Sheba Mason’s Car Broke Down. Now She’s a Comedian.
Sheba Mason was set to go to the University of Miami. She had been accepted and would major in theater. But when her car broke down and she was considering the repair costs, Sheba found herself longing for the cold, wet streets of New York, rather than the sun-drenched beaches of Miami.
“I figured I would take a year off from college,“ she explained, "why did I have to be conventional?”
Since she arrived 9 years ago, she has co-written a musical (702 Punchlines and Pregnant), performed as widely as Omaha and LA, hosted countless shows, and tirelessly honed her comic repertoire.
702 Punchlines and Pregnant tells the tale of the 10-year love affairbetween comedian Jackie Mason and Ginger Reiter that produced none other than the singing, dancing, comeding subject of this interview.
So, how did you get into comedy?
Well, when I was 19 I got a job at New York Comedy Club. I was still trying to be an actress at the time; I would go on auditions all the time,cattle calls, and all that. But it’s hard to go to cattle calls without an agent. You never really get to go on stage, you have to wait for somebody to tell you. But in comedy you can be on stage immediately! Nobody gets to tell you that you can’t. If no one is booking you, you can run your own show.
So you became quick friends with the club comedians?
Yeah, I was waitressing for a while and I just really loved being around comedians. It was a lot of fun to be around that energy. They all have energy and they all have passion… There’s no limit, these people can be as filthy as they want, and it’s kind of like there’s this… I don’t want to say a “sexually” charged atmosphere, but something about it is charged.
Eventually the manager (Buddy Flip) told me “why don’t you come around and take my class?” I have to give him a lot of credit. From the beginning he never took a dime from me. He would meet with me and work out jokes with me and help me write and form new stuff. He gave me all the basic stuff; yes, I took his class, but he also met with me individually. You don’t normally find that.
And because of him I never had to go through open mics. He was giving me real spots at real clubs on weeknights. I mean, I was usually the last one to go and it was often the check spot, but they were spots and they were in front of a real crowd.
From what I gather, though, open mics are a good opportunity to “thicken your skin,” get cozy on stage. Do you feel that bypassing open mics hurt your development in some way?
I know a lot of people like open mics, I don’t want to knock them, but I find it really hard to get anything out of an open mic. It’s all comics, nobody is really listening, their humor is not at all like the kind of universal humor the audiences have, they’re kind of judging you, there’s a lot of competition between everybody… Most of them are looking at their notes anyway. I’ve found that you can’t really test material at an open mic.
A lot of comics in the beginning first have to learn how to hold the mic, figure out basic stage presence, and all that, but I've been on stage my whole life. Since I was a baby, I was always in front of some sort of camera or audience. And I was an only child! So you can imagine how self-absorbed I became.
As far as testing material goes, I've bombed just like everybody else. You really have to figure out what works. Even to this day. I’ll try things and they just… won’t… work. But now I have enough good stuff to fix that immediately.
So your first time telling jokes on stage was also your first real show?
Yeah, at Broadway Comedy Club. I did really well my first time, which is how that usually goes. Buddy Flip always says that at first you have “unconscious incompetence,” where you can’t possibly be that good the first few times but you’re unaware that you’re not that good, and eventually that becomes “conscious incompetence,” where you know that you suck, and eventually those flip again and you have “unconscious competence,” but you’ll never know.
Isn’t bombing in front of a real audience more painful than bombing at an open mic, though? At least at an open mic you can tell yourself they’re just not paying attention, or they’re just all jaded comics.
Well, when you bomb, and I mean like bomb, if it’s not that important of a show, it just sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. For me, right away, I have to skip right past the emotional drainage and go into “let me fix this” mode. It’s pointless to lament. You have to say to yourself, “am I going to quit comedy because I bombed on the show? No. I’m going to sit here and figure out what I did wrong until I’m blue in the face. And I’m going to fix it for my next show, immediately, tomorrow, I just have to fix it.” There’s not anything else to be done.
