Monday, May 8, 2017

Interview with Isaac Kozell, Who Will Fight You Over Refrigerator Poetry

           For my first ever interview for Across The Board, I decided to really embarrass myself by interviewing someone who does tons of interviews on a professional level.  Isaac Kozell is a comedian and writer based in New Orleans.  Check out his website for tour dates and some of those professional level interviews with some of the top names in comedy today and find him on twitter @isaackozell.

How did you start doing comedy?

It’s actually kind of weird, I came into it wrong, and then realized I had to go back into it and start over.  I was doing a lot of PR work.  I worked for Clear Channel Radio, so I was out doing promotional events and stuff, and then I started working for this law firm and I was their PR guy. 

Did you major in PR in college?

No, I went to school for marketing and never finished.  I just always had jobs.  I started working right out of high school because I just wanted to move out, buy a truck, and have my own place.


So I was getting good jobs and supporting myself and I was like, “I don’t know why I’d go to college right now.”  Also, I was raised in a super conservative religious cult, so they didn’t want you to go to college.

Really?  What cult, anything I’ve heard of?

Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Ohhhhhh, wowwww.

Yeah, so we were always preparing for Armageddon, so there’s really no reason to go to a four year college just to get smart, because you’re not going to need that once Armageddon comes . . . They were cool with people going to tech schools to learn a trade.

Wow, that’s sort of backwardsly though a good idea in today’s world, to do a trade, you know?

I know, I totally agree.

I regret my degree, I regret going to college, I should have done something useful.

Yeah, Armageddon still hasn’t come, so it’s worked out for a lot of the ones who went to trade school, because now they own small businesses and they’re doing okay.  The reasoning for it is what disturbed me, because I know a lot of people now who can barely support their families, and they are praying for Armageddon to come so they can get out of debt. 

Did you ever knock on doors?
               Oh yeah, you had to.  In order to be considered a worthy Jehovah’s Witness, that’s the first thing you do, is you start going door to door and handing out pamphlets.  I knew how to be onstage, that was one thing the church taught me.  I was onstage since I was four years old.

I heard you recently said “I used to be a pastor” is your best pick-up line.

                Yeah, I got into it.  The levels within each congregation, the elders are the highest, and then there’s a thing I was in called ministerial servants which is kind of a deacon or a pastor role, where you give Sunday sermons, you travel around to different congregations, stuff like that.

So I was doing marketing and PR work, and I was out in the community a lot.  I’d be hosting events and fundraisers, and then somebody was doing a charity comedy show and asked me to host it.  So I thought, oh I have to write jokes for this.  I had one or two that were okay, but thinking back now, it was so bad, really bad . . . then I went to my first actual open mic in Pittsburgh and watched all these people do really well, I was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”  And so I started, and I just hit five years doing stand up.

Cool, well what about writing?  How long have you been professionally writing?

                I had always kind of been really interested in writing.  I used to write a lot of short stories and fiction stuff, and I was really big into what all the young men my age were into, Bukowski and all of that, and I thought Chuck Palahniuk was really funny, and that got me into McSweeney’s stuff, so I started writing a lot of satire type stuff.  And then when I started comedy I really just wanted to write about comedy.

               There was an alt weekly in Pittsburgh called the City Paper, and they weren’t covering the comedy scene.  So I came in and said “this scene is amazing and nobody is talking about it.  Jim Gaffigan was just here and nobody did a write up.”  So I just approached them and said, “hey, I would like to write for you and cover comedy.”  And so I started doing short little blurbs about stuff going on, and then I would pitch the bigger articles, and they would say “if you can land that interview, we’ll make it a cover.”  So during the time I was in Pittsburgh, I had three or four feature cover articles, which was really cool.  So from that this magazine in Humboldt County, California, well one of the people that came through town, I think it was Bob Saget –

He graduated from my high school.

                Oh really?  Where was that?

Abington, Pennsylvania. 

                That’s so funny.  Yeah so that was one of my first big interviews, and then I tweeted a link to it at him, he retweeted it.  Then Savage Henry, this stoner magazine in Humboldt County, California that has a bunch of goofy articles and they interview a comic every time, they contacted me and said “we can’t get a regular person to do this, so we’ll pay you if you can book these interviews and do one a month, and also if you want to do a regular article for us every month you can.”  So I started writing for them, and then they invited me out to their comedy festival, which was the first big thing I’d ever done in comedy.  So I did that, and I continue to write for them, and now I run their Twitter and web stuff and am a staff writer there.

                Then I was looking at all these other sites I wanted to write for, and I had a few along the way where they were looking for original content, humor content . . . a lot of piecemeal,  freelance kind of stuff, and then Splitsider came along, which is my favorite thing in the world to write for.  It’s a super steady gig and I get to talk to everybody.  Everybody is generally okay, but these bigger comics, they’ll be like “oh, you have twenty minutes with them.”  We’ll talk for an hour, and they’re giving me tips, inviting me to come out to mics with them next time I'm in town.  And I would never have that opportunity to have an intimate conversation with people like that, at my level of comedy, if it wasn’t for the journalism stuff.

