Two Italian American comics are currently headlining at the Comedy Store as a double bill: Andrew Norelli and Mike Vecchione. They’re not a double act. And they’re ethnicity has virtually nothing to do with their comedy – it was just a starting point to the conversation. Well, more to the point, I started with the pronunciation of Mike’s surname which, in Italian, would require all the vowels to be sounded, and the ‘cch’, to act like ‘ck’ in English. This is the full Q&A from the hotel foyer, the day after an incredible opening night. They’ve still got another week at the Store. See them.
Dom Romeo: Mike, at the beginning of the night, you were announced as Mike Veck-i-OH-nee; by the end of the night, it was Michael Veck-i-OAN. In Italian it’s closer to the first, but you prefer the second version. Is that how it’s been – I’d say ‘anglicised’, but it’s more like – Americanised?
MIKE VECCHIONE: That’s actually a good version of messing my name up, ‘Veck-i-OH-nee’. If it’s just that, I don’t mind at all. But people have just butchered it. It’s a tough name to say if you’re Americanised – it actually means ‘old’ in Italian, but the correct pronunciation is ‘Veck-i-OAN’.
Dom Romeo: And I have no idea what ‘Norelli’ means in Italian.
ANDREW NORELLI: I don’t know either. I have no idea. But there are ‘Borellis’, there are ‘Morellis’, so I’m sure they were all the same name at some point.
Dom Romeo: Initially I thought you were a double act because you’re billed together, but you’re actually two acts who happen to be headlining together. Is this something you do often, or is it a first time?
ANDREW NORELLI: No, we had never worked together; we had never met. We had no idea what to expect. In America there are not many acts that go onstage together. I feel like there’s more of that in Europe and Australia. Is that true?
Dom Romeo: It’s definitely an English thing to have double acts nowadays –
ANDREW NORELLI: It’s very uncommon in America. And partly, I think it’s a practical thing – how do you make money when there’s not enough money for one person. Why would you split that money up for someone else?
Dom Romeo: I’ll throw this open to Michael: how is the money working?
MIKE VECCHIONE: It’s good for me – it’s my first trip here so I’m like a novice. I just wanted to perform because I’ve never performed in Australia. I just wanted the opportunity. I’m glad I got the opportunity to work over here.
Dom Romeo: Andrew, you’ve got a lot of local references. Have you been here before or have you done a lot of homework?
ANDREW NORELLI: I was just here in May, for two weeks, doing the Comedy Store and a lot of other venues in Sydney, so I figured out, way back then, which jokes were making people stare blankly into space and which ones were just completely losing them. Sometimes the crowd – it’s not that they don’t follow what you’re saying, it’s that they don’t care; they’re not invested in it. So sometimes you have to change a joke to make it something they find interesting and not detached from – because otherwise, they get it but they just don’t care.
I think me and Mike talked about it last night: for example, there’s a huge problem with steroids in baseball in America. They may be aware of that here, but they don’t care about it because they’re not fans of American baseball, for the most part.
Dom Romeo: I didn’t know that. I know that steroids is a problem in sport in general – so would you generalise it? Would you pick another sport? Or do you give it more context to make it work? Or do you steer clear of it altogether?
ANDREW NORELLI: I have several jokes about steroids, so I just cut out the couple that are so specific that the audience either wouldn’t know or, once again, wouldn’t care. Whereas in America it is a huge topic that is discussed all the time, and everyone knows the nuances of it in America: everyone in America knows what players tested positive for steroids, what the implications are for the Hall of Fame… that sort of stuff.
Dom Romeo: Mike, on stage, your persona is much scarier than Andrew’s and you really play that up in the way you interact with the audience. How did that develop?
MIKE VECCHIONE: I’m mostly a joke writer-type guy, so I just deliver the jokes, but I kind of like to have fun in between and let my personality come out. I like sarcasm. I think sarcasm is funny, and I like playing with the crowd. I have a cocky kind of look and I play off that, but then I smile in between to let them know, to ‘let them in’ on the joke. I think it’s funny to be sarcastic and a little over-the-top.
