Interview with Cody Hughes

part two

by Michael Channing

What do you consider a successful set, other than getting laughs? Or is that it?

That's not it. 'Cause I can riff a whole set, and it feels selfish. So I have to do material. It always feels good for new material to succeed. There's comedians in all the sub-genres of whatever comedy is. Like ranty, angry comics; and you have story-telling comedians; and you have observational comedians; and one-liner comedians; and there's comedians that are good from all those things, and you like all of them. But there's also the comedian you want to be. I think I relate most to story-telling comedians. That's sorta what I want to be, so if I work on that, and there's a story somewhere in there, and sorta has an arc, and all the elements of the story work, that's when it's successful. Another sign of success is... I try lot of stuff out, and a lot of times, the first time it's successful. So subsequent times, if it's successful, that counts as a success for me. And I have bad habits, and when I avoid those bad habits, that's also a success.

What are your bad habits?

I'll be mean in a way that they don't like. I'll lean into it; I really lean into it. One of my big influences is a comedian named Stewart Lee, and he sorta does meta-humor. His comedy is about doing comedy. So I'm kinda doing a poor-man's version of that. Like telling audience members what they find funny is so self-indulgent. It's delightful, but it doesn't work. Usually.

I get distracted very easily. So if you're in a room where people are talking... New Brookland in Columbia. There's a space in front of the stage. There's also the bar. And I had a weird experience when I performed there. I was the last act, and so there were still people watching, but even though it was a Wednesday, people are still coming in around ten or something. And I thought, "Now I have to deal with all this noise over here, and I have to not get distracted." That night, I reminded myself to not get distracted, so I did fine. But it's sorta my bad habit to engage whatever is distracting me. Or at least point it out, and it just takes away from your momentum.

Cody HUghes quote

I wanted to ask about the other night, since it sounds like you were distracted last Wednesday.

Oh that went fine.

I was watching you after the event, and you seemed completely okay with it, like it went swimmingly. But I thought it was one of the most awkward moments I've ever seen. Not just you, but ever.

Thank you. That counts as a success. That's something to take home, something to write home about. Did it go poorly?

I had many conflicting thoughts about it while it was happening. I thought, Good for you for pointing it out, 'cause they were being distracting. And I like that you just barreled through it because it crescendoed into a -- well it almost got into a horrible place. It was still a bad place.

It woulda been funny if I got hit in the head with that beer bottle. That'd be so funny.

But it did reach a peak where it was very tense. So I thought, Cody could've avoided this.

But I didn't lead it there. I mean, I don't do improv by any means, but you still have the improv fundamentals of "Yes, and..." or you agree to the situation and then you add to it. She was an unwilling partner in the improv scene. I am pretending not only is she underage, but she's in high school. And so when she calls me a douche bag, I go, "I don't think your mother would appreciate that language." Turns out her mother is dead. So I can't... I even pause for a second. I did look remorseful, I remember that. But then she added the part about her uncle being a cop, and you can't... [Sigh] And she's gonna fuck me up. And it's fun. So there's so much tension that needs to break somehow. The set didn't end well, but for the most part, it was a lot of fun. It was fun to pretend, "This dude's creepy, he's hitting on you, you're really young, and that was weird what you said outside to me and Petey." It just escalated. There're other places I coulda gone with it. But at any point, if I mentioned her mother, which I think was sort of an inevitability, she was gonna approach the stage. And it was sorta scary, but it was fun. I did another set at the end. I just ranted about how I couldn't have succeeded. I explained to the three people who were left why I can't go from talking about the gravity of the statement, "My mom's dead," and transition into pithy one-liners. So I riffed about that for a bit, and that was fun. And so I worked out two different comedy muscles that night, I think: crowd-work and riffing.

I do remember the episode almost diffusing itself by that one line she said. "My mom is dead, and my uncle's a cop." And everybody laughed, and it was suddenly okay again.