So how do you book these interviews?

                I started out just hustling and just googling their publicist, management, booker, whatever, and I would just send emails out to everybody I possibly could in the most annoying way until I could land one.  Now, most of them are assignments, which is cool because I’ve been doing it for a while.  For a while, Splitsider would just assign me stuff, which they still do, but now PR people will contact me directly, which is nice . . . now it’s so nice that people are coming at me, because I used to work so hard just to land interviews, and I don’t have to do that anymore, they just come my way, which is nice.

You reference some pretty gnarly music in your stand up.  What concert were you at when you proposed to your ex-wife?

                It was Incubus, and that’s a real thing.  We got engaged to the song “Stellar” at the Incubus concert because one of our fondest memories was we were driving home one night, we pulled over onto one of those country access roads to make out, and this song comes on and she says “Let’s get out and dance in the headlights.” And so we did, and I waited for them to come into town so I could propose.

Do you still like them or do you feel the way about them that I feel about Sublime, because I used to listen to them a lot in college when I started dating my ex-husband?

                But do you, if you listen to Sublime, can you detach from the emotion and just like the music still?  Or have you grown away from that style of music?

I’ve grown away from that style of music.  Is that how you feel about Incubus?

                Somewhat.  However, they have some jams, they have some good songs.  The whole rap rock thing . . . they don’t hold up as well as some of the other rap rock bands I was listening to at the time.  Like the Deftones, I listen to that music regularly still.  Incubus, I have to be in the mood for it, and it’s kind of like a goofy listen, but I don’t hate it . . . I went back and watched a bunch of the 90’s numetal stuff, the lyrics are so bad . . . I was listening and laughing so hard because I used to love it, so that embarrassment felt so good . . . it’s pure pleasure, there’s nothing twisted about it.  Going back and looking at things you used to feel passionately about.

Here’s one of my favorite stories about this level of passion that is so embarrassing to me in a good way.  During the period where I was getting into writing I was really into poetry.  I was listening to a lot of emo music and I was writing poems in this little moleskin book, like if I was at a family function I’d go off to the edge of the woods and write a poem.  I have them and they are amazing how bad they are.  They are so, so bad.  So one of my friends had refrigerator magnet poetry, and I was at his house party, feeling very emo, and there were these guys there being super bro-y.  I was like, I don’t identify with these bros, I’m going to go over here and just write. 

But first I’m going to reapply my eye liner.

                I never did eyeliner but I would adjust my black rubber wristbands or tighten up my leather cuff.  So I’m writing this poetry on the fridge magnets, it’s so bad, it’s got longing, chasing after a girl in the rain, rust and all these terrible metaphors.  Then this bro, the biggest bro comes up, I’m standing there drinking a beer and he looks at it and laughs, and he moves out two words and puts in like “butt” and “wiener.”  And I I tried to fight him over my refrigerator poetry.  I was like “fuck you, dude!” and I shoved him, and he’s still laughing, and I’m so mad that he fucked up my art.  But then I realized that I just became the biggest asshole at the party, defending this garbage to this guy who made it objectively funnier.  I was like, how dare you come up and mess up my poetry!  I was so serious about it.  That story is so funny to me because it’s embarrassing as hell, that I would disrupt a whole party and try to fight a guy over poetry.

Yeah, that is really funny.  So how much of your personal life do you share on stage, and where do you think the boundary is, if any?

                I don’t have much of a boundary, I talk about pretty much everything that’s happened to me.  Early in standup it was a lot of childhood stories, goofy embarrassing stuff, then through the divorce I really opened up about all of that.  I mean that’s why you know about Incubus and where I proposed and all of that, because I talk about it onstage.  But I try to be careful that I’m not – in the end, a lot of those jokes start out where I’m in control, but in the end I want to make sure that it’s known that all of this affects me too and ultimately I’m the butt of the joke.  So I have to be careful about that.  Anything that’s about other people I always run by them first . . . I don’t mind hurting myself up there, but I don’t want to make anyone else feel bad.

What tips would you have for aspiring writers?

                Write every single day.  You have to.  And you have to have time to do it.  Commit to doing stuff, even if it’s scary, and if you fail, keep committing to it.  I agree to do so many things.  Even if I am in the middle of a job or getting ready for a show, and my week is full, if Splitsider says “do you want to talk to so and so,” I always take it and I find a way to get it done.  I know first of all I could use the money, second of all I could use the experience, and third, I have to keep pushing . . . if you really want to do it, you just have to keep doing it.  


Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

Great interview! I want to ask about all the dirt on comics though.

Carrie Beckort said...

Great interview! Love the bit about the poetry at the party. You should write a poem about that.

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