Dom Romeo: Andrew, I see a bit of a dramatic bent in the way you perform. Your physicality is different, but there are points where if you couldn’t actually convey different emotions in a quick period of time, the joke wouldn’t be as funny, and it is down to the physical acting more than the words. Or you’re physical actions undercut your words.
ANDREW NORELLI: Yeah, I agree. I feel like comedy is heavily based on emotion.
I don’t do it just because the crowd responds to it, I do it because that’s what feels fun to me on stage: to connect emotionally with the crowd. I don’t want to be one of those comics who is only about emotion, I want to have jokes too. Hopefully I combine those two elements.
Dom Romeo: Very well indeed!
You began your performance with a bit of a striptease – was that ‘off the cuff’, rehearsed, or – would you prefer not to discuss it for fear of giving away ‘trade secrets’?
ANDREW NORELLI: Not at all. I always leave room for spontaneity in my shows, always. And sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you lose the crowd for two or three minutes and you have to get them back. Or maybe you don’t lose the crowd, you might lose momentum and rhythm in the show. But I will often do or say something totally unplanned, sometimes for several minutes.
Dom Romeo: That’s great – because then new stuff comes out of that, that you didn’t even know might come out of that.
ANDREW NORELLI: I agree, yeah. And truthfully, as a performer, it’s sometimes the only way to make it fun, because you don’t want to do the same thing over and over and over again – it drives you nuts. Some would argue the worst part about stand-up – the repetition.
Dom Romeo: And having to make it look like you’ve just made it up on the spot.
ANDREW NORELLI: Right. So I would rather sort of make it up on the spot. Even if it’s a joke I’ve said before, I’d rather find a way to say it differently or segue into it differently or put it in a different context so that there is some spontaneity in it. And I think the crowd can feel that, when that’s there.
Dom Romeo: I had no idea when you were gonna stop disrobing or how that was going to play with the rest of the show.
ANDREW NORELLI: But truthfully, I was also very hot up there. Which is why I do not wear a sport coat, because I really don’t like it. I actually like to be in loose, light clothing on stage. You saw how I move around: it feels better.
MIKE VECCHIONE: Speaking of the monotony and ‘keeping it fresh’, I think that’s what forces us to write a lot of the time: you get tired of the material. I know sometimes when I do it, I’m like, ‘I can’t do this material anymore; it works, and it’s great, but I’m tired of doing it!’ That kind of forces you into a box where you have to sit down and write new material, or at least play with it and try to manipulate it so that it works and that’s how you come up with new material. ‘I have to do something new just so that I feel alive and fresh on stage!’
Dom Romeo: Mike, as you say, you write a lot of gags, and it was rapid-fire gagging, but the persona you bring out in that – talking about scary cops with short-man syndrome – and you mock-intimidate the audience – or just members of the audience up the front, making them uncomfortable, and us in the process. But what I notice is a lot of your material seems to consist of dichotomies – the cops and the citizens; environmentalists and the people who have no interest in maintaining the environment; the vegetarian and the carnivore… where does that come from?
MIKE VECCHIONE: I never really thought about it, but I guess it’s true. I’m more of a writing-based guy. I’m trying to improve more by connecting with the crowd and allowing emotion to come into it more-or-less, in addition to the writing. We’re always trying to catch that balance between good writing and being a performer in the moment – being authentic. That’s really what we’re striving for.
Dom Romeo: One thing I find interesting, Andrew, is that during your set, you mentioned Australia differs from Europe because we don’t hate Americans; I don’t know if that, strictly speaking, is true… you’ve clearly not heard of the term ‘seppo’, which is slang for American. ‘Seppo’ is short for ‘septic tank’, which is rhyming slang for ‘Yank’.
ANDREW NORELLI: I hate those rhyming slurs – those are the worst!
Dom Romeo: Because you never know what they actually mean?
ANDREW NORELLI: That means somebody put extra thought into it to insult you, when they rhyme.
