The Gauss* on Shane Mauss
Wednesday, July 01, 2009
People frequently ask my opinion about comedy â often wanting to know if thereâs âanyone new they should know aboutâ. At the moment, my answer is Shane Mauss (pronounced âmossâ). Heâs a young-looking guy whoâs been doing stand-up for about five years, who made the breakthrough relatively early in his career. Heâs been on Conan OâBrien three times now, which is unprecedented for such a relative newbie. But when you see his material, youâll understand why heâs doing so well.
His style makes much use of the ârevealâ gag. You know, like in cinema: the close-up or angle makes you think youâre looking at one thing, but after the camera pulls back or changes perspective, you see itâs something different. In comedy, the disjunction between what you thought, and what it is, produces the humour; how well itâs pulled off determines how much.
The thing with Shane is, the ârevealsâ 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 â and the relief of being shown that mistake creates an even bigger laugh. But make no mistake: the set-up â the bit that makes you jump to a conclusion in the first place â 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 Maussâs brilliance. I donât mind quoting the first joke I ever saw him do. Itâs on-line, in one of his Conan OâBrien clips, and he opened with it on his Australian debut, at Sydneyâs Original Comedy Store. It goes something like this:
(C) Shane Mauss
Iâm sorry if I donât quite capture Shaneâs on-stage delivery. His pace is slightly slow, as though he might be â whisper it â a little retarded. It suits his material, since the cleverness appears even cleverer to you when thereâs something encouraging you to not expect it.
But all of this is by-the-by, because the person Iâve repeated the joke to invariably reacts the same way I did when I first heard it. Itâs the same way the Conan OâBrien 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, youâre going, âHuh? Whoâd buy that? How would you sell it? How could you possibly make money?â
Part of the âproblemâ for the audience is that it seems as though âscheme to get richâ is the set-up, and âsticker saying Iâm a child molesterâ is the punchline. It isnât. Thereâs a real punchline coming, but in the brief pause, youâve also had time to move on to âHow is this even funny? I may even be a bit offended by thisâ¦â. While you may or may not be thinking all of this, youâre 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 donât put it on your carâ¦ thatâd be stupid.
(C) Shane Mauss
A roar of laughter washes like a wave over the audience. If Iâm re-telling the joke to someone, my delivery of Maussâs actual punchline has the same effect.
Whatâs in a name?
Shaneâs 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 Iâm making you uncomfortable by forcing you to think about comedy too much, rest assured, the most important aspect of Shaneâs 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-falutinâ approach to the art of comedy, even if he has been interviewed live on air already. Iâm content to begin with a more base level of journalism. âWhatâs with the weird spelling of your surname?!â I demand.
âI have no idea,â Shane says, admitting that people âhave a lot of troubleâ with it being pronounced âmossâ and spelled âM â A â U â S â Sâ. But mostly, he confesses, their trouble is down to him âmessingâ with them. His explanation:
âItâs like âmouseâ, except the âOâ is an âAâ and then the âEâ is an âSâ. I mean, âMaussââ¦â â (pronounced âmossâ) â ââ¦ How easy do I have to make it for ya? Itâs like âhippopotamusâ: you just flip the âMâ and the âAâ around, take the âhippopotâ, thatâs an âSâ now, weâre gonna flip it around to the end: âMaussââ¦â â (again, pronounced âmossâ) â ââ¦Easy-peasy!â
Clearly, Shaneâs faced this line of questioning before.
Peopleâs inability to pronounce his name can come in handy though, he adds. âI always knew when the bill collectors were calling, because theyâd be like, âis Mr Shane May-ay-you-ouse there?â Iâd be, âNo, heâs not here right now. He says heâll pay you next monthâ.â
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 â youâd hear me talk up âShane Mossâ and youâd go to google the name as you heard it. Googleâs not so likely to ask, âDid you mean Shane Mauss?â But someone doing comedy as clever as Shaneâs is going to have thought that one through. He not only opts for addresses utilising the name âshanecomedyâ (easier to hit if you google âshane moss comedyâ) but his little blurb at the top of his MySpace page says, âDid you spell my name âShane Mossâ? You still found me! Hooray!!!â Thatâs so all the people who search on-line for âshane mossâ still end up at www.myspace.com/shanecomedy. Very clever indeed.
But he not only admits itâs a âscrewy last nameâ, he also confesses that heâs âheard the strangest thingâ about its derivation. Apparently, Shaneâs ancestors were Jewish and their surname was ââMosheâ, or something like thatâ. The name was changed as a result of land ownership issues. âThey just made up some different spelling so people wouldnât know that they were Jewish!â Shane reports. âI have a hard time with blond hair and blue eyes believing that any of my ancestors were Jewish.â
I canât help being reminded of Art Spiegelmanâs excellent graphic novel adaptation of the Holocaust, Maus, in which Jews are depicted as mice, Hitlerâs Nazis, as cats, but Shane is unfamiliar with it. âI donât read,â he says. âI write. And then I read my own writing, which means Iâm dumb, because I never learn anything because I never learn any new wordsâ¦â
Wow. Turns out Iâm brunching with the cleverest dumb-dumb Iâve ever met! But I canât decide whether Shaneâs comedy â the way itâs constructed â is a result of him being able to interpret things differently because he isnât 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 â and construct jokes around it â differently.