That's fine. She got the bigger laugh. I don't know if I did the right thing. They weren't even being loud, she was whispering. But even whispering's distracting when it's that close to you. I didn't feel I could get my comedy out pass that wall of whispers. So I thought, "If you're not gonna pay, I'm gonna keep engaging you so at least I have your attention." And then silly things happened, and they got really dark, and I almost got hit with a beer bottle. It woulda been fun. It woulda been a good story.

Is there anything, in your mind, that you feel doesn't belong in comedy and should be phased out or at least done less of?

One-liners. Get rid of 'em. [Laughs] That's the onstage me.

No. I think everybody has to be a little bit hacky to win audiences.

Audiences. Let's get rid of the audiences.

The problem lies within the audience not having the same sense of humor I do. You have to be a little bit hacky. You have to have jokes that are kinda easy. Like I was talking about before, even though I was talking bad about it, I really love writing jokes about places. I really like, "Name a city, sound of disgust, punchline." They're super easy to write, and I think they're really hacky.

And so to say that there's something that needs to be phased out: People with accents. Don't like 'em. Rednecks: let's get rid of 'em. I wish I wasn't that snobby, but I am, I swear to god. I feel like there's a part of me that gets in fights with people because I don't like them because of their accent. That's my fault.

What would I get rid of? I really don't like when people close with the same joke every week. When people close with a joke over and over again 'cause they know it works, it's so frustrating. Open mic is such a low-stakes game. That's my mantra. It's a good thing to remind yourself. Nothing good's going to come from even the best set here. And that's important to remember. It kinda frees you up to do more stuff. Chris Morgan calls it "Trying to get your comedy rocks off." That's s fun little phrase. And I understand wanting that. But even more so, there's really no consequences to what you're doing up there tonight. So why not just fail completely? You don't have to throw that last joke on there. All the comedians heard it, and these people don't like you. Make them not like you even more. That's a fun game. That's a pretty big beef. Not a beef, but you don't have to do this. Just the idea that you have a closer at an open mic anyway. That's weird. You want your set to go as well as possible, so you kinda pad it up front with whatever you're good at, then you try new stuff. There's no reason to close your show. Maybe. I don't know. To leave on a good note? I guess.

But just not the same note every time.

Not the same note. We get it, it works. It works. Especially if something definitely works. It's hard to say this 'cause I've been doing comedy four and a half years, and this applied to me for a long time. It doesn't apply to me any more 'cause I have no discipline left. No interest in polishing material. I just need to figure out how to make my form work in other locations. Yeah, so I'm just criticizing myself two years ago.

Actually there was probably not just one point, there's others. That's the most obnoxious thing, you only have two things that you do. I hate showing my hand. At that point it was like, "I'm an art major, I'm from Hendersonville, and a third thing." And you only have those things to talk about, it's so obnoxious. I work at a sandwich shop, I try to take a nap, and then I go to open mic, and that's my whole life. Where does material come from? And so it still happens. Because open mic is low-stakes, I sorta try to entertain myself. I think, "Let's do a new story. I went on another date, let's exploit that."

Cody HUghes quote

You have a reputation, maybe just among comics or maybe among other regular comedy patrons too, as being a mean person.

Mm-hmmm. It's a bummer.

And you keep describing yourself as mean, too. So what are you thoughts on that description of you?

I don't think my quote-unquote material is mean, but I'll call myself mean if other people call me mean, and that's fine. Another thing that I think Stewart Lee is really good at is that he kind of leans into his criticisms. So if people review him as calloused, then he'll be even more calloused the next show he writes. I think that's a really interesting idea. I think it's a really good thing to do. It's like, "Okay, well this is how I come off, then even if people don't like it, let's make it a choice. Let's make it something I can control." I don't like the word "mean." I think as adults we should all have a larger vocabulary that the word "mean." I'm very critical. I'd say critical. I don't want to be snobbish.

Do you think you've pushed the boundary of criticism at points?

