Carolina Hidalgo: Diving In Head First
Since 2008, Carolina Hidalgo has stood beneath the lights of the comic stage, eliciting laughs from a darkness that may or may not contain an audience, depending on the venue. In this time, she became an accomplished comedian in her own right and has introduced that darkness to the likes of Colin Quinn, Louis C.K., and Dave Attell.
She will be appearing in Josh Petrino’s film “The Devil’s Tree” (currently in post-production), which she has described as “Hostelmeets It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” She has been working on new shorts and will co-host a new podcast “Everything We Are Doing Is Bad” along side Tiana Miller.
So, how did you get into comedy?
I was just walking down the street with a friend of mine and I saw a sign for an open mic. I said out loud “I wanna do that open mic,” and the moment I said that there was no turning back.
What was the open mic that caught your eye?
The first time was Back Fence. I told people and like 15 people showed up to my first open mic. I did well, y’know, because of all my friends. I think I sucked, but it still gave me the confidence to do it again. I started running my own shows within just a few weeks of starting. I figured if I wanted to bring people, why not just book the show myself? I started booking at The Underground Lounge because I was a barker there for a bit. I’d done an open mic there and eventually someone put me up for a Friday night show. The regular guy who hosted it left so I just kind of asked “can I take over his show?” and they just said “alright.”
Wow, you really just jumped right in. Did you feel like you knew what you were doing?
Well, I used the formula of the previous host and picked up where he left off. We had deals with hostels nearby and I was able to recruit people to do it. Then I started booking my shows at Stand Up New York for a while. That was miserable though, so I stopped doing that. It was just a lot of promotion, and emails, and just a lot of the stuff that comedians don’t want to do; my comedy suffered a lot. I didn’t get to write as much, I was stuck in one place…
Right, you had to be sure you were still getting out there and seeing what material works and what doesn’t.
Yeah, when I first started I came out doing well and I thought “oh this will be easy!” and you know, acting like an asshole, but then you go through this period where like everything you do bombs.
That’s a painful transition, adjusting to the silence of a room full of people you don’t know.
I would get really upset and blame everybody but myself. But then you get to this point where you know that everybody is judging you and you just sort of… glaze over. You feel like crap for a minute and then you just have to remove yourself and say “alright, well… there’s tomorrow.”
You could talk about the struggles and how hard it is to no end, but you don’t really know what it’s like until you’re finally broken. You have to end up on a sidewalk crying your eyes out because of bookers telling you they don’t want you back, or avoiding you, or tanking at an audition. It’s not that you just work and do your time: it’s a roller coaster. It teases your ego out of the equation. It’s great and awful at the same time.
How much material did you have at that point?
When I just started I wrote so much, like right off the bat. Now I’m a lot more selective, but back then I just took lots of risks and I didn’t care.
How much of your time is taken up by comedy?
I have no spare time. If I don’t go up one night then I feel like crap. We had a snowstorm the other day and I still got into a car with a friend and went wherever there was a show, almost killing ourselves in the process. It’s a whole lifestyle, you’re always doing it and you don’t question how much or anything. If I make plans with friends I always try to hit up a mic right before I see them.
How much material do you still have from when you started?
I have close to 30 notebooks I’ve filled; it’s fun to go back and read them. Sometimes you get even more jokes out of ones you’d forgotten. I’m still trying to figure out my study habit. Now I work an even 20 minutes that I feel very confident in and I know I can do well with.
Did you ever think about taking comedy classes?
I never thought they would work for me, I don’t speak on behalf of other people though. Some people have taken a lot of classes and it works for them, but that just isn’t’ a thing for me. My mom bought me a lot of books on how to write for comedy; I didn’t open a single one. I just felt it would be better to fill up 30 notebooks and just kinda figure out how I can build from there. Really I just make every mistake in the book and then I learn. I feel like I’ve probably done it all once. But the best advice is to just talk to other comedians. A lot of pro comedians like to talk about their methods and stuff. I didn’t do that when I started, I was way too shy for that. If I weren’t so shy I would have, though.
Do you ever feel tempted to imitate the style of the comics you admire?
Yeah, but you really have to find a way to represent yourself right off the bat. I learned the easiest way is to just talk like you’re talking to a friend when you make them laugh.
Definitely, but it’s hard to keep that voice on a stage, isn’t it?