This is part of the problem with me being sort of an ‘improvised’ or ‘off-the-cuff’ comic, because sometimes I word things a little inaccurately. What I think I meant to say more there was that Australians don’t seem to have a superiority complex over Americans, whereas Europeans do, and sometimes rightfully so: they tend to be more well-read, they tend to be more well-rounded, they tend to be more cultured, and they’ve explored more.
Dom Romeo: That was a great point, the journey – but what was interesting about you saying that was that it reminded me of Mike’s set that I’d just seen, because what he does is play up some of the scarier aspects of American persona – ‘redneck America’, as we see it from there. In fact cops in general feature prominently in your material.
MIKE VECCHIONE: My thing – and I didn’t know if it was gonna work over here, but it did – was to try and get a rapport with the audience by being a little self-deprecating. Because I do look cocky, by being self-deprecating, it forces a rapport with the audience and I can take them where I want to go.
Dom Romeo: Once we trust you, you can. Whereas, if you hadn’t won us over, we may have remained truly afraid or disgusted when you do your disturbing, insinuating humour. Which is humour, unless we can’t see the joke, in which case it’s drama.
Now, as you hadn’t worked together before, did you draw straws or flip a coin? Who decided who’d go on first?
MIKE VECCHIONE: We sat down and had a talk about references and what was going to relate and what wasn’t. For me, I was just trying this stuff to see what worked and what references they got and what they didn’t – it was like ‘trial by fire’. But because Andrew had been here already and new what to expect, and I had never been here before, he graciously said, ‘if you want to go first, you can’. I was like, ‘very cool; I appreciate it’. It was easier for me, just to test the waters and see – and I watched the opening acts too – to test the waters and see what they got. I hope the rest of the run goes like that because they got everything. I couldn’t ask for a better crowd, to be honest.
ANDREW NORELLI: I totally agree! I’ve performed a lot in Sydney and the crowds at the Comedy Store are incredibly receptive. They want to laugh, they want to be opened. That’s a great feeling, because when a crowd is sceptical, there’s nothing worse. You can’t really make someone laugh who doesn’t want to. They have to want to.
We’re gonna flip-flop for the rest of the week. I think the hard part is going last, because the crowd has been there … last night they were there for nearly two hours. That’s the hard part: you’re following all these hilarious people and you have to come on last and say, ‘oh, here’s a little something extra’.
Dom Romeo: Last night was brilliant, but you would have an easier job had there not been so much good comedy before you. They audience loved you, but they would have been even more demonstrative of that had you not had to follow other good comics. If someone had stunk before you, they would have loved you even more.
I’m glad you’re going to alternate it, though – find out whether there’s a set order that works better or continue to alternate it.
ANDREW NORELLI: Headlining shows in the States, we are both aware that that is the downfall: you are following a lot of funny comics, and the crowd sometimes has a breaking point, where they’re just tired now. It’s not uncommon.
Dom Romeo: The other thing that really worked for you was use of local references – that were spot-on. It didn’t feel like you’d just changed that place name to this, or that phenomenon to this or that company to this, you actually picked the ones that made the best sense, and so were most funny. In fact I’m surprised that you’ve only been to Australia once before.
ANDREW NORELLI: Well when I was here before I did about 12 or 13 shows. You learn real quick. Not only did I learn, I also did stuff while I was here. I went around, I experienced things, I talked to people, I saw stuff. So I was able to understand the references that I’m making.
MIKE VECCHIONE: I was surprised. I knew the audience was going to be smart, but it’s in terms of what’s in their frame of reference. I was surprised so much was in their frame of reference, to be honest. I have jokes, but then they’re tagged a bunch of times at the end. For the joke to hit, and then all the tags to hit, the way that it was written, was really surprising. I just hope that that continues the rest of the week. That’s a good sign for me. I’m going to try to do some Australian stuff while I’m here because it’s fun. But as far as comfort level on stage, I felt very, very comfortable. Even going back-and-forth with the heckler, I felt very, very comfortable and felt the support of the crowd.
Dom Romeo: The heckler was interesting. He was vocal a few times throughout the night and he did undercut a great routine of yours, Mike, but you dealt with it very well. You didn’t lose your cool, and you made it funnier.