The only time it really bothers me is if I’m being paid well at a big function and I still didn't satisfy them as much as I felt I could have. Then I feel like I've let them down.
Any instances of that sort that you can share?
Not too long ago I did this big show for a podiatry convocation. It was the crème de la crème of the foot-doctor world. They were wearing evening gowns, it was $500 a plate, honestly, and they told me “you have to be clean” and gave me a laundry list of things I could and couldn't say. I was just so nervous because I wanted to please them, and those aren't ideal circumstances for a comic… after dinners and speeches on speeches, and then you go up and they don’t really want to hear from a comic.
I actually felt like I was almost miscast. I was the only comic. One of the jokes that I said was “it’s an honor to be here… and I know it’s an honor because they keep telling me what an honor it is!”
Do you find performances like that nerve-wracking? It must be somewhat tense if you’re thinking about all that before you even get on stage!
At times, but you can’t let that get to you. It took me about five years before I felt pretty consistent with my shows. And that was five years of making sure I had spots at least five times a week. I went through times where I had a lot more, but rarely was it ever less than five a week.
It’s hard for me to enjoy being out or doing something else if I know that there’s a spot I could do. Sometimes I don’t book myself for anything or I’ll look at my calendar and say, “oh there’s nothing booked for then, so that’s a night I can enjoy something.” But if I know that there is a show somewhere else and I could get on for that night, I just can’t enjoy whatever else I’m doing. I can’t. People get really mad at you for that: missing their parties, weddings, their shows… guys get mad that you’re not available on a Saturday night to go out with them…
And what do you hope will come out of all of that?
Success in stand-up comedy. That’s my primary goal. Granted, you have to do other things too; I’d love to get a part in any role, I always wanted to get a part in any Woody Allen film.
“Success” is be a pretty broad term though.
Right, but for me “success” would be having a really good special on TV, like an HBO special, being highly acclaimed, being that sought after comedian. I want to be a comedian that they look to for commentary.
In that way, though, a little bit of success seems like it’s available to everybody these days, be it on Twitter, YouTube, Vine…
I know that everyone seems pretty on-board with social media these days, especially since four or five years ago, but I think I’m a little more old-school in that regard. I’m not really happy about Twitter and all that. The idea of being really funny in ten seconds or funny in 140 characters… yes it’s funny and that’s great, but too soon you get people who are highly acclaimed on Twitter and Vine for doing something funny in such a small space of time or in little tweets. Pretty muchanybody could be funny in ten seconds.
And we’re also just on a constant return to the device because of it. All day long, every day, it’s like people can’t sit through things anymore, their attentions are always on the move for snappy entertainment.
Do you that makes it more difficult to break into actual comic success?
Well, I think things like Twitter are just misleading. YouTube I can get behind. If you have a video, you can make it and put it out there. But then again, I know that Twitter is also a necessary tool for putting yourself out there… it just “floods the field,” in a way. Now there is so much opportunity to be just a little bit famous; it sort of waters things down. But again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re in that kind of environment.
When I have a new joke to try, I cannot wait to see how it works. Onenew joke, if you’re doing a thirty minute set and you have just one new thing to try, I just can’t wait to see what happens. It’s so exciting to see how it’ll unfold.
I get bored with my act sometimes, I constantly have to have something new and that’s what’s exciting. The analysis of why jokes work in one place but not another, or with this phrasing and not another. I love to analyze jokes, I love to analyze people, I love to analyze why things work in a given situation.
There’s never a real answer; there are tools you can use, and things that go along with your voice more… Sometimes the order matters, the timing always matters. I know now that I am pretty much consistent. And I don’t mean to sound conceited, but I know that if I want to have a great set and not try anything new, I know what I can use.