When I used to get nervous I would have a drink, thinking “that will make me more fun!” or something. And that’s not how it works at all. It feels like looking through a pinhole; you just don’t have the awareness that you should. So now I’ll have maybe the occasional drink before I perform, but I feel like I perform so much better when I don’t. For me, just psyching myself up before I go up is enough. And I have to make sure I eat before, whether I’m hungry or not.
Whatever helps you feel better and focus.
It would be unbearable if you got nervous every time you were on stage. That’s a place you should like to be. Yesterday I did a spot in New Jersey, and you know, I was nervous. But then once the show starts, the whole intimidation factor just goes away. I always feel like it’s going to be something else until I get there, but once I’m up it just melts away and I don’t think about it anymore. It feels good when you get to drink it all in. Good word of advice: never talk to a comedian the minute they get off stage, all they want to talk about is how their set went. Just give them like 10 minutes to stew in it and then go up and hang out.
You grew up speaking Spanish, moved to Singapore where you were exposed to Cantonese and spoke English, and then moved to the US. That’s a pretty cool linguistic background; have you ever tried performing in a language other than English?
I’ve always wanted to try a stand-up career in Spanish. I have attempted it in Argentina; it wasn’t bad, but it’s not my strong suit anymore. When I speak English and Spanish, I’m almost like two different people. I grew up watching Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy and all the sitcoms I liked as a kid like Diff'rent Strokes and Golden Girls, so my humor comes to me from an English perspective. Steve Martin was my favorite comic growing up.
Do you have any Spanish-language comedy influences?
Andreas Lopez is absolutely my favorite. He’s a really fantastic Colombian comedian.
Does your style change when you perform in Spanish?
I feel a little up-tight and I speak more directly. English feels more laid back and casual. And a lot of things just don’t translate. Like when I see American movies in Latin America and they’re dubbed, sometimes the jokes are completely different, but that’s just what you have to do.
How does your family approach your comedy career?
They’re supportive in that they help me make some bills and stuff and they get excited to see me get shows and publicity, but yeah my parents weren’t really raised the same way; they didn’t have comedy in the same way that we do. In Latin America, stand-up is relatively new. For example, I once watched the movie Napoleon Dynamite with my parents and at the end of the movie when the credits were rolling my mom looked at me and went “so why is this funny?” It’s a different environment. Growing up I heard a lot of “Carolina, stop, that’s not funny!” and that’s when I knew it was funny.
Did you know as a kid that you wanted to go into comedy?
I always wanted to but I was too afraid to tell anybody because I knew they would just ask me “why?”. I was very intimidated. I was actually going to be a social worker, which is why I originally moved to New York after college. But I didn’t get my interview letter in time, the deadline passed, and I became a pastry cook for two years, and a soccer coach, and a temp worker… and then comedy.
I feel like comedy is always changing. You kind of have to find a niche in your own generation to key into. Did you have friends in comedy before you got involved?
No. I would just go and bring my best friend, my roommate, so I would have someone to talk to. No one would talk to me! But you know how it goes, they were just all thinking “who’s this new person?” But then once you’ve gone out for a while you get to know people. I don’t really have much of a social life with them though; like we just go out and if we see each other at a show we think “great, let’s hang out!” and we’ll get food or something. We make plans that we can never keep because we’re scattered across Brooklyn, Manhattan, Long Island, Rhode Island… so it’s a very lonely life. Many meals alone.
Comedy seems to be available so much more readily for our generation than ever before. Do you think that makes it more difficult to succeed in comedy?
I don’t think so. Obviously I could be wrong, I’m not the truth-sayer of all things comedy, but I think every generation brings with it a whole slew of new and different people who want to try new and different kinds of comedy. We have the internet and there’s all sorts of new things developing. I’ve heard comics from the 80's say “oh, in the 80's, everybody wanted to be a comic,” well now it’s 2014 and that’s the case again. It just seems to be a sort of surge with every generation. And I don’t think that makes it more difficult, I feel like there are just a lot of new mediums now. Before, you had to get up on Johnny Carson and keep doing that and boom that’s your career. But now you’ve got Twitter, Facebook, Vine, YouTube, podcasts, and so on. If anything, maybe it’s easier.
It almost feels like there’s too much to pay attention to these days. I feel like everybody has to keep a few influences in mind to keep from being overwhelmed by the array of choice.
Definitely. How else are you gonna start without an influence? I loved Mitch Hedberg because I was very shy on stage and I felt great seeing someone else who was also shy on stage. He really played to his strengths and I just found that so commendable. John Mulaney is also really influential. But it took a while to tell myself “just go up there and perform the way you, Carolina Hidalgo, would do it.”
