Phil Hanley Is Taking It Easy

At least, that’s how it seems when he’s on stage and performing, often at The Comedy Cellar in New York City.
Hanley
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Phil Hanley has a laid back approach to his material, which is more self-deprecating than punching up or down at anyone.

Most recently, Hanley financed and produced his latest special, “Ooh La La.” He betted on himself. It paid off and resulted in a brisk, tightly constructed 45 minutes of consistent laughs, both big and small. Hanley, who has plenty of nostalgia for his high school days of dropping acid and skateboarding in Canada, talked to us about his earliest experiences in comedy, the Grateful Dead, and dyslexia.

What work went into self-financing and producing your special?

Well, I did have a producer and my friend directed it. Russell Marcus Price directed it, but just coming up with the design for the backdrop, I taped it in one of the Comedy Cellar venues and other people had taped specials there before because they’re really generous with letting us use the venue and stuff. I wanted it to look different. I had to design, come up with the backdrop, and then hire people to build it all out. There are five cameras. I can write the jokes and perform them, but all the other stuff is just really not anything that I have a strong grasp of. It was a lot of work and then you tape two shows and edit it together, and it’s just a whole thing. It’s all new. I had done a special in Canada when I first started and I did a Comedy Central special and you just show up when you’re not doing it yourself. This way, there’s just so much going on.

What clubs did you play at in Vancouver?

Yeah, I started in Vancouver. There were tons of open mics and stuff that I did, and then there was a great club here called the Comedy Mix that now is no longer. It unfortunately shut down. But yeah, I was lucky. When I started comedy, I moved back in with my parents and the club was an eight minute walk. It was so close.

This is one of the rare specials in which the comedian doesn’t mock their parents. They sound great.

Yeah, it’s funny. My parents, my dad, was a huge comedy fan and particularly a standup fan. They were onboard right away. Even now when I’m home, I’ll be talking about my friend Sam Morale at dinner, and then I’m going out to do a show in Vancouver and I’ll hear my dad watching a special or I’ll mention a comic. They’re older, they’re retired and stuff like that, but they’re pretty hip to the current standup scene.

How do you decide when you know an hour of material is ready to go for a special?

Well, I’m not a perfectionist in any other area of my life, but I could just work material over and over again and I kind of set a date. Because what I needed to do was to set a date and then just get on your agent to fill out the weekends. You can overthink these things. I knew that I had three months [before filing] on the road then to really tighten stuff.

Of course, as you’re about to tape, all of a sudden you have all these new bits and stuff and have to decide, do I just love this bit because it’s brand new and I haven’t done it a million times? Or is it actually up to par with the other jokes in the special? With comics, your mind tends to play tricks on you. You’ll have a brand new bit where you think it’s the best thing in the world, but it’s really just fresh for you to tell so you got to kind of figure that out.

What were some of the brand new bits in the special that stayed?

I think there’s a bit that was really new. It sucks now. I was able to do it up until I just played San Francisco and I was able to do a lot of the material from my special because it hadn’t come out yet. But the joke about a scientific study that said that unstable women were better in bed. That was a real thing. I didn’t read the whole study, but I did read that headline and then I just had that bit for so long and I was trying to figure it out. I was trying to figure it out and there were so many angles. In my head initially I was like, “Well, unstable women, I guess I’m sure to some I would be considered an unstable man. Does that make me better?”

I just couldn’t figure out the right thing. And then you just get it and something just clicks. Some jokes come to you and are so easy right away. You try them that night and they’re kind of there. And then other things you’re just like, no, something’s funny and you just can’t quite get at the right angle. That was one that I had had for probably a year and a half and tried different things and then would drop it for a month and forget about it. And then a comic would be like, “Oh, I love that premise you had.” I was like, “Oh, yeah. Okay, I’ll try that again.”

What would you say are some of your favorite clubs that you go to test out material?

There are some clubs that you just trust. Some clubs are just easy, because the crowds are just pumped. For me, working at the Comedy Cellar is ideal because it’s a mixed crowd. It’s now basically a landmark so there are tourists, they’re from another state, but they’re kind of hardcore comedy fans. And then there’s just local New Yorkers that have been going there forever. I’m really lucky to get to play there every night because it is a good mix of people. If stuff works there, you’re pretty sure that it’s going to work.

Sometimes you’ll go and it’ll work on the road, a joke will work in a 45-minute set because they really get to know you and then you’ll come back and it won’t be hitting the same way at the Cellar and you’re like, “Oh, no. It’s not as strong as I thought it was.” But to me, the Cellar is a great place to get a read on a joke. I feel like if something hits there, unless it’s New York-centric, which I tend to try to steer away from, you know it’s going to kind of work everywhere.

