Joe Kwaczala: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Comedian

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“When in doubt, go out.” I didn’t have a lot of obligations as a young man starting out, so there was really nothing keeping me from the social aspects of comedy. Still, I stayed home a lot, and not for any productive reasons. I just was kind of lazy and maybe a little “above it all.” But socializing with other comedians in your scene is not only fun but one of the best ways to establish yourself and get more opportunities. You never know who you’ll run into and what might come of it.

As a part of our series called “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Comedian”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Joe Kwaczala.

Joe Kwaczala is a Los Angeles-based stand-up comedian who started doing comedy in Chicago but grew up in Pittsburgh. He has a Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents half-hour special, another stand-up special released with Helium Comedy Studios (Recommended Based on Your Search History) and a brand new album (Funny Songs and Sketches) that recently went to #1 on the iTunes comedy charts. He’s also known for releasing 31 sketch videos in one day, then releasing 21 sketch videos in one day, and then starring with Derek Jeter in a commercial for Capital One.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with an older brother and two very nice parents. They tried to get me into sports but my weak body was more drawn to creative pursuits. I did a lot of drawing then and thought I’d one day become an illustrator. If I got really lucky, maybe I’d get to draw one of those diagrams of what to do when someone’s choking! I didn’t consider that “comedian” was a real profession, even though I was obsessed with watching comedy on TV. Every night, I’d set up the VCR to record Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and those would be the first things I’d watch when I got home from school. Then there was The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, South Park, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and a few other shows that were so important to me that if I ever missed an episode, I’d throw a weird little fit.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path as a comedian?

I always secretly wanted to be a comedian but was too embarrassed to admit it to anyone. It felt as outlandish as saying “I want to be the President” or something. But when I got to college, I saw a poster for a “Student Stand-up Night” and that made it feel way more accessible. If my idiot peers can do it, then so can I! I invited all my friends and did really well, and that was enough to hook me for life. From there, I performed on campus as much as I could, later moved to Chicago and really hit the pavement doing open mics and shows, and eventually moved to Los Angeles to do more of the same. At some point in there, I dropped my phone (Samsung Intensity II) into the toilet but I don’t know how much that contributed to my career path.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

A lot of the standup that I watched as a young man was via the half-hour specials Comedy Central would release. So when I got to do one, it was really important to me. Not only because it was a personal goal, but also because I got it without any professional representation. Usually how these things work is a comedian’s agent or manager facilitates the process, but I didn’t have either of those. I was a lone wolf. Or as others might describe it, “not an interesting potential client” with “some bad breath issues.” Regardless, I was all alone when I submitted a tape of my act directly to Comedy Central. It felt like a longshot, but they were into it, and I got to do it! And that half-hour went on to become the best stand-up special that anyone’s ever done in the history of entertainment (according to my mom.)

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

You know, for the longest time I just had a really bad haircut. I’m not bald but my hair is in such a way that if it’s sticking straight up, you can kinda see my scalp. So that’s how I did my hair for like… a lot of my life?!? It took me way too long to realize to just comb it forward slightly and then I’d look 1000 times better. I started doing that and then I was performing standup on TV within 6 months. Coincidence?? I know it’s not *exactly* a comedy lesson, but I do think in this business, you gotta be aware of how you look. I was a fool to think like “My comedy will be so good that it won’t matter that I have dumb-looking hair and dress terribly!” Not saying you gotta go get a stylist, but we all have people in our lives who will give constructive feedback; all you gotta do is be brave enough to ask!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Nearly every success I’ve had in my career can be drawn back to a friend I made in college, Daniel Clark. We met in a film class in college and realized our skills complemented each other; I could write and act, and he was a brilliant director and editor. Since then, we’ve been collaborators on so many things. I’ve had some success putting out comedy sketches online, and he has directed every single one of them. He produced, mixed, and edited all the sketches on my new album Funny Songs & Sketches. He directed all the music videos for that album, too. Even the tape I submitted when I got my Comedy Central special… he filmed that as well. We work so well together, I bet we could start a really successful cult! But it hasn’t come to that yet, so everybody can relax.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

This is a little trick I picked up from an interview with the comedian Kathleen Madigan when I was starting out that I will pass on to whoever’s reading this. It’s for the person who’s never done standup but wants to. And that’s to invite all your friends to your first performance! They will laugh because they love you, and you will probably have a great set. And when you fail after that (and you will) you’ll have something to cling onto to keep you going. “I killed that one time though!” You’ll feel like you have it in you. Or you won’t, and in that case, go get an office job!

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

I’m still putting out stuff to promote my album Funny Songs & Sketches. Specifically, we have a lot of great music videos coming out that I’m excited for people to see. We got a great response from the first one “Unless…” and I think “Low Stakes Dreams” is one of the best things we’ve ever done, song and video. Look out for more of that, and if you close your eyes and wish hard enough, maybe we’ll have a Christmas music video for you soon, too!

What do you do to get material to write your jokes? What is that creative process like?

