Interview with Cody Hughes

part one

by Michael Channing

Let's start with what got you into comedy. You're an art student, so why comedy as your particular art?

I started doing comedy before I declared as an art major. A competition to open for Lewis Black. The reason I did that is 'cause I got in a fight with my sister, who does comedy. She had been doing comedy at the time she was living in Raleigh. We got in a fight because I was being obnoxious. There's a thing that happens when you tell people that you do comedy, that they'll say, "Oh, I can do that." That hasn't happened to me that much, but my sister was saying that happened a lot. And I was like, "Well maybe they can do comedy." And then we got into a fight about that. And then a few months later I did it for the first time because I sort of wanted to put my money where my mouth was. And I won the competition, so I was right, anybody can do comedy.

The competition was the first time you did comedy?

The competition was the first time I did comedy. The first joke I ever wrote, was "I turn 18 in a few days, which is sad, 'cause that means I have to cancel my subscription to Seventeen Magazine." I just came up with that in December while I was walking. So I built off of that when I found out about the competition which was the beginning of February. I built a set out of that, adding tag lines and ideas to that sort of concept. And it worked out well. If you give yourself enough time, and you actually really want to do comedy, which I did, I think it's not that hard if you think about it non-stop, which I did in that two week period where I punched it up a lot and kinda worked on word economy. Which I haven't done since. Those two weeks were my most productive period, four and a half years ago.

So that show was your first onstage delivery of comedy?

I went to a boarding school my junior and senior year of high school. My junior year, you had to be nominated, if you wanted to be the student body president--which I didn't want to be. And anybody could nominate anybody. And so the guy who became my roommate my senior year nominated me just as a joke, and I accepted it just as a joke. And so you had to write a speech and present it in front of the entire junior class and probably some of the senior class. And... I don't remember the joke exactly, but I sort of introduced myself, "As important as the election for student body president is, I come to you tonight with a more pressing issue: I need a prom date." That counts as performing a joke, kinda. And it went well. It was funny. And I got second place.


Yeah. No prom date. Second place, though.

That's good.

I think that's the first time I remember thinking, that's a joke structure and a funny platform to do it in.

How was the show you opened up for Lewis Black?

It went as good as it coulda gone. The host was an excellent host. He was the producer for The Daily Show, but he had a background in standup comedy. Fantastic host, so I got a really warm introduction. People were super supportive knowing I was seventeen and it was my second time doing comedy. And it went really well.

Have you seen it since then?

It's on Google Video. No, yeah, YouTube. Google Video. I haven't watched it recently. I was thinking about watching it again. I'm very... don't know. I was just an awkward kid being awkward, but you can also be comfortable in your awkwardness, probably. So I don't need to watch it. I bet it'd be funny to watch it. A waste of eight minutes. I feel like it was nine minutes, I was supposed to do five.


You think, "Oh I got three minutes at the competition, I get five minutes tonight," so you write some stuff and it kinda gets longer than you anticipate.

So not only was your first credit in comedy opening for Lewis Black, but you went over your time.

I went over my time. Pretty significantly famous comedians there: producer for The Daily Show, John Oliver, and Rob Riggle. Nobody was upset. They were all pretty impressed that somebody their second time did well. I didn't throw any kinks in the show. It'd be funny if I bombed and did nine minutes. That woulda been terrible. Probably cause... I was gonna say "probably cause I didn't even have a cell phone at the time." I did. I coulda checked it. I didn't. Very rude of me.

Cody HUghes quote

You mentioned your sister earlier. Was there any tension or competition between the two of you?

I've never felt any competition. It's hard to perform with her in the room because it's sorta too supportive, and we have very loud laughs. If you're siblings and both have comedy brains, you can kinda anticipate what the person's doing on stage. And so her laugh, immediately after the punchline sorta hijacks the rest of the room's response. It's been about a year and two months since she's left for Chicago--so I would've gotten better in that time anyway--but I feel like probably immediately after she left, it became kinda easier to sort of feel out my timing and the space. But there's no tension. No rivalry. We're very supportive.

Cool. Maybe it was the sort of snarky aspect to both of your personalities that made me think that.

Yeah, we're very snarky people. I've never felt any tension. I don't like her laugh.

You used to have a very intricate and deliberately written style. Jokes were worded in a certain way and pretty much stayed that way every time you told them. Now you're almost the opposite. You're "in the moment" almost all the time. Was that change accidental or was that on purpose?

Being loose and being in the moment, that comes from failing a bunch at trying to be that. You tell those jokes that are very purposefully written so many times, and you just get so tired of that. So like, half your sets are that, and then half your sets are just talking, and talking, and failing. And it just slowly came together. And you have the confidence to follow ideas into a set. I still feel bad when my entire set is just riffing, and so I do try to make sure I work on things every time I perform. I don't think it was a decision, it's just something that's fun to do. It's fun to succeed where you go up with no prepared start and you kinda build something in front of people. And it kinda gets them on your side. Hopefully. I have bad habits on stage.

So it gives you the thrill of sort of doing something right there for the first time.

