Phil Hanley is stoked to be talking to High Times. As we connect by phone, Phil recalls being a teenager and the “thrill” whenever one of his friends was able to procure a copy of the magazine. Now he’s part of the magazine’s history.
Phil leaves his mark on the mag regaling us with his journey into comedy, his move from Canada to the U.S., and his discovery that getting obliterated on cannabis is not the only way to enjoy it.
I hear you’re a huge Grateful Dead fan. How did your obsession with the band start?
Phil Hanley: I first discovered the band when I was a really young kid. I loved their name and their imagery of skulls and lightning bolts. I loved heavy metal and was like, “Whoa, these guys must be so heavy!” But then I listened to them, and while it wasn’t I anticipated, I was hooked right away.
I’m dyslexic and was in special education as a kid. I found out Bob Weir—who played rhythm guitar in the band—was also dyslexic. When you’re a kid and you’re in Special Ed, they’re always like, “Hey, Tom Cruise is dyslexic.” I remember being like, “Stop telling me [Tom Cruise is dyslexic]. It means nothing to me. [Tom Cruise] being dylexic doesn’t help get me through the day.” It didn’t make getting off the short bus or the walk into school any better knowing that Tom Cruise was also dyslexic. But to find out Bob Weir was dyslexic, that was a totally different thing that helped take the sting off.
It helped you own it more. Like, “Fuck yeah, Bob Weir has dyslexia and I do too.”
Phil Hanley: Totally. It was the first time that it dawned on me that there was an upside to dyslexia. Now, it’s more of a trend where people are like “Oh, dyslexics think this way or that way.” It wasn’t like that when I was a kid. No one said anything positive about being dyslexic until I learned Bob was dyslexic. Then it became a badge of honor.
What then, prompts a self proclaimed “Dead Head” to pursue comedy?
Phil Hanley: Since I struggled with dyslexia, I looked for any kind of release valve in school, which would mean being a smartass and trying to make people laugh. In my friend group, we would sit around and smoke hot knives—where you’d heat up two butter knives with a blow torch and pick up a piece of hash with them—and I would try and make my friends laugh. Making people laugh sort of became my mission in life and I loved doing it.
Years later, I was living in England and took an improv class. The first class, I made everyone laugh and was like, “Oh my God. This feels like making my friends laugh.” It never dawned on me that making someone who you didn’t know laugh would feel just as good as making your friends or peer group laugh. That was kind of an epiphany.
When you were in England, I imagine you were there for something other than comedy?
Phil Hanley: It’s odd, I was a model in England and a model in Europe. I’d done a car commercial, after which I was like, “Well maybe acting is the thing.” I took that one improv class as a way to get into acting. After I made the class laugh, I quit modeling, moved to Vancouver where my family was living and started comedy from that moment on.
Vancouver, at the time, had a really good comedy scene. I’m a fairly indecisive person, but after my first show, I knew right away that I wanted to be a comic. For someone with no experience though, there were a limited number of places I could perform. I would go to music open mics and at one point, I performed at this weird singles-swingers night at a bar. It was just me and another comic. It wasn’t even really a comedy night. Anywhere I could get up, I would go.
Which is what you have to do when you’re just starting out.
Phil Hanley: Absolutely. That was the one lesson I learned rather quickly—the difference between making your friends laugh and making a group of strangers laugh—is that with your friends, you could do a little subtle thing, and your friends know you so they know that [what you’re doing] is funny. Your friends are like, “Ah, classic Phil.” But to get up in front of an audience [full of strangers], I had to learn how to get them to know who I was and learn my sense of humor as soon as possible so that they’re on board for the rest of the jokes. And that’s something that just takes time. For one, to get comfortable in front of an audience, and two, to get [the audience] to know you as quickly and concisely as possible.
How long did it take you to feel comfortable in front of an audience?
Phil Hanley: It takes years. Maybe five or six years. It differs for people, some are quicker than others. I feel like after doing it for five or six years, I started to get the opportunity to do longer sets and started to headline shows and stuff like that. You find your voice to a certain extent, but it’s a constant process because you keep wanting to dig deeper. At first, everyone does topics about the same thing, like dating, online dating, or whatever. The longer you go, you start talking about more personal things. Even if you do a more generic topic, it’s from a very personal place. I think you’re always trying to get more personal or share more with the audience.
Digging deeper in yourself can often translate to a better experience for the audience.
Phil Hanley: It’s almost like the more specific you are and the more personal you are, somehow, the more it relates to a wider group of people. It’s weird how coming from a genuine and personal place becomes more relatable.
And the audience can sniff out if an act is being forced.
Phil Hanley: I think honesty is so key. It’s almost more important than when you’re having a one-on-one conversation. You could ask someone how they’re doing and they could respond, “Oh, I’m good,” when they’re not. In making small talk, the person will just move on. But in front of an audience, if you’re not honest, it’s definitely less interesting and you might get tuned out. If someone is honest right out of the gate—on stage or in real life—you can’t help but connect with that person.
What inspired your move to New York?
Phil Hanley: When I first started comedy, a documentary called “Comedian” came out. It documented Jerry Seinfeld going through new material from scratch and it took place in New York City. I’d always loved New York and I visited as a kid and teenager. But it’s hard for a Canadian to emigrate to the U.S. You need to get lawyers and visas and all that stuff. In the documentary, Seinfeld is running to all the clubs in New York, hitting two clubs in the same night as he’s working on his act. One of the clubs where he was hanging out a lot, having dinner and doing spots was The Comedy Cellar. I decided my goal was to start comedy, become good enough to emigrate to the U.S., work at The Comedy Cellar and be a regular there.
I started working at [that goal] everyday. After about eight years, I had enough experience in Canada to get a work visa, so I moved to New York with the dream of working at The Comedy Cellar.
Your goal was so specific and you achieved it.
Phil Hanley: You hear all the time how you’re supposed to be really specific with your goals. I never really did that besides for The Cellar.
I was opening for someone on the road and they said they’d vouch for me for an audition at The Cellar. I said “no” at first because I just wanted to be in New York and get used to the crowds. I spent a year touring and performing at really rough shows in New York, and after the year, felt ready [for The Cellar]. I got my friend to reach out and I got an audition at the club.
It never really dawned on me how specific my goal was, but I guess it’s true what they say. It’s key to be specific about those things.
You mentioned smoking hot knives as a kid. What role does cannabis play in your life today?
Phil Hanley: It played such a huge part growing up. I loved the ritual of rolling a joint, hanging out with friends and trying to make them laugh. My humor kind of came from smoking weed with them and watching “Kids In The Hall,” “SCTV” and all these other great Canadian shows. We’d all smoke as much as we could possibly smoke, which you can’t do now because it’s so strong. I actually stopped smoking for years but then was talking to a friend who was like, “I’ll just take one puff, walk around and think of material and ideas.” Again, it was this epiphany moment where I was like, “Wait, one puff?” Growing up, we’d smoke until we were comatose on the couch.
Now, I’ll take a one hit and walk around the city and think about things or I’ll go to a Dead & Company show and take one hit during the first set and one hit during the second set. One hit is perfect now.
Follow @philmhanley and check out http://www.philhanley.com/ for tickets and tour dates