I’m recording my next album on January 10th, a Sunday in the year of our Lord 2016, at a live show at The Bell House in Brooklyn. As I am a lucky ol’ fella, my buds Colin Jost, Dave Hill, and Rob Paravonian will be opening for me. It will be recorded for release by Comedy Dynamics, a wonderful record label.
My first album, Comedian, which was released two years ago by ASpecialThing Records, was not only a professional milestone, but a personal one as well. I know that as a young comic in the 2010s, I’m supposed to be all about the TV or Netflix special, but when I was a kid I would go to sleep almost every night listening to the Richard Pryor, or the George Carlin, or even Cosby albums. (I know, I know. I never thought I’d describe the late ‘90s as a “more innocent time,” but there you go.) To me, the comedy album was the real Big Time.
And especially to release an album on AST, the same label as releases the albums by some of my favorite comics, including Paul F. Tompkins, Jen Kirkman, and on and on, was–and still is–a huge thrill.
That being said, putting together a full hour of material is not as easy as just “saying funny stuff into a microphone.” I had a whole philosophy about the material I wanted to present, and it’s a process that a few people have actually asked me about. I always warn folks, “Comedy is way more boring than you’d think.” And then they insist and then I proceed to prove my point because, what the hell, talking about myself is one of my favorite activities after all.
So for your elucidation, and to save myself breath the next time I’m at a party and someone asks, “Oh, what do you do?”, here is a track-by-track breakdown of how I put an hour’s worth of material together for my first album. (You can listen to it for free on Spotify right here.)
- POSITIVE AFFIRMATIONS
This recording was the first time I’d performed the bit live in probably three or more likely five years. When I actually made the deal with AST Records, I decided I didn’t want this to just be a “Greatest Hits of Liam’s Standup.” I had a specific vision for Comedian, something a little jazzier, a little more mid-early Nighthawks/Blue Valentine/Heartattack + Vine Tom Waits.So I went through my archives and while doing some digging, I remembered my positive affirmations, which I had originally specifically written for an appearance at Eating It at the Ludlow Street rock club Luna Lounge. When I started standup, “alternative comedy” was the hot term for “anything that isn’t recognizable “didja ever notice?” comedy club comedy. The big show in New York City that all the press and industry and in-the-know fans went to was Eating It at Luna Lounge. If you were a newer comedian, the pressure was always on to kill there, and showcase your “range” by not just doing polished comedy material (even though the TV bookers and agents there totally wanted to see nothing but your polished comedy material). So I came up with the affirmations, which was originally three times as long. I workshopped it at an open mic around the corner, called “Faceboyz Open Mic.” It went really well, but there weren’t too many other shows I could really feel comfortable busting it out.
But clearly it was, as Willie Nelson says, always on my mind. I thought it might be good to have Heidi Vanderlee play something meditation-y behind me on the cello. She picked a Bach piece. “Love is beautiful but porn is easy” is always one of my favorite, not jokes, but laughs I get on a joke. When this bit was played on the Dr. Demento Show, it was, to me, like receiving a Nerd Grammy.
- LIVING SINGLE
This is just a collection of one-liners I like that I was opening my set with at the time. If you can open with a handful of killer one-liners, you can lead an audience down any road you like. While I was definitely ready to retire them by the time I recorded Comedian, I thought it would be nice to get them all in one place. They’re interspersed around Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film! , but I’m proud of having written these jokes. For instance, writing the “Sex/Olympic Athlete” was SO. MUCH. WORK. I have a notebook where I have three pages of bad comedy writing trying to write a very strained and hacky bit about the Olympics and gay dudes, and I plucked this one line that was almost funny, reversed it, made it about me, and it was like a bright light descended from on high while a holy chorus sang and hit the paper.Also, yes, I named this track after the ’90s sitcom.
- THE DOUG DATE
The problem with this bit has nothing to do with the bit. But it sets up a callback that works very well in a bit I have about karate. When I had my set list that I would work out around town, I decided to do this material in the Doug Date bit early in the set, and then call back to it in the Karate bit towards the end. But the karate bit never ended up on Comedian, which I didn’t even realize until I went over the set list for this blog entry. I’m not sure if I did the bit in the live show, and just didn’t end up cutting it for time (unlikely) or just plain forgot to do the bit both nights we recorded (far more likely). In any case, I’ll put it in the set list for my second album, which means I can use it to close all these shows I’m doing to warm up for this album recording show, but man, I’m flummoxed I didn’t put that there.
- EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT WOMEN
I thought it would be funny to have a track titled “Everything I Know About Women” and make it as brief as possible. My original thought was to make it a blank 30 seconds, but I quickly came to my senses and instead I put the title on a track under four minutes. It’s tough to do material about relationships, because it’s a meal picked over by many comedians before you, so whenever you get a new take, or a new way of delivering an observation, it’s very exciting. Framing the way women talk about men as a witch’s coven isn’t the most flattering way, but it was fairly original and people seemed to dig it. I’m actually pretty proud of the way it came out.
