a TV show, so I just want to keep growing in it.
For the special, how’d you and your director decide on the best way to present you and your material?
Actually, this is a big shout-out to Aida Rodriguez, another comedian, great comedian who directed the special. We had a talk when she came, she asked if I would be interested in working with her on the special, and allowing her to instill her vision. We had to talk about what we’d wanted, and from the time we spoke, what we both wanted was the same thing and went from there adding things. So, it wasn’t difficult at all.
How it looks aesthetically is a testament to her and her vision. She’s known me for almost 10 years. She knows my type of sense of humor and the way I perform, and the type of material I do. She just was like, this is the way I want to show you to people. I think it all came together from how it looks, to the title of the special.
I remember from day one she was like, “I want it to seem special.” I was like, “Yeah, I like the smokey look.” She was like, “Yeah, that’ll be great. We can give it a 1980s, ‘90s smokey Richard Pryor or Def Comedy Jam look, where it looks like there’s smoke in the building.” We agreed. For the background, I didn’t want just a curtain. I want it to be lit. She was like, “Yeah, I think orange lighting, I think you’ll look good against orange lighting.” We didn’t want to do a huge venue, so there were only 350 people at the venue. She wanted it to feel intimate, but also have a special look. I think she was able to capture that.
I like that she said, “I want to make it feel special.” For a director to strive to live up to the name of a comedy special, that’s nice to hear.
Yeah. Listen, we’ve, as an industry, it’s just different now. A special, they’re used to be 10 of them a year, right? It was special when there were 10 of them a year. The only people that were doing them were HBO and Comedy Central. They were special then. Now there’s 10 that come out every Friday on YouTube, and Netflix is releasing 50 a month and HBO’s releasing a ton. It’s different now.
It’s not that I don’t think comedians have decided we no longer want them to be special. I just think that they’re not what they used to be. Artists used to make albums, now they got to make a song for TikTok. It just changed. But for what we were doing, we were like, what if we revisit this?
Well, you can’t ever go wrong with smoke. Always looks good.
It was a hipster thing of us. Like, hipsters will take something that was cool in the ‘80s and be like, “Let’s make this cool now.” That’s what we tried to do.