I like that the Cellar actually keeps an eye out on the crowd, making sure they’re respectful.

Oh, yeah. Totally. I feel like people are well behaved there compared to other places. Sometimes on the road you’re like, nevermind in a comedy club, I can’t believe an adult would behave this way, just indoors. You’re like, “What are you doing?” They police those rooms and they make people lock up their phones and stuff like that, which is nice because then you feel like you can maybe take a risk or try something knowing that no one’s going to be videotaping it or whatever.

It’s funny watching the special, there wasn’t too much material where like, oh, this is stepping or dancing over a line. It was all good fun, even if something was teetering on the line. You know what I mean?

Oh, yeah. I want people to laugh and have fun and obviously, not take themselves so seriously. If people are offended or whatever, that’s not my goal. I don’t feel I’m being rebellious if someone gets offended or anything like that. I really want a room of strangers to all laugh, not to say that I still can make fun of things, but as long as any group doesn’t take themselves too seriously, they’re not going to be offended.

You have an easygoing presence on stage.

It feels easygoing, but putting it all together and all that stuff isn’t easy. It’s funny, I’m severely dyslexic to the point where people didn’t even realize. Now I’ve started working with dyslexic organizations and I’m on the board of a big one called Eye to Eye in the States and I had the opportunity to go and talk to kids that are dyslexic, and I’m learning more and more, but part of it is organization and getting out the door and getting to a place on time is challenging.

Coming up with material is always hard. It can be challenging, but once I’m actually on stage, I know I’m not late, I’m not running back because I forgot something, that part is easy. I think part of that is just because having a learning difference makes everything else so challenging that once I’m on stage, it is fun and it is kind of, for me, the easiest part of the day. But with that, memorizing material and all that stuff can be more challenging.

Do you tape your material to practice?

Even though I have so much difficulty reading and writing, for some reason I still like to write out jokes. I feel they’re their best when they’re written out. I always have a legal pad. I print them out in big grade three lettering and my spelling is always mocked by my colleagues and my printing. My friends always say it looks like a ransom note, but that’s just the way I do it. 

What are some crowd reactions you get for speaking about dyslexia? Do you ever meet people who relate or feel better to have a laugh about it?

Jack, it’s so crazy. I’ll say, I’ll play the late show. I was in San Francisco a week ago and your openers … you play Denver, wherever, you go on stage and it’s late and the people before you might have just talked about sex. Really sensational things and these graphic sex stories. I go up and I’m talking about being dyslexic. It’s so common and it’s affected so many people, that people are like, it’s hitting. It makes no sense that I can talk about an experience I had in the first grade, not being able to read, and it’s hitting hard at 11:15 on a Friday night where people got up, went to work, went for dinner, went for drinks, then came to the late show.

Or at the Comedy Cellar, sometimes I’ll go on at 1:00 a.m. and I’m talking about being a kid in special ed and it’s hitting. I think it’s really common. I do meet people afterwards, and that’s generally what they want to talk about. It’ll be someone whose kid’s dyslexic or someone who is dyslexic themselves or had some type of learning difference.

Must feel nice turning those experiences into feel-good comedy, right?

My favorite part of comedy is that you have a bad experience, you have a heartbreak or something tragic happens to you, when you’re a comic and especially with your friends, you’re surrounded by comics. You’re immediately like, “Oh, that’s going to be a great bit.” It’s almost the worse something happens, the better. You’re going to get something out of it. Even though obviously it sucks and is painful at the time, heartbreak or whatever, you do know in your head, you’re like, “I will get something out of it.” 

You take a shitty experience and then if you get five minutes of jokes out of it, you can tour that for a year and a half and kill doing those jokes. It feels almost worthwhile when going through a bad experience. That is like 100 percent the beauty of comedy. You do get something out of it when you go through something shitty.

When did you start talking more about dyslexia in your stand up?

Some of my first jokes were about being dyslexic. I had a therapist here in Vancouver and he observed that. I didn’t even realize what the hell I was doing, but he was really interested in comedy and he’d ask me about it at the end of our sessions and I would tell him and he’d be like, “You’re taking these negative experiences and making something positive out of them.” That is the best part.

As far as being empowering for dyslexics, I think it does help. It certainly helps me. Currently, I’m in Vancouver. I’m writing a book about being dyslexic and as I was doing the research, my jaw would drop, because when you have a learning disability, you all experience the same things, but you really suffer in silence because when you’re a kid, you’re not going to like… I was in special ed, but you don’t really connect about it. You’re just so bummed that you’re being forced to do this thing that you have so much trouble doing or whatever. Yeah, I think it is empowering just to also know that people go through similar things.

So many great comedians have come out of Canada. What material is really specific to there? 