- THE BALLAD OF JOHN AND RACHEL
Rachel is the name of my ex, and John is her new boyfriend of many years, who is a very very cool guy, and they are not the couple in this bit. Seriously. I just liked the way their names flowed together. I like to write bits with crazy structure; beginning, middle, end, callback. I consider it to be like architecting a building. Some dudes are Brutalists, and just want to do the job no matter how ugly. Some dudes are Functionalists, and they want their jokes to do the job with nothing fancy. I like to try for a Frank Lloyd Wright; even if not every part of it is functional, it’s still interesting to look at.The bit (and the whole set of dating jokes in general) ends at almost exactly a third of the way through the album. I like to start a set with relationship material because it’s something that literally everybody on earth can relate to, and once the audience is with you, knows who you are, and trusts that you can make them laugh, it’s a lot easier to do the esoteric, weird, and fun stuff that I enjoy doing. I’m not putting my dating bits down when I say this. JOHN & RACHEL is one of my favorite bits on this album, and the fact that I made it work in time to record it made it feel like I had just pulled off a magic trick that involves spinning plates while balancing cups and saucers on my chin while yanking a tablecloth out from under a place setting.
It’s just that I’m a bit of a risk-taker, and it interests me more to figure out how to make, say, my love of Irish folk music relatable to a wider audience. But the dating stuff is my price of admission into the audience’s good graces.
- THE McENEANEY FAMILY HOSTAGE SITUATION
I got the title from a joke I thought of immediately after the second show was over and was mad at myself for not making in the moment. I couldn’t even tell you what it is anymore. In any case, this was strictly there because I liked the bit, and it represented what was a turning point in my comedy for me, and I thought it might be nice to make it the turning point into the rest of the album. I wrote it when I worked at a market research firm, making minimum wage making survey calls to strangers. It was a truly miserable time in my life, and it was, after reading a biography of Woody Allen, when I realized that if I wanted to actually be the comedian I always believed myself to be in my heart, and not just a guy who’d done Premium Blend once and disappeared, I was going to have to make an honest to God job of work out of this thing.I was reading a great piece about greeting cards in the New Yorker at work, and realized a bit about Hallmark Cards would be relatively unique. My friend Veronica Mosey heard me do it at the Irish Arts Center and fixed it for me afterwards (by suggesting I put my cuh-razy greeting cards in contrast by giving an example of a regular card first). This was the point in my life, and my career, when I went from being a guy who could do well through sheer tyranny of will into a comedian who was able to write actual bits from my point of view without any reliance on shock value. So while it’s not a groundbreaking piece of standup, per se, it was a turning point for me as a comedian. And also for this album in a bit more literal sense.
- MY HACK PAGES
Another concrete pillar bit that I knew would hold up a section of my set; it was part of my standard set whenever I was getting paid for performing. It’s definitely one of the oldest bits on this album, and it is a young man’s joke. But I’m glad I could stick it in there, and it helps bridge into some more autobiographical material.
- MEOW MEOW MEOW
Ah, everybody’s favorite bit, and another one I was writing all the way down to the wire. It started with a couple of different things; I had a half a joke about my parents’ cats and I fighting for space in their will. It was an amusing idea with a line I liked, but had no real weight to it. I was also hanging with my dope-as-fuck friend Dr. Leona Godin a lot, and whenever our conversation would hit a lull, I’d go “meow meow meow” like Henrietta Pussycat from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. It really is, no joke, the funnest thing you can randomly say out loud. Try it some time!But it wasn’t fully complete as a joke, and I was doing it onstage at these weird little shows in New York, and I just improvised the idea of throwing it into uncomfortable situations, like a Jesus guy approaching you on the street, but I couldn’t quite get into it. Then I hung out with parents the week before recording, and, as you hear on the track, my mom said something she didn’t realize was hilarious and weird, and I decided it would be a good way to get into the joke. I recorded the show over two nights at Union Hall, in Brooklyn, and the joke worked great except for the bit about sassing a religious guy. It just was a little too on-the-nose. While walking around Park Slope the second morning, I started thinking about a shitty encounter I’d had with one of those “Do you have a moment for the environment” guys. It occurred to me that was the perfect time to have actually said “Meow meow meow,” and I realized I’d just finished the joke. So what you hear on the album is the first time I ever performed the whole joke correctly, which isn’t bad considering that that morning I’d decided it wasn’t worth trying to salvage.
One final note: It’s funny to me to realize that the newest bit on the album was sandwiched by the oldest.
- DROP OUT!
This is also material from when I was young. I always liked these bits, and that’s pretty much it, except, the only reason it’s its own separate track is because Tom Waits has a ton of songs that have their own little funny musical intros on Nighthawks at the Diner and I wanted to do that, too. I promise I’m not as pretentious in person as I am when I discover my thought processes.
