People frequently ask my opinion about comedy – often wanting to know if there’s “anyone new they should know about”. At the moment, my answer is Shane Mauss (pronounced ‘moss’). He’s a young-looking guy who’s been doing stand-up for about five years, who made the breakthrough relatively early in his career. He’s been on Conan O’Brien three times now, which is unprecedented for such a relative newbie. But when you see his material, you’ll understand why he’s doing so well.
His style makes much use of the ‘reveal’ gag. You know, like in cinema: the close-up or angle makes you think you’re looking at one thing, but after the camera pulls back or changes perspective, you see it’s something different. In comedy, the disjunction between what you thought, and what it is, produces the humour; how well it’s pulled off determines how much.
The thing with Shane is, the ‘reveals’ are so sophisticated. The twist can be a complete about-face. The initial set-up might have you ready to be offended or angered, but the punchline reveals your own folly, your own prejudice, your own preconceptions – and the relief of being shown that mistake creates an even bigger laugh. But make no mistake: the set-up – the bit that makes you jump to a conclusion in the first place – is as clever as the punchline. It is expert misdirection.
At this juncture, I usually have to offer an example to the person who asked, to illustrate both my point and Mauss’s brilliance. I don’t mind quoting the first joke I ever saw him do. It’s on-line, in one of his Conan O’Brien clips, and he opened with it on his Australian debut, at Sydney’s Original Comedy Store. It goes something like this:
(C) Shane Mauss
I’m sorry if I don’t quite capture Shane’s on-stage delivery. His pace is slightly slow, as though he might be – whisper it – a little retarded. It suits his material, since the cleverness appears even cleverer to you when there’s something encouraging you to not expect it.
But all of this is by-the-by, because the person I’ve repeated the joke to invariably reacts the same way I did when I first heard it. It’s the same way the Conan O’Brien audience mostly reacts, the same way the Comedy Store audience reacted, and the same way you reacted reading the set-up: with confused silence. Perhaps the slightest smattering of uncomfortable laughter. In your head, you’re going, “Huh? Who’d buy that? How would you sell it? How could you possibly make money?”
Part of the ‘problem’ for the audience is that it seems as though ‘scheme to get rich’ is the set-up, and ‘sticker saying I’m a child molester’ is the punchline. It isn’t. There’s a real punchline coming, but in the brief pause, you’ve also had time to move on to “How is this even funny? I may even be a bit offended by this…”. While you may or may not be thinking all of this, you’re still in the process of not having found the first bit funny when Shane speaks up:
Maybe I should explain about the bumper sticker. You don’t put it on your car… that’d be stupid.
(C) Shane Mauss
A roar of laughter washes like a wave over the audience. If I’m re-telling the joke to someone, my delivery of Mauss’s actual punchline has the same effect.
What’s in a name?
Shane’s material is all of that quality, often challenging you time and again to see stuff differently by forcing you to at least consider the option of seeing how you saw it in the first place. If I’m making you uncomfortable by forcing you to think about comedy too much, rest assured, the most important aspect of Shane’s work holds true: he makes you laugh a lot out loud.
As I join Shane for brunch the morning after his Comedy Store debut, it seems too early to start with such a high-falutin’ approach to the art of comedy, even if he has been interviewed live on air already. I’m content to begin with a more base level of journalism. “What’s with the weird spelling of your surname?!” I demand.
“I have no idea,” Shane says, admitting that people “have a lot of trouble” with it being pronounced ‘moss’ and spelled ‘M – A – U – S – S’. But mostly, he confesses, their trouble is down to him “messing” with them. His explanation:
“It’s like ‘mouse’, except the ‘O’ is an ‘A’ and then the ‘E’ is an ‘S’. I mean, ‘Mauss’…” – (pronounced ‘moss’) – “… How easy do I have to make it for ya? It’s like ‘hippopotamus’: you just flip the ‘M’ and the ‘A’ around, take the ‘hippopot’, that’s an ‘S’ now, we’re gonna flip it around to the end: ‘Mauss’…” – (again, pronounced ‘moss’) – “…Easy-peasy!”
Clearly, Shane’s faced this line of questioning before.