Yeah, you didn't get positive criticism, and that's not what I do. There's a nice way and a mean way to say everything, I think. And so I choose the mean way, and I think that's super funny. But the problem with me being mean is... There's me off stage, for the most part kinda polite and quiet. I'm not very social. I think I'm more social as I become more comfortable in any sorta area. There's that me. And then there's the me on stage, who's sort of more aggressive, more callous. Snobby. Critical. And so when people say, "Ah, that's you," then you're assuming I'm being glib, and that this is the real me, and I don't like that. It's just this is the place where I'm super confident, and I can perform really well and I'm making decisions. I know how I come off on stage. I've been doing this long enough that I'm getting to the place where I can control it. I just really hate it when people say, "Cody's mean." No, I'm not. I'm just not super social, and I can understand that reading that way.

There are very few comedians that I have a problem with. And let's name 'em. No. But it's nobody who's a regular. For the most part. Nobody who's a regular. People who try--you can tell somebody who's trying--there's no reason to not like them in that context. It's comedy. It's something that I hold near and dear to my heart, even though I don't like it, and so if I feel like you're taking care of comedy, then why would I dislike you, if that's the only time when we interact?

I found in myself that there are comics that I like as people, but I don't like their comedy. It took me a long time to get comfortable with that feeling in my own head. Is that sort of your thought on it too?

I am of the opinion that if everybody tried to be better at comedy than the average comedian, then they're going in the right direction. There are some people who come out week after week, and they don't try. Or don't write new material. And it's even understandable within the first two years; it's brutal. It's brutal. I'm trying to think of specifics--I'm not gonna name them even if I could think of it--but people come out every week and I can see what they're doing and what they're trying, and I can appreciate that. And I can even imagine situations where I don't like somebody's comedy, but I like them off stage, but even in situations like that, I like them because they keep coming out, and I can see that they're trying. Sort of like, because I keep comedy so near and dear, I think, "Okay, you're trying. You're giving it something. And you're a fun guy to talk to. I'm gonna try to figure out what you're doing and see if I can help."

Well, you probably know, but you're very respected among all the comics. Whatever you take that to mean for yourself. I've sat in the back of the room, and everybody goes, "He's so good. He's so good."

[Laughs] That is a treat. It's a treat to have a quarter of the room already like you. That's kinda the biggest leg-up, I think. It's nice to have people's respect. Where the back of the room are already on my side; the laughter's gonna trickle forward. Maybe take the top 75% of the room in front of them with them. That's one of the things that's there's a disconnect from you for, because I'm 22. That's where the trouble being mean comes from, where I say, "No guys, I'm 22, I really am mature." And I'm just a dumb punk opinion. But people respect you, and so when you trash other comedians on stage, even though you're joking, the person that you're trashing worries that other people who respect you are gonna take it to heart, and really hope they don't. I really hope that people respond to me as a 22 year old idiot. I do get in a lot of fights. I get in a lot of tiffs.

Since I don't get to stick around after, what happened?

Not fights. Nothing physical, 'cause we're comedians, we shouldn't do that. Wimps. It's just, I've done something, that, in my head, it's apparent that this is a comedy forum, so we're gonna let stuff slide. But people get upset. And I'm trying to minimize that, I really am. There was just a problem for a while, like especially when I moved back to school for a while, where I was just super sad. And not writing material, and not doing well. Drinking a lot one night a week, and being very mean. And touching people's nerves wrong. You can't think, "I'm unhappy, so I can be mean to people." I forgot that. It really does bother me that I can upset people so much. It sticks in people's craw. I think I don't get that, partially because I was an art major, and a major part of that course of study is critiques. And I think, "I don't take things personally, other people shouldn't." And it's not experiences that they've had, so things I say stick in their craw, and they bring it up, and I say, "I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it." And you kinda have to explain your comedy theory to them, and they don't care. I can say things on stage that I don't mean. For me there's a disconnect. For me, that's one of the good parts of standup comedy. It's like I get to be somebody different. Not different, but I understand the kinda guy that I am in real life. I call myself very mumble-core. Very like a character in like a memoir cartoon. Not graphic novel. What's that guy's name? I used to hate him so much 'cause it was so much like my life. It ruined things. It was a cartoon, I don't know. But it very much reminded me of my life. It was just very hum drum. I'm a very hum drum person. And so on stage, I get to respond to that guy. That informs my world view, where I got to be louder and just have opinions about this guy who's fucking up my life: Me. So I'm like very mumble-core, and on stage I gotta be loud. I don't realize the things I say have an effect on people, and I apologize for that.