How far and wide have you performed?
I performed in Argentina, Amsterdam (that crowd is fun), and now it’s really most of the east coast: New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut… I’ll be making my first trip to California this summer. So work has gotten better since performing with a broken mic in a place just outside of Times Square to four people. The quality of shows really do get better and that keeps me going.
Does your voice change between crowds?
I used to do a lot of Latino shows, because I’m Hispanic, and there would always be like one white guy. But it’s not like he would change his voice or style to match the Latino atmosphere or anything, and he’d still kill all the same. So that’s what I try to do too; I’m not gonna get on stage and go “where are my Latinos at!?” That’s not gonna happen. And even if you bomb, at least you know they just didn’t like you, it’s not like you actually screwed up.
Do you ever feel like you’re playing up or inventing a persona for the audience?
That’s just not for me. If I go up there and I lie about something, I feel uncomfortable, I feel like they can just see right through me. A lot of bookers that I’ve auditioned for have said no as recently as last year and for the dumbest reasons.One guy asked me if I studied comedians. He told me I should “play out my Hispanic heritage more,” that “maybe an accent would be good.”
Like Carlos Mencia or something, just capitalize on a big target market?
Right, why would I do that? That’s not me. I thought that was stupid. Comedy is a lot more personal than that. Maybe I could work a lot more but where else will that take me, it’s not me.
So you’re developing material that really is a part of you, not a character that you’ve invented. How do you keep yourself coming up with new stuff?
I used to sit down and write, but now I’ve learned I just can’t do it that way. It’s one of those things where you won’t know how it’s gonna start. You’ll be talking on the phone, texting, or just chatting with a friend and something funny catches you off guard. Then you sit down and start writing. Sometimes I’ll go a week and I won’t come up with something, but other times right before an open mic I’ll think “I need something new for these guys” and something will just come to me; sometimes a little pressure is really helpful. I was performing every single night nonstop for about a month before finally I was convinced to take a quick vacation and that actually helped me find new material a lot. It put me in a different environment.
When do your jokes “congeal?”
It’s a process. The first time I tell a joke, it’s usually a little bit longer, twice as long sometimes, and the punchlines aren’t always quite there. It takes a while and every joke takes different forms. Sometimes I’ll get advice from other comics and anyone who knows me well. I’ll just kind of make changes here and there every time I perform and see what sticks. Eventually it just takes its own form and it before long it’s just frozen like that in my head.
And then you just keep doing those until you open for Colin Quinn, Louis C.K. and Dave Attell?
I was really just in the right place in the right time. I was just there for a guest spot, but the feature was stuck in their car because of bad weather and they say “would you mind going up instead?” and of course I would. The first time that happened was at Nick’s Comedy Stop in Boston, I opened for Jon Fisch, who just had his Letterman appearance. I know him really well and when the feature had to cancel, my five minute guest spot turned into a 15. Dave Attell, I’ve known him for a while, and it was the same thing at Stand Up NY. I wasn’t originally on the show and it was overbooked anyway, but when I started to leave Dave said “what, you’re not on the show?” and like ten minutes later they told me “well, we’re gonna put you on the show.” I don’t know if that was Dave’s doing or not, but it was pretty sweet. So it’s a lot of dumb luck, so far.
What goals do you have in mind now?
I don’t know exactly, I just want to keep creating things and see how they go. So I guess that’s my goal. Like when I first started I thought “I just want to get on TV and have people hear my jokes and that is it and I will be happy.” But now I’m doing a movie, I’m starting out a new podcast about cult movies. Movies are my second favorite thing of all time. But you can just be creative, spend less than $200, and make a movie or make a podcast, and that’s great and that’s what I’m doing. I just want to keep doing these things until they reach a larger scale.
What’s the tilt of the new podcast?
It’s called “Everything We Are Doing Is Bad.” It’s a riff on the line that Janosz has in Ghostbusters 2: “everything you are doing is bad, I just want you to know this.” Me and my friend who’s also a comedian, Tiana Miller, are just big into horror and cult movies. We wanted to make a podcast about movies and not in a pretentious way, like spending the whole time just going “oh this is the worst movie ever.” We’re just gonna talk about what we’ve seen and love about our favorite movies. Kind of like when you talk about good times you’ve had with your friends.