People’s inability to pronounce his name can come in handy though, he adds. “I always knew when the bill collectors were calling, because they’d be like, ‘is Mr Shane May-ay-you-ouse there?’ I’d be, ‘No, he’s not here right now. He says he’ll pay you next month’.”
However, it can pose a bit of a problem when it comes to marketing and promoting. Imagine this were a radio interview rather than a written one – you’d hear me talk up ‘Shane Moss’ and you’d go to google the name as you heard it. Google’s not so likely to ask, ‘Did you mean Shane Mauss?’ But someone doing comedy as clever as Shane’s is going to have thought that one through. He not only opts for addresses utilising the name ‘shanecomedy’ (easier to hit if you google ‘shane moss comedy’) but his little blurb at the top of his MySpace page says, “Did you spell my name ‘Shane Moss’? You still found me! Hooray!!!” That’s so all the people who search on-line for ‘shane moss’ still end up at www.myspace.com/shanecomedy. Very clever indeed.
But he not only admits it’s a “screwy last name”, he also confesses that he’s “heard the strangest thing” about its derivation. Apparently, Shane’s ancestors were Jewish and their surname was “‘Moshe’, or something like that”. The name was changed as a result of land ownership issues. “They just made up some different spelling so people wouldn’t know that they were Jewish!” Shane reports. “I have a hard time with blond hair and blue eyes believing that any of my ancestors were Jewish.”
I can’t help being reminded of Art Spiegelman’s excellent graphic novel adaptation of the Holocaust, Maus, in which Jews are depicted as mice, Hitler’s Nazis, as cats, but Shane is unfamiliar with it. “I don’t read,” he says. “I write. And then I read my own writing, which means I’m dumb, because I never learn anything because I never learn any new words…”
Wow. Turns out I’m brunching with the cleverest dumb-dumb I’ve ever met! But I can’t decide whether Shane’s comedy – the way it’s constructed – is a result of him being able to interpret things differently because he isn’t much of a reader, or if whatever it is that motivates him to avoid reading is a result of whatever it is that also makes him interpret life – and construct jokes around it – differently.
“I’ve never been into the same things as other people,” Shane says. “I never took the common educational system seriously. I learn things on my own.” Rather than reading books, he prefers to spend time “on Wikipedia” and the like, researching facts for himself. “I don’t read books, I’ve never been into sports and I’m not as fond of music as most people. I’m not into the same stuff that everyone else is so I’ve always felt that I think a little differently than most people.”
I’m intrigued. What do you do as a kid when you’re not into reading and music and sport?
Shane was “a little more” into sports and music as a kid – though not reading, mind – but wasn’t into “being a kid” as such, at all. “I didn’t have much fun. I was a dark little child.” Though, again, not a ‘depressed’ child;
Shane had fun with his mates. “I always thought I had a different kind of humour, and I was always cracking my friends up, but I was never the class clown; I was never out-going in classes. I did not like being a kid. I couldn’t wait to be grown up when I was a kid.”
Reminds me of stories of Tom Waits’s childhood. He so liked ‘old people’ that he’d dress as them. Even though I run the risk of losing Shane – if he’s not into music, will he even know of Tom Waits? – I ask him if he was the same. “No, no, none of that,” he insists. “I still don’t dress like an adult! I still dress like I’m 14 years old.” He holds his arms out inviting me to appraise his tee-shirt and hoodie. At least, I think it’s a hoodie. If not, it’s a trendy skater-kid’s hoodless hoodie. “And this is a good look, considering what I used to wear,” the comic adds. “My girlfriend kind of dresses me now and makes me look a little better than what I used to. I used to be a real slob!”
The rise and rise of Shane Mauss
It wasn’t just being an adult that Shane looked forward to as a kid. He reckons the only thing he ever wanted to do since he was ten years old is stand-up comedy. “I never thought about doing anything else and I never took anything else seriously,” he says. “When I was around fifteen I started writing little funny ideas down. I started accumulating material. But I just put it off for too long, cos I was really nervous and I didn’t really know how to go about getting started.”