Well, that’s interesting. In certain cities, there’s always local jokes or whatever, and sometimes you’ll see it on the road. I think part of the reason is that there’s a long line of Canadians that were funny; we are in, like it or not, and some would dispute, but we’re still in the shadows of the States. 

For example, if there’s an American election, it’s a huge story in Canada. Where if there’s a Canadian election, you guys have your own stuff. We’re really still in the shadows. I feel like that’s just the best place to be. Even in the sense, I’m sure in families, the younger siblings might be, I think in my family, I’m the youngest, but the younger siblings might be the funniest just because we’re, I don’t know, just observing. We’re just observing a lot. I feel like in Canada we have our own culture and our own stuff going on, but they’re also, every day, we turn on the news or CNN or whatever there, we do spend time observing what’s going on in the States.

How’s the book going?

The book, it’s going well. Yeah, it’s quite an endeavor and I have been really enjoying it. I’m a huge Grateful Dead fan. I put on a show and then I try to write, stay at my desk and write for the full show. If you know the Dead, that’s a pretty good writing session. They play for three hours.

I do that sometimes as well.

It’s the best. I did that when I started comedy. Before I even started comedy, I used to write screenplays for kids movies and stuff. I would do that and I put on a Dead show. I have this huge encyclopedia of every show, and I would look, I’d pick a show, and then I would read a little bit about it. As I was writing and I was also going, “Oh, wow. Brent really is going off in this ‘Turn On Your Lovelight.’”

Also, I can only listen to shows from the late ’80s and early ’90s if I can’t write with some blistering show from ’77 or something like that or the earlier stuff. The book has been going good, though. It’s long because I write slowly, but it’s pretty trippy. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but if you’re trying to write about things that happened years and years ago, if you really, day after day, if you’re thinking about these events, you start coming up with dialogue and there are times you can be pretty accurate.

Let’s journey back in time. How were your acid experiences in high school?

I took acid in high school. Part of my motivation was I couldn’t read. I was forced to go to school. It was stressful, and I took acid, and I knew that even there were dudes that were considered partiers that considered acid dirty or too much of a drug, whatever. I always felt a little bit weird about it. And then years later, I’m in a therapist’s office and my therapist’s like, “Yeah, you were so stressed and unhappy with basically your nine to five job, which was school, that you needed a release that took you to another dimension type thing.” It agreed with me. Although I don’t take it now, I do look back at those experiences so positively. I had a blast, but I realize it doesn’t agree with everybody. It certainly agreed with me at the time being in high school and taking acid and skateboarding on a summer night.

Sounds pretty great.

Yeah, absolutely. And then I love the Grateful Dead while I’m drinking chamomile tea, but the Dead while on LSD, especially those wild shows where they were most likely taking it themselves is wow, that’s really the ultimate, you got chocolate bar in my peanut butter. LSD and a skateboard and a Dead show is, when I was a teenager, that was about as great as it got.

Did you ever go to any Grateful Dead shows?

I’ve been to different carnations of the Dead, I’ve probably been to close to 100 every chance I got. Tons of Bob Weir and RatDog shows. I play San Francisco, they always booked me the weekend before the Dead played Shoreline, so I’d always get to see the Shoreline shows, and I always go to City Fields in New York, and I saw Phil Lesh and Friends and the Dead. Anything Bob Weir does, I’ll support. Another dyslexic.

Oh, really?

My favorite dyslexic, Bob Weir.

I didn’t know that.

Oh, dude. He is so dyslexic. He plays guitar like only a dyslexic can. He’s such a unique guitar player. I love bringing a friend to a Dead show and a musician or whatever and they’re smoking. They get a little fucked up and then all of a sudden they just start saying to me, “What the hell?” He just plays his chord so uniquely and he’s such a unique player. As a dyslexic, I’m like, “Yeah, you would approach it that way only if you were dyslexic.”

Did you ever get to see Jerry Garcia?

I did get to see Jerry, yeah, when I was really young. You can’t put into words what it’s like. I get goosebumps. I remember once I was at a show and I had looked away for a second and the crowd cheered, and I turned to my friend, and I’m like, “What happened?” He goes, “Oh, Jerry lifted his leg.” Everyone was so focused on him, and he would solo, and then the whole arena would exhale at the same time.

Nothing really touches that. I guess maybe John Coltrane or these legendary performers that people talk about losing themselves in their music. But with Garcia, it was like, and I didn’t have enough life experience to fully understand, but it was an absolute lift off. When he would play or solo, you’d just completely lose yourself, and then the song would end, you’d take a deep breath and the next thing you knew, you were in the middle of it again. It was incredible.

Now I go to shows and I’m kind of sober. I just take it in and enjoy it. But yeah, man, Garcia was unlike anything else I’d ever seen. I’ve seen tons of all the jam bands now, but he was the guy.

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