Right. You hope that you're funny not on stage, so you think, "Can I take that up here?" A lot of being able to riff up top is being able to fail gracefully. It's so hard to kind of nail down because I have bad habits where I'm mean to the audience, or I tell the audience what they like, or where I tell and not show. So I feel like where talking about when I'm most successful at it, and I feel a lot of the times I'm not successful at it. There's a comedian I really like named Daniel Kitson. He doesn't release many things, and he says he's a big fan of a preamble. On one of the bootlegs that's available online, it's an hour of non-prepared material, and then an hour of like three twenty-minute stories. An hour-long preamble, that's really interesting to me. But I also remember when that part of my act started to gel, and it wasn't even on purpose. I think, a girl I really liked just stopped talking to me--comedy and girls sorta intertwine, so my memory kinda works around them. Girl I really liked just stopped talking to me, and Katy also just moved to Chicago. And so I was going down by myself, I wasn't writing that much, and I feel like there's this pressure on me. Like, okay, if I'm gonna drive to Greenville, if I'm gonna drive to Asheville, I'd better have a good set. And without prepared material, you kinda have to show up for yourself in that moment. There's laziness involved in it; doesn't mean it's not fun. And I'm hard on myself, because it did feel lazy especially when I started to figure it out. I didn't write material for a long time, so I had to start from zero. But I'm getting there. I'm getting there.

Cody HUghes quote

When it comes to written material, do you have a process for putting something together that will be a set piece?

It's so hard to say. Coffee Underground is my absolute favorite place to perform. I just feel really comfortable there; I feel, just physically speaking, it's a good place for comedy; I feel like I sorta even know the timing of the room (I feel like timings in rooms are different). In that place, I'm the comedian I want to be at four and a half years in, which is where I am. Then you get asked to do shows whether it be like PULP Slice of Life, or like do a Thursday night show at Coffee Underground, and it sort of just changes you 'cause you feel a little more pressure; people have paid to see you. You feel pressure to do well, and so you start doing just the first part of jokes where you're not really expressing things; you're just doing the exposition of a story you want to tell. It's like, "I was in South Carolina," and you do a South Carolina joke, and that goes over big. But then you try, "I got into a fight with my friend over seashells," and it just sort of falls apart. So you're scared to do anything other than jokes about places. And they kill. Oh, they storm. That's all they want to hear.

How does it become a set piece? I'm still trying to figure that out. Structure is a very interesting thing, and putting pieces in places... Ideally, it'd be just like any joke writing based on story telling where you have who, what, where, when why--you can write a joke about all them. Conflict, you can write about your relationship with the other person in the story. Escalation. Climax. But then, obviously, you can go on tangents. So, I'm trying to get to a place where I can figure those things out. One of my big fears is I don't have enough interests. I don't have enough things going on. I have three things: I go on dates that don't go well; I work in a sandwich shop; and whatever the third one is. There probably isn't one. So I always just feel like I'm so in danger of showing my entire hand. So you have to start thinking, what are themes I can write about? And then write...ylch. I don't like it. I don't like comedy.

I've heard you say this so much. Why do you say that, when it's obviously not true?

I love comedy. It's funny to say that, though. It's funny to devote all your free time to comedy and then hate it. It works. It certainly works as a joke to say I'm quitting comedy on stage. Facebook people don't like it anymore. They're over it. It's just hard. Comedy's so hard. That's why it's so painful, where it's like, I really love this idea, and I really love this story, and it worked at the Radio Room. I'm very good at a rowdy place. I really am. I think. 'Cause I can do the riffing up top. I can win people over. I can say "I'm gonna fuck that dog," or whatever they love there, and then they're on my side somehow. "I'm gonna fuck you dog," and they're on my side. And then I tell a story, and it goes well. And then you get in those pristine listening rooms outside of Coffee Underground, and it just falls apart because I put weird expectations on myself. Doing the comedy that you want to do falls apart so easily. And that's why I don't like comedy.

Do you have an aversion to writing topical stuff? Most of what you discuss is your own personal life.

No, that'd be a good practice, 'cause I think I can do that. I could write a joke about Chick-fil-A or whatever. I think it's a good practice for any comedian. You can say, "This week I'm gonna work on topical stuff." Is that really long enough to make any headway? It's so weird that you have to decide on a style and just sort of follow it, because as much as you want to work on your different comedy muscles, you also want to pick one comedy muscle that you know actually works. Whether it be observational, or you're really good at writing one-liners, or you're good at topical stuff, personal stuff. That's the frustrating part of it being such a low-stakes game. I'm only doing it four times a week, maybe. Maybe doing twenty minutes of stage time a week. It's hard to know where to focus your energies. That's the problem. I think, "I'm just gonna keep entertaining myself." Which is indulgent, but I think I'm getting pretty good at entertaining myself.

If you're always saying this is a low-stakes game, how are you going to move into the higher stakes?

I don't know, man. I don't know. It's really discouraging to have somebody who's gone out before me to a new city. She does improv and sketch writing. It does seem like a tougher scene, and I just wish I could do what like the Beards of Comedy did: be from Atlanta. Be respected. 'Cause the big city scares me. It probably doesn't take that long if you have talent and you're moderately good at standup, you kind of rise to the scene. But the idea of dedicating a year to that. Maybe not even the city you're gonna end up in. You kinda have go straight to New York or LA, and that's also terrifying. So the next move is always terrifying, and I don't think that's even just standup. I think it's just life.

Do you have an idea of what you want to do?

No. I don't. I think I'm good at standup. I'm just not good at any sort of other thing. It's so ridiculous, the narrow amount of things I'm good at. You also have to be good at the business side, the hustling side. You gotta send your information out to clubs and try to get stage time that way. Doing the comedy's like 30% of the whole picture, unfortunately. So here's my plan: I'm gonna get a better comic to notice me and take me on the road with them. Which is everybody's plan. Yeah, the next step is gonna be scary no matter what. Doesn't even seem like too many people take the straight standup path. Everybody writes for a show or something. That's the best case scenario. I'd really like to be like Mike Birbiglia, who's mostly purely a standup. He's also super young. Thirty-three. That's nuts. Thirty-four, but yeah, he's just a standup. That's a way of life; that's something that suits me. Or would suit me. Or maybe just working at a sandwich shop forever, doing four open mics a week. Being mean to people.

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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing