A venerable, go-to comedy cult hero scene stealer on 30 Rock, Chappelle's Show, Role Models and many a Late Night with Jimmy Fallon sketch (where he also warms up the audience), Seth “The Zog” Herzog will whip you in a laugh-out-loud frenzy. The powerhouse host and producer behind one of the longest-running, most popular standup shows in New York, “Sweet,” brings his witty brand of stream-of-consciousness absurdities to Connie’s Ric Rac this week. PW caught up with the legend in the making about his daily routine, what he’d say to alien life forms if given the opportunity, and his cheesesteak obsession.
Describe the typical day in the life of a comedian.
Well, I get up at 9, most often to the overwhelming feeling that I have to pee. I try to think of a way to deal with it without having to get out of bed, but I am usually foiled. I then watch The View at 11. Some days I have auditions for movies, mostly aimed at the hip youth market with titles like Lucas and Leelee Never Liked Each Other. Other days I shoot talking head segments over at VH1 on a called 40 Greatest Shows about Lists of Things you Never Cared About. I then run errands like: get a "nvr frgt" license plate for my Porsche 911 (stuff like that). At 4:30, I head up to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to do the warm up for the show. Although when I'm on the show, I show up at 2 p.m. for rehearsal. After that I usually do a show of some sort in basement of bar or supermarket or go some extravagant party, like a dinner hosted by the Dalai Lama. One or the other. Then I end the night with some karaoke at my local sake joint. And sing Green Day's "Good Riddance" and Go-Go's "Vacation" until I cry myself to sleep.
To people who haven't seen it, how would you describe your act? It's very physical, but you also share a lot of very funny, personal and fucked-up stories. (And you seem to have a very real, funny and fucked-up story for every life event.)
Well, I won't say my act is super physical. I am known to do a few wacky dance pieces (and sometimes attack the audience), but besides that, you're right, a majority of my act is a series of short, fucked up, personal stories. Which I hope sometimes illustrates the universal awkwardness about how we all deal with each other and why we make certain decisions. I don't know if I have a funny story about every life event, but certainly most of them. Maybe at the show in Philly, I'll ask the audience for "an event.” I'll see if I have a funny story about that. (If not I'll make one up). I better brush up on my bar mitzvah and White House stories.
Do you dislike the term "alt comic"? It seems that anyone who doesn't fit neatly into category of the old "set-up and punchline" cliché is deemed as such...
I have no problem with that term at all. However, I feel like, in the ‘90s, that term was more specifically given to comedians who were really doing real conceptual pieces and stuff that wouldn't fly so much in a comedy club setting. Now, any comedian who mostly performs in the downtown circuit (which has grown exponentially), no matter what their act is, is labeled an "alt comic," but that label doesn't really fit most of them. Meaning, most alt comics in New York now have acts that will go over well most anywhere and are fairly universal. But it's been very interesting to see how the landscape of New York comedy scene has changed since the opportunities to perform in the clubs have diminished and the downtown/alt scene has flourished.
As a cynical introvert, I question writers that also do stand-up (Morgan Murphy, Hannibal Burress, Chelsea Peretti immediately come to mind). As an outsider looking in, you have one of the best jobs in the world as the warm-up guy for Jimmy Fallon. Why sludge it out in clubs seven nights a week? What is it about stand-up that's so appealing to get up on stage and keep on doing it?
There's a lot going on in that question. To address the first part: I think there are comedians who eventually get hired to write, and then there are writers who do stand-up on the side. The people you pointed out (Morgan, Hannibal and Chelsea) are each top notch stand-ups, who are performers first, concentrating on stand up for years. Because they are good, they can get jobs to write on shows, but they still do stand up regularly as their first love. Also, there are people who are good comedy writers who want to try their hand at stand up (which I have no problem with—everyone should experience it), but they don't get up that much and hence might not have the chops you'd like (I think those are the folks you might be "questioning").