What was the metaphorical kick-up-the-bum that forced Shane to finally take to the stage? Well, at the ripe old age of 23, he realised he was stuck in a miserable factory job he hated, drinking way too much, getting into a lot of trouble and hating his life. “I was like, ‘I’ve just wasted these five years – I’ve been putting off this stand-up thing forever…’.”
So it was time to get on with the career. Shane left his home in Wisconsin, aiming, he says, for New York, or maybe LA. “But I had a friend who was moving to Boston and I was like, ‘well, that’s close enough to New York’. I was desperate just to get out of Wisconsin, so I went.”
Getting started was hard. Shane spent two months struggling with “terrible, terrible stage fright”, bombing in “horrible” open mic rooms, often to virtually non-existent audiences. Until something clicked and, aided by “a ton of supportive comics”, he made the transition to clubs, where, within six months of having started out, he was getting paid work – “really unusual in the States”. But it was when Shane landed in the finals of the Boston Comedy Festival – “not the biggest deal in the world, but at the time it was a really big break for me; I got in the finals” – that his career took off.
Shane was recommended to the people who run the HBO Comedy Arts Festival – “the biggest festival in the States”. After a couple of auditions, one of the people who mattered – though just the one – liked what she saw. “They didn’t want me in but she put her job on the line for me and I was one of the last people picked." So Shane did the festival, in the process doing some of best sets of his life. “I got a lot of attention and won an award for best stand-up comic,” he says. All this, and still only two-and-a-half years into his career!
The HBO success meant Shane could pretty much pick his management and agents – and it also meant the Conan O’Brien people saw him in action. “Everything just started falling in my lap,” he offers. Or, to put it another way, everything started to get “crazy, very intense and little overwhelming, too”. Shane Mauss might be the only comic who can boast that his first Conan O’Brien spot came three years into doing stand-up comedy. “They liked me and had me back six months later,” he adds, “which is also pretty unusual”.
There’s been a third appearance since then, and a fourth is lined up for this July. Which is even more impressive now that Conan’s graduated from his Late Night show to The Tonight Show. “And then I’ve got a half-hour Comedy Central special, Comedy Central Presents…, and then I’ve got to do a TV show in London. Things are just going really amazingly well. I’ve been very lucky.”
In hindsight, Shane realises Boston may be the best city in the United States to start out as a stand-up comic. “New York and LA, you go there once you have your chops and a little more experience and it’s time to try to get noticed by the industry,” he says. “As far as starting out, there’s tons of stage-time available and it’s really amazing in Boston.” Of course, he doesn’t need to make the transition to New York or LA now – he’s already been noticed.
At the top of his game
Okay – there are a couple of questions I need to ask now, in light of what Shane’s revealed. The first one has to do with one of his jokes about work (also featured in his first Conan O’Brien spot):
When you get a job like that, the first question they ask you is, ‘are you afraid of heights?’ to which I responded ‘no’, because I’m not afraid of heights.
But I think what they should have asked me is ‘are you afraid of carrying a hundred pounds of shingles three stories up an icy ladder while drunk?’ because hell, yes!
(c) Shane Mauss
I wanna know if Shane really was a roofer back in Wisconsin.
“People do ask that all the time,” Shane laughs: “‘Were you really a construction worker? You don’t look like a construction worker – you look more like… y’know, whatever it is the gays do.’ No, I’ve never worked in human resources… I did a lot of construction stuff.”
After I quickly point out that there was a construction worker amid the Village People, Shane explains that his father was a construction worker who had his own business and all his uncles were construction workers also. “It’s a little bit ‘in the blood’ – but I was terrible at it. I was really a disgrace to the Mauss name. I was the worst construction worker in the world.” Man, if that’s the case, I’d have been a depressed and disappointed drunk in my early 20s, too! Good thing comedy won out.
My other question is a more standard one: what with all this success, is it all a stepping-stone to the sitcom or cinema?
“I don’t care that much about that stuff,” Shane insists. “I really, really love stand-up. But I am working on some other stuff.”
The other stuff includes things like funny video shorts to be uploaded to the internet; a sitcom pilot based on an idea Shane and his girlfriend had; and a book, being written in collaboration with a friend.
