Robert Punchur’s List
Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending the Bull Moose Dog Run Fundraiser at Stand Up NY, hosted by stand-up investment banker and humanitarian Harris Bloom.
Robert Punchur, now 21-years-old, came to New York City in 2011 to attend college and (more importantly) venture into comedy. After three semesters pursuing the initial stages of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, Robert let his interests in comedy take the lead and made the bold decision to leave college. Whether he will join the ranks of successful college dropouts is not yet certain, but by force of determination and passion for the field, he very well may.
He lists his top three comedians as Bill Hicks, Bo Burnham, and George Carlin. “I used to wrestle,” he said, “and I was bad. I would get beaten up every day. I think that’s been great for my career; now I know that if I bomb, I can come right back.”
So, how did you get into comedy?
When I first came to the city it was for The Kings College, a small conservative Christian school, which is weird because I’m neither of those things–I just wanted to put myself in an environment that was different from my small hometown in Pennsylvania. There was an improv team that I auditioned for and I was accepted. It offered free coaching and a show once-a-week, and that inspired me to do open mics. So I was doing the two at the same time, and that sparked the interest. Not much later, I was taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB).
I’ve heard mixed reviews on the utility of classes; what was your take-away?
It surprised me! I was very skeptical, y'know, is comedy really something you can teach? But they don’t try to teach you how to be funny, they just give you the guidelines that help you find comedy within yourself.
And where were your first cracks at stand-up?
I went to the People’s Improve Theater (The PIT) on Tuesday nights, which I still go to from time-to-time, it’s a fantastic place to try. It’s very low pressure, just a fun environment. My first time went very well, so that was encouraging. I was about 6 months in before I really bombed for the first time.
What was your schedule when you were starting?
I was attending at least two open mics per night and then I got lucky; at 3 months a manager at Broadway Comedy Club who works with developing young comics invited me on a Monday night at 11pm to, I thought, just talk about comedy. When I showed up he just told me “oh, you’re up in five minutes.”
That sounds pretty nerve-wracking!
Absolutely! But I wasn’t going to say “no,” y'know? And anyway the way it went was: at the end of a regular 90-minute show the host came up and said something like “So that’s our show, but if you’d like to stick around, we have some new guys looking to test some of their stuff.” And that’s just a shitty way of selling it, so you’re left with like 4 scattered drunk people in a room that seats 200 for a very awkward, miserable set. But if you can learn to get some sort of response from that audience, then a full room of 200 people is so much more comfortable and you don’t feel like you have to work and twist and force laughs out.
And how did that first crowd go?
I got some chuckles and smiles, but mostly advice. First and foremost: cut wordiness. With that advice I just made my roommates miserable: I would drill my set to them for hours, I Skyped all my friends, pretty much just anyone that I thought was funny.
What followed your shows at Broadway Comedy Club?
Prom Shows. Those are the shows for high-school students after their proms. They just bring them into the venue to be entertained by a lot of young comics (because it relates to them better). So it’s a lot of the guys who are on Guy Code and I definitely wasn’t ready to do those yet, but because my manager had my back he got me the shows and it was a real trial by fire. It was my first real full audience! I learned very quickly that what I had been doing at open mics wasn’t really going to work on a stage in the same way.
So that was when, Spring? What was the first summer like?
I actually had to go home and run a summer camp. I didn’t really have the time to do stand-up, but I knew I had to be doing something, so I familiarized myself with Twitter among other things.
Twitter seems to be a realm unto itself. Do you think that it’s helped your comedy at all, do you hate it (as so many do)?
I felt like I had said all my best stuff within my first 100 tweets and it’s so hard to cater to that audience, but I think it’s been pretty beneficial. It helps me to write jokes, keeps me writing regularly, creating things I hadn’t gotten to try out. Also, Twitter gives you an idea of what topics are trending so that was very helpful.
You’ve been pretty active in other social media too, though.
Yeah, I started getting a lot of videos up on YouTube, which I want to be doing more with but I’ve just been too busy with stand-up. I had a really talented friend who helped direct, film, and edit these scripts that I had written.
And how was coming back to the city?
Well, I spoke to the same manager who had noticed me and asked how I could just be more involved; he got me a job waiting tables at Broadway Comedy Club. So that put me in the environment. I got to learn not just how comics think, but how managers think, bookers think, owners think, producers think… And I was measuring myself more regularly against the people in the business instead of open mics; and you learn that there’s a difference between what works for an open mic and what works for shows. Open mics are great for getting you comfortable on stage and comfortable with silence, but the material doesn’t always translate. Eventually you learn how to hold the attention of an audience of 200 instead of an audience of 12 other comics who could give a shit.
Sounds like a great experience to have under your wing.
Definitely. And I got to go up more because I would take the check-spots. “Check-spots” are the point in the show where the waiters drop the checks; no one really wants to be performing during the check spots, since the crowd will be preoccupied, so often the host will just buy time on stage or they’ll put up an act that doesn’t mind “eating the checks.” I became a sort of novelty, though. I would eat my own checks. So, as the waiter, I’d put out my checks and then I’d get on stage. But I learned how to make it work and started doing well with it. So now I’m averaging about 2 times a night while still making money.
That’s pretty ideal.
Well actually, the down sides are that I’m just there so much that it’s hard to make out to other places and no matter how well I do, there are still a lot of people who just see me as “the waiter who wants to do comedy” instead of a comedian. But that’s fine, I understand, you have to pay your dues and earn it. Everyone has their own way they wiggle in, so you have to kind of put aside your shame when you’re starting out.
There’s a lot to be said for surrounding yourself with the right people; how do you feel working at Broadway Comedy Club has helped you in that regard?
Definitely. Chris Murphy teaches classes there and is a house MC; he just has a great eye for jokes. He’s great any time I have writing. Steve Marshall is one of the most passionate performers that I have ever seen; he’s like a philosopher. He’s helped me get some shows and I’ve traveled around to host some of his shows. He really taught me how to me honest with myself. Brian Scott McFadden is a performer that I’ve studied; he’s just this great “salesman” on stage. Everyone has different strengths, and I just try to take little bits and pieces wherever I can.
So you get a lot of your practice work done at Broadway Comedy Club, then?
Yeah, I’m starting to branch out a lot more now though. I performed atCarolines on Broadway recently and that has been a huge draw. I’m hoping that will help me be seen as a comic, instead of as “a new guy.”
To wrap things up, where do you see yourself going? How do you keep track of your improvements?
The List. I wrote out a list of goals with dates next to each one and I posted it to the back of my bedroom door. So by one date I had promised myself I would write 20 articles for Sparknotes, for social media I promise myself “okay, I want 1000 likes on Facebook by this date, so many followers on Twitter, so many subscribers on YouTube;” when I want to play a certain club, when I want my first half-hour special, when I want my first hour special. And I made them intentionally lofty, as far as my time limit is concerned. That way the necessity of having made myself these promises made me really reach out and make use of my surroundings and whatever connections I had. So it's really helpful; it shows me that if I can do these little things, just like getting into clubs and such, then I can build on each year and I have proof to myself that I’m developing. The List has been central; I go crazy over it sometimes.