I saw you take that idea to heart. It looked like it really hit you one night. It was the last time I was hosting at Athena's, and you requested to go last, and you went up and you kind of self destructed.

I was really upset. I wasn't in a good mood that night to begin with. But I was like, "Okay I came out the show, I'm gonna do something. And then I was looking at words on a page, trying to figure out what I'm gonna talk about. Seeing if I can figure out a structure for anything. And then Jason Webb sits down next to me, and he's like, "Got material tonight, or are you just going to be mean to people?" And then Sarah Gibson also said something about being mean. And it's just like aghhhh. And it really... Another thing I do is work out different muscles in different rooms. And if you only see me in a certain environment, it's gonna not be the full picture. I do other stuff, and I'm okay at it. But if that's all you see that I do, then it's pretty shitty. It sucks. Hurts.

So you kinda have to prove them wrong. Or you lean into your criticisms like I did that night. 'Cause I was working on stuff, and I felt bad about living the previous semester where I was in Chapel Hill, just being a total piece of shit. And I was really happy to be back in Asheville, I was really happy. I have job now, I have something to do all the time, and I can go to open mics, a car, I have money to go to open mics, and all my time's filled up. When I don't have anything to do I get super depressed. And so it's sort of a fresh start. But it was like that semester, the spring semester that I had to finish school in sort of just--'cause Jason Webb was living up there then he also moved to Asheville, which was really interesting--it sort of followed me back. And I thought, "Shit, I have to be responsible for my actions." It really bummed me out. I ended up yelling as I left the room. That was fun. I think that's the important part. If you have a terrible set, you still have to find something to be proud of in that set. And if you have a really great set, you have to find something to work on in that set. That's a philosophy of mine. I don't work on it. I find a part that needed work, never work on it.

And then you left the stage, out the door. We all watched you go across the street.

I should have walked back in and started yelling again. "And another thing." Fun times. Fun times.

You know what I remember most about that? I'm making that about me now, 'cause I was hosting. I sad, "Cody Hughes, everybody. Next time you see him, give the man a hug, or maybe a blow job."

Yeah, that's all I need, man. So I stick in people's craws, and people stick in my craw. And so there are fun nights when I just yell on stage about things, but it's not pointed at anybody, and it goes much better. I woke up, probably a few weeks later, also for Athena's, but it was like 9, so I was really running late since I live in Hendersonville. And there was no reason for me to go, as always, but I thought, "I may well meet a girl." And that's so much my motivation for getting out of bed for most open mics that aren't Coffee Underground. Coffee Underground: blast. All the other ones are gambles. I feel like 80% of the time I'm gonna have a good time at Coffee Underground, and then the rest of the open mics, I think, "I gotta go to get better, but I don't wanna, maybe there's a girl there." That was such a motivating factor that night, I'm just amazed by myself.

Truth be told, that was for me, too. There could be girl there. And I ended up meeting a girl there.

Yeah, congratulations.

I didn't want to rub it in, but I had to say it.

Yeah, I know. It's fine, it's fine. One day.

Further Exploration of Stand-up Comedy

foolscap Home       Podcast       Essays       Poems       Songs       Videos       Stories       Images foolscap

Chokes and Warbles
Now Available

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