“I dabble in other stuff,” Shane admits, “but I get really excited when I first have ideas for things, and then after working on them a while, I just get bored with it.”
For Shane, like so many other stand-up comics, the very beauty of stand-up is the fact that you can have a funny idea, turn it into a routine, do it on stage almost immediately and then move onto the next funny idea.
“I have such a terrible attention span that stand-up really lends itself to the way that I think. It’s an amazing and under-rated art form and I really love it. It’s never been my goal to be particularly famous or be in huge movies or anything like that – I just want to create a fan base doing stand-up so when I go to places people come out and know what I’m about. I get to goof around a little more that way.”
If Shane Mauss was never the class clown, if he was a bit of a dark little loner, if he suddenly upped stumps and nicked off out of Wisconsin where he was last seen as a builder’s labourer on some construction site, surely there must be people he grew up with who see him now on Conan O’Brien and exclaim to whichever family and friends are watching television with them, “Him? How’s he a star comedian?!”
“Yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot of people that are caught really off-guard,” Shane agrees. “I wasn’t a guy who got picked on a lot or anything, but I wasn’t in the real cliquey crowds either. I just kind of kept to myself. To my friends, it was really no surprise because I was always cracking them up, but to a lot of people I was just some quiet kid. They probably didn’t even know that I was there. So I’m sure it’s pretty shocking to a lot of people. I’ve actually got to see a lot of my classmates who have come out to shows that I’ve done in the States.”
I didn’t think Shane was ever the kid that was mercilessly bullied. He doesn’t do the angry ‘revenger’s comedy’. The overtones of ‘this’ll show ’em’ you sometimes see in other comics’ material are totally absent in Mauss’s unique work. Although, he does have a nice little joke about his childhood:
“I once participated in the four-year-long popularity contest called ‘high school’ and I lost miserably – which was devastating because the reward was a career at Applebees…”
(C) Shane Mauss
Because I don’t quite react as I should – comics see through a courtesy laugh immediately, and some of them aren’t so desperate to be loved that they accept them anyway – Shane asks, “do you have Applebees here? Applebees is a crappy chain diner.” Well, for all I know, it could be a legal firm in the States. Clearly, ‘Applebees’ would be ‘McDonald’s’ in Australia. Point is, popular kids in high school often become the losers in adult life, which Shane finds “very funny; very just”. Hmm. Perhaps there is a touch of ‘revenger comic’ about him. Still worth noting, the joke contains the ‘about-face’ so common to Shane’s humour. So it’s probably safe to turn the discussion to his opening routine about getting rich with the bumper sticker.
“That’s one of my favourite jokes,” Shane says. “I love to make audiences really uncomfortable and think that I’ve taken something overboard or that it’s not gonna be funny, and then there’s that release of tension. That’s one of my favourite kinds of structure.”
Being so into comedy, Mauss is the kind of person who, when watching a comic on stage, can often guess where the joke is going to go, getting the punchline before it’s been cracked. He applies this knowledge to his own writing: “I’m constantly guessing where I’m going to go with it and where other people think I’m taking it and then I try to go as far off-course as I can. It’s a lot of fun. It’s kind of like a puzzle.”
Yeah, but I particularly like it when he does all of that, with a level of shock – making the audience just a little bit uncomfortable. When that happens, Shane ‘calls it’. He lets the audience know he’s aware that he put them in that predicament by addressing them as “my uncomfortable audience” in the next stage of the joke set-up. It reminds the audience that he’s still in control, making them more likely to laugh, rather than be offended.
“My favourite thing,” Shane adds, “is to find a way to break down something shocking or offensive in a very innocent, likable way that makes people go ‘okay…’. Like, I talk about really nasty sex in a very adorable way, where girls go, ‘oh, that’s cute’ about stuff they really shouldn’t be laughing at. I try to find a way to make myself likable that way.”
Rest assured, it works.
Shane in action
Here’s the clip of Shane Mauss’s first appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Unfortunately, embedding has been disabled, but just click the link (or look the stuff up on Shane’s MySpace). Of course, as ever, you should be seeing him live whenever you’ve got the chance! And here’s Shane’s other homepage.