There’s never really been a set process — maybe if there was, I’d be a little more productive. But I try to write things down in the Notes app on my phone when they occur to me. I guess it’s about keeping that observant eye open and ready to clock an experience as something with comedic value. Like I heard a song on the radio with the lyric “I’m gonna love you ’til the day I die” and I thought “Well what if they die first?” and that’s how “Unless…” was born. “Low Stakes Dreams” just comes from real life; embarrassingly, I did once dream that I lost a receipt. And one of my more popular sketches, a remake of the NBC miniseries “The Slap,” is based on the time I adopted a Dracula as my child.

Super. Here is our main question. What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Comedian” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

“When in doubt, go out”
I didn’t have a lot of obligations as a young man starting out, so there was really nothing keeping me from the social aspects of comedy. Still, I stayed home a lot, and not for any productive reasons. I just was kind of lazy and maybe a little “above it all.” But socializing with other comedians in your scene is not only fun but one of the best ways to establish yourself and get more opportunities. You never know who you’ll run into and what might come of it. For example, you could run into a casting director who could then put you in the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys. Amazing!

“Make videos”
For years, I did a lot of live sketch comedy, which is great but limiting in its potential audience. The people that are there in the room might enjoy it, but then what? It wasn’t until I started releasing my own sketch videos online that I felt like things started happening for me. If I had done it a little sooner, maybe Clint Eastwood would have seen some of my work and then reached out to see if I wanted to be in his 2014 movie Jersey Boys.

“Ask for things”
You don’t want to be the person who’s badgering people for things constantly, but you also don’t want to be the guy who’s so above it that you miss out completely on everything. It’s a balancing act for sure, but if it’s a reasonable request (like, “Can I perform on your bar show?”) then go for it. You’d be surprised how many doors open up this way. To think, if I’d had the courage to ask to be in Jersey Boys, maybe I could’ve played Bob Gaudio… or even Nick Massi!

“Don’t be afraid to promote yourself”
When I was young, I was really hung up on this idealistic Field of Dreams-y notion that “if I built it, they will come.” In other words, I could just quietly do my shows and make things and hopefully it would be good enough that people would eventually notice on their own. That may have been true for comedians in a different era, but with the internet and social media, now you’ve got to be your own marketer. And I still struggle with this! I did not get into this to be a promoter, let alone for myself, which feels extra embarrassing. But that’s just the nature of the business now, and you either gotta go with it or be left behind. It reminds me of my favorite quote from Jersey Boys: “We may be the hit pop vocal group the Four Seasons, but when it comes down to it, we’ll always simply be… Jersey boys.”

Make “Jersey Boys”

I’ve spent just about every second of my life not coming up with the idea for Jersey Boys. And I really have no excuse. I’ve heard plenty of songs by the Four Seasons… why couldn’t I think of taking the story of their rollercoaster ride to the top of the charts and making it a hit Broadway musical? It’s right there! And even if I missed that, there were plenty of chances to think of adapting it to the silver screen. And yup… I blew that opportunity, too. But you can’t let your failures define you. Plus, they have yet to take the movie and turn it into a six-part series on Peacock… and that gives ol’ Joe an idea.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s an important life lesson that I’m reminded of pretty frequently. In fact, it tends to coincide with the purchase of just about any product. I’ll open whatever it is and then be blessed with this special message: “SILICA GEL DO NOT EAT.” And you know what, sometimes I really should not eat, literally and figuratively. Sometimes you gotta let other people take a bite, and again, I mean that literally and figuratively.

You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I bristle at the idea that any comedian is a huge influence. I know some are, but we really got to get the message out there that most comedians are dumb. Don’t listen to them! And I think we’ve got it all backwards. We tend to treat entertainers like politicians, and we treat politicians like entertainers. If we fixed that, I think we’d be a whole lot better off. Stop expecting entertainers to always have a take on the “issues” and don’t coddle politicians because they’re your “favorites” or whatever. So I guess to answer the question, I would want to start a movement where we take the money out of politics, so politicians would have to actually cater to the interests of their constituents instead of the companies and lobbies that line their pockets. Or I could inspire a movement where bars are required to have one tap that has soft serve ice cream. That would be pretty tight.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

There was a radio DJ in Pittsburgh named “The Judge” who was on the air during the “drive time hours” for the classic rock station WRRK (which is now defunct.) I have no idea where he is now, and I guess I’d want to see if he remembers a guy who used to call in and win contests on a weekly basis named “Emil.” Because that was me as a 14-year-old using my dad’s name, so I could legally win even though I was a minor. I won like 50 times, so I’m curious if that has stuck with him.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on instagram and tiktok @joekwa. I’m also on twitter at @joekjoek. I have a YouTube and a Facebook that you can find by searching “Joe Kwaczala” — pretty sure no one else has that name, so I’m gonna come up.

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Thank you so much, and don’t forget to check out my album!!

Joe Kwaczala: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Comedian was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.