MIKE VECCHIONE: He was kind of trying to say that I stole some material for my show – which I wasn’t really aware of – so I just tried to handle it as diplomatically as possible in a joking way. Realistically, I have to check the reference out. What I was saying to him on stage wasn’t a lie, and if it’s too close to that television show, I’ll cut it or I’ll change it so it’s not like that anymore.
Dom Romeo: Are you always able to handle hecklers so well?
MIKE VECCHIONE: It depends. That guy was trying to be a little bit dicky, but he wasn’t a mean-spirited guy. If he was mean-spirited he would have kept after it and kept on me about it and we could have dialogued out of it. I saw him trying to undercut me but I didn’t see him as real mean-spirited.
Actually the worst kind of hecklers are the ones just yelling shit and making noises you can’t even respond to. If you’re making a statement I can at least respond to it and we can go back-and-forth. But if you’re making noises in the back and I can’t tell who’s doing it or what it is, it’s hard to defend against that.
Dom Romeo: He struck me as a comedy nerd, and I mean that in a nice way; he knows a lot of comedy for him to be able to go, ‘this reminds me of that’. He was showing off, but he didn’t seem to be malicious – only that he was a bit keen to be part of the comedy event, I felt.
MIKE VECCHIONE: I believe that’s exactly what it was. He was trying to undercut it just enough to let us know that he knew about comedy but he wasn’t trying to be real, real malicious with it.
Dom Romeo: How do you deal with hecklers, Andrew? Do you get them?
ANDREW NORELLI: That’s a part of comedy because any time there’s alcohol involved, there’s going to be behaviour that’s immature. I mean, that’s just a fact. The funny thing is the crowd seems to think that you’re highly skilled if you can shut down a heckler, and as comedians – at least from what I’ve gathered from my peers – we don’t care. We don’t put stock in a comic if you can shut down a heckler or not. That’s completely separate from being impressed by a comedian’s ability to ‘riff’. ‘Riffing’ is completely different. That is a nice skill when someone is able to interact with the audience and come up with clever things. But that is a different dynamic than someone shouting something derogatory or mean or intrusive and you topping what they said. That is a skill comedians don’t care about, and frankly, it’s irrelevant. Because the really good stuff in comedy like television appearances and appearances at big festivals like Montreal – there is no heckling. It doesn’t exist. So you’re honing a skill that is less and less relevant the better your career is.
Dom Romeo: I’ve never heard that take on it. It’s so true. And riffing is a different thing – although depending where you are, sometimes riffing with someone does make them a bit more cocky, and they do start interrupting more than they should, and then you need to shut them down.
ANDREW NORELLI: Right. Riffing can promote heckling. That’s part of the art of riffing: how do you riff without encouraging heckling? But the problem is, if the crowd realised there is a difference between riffing and heckling, they wouldn’t let riffing lead to heckling, because hey would realise sometimes you are just interacting with the crowd: you just want to see who they are, you want to talk, you want to come up with something clever in the moment.
Dom Romeo: That’s great – really, what happens is, it’s up to the comedian on stage to maintain control, it’s the comedian’s job to go, ‘this is going too far now’ – not by actually saying those words unless they need to be said – but to know when, ‘all right, I’ve given this person too much attention, we need to move on; I’ve got the microphone, I need to continue to be in control’. And I assume the ability to do that comes from just getting good at what you do.
ANDREW NORELLI: Yeah, it is. That’s just from doing it. And it can be hard because the crowd has this romanticising notion of heckling in their mind as a contest between the comic and crowd. We don’t see it that way. It’s not a contest to us, so believe me, if we ‘lose it’, we don’t care. No one cares. The industry doesn’t care, producers and agents don’t care, other comics don’t care. They care about ‘How good a comedian are you? What is your material? How smart, clever and original is your material?’
Dom Romeo: And there is a point where if the heckler doesn’t shut up, the audience turns on them as well. And then the management comes and ejects them if they still don’t stop. One would hope. If it’s a good venue.