- THE TRUE STORY OF FAST EDDIE (THE BANK ROBBER)
I wrote this entire seven minute set, beginning to end, literally over the course of my entire career. The beginning bit, about Hector the ice cream truck driver, was a true story that I tried for the first time my second or third time onstage. The rest of it was written and perfected within nine months of recording. People always ask if these stories are true, and they aren’t always, but this one is, more or less. I changed a lot of stuff around, I asked permission of one guy to joke about him, and I condensed a lot of stuff to remove the parts that were sad or unfunny or just plain not believable as biography.By the way, the use of parentheses in the title is strictly because shitty pretentious bands did that a lot on their albums when I was a kid, as a way of showing that they were serious artists, and I never stopped finding it funny.
- LIAM vs. THE AUDIENCE 1: “MY FIRST TIME”
Christine is a very nice woman I’d met in the East Village art open mic scene. She is a lovely young lady who really had never been to a standup show before. As soon as she spoke up, I got really excited because I knew that whatever was about to happen was going to go onto the album. My original plan had been to record an hour of material and cut it down to the best forty-five minutes.All my favorite comedy albums when I was young had been, on average, no more than forty minutes, and I really believe that there’s a reason they’re considered unimpeachable classics. But of course, the best-laid plans, so the album includes 15 minutes of audience participation. The label wanted to edit a point halfway through where I declare my intention to be mean, which was entirely meant to stop me from sounding like an utter dick, but I thought that would be completely unfair.
- NEW YORK STORIES
My goal for this album was to do longer bits. I really tried to stretch these out to ten minutes, but the most important part of writing is editing, and it’s better to just cut four minutes than make an artistic point. I’d originally conceived the middle third of this album as almost a “suite” of longer bits that thematically flowed from one to the next. Of course, that went out the window with the previous track, which is fine. By the way, this is named after the Coppola/Scorcese/Woody Allen film about life in NYC. I genuinely put that much thought into each and every detail on this album.
- NEW YORK I LOVE YOU BUT YOU’RE BRINGING ME DOWN
Just like Track 8, this was a bit I was bombing with all over town, trying to write it into decent shape. It just never shaped up the way I’d hoped, and my plan was to leave it out and rewrite it into a better bit. But Ryan at the label liked it a lot, and he convinced me to let him edit it. I don’t think it ruins the album by any stretch, and he was so passionately behind this track I genuinely didn’t have the heart to cut it.
- AN EVENING WASTED WITH LIAM McENEANEY
First of all, this was my original title for this album. It’s a total rip of Tom Lehrer’s An Evening Wasted With… album, and when I decided to go with a complete throwback jazz theme to Comedian, I realized the title didn’t fit anymore. I did keep it for the bit, though, as a tribute to one of my favorite comedians.This is the bit that people always ask me if it’s true. Yes and no. The basic facts of the story are true. But structurally, the joke is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. I originally had a joke about taking my first AIDS test, with the idea that the wait for your results is way more frightening than any scary movie you could watch. A funny idea, but it would require more and I didn’t want to be the guy with a killer five about AIDS. So I put it in the vault and forgot a out it and about five years later, I was watching a comedian on TV talk about asking a woman if she was pregnant. That’s happened to a lot of people, and it’s a super hacky used premise. But it had, as I say, actually happened, and so the challenge for myself was to figure out a way to take a hacky premise and make it fresh and personal. As I was trying to find my way into the subject, I remembered the AIDS test joke, and reappropriated it for this bit. It was one of those bits, just the first time I ever tried it at my Tell Your Friends! show, I knew I’d made the right move.
- LIAM vs. THE AUDIENCE 2: “SHANNON’S BETTER”
I went back and forth on this one. On the one hand, I didn’t want this to be a crowd work album, and I definitely didn’t want to encourage people to talk to me during a future show. On the other hand, this woman automatically arguing that a lesser-known Irish airport was “better” was about the most Park Slope thing I could imagine.
- DUBLIN AIRPORT AND IRISH RAIL
I’d talked about my dad’s family being Irish Catholic earlier in the show. There was actually a lot more stuff about religion, but it was material that, when I started performing it, got very strong laughs, and then kind of just started getting less and less as the years went by. I’d hoped that a friendly album taping crowd would mean I could get it on tape one time. But as Ryan at AST Records pointed out, we had a LOT of material and we had the luxury of cutting anything that came off as weak, so at least you know that every laugh you hear on this is earned. Other than that, these are both true stories, and the people who’ve liked them the best have been Irish people from Ireland.
- HOW TO WRITE A TRADITIONAL IRISH FOLK TUNE
My next album isn’t going to be as custom built; it’s going to involve less storytelling, and is going to have a very different structure. But as you may have noticed, there are a lot of musical references in the track titles, and I wanted to bookend the show with a second musical number to provide a big finish and bring the whole thing full circle. I wrote this as a silly blog entry 15 years ago, and my mom bugged me and bugged me to perform it as a live bit. She was right.
That’s it. I kind of can’t believe you made it all the way through, but thanks for doing so. And if you’re intrigued, please feel free to let people know and buy a copy why not, I’ll autograph it for you at the next show.