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Tokyo Police Club’s Greg Alsop

Working the Hi-hat from Both Sides

Jun 21, 2011 Web Exclusive
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Under the Radar’s Music vs. Comedy Issue, which is on stands now, features an article titled “A Mutual Admiration Society: Where Comedy and Music Meet.” For that article we interviewed Tokyo Police Club’s Greg Alsop, among others, and included a few quotes from him. Below is the full transcript of our interview with Alsop.

It’s an oft-repeated maxim that most musicians secretly want to be comedians and comedians secretly want to be musicians, and it often follows that drummers are seen as the most reliable resources of humor within bands. Looking over the history of rock music, there seems to be some truth to this. From mad prankster Keith Moon’s toilet demolishing exploits to Pixies drummer David Lovering and his second career as a magician/comedian and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster and his role as half of the comedy team behind legendary call-in radio program The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling, drummers do seem to harbor more than their share of humorous eccentricities. Add to that list Tokyo Police Club’s Greg Alsop, a drummer who goes one step further and boldly leaves his safe perch behind the kit and moonlights as a standup comedian between tours and recording sessions. Sitting in a hotel lobby in Albany, New York, Alsop explains the roots of his second career, how he develops his craft when not banging the traps, and how different kinds of artists find different things funny.

Matt Fink: So how did you get into comedy?

Greg Alsop: It has always been an interest of mine from a very early age. It was one of those things where I definitely looked up to comedians that you’d see on TV. I guess some of my favorites from early on were people like David Letterman. I liked watching his show with my parents, and I liked how he was able to tear people down with completely irreverent things. There was also this other side to it where humor was the easiest way to relate to people sometimes. I was a smaller kid, and I’m still a smaller person, and I feel like presenting myself in an awkward, kind of aloof way was an easier way to reduce tension in social situations. And I guess humor just developed out of that for me, more than anything.

At what point did you decide you wanted to do something with comedy?

In high school, I guess. It was something that I’d do in school presentations. I’d create characters. It was so nerdy, but I would go the extra mile and bring sunglasses and tie or something to pretend I was from the future when doing a presentation on the media in sociology class. I would do history presentations and dress up like Ivan the Terrible. Yeah, it was nerdy. But I guess it worked to a point, and people actually laughed at it. It wasn’t as lame as you’d think, with your mom making you a beard costume out of yarn and writing a script for you late at night. So, I guess I started in school, and then at university I started doing drama and theater courses and writing short videos with my friends. From there, standup seemed like a natural extension and something that I had watched from afar for so long and had a desire to try. I guess it was just an extension of performing.

So at this point, how often do you do standup?

Plenty. I’ve been doing it for a few years now, kind of off and on. It’s more of a thing that I get to do when I have a long break from the band. I find it really difficult to combine both creatively. When you’re focused on music, or one art form, it’s hard to walk around and observe things without having that one outlet in your head at all times. I can’t really do both, but I have performed often.

Have you done tours as a comedian?

No. Not at all. It’s more just around Toronto in alternative rooms that my friends put on and some other club shows around there. But, no, it’s nothing that I’ve pursued professionally or that ambitiously.

So what is your joke-writing process? Do you write while you’re on the road?

Yeah, it’s easy to write stuff on the road, because you’re not focused on writing music at all. So you have a lot of time on long band drives, and when you go to a city, you find a coffee shop somewhere and sit down with a notebook for a while and try to throw together some ideas that you’ve had in your head the last couple days. From there, it’s easier to come up with ideas and fill pages with material, but when it comes time to actually perform it, there’s kind of a disconnect between presenting ideas and having fully-formed essays that you write for yourself and tweaking that so that it sounds like something that’s natural when it comes out of your mouth for an audience. I’m working on a new 15 minutes of material right now, but that comes from a year of writing constantly while we were doing this last album.

So while you’re on the road will you try out your new material on your bandmates?