To be honest, if I was a dickhead heckler who wouldn’t shut up, I’d heckle you more readily, Andrew, because you, Mike, look far more capable of snapping my neck with minimal effort.
MIKE VECCHIONE: When it gets to that point, it’s time to let the club step in, if it becomes a violent confrontation. I try to never let it become mean. We’ve all seen the situation when either the heckler was being mean-spirited, or the comic was being mean-spirited and then it just becomes like a pissing contest, and that’s just not fun for anybody involved. You want to just weather it, and then maybe hit ’em, and then you want to just continue doing your material and making it as entertaining on possible if that happens on stage. Unless you’re an ‘insult’ comic, you don’t want that to happen. But if it does, you have to have the skill to be able to deal with it.
Dom Romeo: Speaking of ‘insult’ comic – early in your routine, I thought you were that kind of comic – only you break out of character to show that was the joke. Then you break out of that character, to show that breaking out of character to make the first insult ‘just a joke’, was also, just a joke, so we never really know. But your staying in control reminds us that you’re the comic, this is happening on stage, and we have nothing to fear. That’s me over-analysing it; what’s it like for you on the stage at the time?
MIKE VECCHIONE: It’s a live performance, so it’s all about getting that rapport with the crowd – going into the crowd, going into the crowd – the two girls in the front, calling them ‘baby chickens’ and stuff and then coming back, and then doing material, and then referencing them once in a while just to get a laugh. You’re going in and out just as a live performance. You’re bringing them into your world a little bit, I feel, by going out, but not basing my whole act on it. Going out and grabbing them to bring them in a little bit and then joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, and then back out to bring them in a little bit more so it’s really trying to pull them in, is the goal.
Dom Romeo: And as they’re in the front row, you can see them from where you’re standing. You can see if they’re getting a little uncomfortable – so you’d know if you’d need to tone it down or let ’em off the hook or turn it up, if that’s what’s needed.
MIKE VECCHIONE: That’s what I like about that venue: it’s very intimate. It’s an intimate venue as opposed to a theatre or a huge stage where you can’t see them. It’s intimate and you can see them. I like that better because it fosters a better rapport between comic and crowd.
Dom Romeo: Andrew, you actually played with the same two girls down the front, but you did something different with them. Whereas Michael was doing the intimidatory shtick verbally, you did it physically, pointing out that they looked uncomfortable and then acted it out on stage by getting into the corner and looking uncomfortable. It was interesting, getting different takes of the same situation.
ANDREW NORELLI: Yeah. It’s hard for me to even explain that. I don’t know. That’s just what I felt in that moment.
Dom Romeo: That’s the beauty of comedy: why should you explain it? You did it and it was funny.
ANDREW NORELLI: Right. And I wanted to ask them a couple of questions, so maybe that was my way of letting them know I was about to talk to them and ask her a question, she answered, which is what you want, if you’re riffing. I wanted to ask them questions, so I did, and she answered. She answered quickly and honestly. Which is the best thing that can happen. It’s the worst when you’re really asking them a sincere question and they think you’re messing around or something. So maybe that’s why I did: to make them comfortable real quick, so that I could ask them a couple of questions.
Suddenly the atmosphere is broken by the foolish sound of ‘Wackety
Sax’, the theme to The Benny Hill show. It’s my mobile phone ringing.
ANDREW NORELLI: I like that ring!
I take the call, but keep it short.
Dom Romeo: Sorry about that. I have a cousin visiting from southern Italy and that was my mother telling me where they’ll be in case I can meet up with them after the interview. Sorry about that.
ANDREW NORELLI: We came from America. That’s just as far. So you need to spend time with us! We’re probably distant cousins. We’re from Italy, too.
Dom Romeo: What ever you do on stage tonight, don’t for a second stop to think about it like I’ve made you do right now – just do it.
ANDREW NORELLI: I would never let anything you say deter anything I would do on stage. No offense.
Dom Romeo: None taken!
Mike Vecchione and Andrew Norelli are at the Comedy Store until August 1st.