But then there’s always that x-factor where sometimes they just don’t dig you, and every now and again you’ll get that crowd that just doesn't like you. Placement patterns, where you are in the lineup, if you’re following someone who’s too much like you or maybe they liked the one before you so much that they can’t adjust to you…
It’s all a test, really. You’re always testing yourself in front of people.
So you’re sort of constantly compelled to bounce new jokes off of new people and new environments. It’s endless.
I’m trying to make them, happy, y’know? So I do whatever I can to make them laugh. I’ll do filthy shows, cleaner jokes; the more material I have, the more adaptable I can be.
I have certain jokes that are universal that I can use, but for instance, the crowd in Omaha… I got that show because I have a friend of the family who is involved in the only Synagogue in the area (he has a radio show called Good Shabbos Nebraska) and I coordinated little shows around there. So in the morning I did a very clean act for an orthodox Jewish crowd, and then later that night I was at The Funny Bone doing my regular material. But there’s always different versions of your jokes that you could do for different crowds.
How much do you think your audience’s expectations are colored by the Mason family name?
Lately I don’t feel that much pressure. The newer generation doesn’t really know who he is. All they know is that he’s a legend and I’m his daughter, so I guess that’s convenient… but even if they don’t know who he is, he’s just somehow out there in the cultural schema. But yeah, those are the cards I’m dealt and I’m happy to have them.
Granted he hasn't been particularly supportive, did you feel any aversion to doing comedy?
My mom, my whole life, always encouraged me to be a comedian but I always dismissed it and thought “I could never do that.” But then once I got that job and I was around comedians, my tongue was nearly hanging out. I just couldn't not do it.
I’ve always been pretty tight with my mom, though. She’s almost like a sister to me; she raised me as a single mother so she was always both a friend and a mom. She comes to my shows and helps fix jokes and stuff like that. She gives really great constructive criticism.
I guess it would at least make for a unique brand of joke material.
Yeah, I’m definitely more of an autobiographical comic. I do some political stuff but I do always bring it back to me. When it comes to anything in the world, if you bring it back to you (and it’s not just some one-liner), no one can steal it. You can say “Obama said such-and-such, and here’s how it’s affected something particular to me.” No one will be able to touch that joke.
Mostly I just try to talk to people a lot. Just sitting around and bull-shitting with people, you come up with so many things later on.
From your jokes, I imagine your bull-shitting sessions with people must be pretty amusing.
Yeah, but you just get a seed of something that could be funny, while telling a story or something. I take that seed in different directions. I worked on one joke and ran it in a lot of different directions but it just wasn't working in any direction I took it. And I kind of set it aside, but I was in a bit of a slump and I couldn't write anything new for a couple of weeks. But finally one night I brought it back and it just clicked and now it’s a good joke! It’s all about what I draw attention to with the joke.
Do you think that’s a muscle you have to develop on your own or that classes might be beneficial in training it, so to speak?
I don’t think it hurts to take a class in the beginning; I wouldn’t take it past that. But in that first year, comics can be clueless about the business end of things, so classes are helpful in learning that end of it. I didn't get paid doing comedy until like 2 years, and by then I just got like $50.
And I imagine they’d be helpful if you weren't coming up in the middle of one of the major cities.
People think it’s better to move here once you’re already really good, so you can skip all the preliminary steps and no one will have ever seen you fail here. And they think they can come and take New York with a bang. But people will look at you differently, they won’t have seen you struggling to come up in the game. And there is no place where you can do quite as many spots as New York. And even if there aren't enough, the best way to really do a lot of spots is to run your own shows.
A while back, I started running shows at Joe Franklin’s (at 45th and 8th), but I stopped after about two years. I spent so much time barking. I barked my ass off. And I charged a cover and I made money out of it too.
And, as a plus, you make friends out of it. Friends are important in comedy.
Sheba’s musical, 702 Punchlines and Pregnant, runs every other Sunday at Broadway Comedy Club, at 53rd and 8th. She also hosts a show every weekend, The Sheba Mason Show, at New York Comedy Club.