[Laughs] Yeah, sometimes. Maybe not on them, but you can sometimes work things into a conversation if it sounds natural enough. But it’s hard, especially if people know that you attempt to write and perform comedy, to not seem like you’re putting it on with people. It’s usually when you’re getting to know someone for the first time, maybe with other bands that you’re playing with, if something comes up that you’re written before that can apply to your conversation, you can work it into it like that and see if that idea gets a laugh from them at all. But even that is difficult. It’s so different presenting your ideas to an audience on stage than it is backstage when you’re having a beer with people?

Is the joke-writing process in any way analogous to the songwriting process?

Yeah, I think it could be. There’s a mathematics to writing jokes, and there’s a mathematics to writing hooks, and they aren’t that dissimilar. With both you want to present an idea that’s easily accessible and then have a switch or surprise by the end of it that lodges it in people’s heads. With the craft process, there’s a similarity in that way. A lot of it is just based on instinct, as well. But I wouldn’t say that music and comedy are that easily married. Obviously, people expect a different emotional connection to you if you’re trying to get them to laugh or you’re trying to have this cathartic or release of pathos that comes out of your music. It still just kind of comes from ideas and building upon that idea and hoping that you have some new way to present and rearrange what has already been done.

Are you a fan of musical comedy at all?

Yeah, to a point. I had “Weird Al” [Yankovic] CDs. Some people do that really successfully. Flight of the Conchords are the best current example of that. But I feel that it’s hard to do music comedy in a way that’s actually funny and not just kind of amusing. It’s hard to get that surprise or punch line out of that. Something can be entertaining or kind of humorous, but it’s hard to get a laugh out of somebody when you’re performing a song. You need to present it in a much goofier way than music should be played, I guess. There’s a serious side to music, where you’re trying to be genuine and show people this very intimate side of you. And to completely discredit the entire musical part of a song by adding a joke in there, I think it’s too much for the brain to concentrate on.

It seems like there’s very few songwriters that can walk that balance between doing something too serious to be funny and too funny to be taken seriously.

I agree. There’s definitely potential for throwing a clever line in a song or something funny within there. Kanye West can do that. He’ll say something that will make me laugh out loud in the middle of a song, and he knows he’s doing it. But I don’t think he’s writing joke songs, and I don’t know any rock stars who can do that. It doesn’t really have room for that.

Yeah, it seems that someone writing a comedy song has less room for error than someone who is writing straight songs. A normal songwriter can be ambiguous or abstract, but a comedy songwriter has to make sure that the listener can understand the joke.

Yeah, and be able to understand every word within that joke. In normal songwriting, there’s a lot of lyrical room to dance around a topic or an issue, where you have to be very concise within joke songwriting. Every syllable really needs to count, and you need to phrase a joke within those lines, as well. It’s hard enough to create a rhythm for a joke when it’s just you talking on stage. The only problem with joke songs is that they have a short shelf life. You can only really laugh at them once or twice. They are the equivalent of the funny t-shirt. You can only use them once with each crowd and get a laugh out of it, and then it’s time to retire them. But how often can you listen to a joke from a comedian, as well, before you know all the surprises? I don’t know how many people listen to a comedy album again and again and again.

I’ve talked to different musicians who have said that they’d like to try comedy, but it’s just to terrifying to think about being up there all alone on the stage with nothing to hide behind.

Yeah, it’s true. The main issue is trying to find a balance between who you’re presenting yourself as onstage and who you actually are. If you can find a persona to hide behind, it makes it a lot easier, because then you can say, “Ok, they’re judging this version of me, rather than my genuine self.” You’re not putting all of you out there. You’re putting choice pieces of yourself out there. I feel like it’s even more necessary if you are a musician trying to do comedy, because you already have a personality that people know. Even if you’re not that well known as a musician, people expect some genuine personality from you. I feel like it’s easier to present your comedy from the guise of a character, because people know that if you have some terrible joke or blue material that it’s not your real opinion. Especially for someone like Neil Hamburger, because that’s what he does. It would definitely be easier for audiences to accept that than if you were going up there like, “Hey, this is me, and I’ve got some terrible things to say.”