As far as the second part of your question: In a lot of ways, yes, being the warm-up (or resident) comedian at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is a dream job. But being a warm-up is not what's "dreamy" about it. (I had never done it before this show.) Working on Late Night is what's great about it. It's such a fun show to work on (plus a great staff and crew), and I think we are doing some of the coolest, sexiest and most interesting comedy on network TV right now. When it comes to "Why perform shows at night?" it's like asking a chef, "Why do you cook more than one meal a day?" I do it because I love the art of stand-up and performing comedy. Often I see it as a puzzle I'm trying to solve (knowing I never fully will "solve it"). I try to challenge myself to figure out a new way to approach or deliver something, or find a whole new way of being funny besides what I've already done. Plus coming up with good, new material is always a challenge. Like most comedians, I'm moved to always try to write better, more personal, or interesting material. For the last decade, there's been so much going on in the news, and it's sometimes great fodder for comedy that everyone can relate to, but it's difficult to make it truly funny. Because often when you take a specific angle on politics, it can come off preachy, like you’re making points instead of jokes. (That answer is way too long).
You started in the ‘90s. How has comedy changed? Do you think it's taken a turn for the worse?
I don't know what you mean by a "turn for the worse." Although I did have a cynical friend from Los Angeles say to me once, "Comedy's not funny anymore." I still laugh about that. I think tastes in comedy and what's funny to people changes every 10 years or so. It's hard to tell when tastes and styles are changing when you're in it. It's easier when you have perspective. For instance, you can tell now that certain stand-up or comedy shows from the ‘50s and ‘60s feel "dated," as I'm sure comedy from ‘9's and the ‘00s will be years from now. The biggest change in the comedy in the last 10 years is the proliferation of the Internet. Because of the net, how people experience comedy has changed and, to some degree, what's funny has changed. Every new generation's taste will dictate what's funny and where comedy is going for the next several years. What's popular in styles of comedy will always vary, but I do believe that true honesty and commitment (to your bit) will always be funny.
Why the East Coast? It seems in order to make a career for yourself, many move out West. Is that just a misperception?
There's no secret that L.A. offers a lot more opportunity for comedians, as well as actors, writers, directors, etc. And I do believe that if you want to be a big movie star you really have to slug it out in L.A. for a while. Truth is, if I wasn't working on Late Night (which is a great reason to stay in N.Y.), I probably would have made a move to try out L.A. for a while and see what's it's like. I don't think that's a misperception, but I do believe that one can make a name for themselves in New York and have a great career here. Or one can go out to L.A., kiss everyone's ass and pretend to like Maroon 5 and hiking. That's another option.
You have shared a stage with many friends that have gone on to make it big in movies and television. Is that a blessing or a curse for you? Morrissey once crooned, "We hate it when our friends become successful"... Do you feel that way? And how do you define success?
Well, some people define success just being able to make living doing what they love. Others by finding happiness and balance in their lives, while other people only feel successful when everyone else is suffering. In terms of watching my friends go on do well, it doesn't bum me out (most of the time). I'm almost always proud of them, and it always happens to those who have worked the hardest and deserve it, so I’m never that surprised. When I was a kid I went to Stagedoor Manor theater camp for five summers, where lots of very ambitious kids get together to train and do theater. Each summer, while we were all doing plays in barns together, a kid or two would get pulled out of camp because they got a part in a film or play in New York. So I learned at young age that you can't compare yourself to what others are doing, and that you are running your own race and not running theirs. Or else who will drive yourself crazy very quickly. Having said that, any New Yorker worth his salt knows, you derive "success" from the looks of hate from your friend's faces as you tell them about your book deal, comedy special, or promotion.
Stephen Hawking was asked recently in the New York Times if he had a message for alien life forms, what would it be. If you, “The Zog,” were to send such a message into space, what would it be?
"Do you know how to get semen stains out of jeans? Asking for a friend."
Your mother is the perfect comedic sidekick. Will she be coming to Philly with you?
My Mom has proven to be a quite the unpredictable and hilarious foil for the short segment we do regularly at "Sweet." But alas, no, she will not be making the trip to Philly with me this time. However if/when we do a proper a "Sweet" show there, then there is good chance you'll be able to bear witness to her unrehearsed hijnx. Set your minds to stunned.
Pat's or Geno's?
I plan on going to both. I'm a bit of big cheese steak fanatic. Last week, at a cheese steak place in NY, a girl was insisting that I had to go to "Ishkabibbles." Also, I know the Roots swear by Tony Luke's and Cosmy's. So I plan on having at least 5. In a very short time. And then farting through the whole show. Not really joke, more of an accurate prediction.
Seth Herzog performs Sat., May 21, 9pm. $10-$12. Connie’s Ric Rac, 1132 S. Ninth St. 215.279.7587. coreycohencomedy.com