Somerville: 'There seemed to be a way about me where I could appeal to both sexes.'
In a Manhattan television studio, comedian Michael Somerville is trying hard to think of something clever to say about Charles Lindbergh. It's for I Love the 1880s, the History Channel's latest foray into cultural commentary. Instead of interviewing celebrities, the show asks comedians to make hilarious observations about historically dry topics. Things like the number of horses owned by Marie Antoinette. In case the comedian gets stuck on a topic, a producer sits next to the cameraman, prepared to make suggestions.
Somerville won't know if his jokes have worked until he's seen his bit on television later. No one on set is allowed to laugh for fear of ruining the recording, so Somerville plays to a silent room, gauging his performance through the occasional head nod or smile from a crew member.
This is not the strangest situation Somerville has found himself in during his 13-year career. Ask him about the college dare that started it all or his early work dancing in a pink bear costume for bat mitzvahs, and he'll offer all the proof you need. But his knack for self-deprecation and relationship-centered standup has opened many doors in the last decade. For a time, he served as writer and host of Fine Living Network's Wingman and the resident love guru for Glamour magazine's dating column, "Jake: One Man's Opinion." This year, Somerville self-released a comedy album, Handsomely Disheveled, which landed in iTunes' Top 200 the day after his first performance on Late Show With David Letterman.
I asked Somerville about his road to a comedy career before a three-night, five-show run at the Comedy Club on State Dec. 13-15.
The Daily Page: Your comedy career began as a college dare?
Somerville: That's pretty much true, yeah. During my freshman year at Notre Dame, we had a professional comedian come to campus to perform, and they wanted students to open. So all my buddies were like, "You're funny. You should do it!" I always watched comedy growing up, but never in a million years did I ever consider doing standup. So I threw together some jokes about cafeteria food, and that was my first show.
How does one go from making jokes about cafeteria food to making a career of standup?
When I first did standup, I never considered doing it professionally. Throughout my years at Notre Dame, I kind of became the go-to guy to jump on stage or lead pep rallies if they needed someone. But when I graduated, I got a job in advertising and said to myself that it was time to get serious.
For one project, our company was paying comedian Andy Richter all this money to do the voice for this toothbrush that we were featuring in a commercial for Johnson & Johnson. And he would come in unshowered and read one sentence, which took something like 10 seconds, and he made more money than I made all month. And I thought, "Well this is ridiculous. I'm on the wrong side of the business." [Laughs] So I started checking out open mics and doing a few around New York, and it was going pretty good. To the point that I figured I'm still young and single with no responsibilities, so I'll give this a try. That was 13 years ago.
Since then, some publications have dubbed you "the love guru" due to the relationship-oriented content of your work. What's your interest in exploring love connections and the funnier sides of relationships?
All of that really evolved on its own. When you first start performing comedy, you write about everything, from your family to dating, and I noticed that people were really responding to my relationship humor. That's where I was getting the most consistent laughs. The other thing I noticed was that both men and women were laughing. A lot of times, when a male comic talks about relationships, it's usually the woman who is getting insulted. But in my case, there seemed to be a way about me where I could appeal to both sexes. So I just kept writing about those things, and it evolved from there.
Last August you appeared on Late Show with David Letterman for the first time. For many comedians, the show seems to be a career high point and a nerve-wracking experience, and yet you appeared very calm and collected. What was that experience is like, from the first moment you got the call to the moment before you went on stage?
Well, first of all, you're right: Letterman is the absolute Super Bowl if you're a comedian. I grew up in Jersey watching Letterman, and he was God. So the experience was amazing. But leading up to the show -- for weeks and weeks -- bookers who work with the show are working with you on your act, because they need to hone every word for legal reasons in case you reference a brand name or whatever. There's so much that goes on that it's actually a laborious process leading up to the show. And then you aren't even sure you're going to be on camera; all the bookers tell you is that they like you and want to do a set with you, but there's no guarantee that there will be time for you on the show.
By the time you get approved for Letterman, they call you and you're on the show four days later. And those days before the show are just numbing.
How did it feel when you finally arrived on set?
The craziest part of shooting is that when you get to the set, it's one of the greatest days of your life. But to the crew, it's just another day. So I'm just brimming and buzzing with energy, and the crew is just like, "Okay, at six o'clock you'll go here and walk out." And I kept saying, "Walk out onto the stage of Letterman!" And they'd look at me weird and be like, "Uh, yeah." And then I'm getting my makeup done, and I'm saying, "I'm getting my makeup done to be on Letterman!" And then the crew just starts asking themselves, "Why is this guy so weird?" [Laughs]
The calmness was a combination of a couple things. I was certainly nervous. I was getting my makeup done, and they have monitors in the makeup room where you can see Letterman doing his monologue. And Letterman came out looking like a million bucks, just totally at ease. And it hit me in that moment: Letterman was going to be the easiest show I ever did. The people in the audience weren't hecklers in Indiana on a Friday who'd been drinking all day. It was a juicy TV crowd whose job is to laugh, and if they forget to laugh, there's a big sign that tells them to laugh. So it dawned on me then that the only way I could mess it up was through my own fault.
Does Letterman speak to you before or after the show?
Not at all. I was told going in that he's not the most social guy and that you're not going to meet him. And once the camera's are off and your shoot is over, he'll be gone like that. And sure enough, Letterman said congrats, I said thank you, he said, "We'll be right back." And when I turned to say something to him after the cameras were turned off, he was gone. [Laughs] Totally gone.
Letterman sounds like the Batman of late night.
Literally, literally. It was exactly like that. That was one of the tips other comics had given me before I did the show. ... I was told that you should wave to Letterman and acknowledge the fact that he introduced you, but he's not going to look at you while you're performing. He's going to be looking down and turned away from you. And he actually does that out of respect, because he likes to give the comedian the whole floor by making himself small. So knowing that was really helpful. If I'd come out and waved to him, it'd be disconcerting if he was completely looking the other way.
Bringing this full circle, I don't know how many people know this, but while at Notre Dame you were an extra in the 1993 film Rudy.
Yes. [Laughs] Yes. They filmed Rudy on the Notre Dame campus, and my friends and I used to cut class to go be in it.
I love that movie. For some reason, inspirational sports movies always make me cry.
[Laughs] I love the movie, too, but you honestly can't even see me in it. You can see my arm in a scene, but I'd honestly have to be there with you to point it out. My arm is in a long shot of the bar scene on campus. It was a bummer not to be on the screen, but it was such a fun thing. They shot on campus, and we all grew big sideburns. But one of the funniest things about that bar scene is that it was an 18-hour day shoot, and they were feeding us fake beer to look like we were all partying. But it was such a long shoot that they ran out of the fake beer, so they started giving us real beer. And they'd say, "Don't drink this, please."
Exactly. [Laughs] So the shoot went. You can actually notice it if you watch the movie again. In the first bar scene on campus, you'll see a shot from one angle with people in the background who are chill and talking. And then they'll cut to a different angle, and you'll just see the same people hammered and on the floor laughing, because that clip is from 10 hours later. [Laughs] That's a little-known fact about Rudy. That's my arm's biggest movie credit to date.