Do you think there is a lot of natural overlap between the music and comedy scenes?

There’s a lot of mutual interest and affection. I know a lot of musicians who love to go to see comedy on days off on tour and vice versa. A lot of my friends who are comedians have a big interest in music. But I guess that’s just an appreciation of culture more than anything else.

Do you think the life of touring and the amount of downtime lends itself to wanting comedy as a release?

I definitely think that if you find humor in your day-to-day situation that it makes it a lot easier to go through it. As far as getting material from being on the road, I find that a lot more difficult, because you don’t have that relatable life for the general public. It’s hard to tell a story about being in a van for 10 hours straight and find some common ground in there. Or staying in a hotel night after night. You want to find those universal issues that resonate with everyone. That’s where you get the most genuine laughter from. I haven’t really been able to find much material from being on the road, and I find it really difficult to find new topics to talk about while I am touring.

Do you think it’s generally true that musicians and comedians have similar senses of humor?

I do. I would agree with that. I guess both are really living within the status quo, so it’s easier to find similar social circles where you talk about the same things. It gives you something that you can both laugh about.

Do you think that’s something that’s unique to comedians and musicians, or do most people in the arts find the same things funny?

I don’t know if it’s all artists. I’ve definitely found a disconnect with very serious artists-like filmmakers or visual artists. There’s definitely an ease about creating an art with musicians. I guess it’s because it doesn’t take up your whole life like a visual art—maybe because it is such an introspective, isolated art—it can be hard to find that common ground to joke around. Or it’s hard to have them know that you’re joking. I feel like there are certain types of personalities where people are so accepting of everything that nothing surprises them anymore. You can’t laugh at something if you accept everything in this world as fair, and you absorb it into yourself. I find that with extremely liberal-minded people, it can be hard to find humor. They’re either so concerned with accepting everything or are railing against all the injustices in the system that they can’t separate themselves from it and look back at the ridiculousness of it and laugh. Or if you say something ridiculous, they take it at face value and don’t get that you’re being facetious. I don’t know if all the arts have a similar sense of humor.

Have you generally had pretty good reactions to your comedy?

Yeah. I’ve only started performing again in the last month, and there was a long break in between. When I was doing it really frequently throughout 2009, there was a point where I had a really confident 10 minutes of material, and I knew I could go up there and do it and get laughs every time. But it’s the kind of thing where if you get a few laughs throughout your set, in a five minute stint of time, that’s a success. You know that you have solid ideas in there, and you have to find the best ways to present them. I’ve been doing a lot of open mics lately, which have been awful. There’s no audience there that cares about what you are doing. You’re performing for other comedians who don’t want to laugh at your material, because there is that competitive edge there, and the handful of people there who are smashed and don’t even know that there’s a comedy show going on.

So what kind of stuff are you working on right now?

I’m trying to come up with a few character-type things that I can put online, almost like talking into your webcam. My earlier material was very absurdist. The audience would have to take a great leap into what I was talking about to even find what I was talking about funny. It was such a ridiculous and outlandish premise that they were just like, “Oh, ok.” If you buy into that, you’ll get the joke, but if you can’t go that far, nothing else I say will matter to you. So I’m trying to find a lot more common ground about life and a lot more personal stuff. It’s self-effacing humor, but, hopefully, with stuff that we can all see within ourselves. Most of the stuff I’ve been writing about lately has been hot dogs. I’ve got five minutes about hot dogs and the terrible meals you make living alone. And not being a man-or that feeling of not being a man and knowing you should be on the cusp of manhood but knowing that something within yourself is not letting your graduate to the next stage of life. Hopefully that’s something that everyone can get.

(Tokyo Police Club’s latest album, Champ, was released in June 2010 by Mom + Pop Music.)


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