âIâve never been into the same things as other people,â Shane says. âI never took the common educational system seriously. I learn things on my own.â Rather than reading books, he prefers to spend time âon Wikipediaâ and the like, researching facts for himself. âI donât read books, Iâve never been into sports and Iâm not as fond of music as most people. Iâm not into the same stuff that everyone else is so Iâve always felt that I think a little differently than most people.â
Iâm intrigued. What do you do as a kid when youâre not into reading and music and sport?
Shane was âa little moreâ into sports and music as a kid â though not reading, mind â but wasnât into âbeing a kidâ as such, at all. âI didnât have much fun. I was a dark little child.â Though, again, not a âdepressedâ child;
Shane had fun with his mates. âI 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 couldnât wait to be grown up when I was a kid.â
Reminds me of stories of Tom Waitsâs childhood. He so liked âold peopleâ that heâd dress as them. Even though I run the risk of losing Shane â if heâs not into music, will he even know of Tom Waits? â I ask him if he was the same. âNo, no, none of that,â he insists. âI still donât dress like an adult! I still dress like Iâm 14 years old.â He holds his arms out inviting me to appraise his tee-shirt and hoodie. At least, I think itâs a hoodie. If not, itâs a trendy skater-kidâs hoodless hoodie. âAnd this is a good look, considering what I used to wear,â the comic adds. âMy 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!â
The rise and rise of Shane Mauss
It wasnât 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. âI never thought about doing anything else and I never took anything else seriously,â he says. âWhen 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 didnât really know how to go about getting started.â
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. âI was like, âIâve just wasted these five years â Iâve been putting off this stand-up thing foreverâ¦â.â
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. âBut I had a friend who was moving to Boston and I was like, âwell, thatâs close enough to New Yorkâ. I was desperate just to get out of Wisconsin, so I went.â
Getting started was hard. Shane spent two months struggling with âterrible, terrible stage frightâ, bombing in âhorribleâ open mic rooms, often to virtually non-existent audiences. Until something clicked and, aided by âa ton of supportive comicsâ, he made the transition to clubs, where, within six months of having started out, he was getting paid work â âreally unusual in the Statesâ. But it was when Shane landed in the finals of the Boston Comedy Festival â ânot the biggest deal in the world, but at the time it was a really big break for me; I got in the finalsâ â that his career took off.
Shane was recommended to the people who run the HBO Comedy Arts Festival â âthe biggest festival in the Statesâ. After a couple of auditions, one of the people who mattered â though just the one â liked what she saw. âThey didnât 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. âI got a lot of attention and won an award for best stand-up comic,â 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 â and it also meant the Conan OâBrien people saw him in action. âEverything just started falling in my lap,â he offers. Or, to put it another way, everything started to get âcrazy, very intense and little overwhelming, tooâ. Shane Mauss might be the only comic who can boast that his first Conan OâBrien spot came three years into doing stand-up comedy. âThey liked me and had me back six months later,â he adds, âwhich is also pretty unusualâ.
Thereâs been a third appearance since then, and a fourth is lined up for this July. Which is even more impressive now that Conanâs graduated from his Late Night show to The Tonight Show. âAnd then Iâve got a half-hour Comedy Central special, Comedy Central Presentsâ¦, and then Iâve got to do a TV show in London. Things are just going really amazingly well. Iâve been very lucky.â
In hindsight, Shane realises Boston may be the best city in the United States to start out as a stand-up comic. âNew York and LA, you go there once you have your chops and a little more experience and itâs time to try to get noticed by the industry,â he says. âAs far as starting out, thereâs tons of stage-time available and itâs really amazing in Boston.â Of course, he doesnât need to make the transition to New York or LA now â heâs already been noticed.
At the top of his game
Okay â there are a couple of questions I need to ask now, in light of what Shaneâs revealed. The first one has to do with one of his jokes about work (also featured in his first Conan OâBrien spot):
When you get a job like that, the first question they ask you is, âare you afraid of heights?â to which I responded ânoâ, because Iâm not afraid of heights.
But I think what they should have asked me is âare you afraid of carrying a hundred pounds of shingles three stories up an icy ladder while drunk?â because hell, yes!
(c) Shane Mauss
I wanna know if Shane really was a roofer back in Wisconsin.
âPeople do ask that all the time,â Shane laughs: ââWere you really a construction worker? You donât look like a construction worker â you look more likeâ¦ yâknow, whatever it is the gays do.â No, Iâve never worked in human resourcesâ¦ I did a lot of construction stuff.â
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. âItâs a little bit âin the bloodâ â but I was terrible at it. I was really a disgrace to the Mauss name. I was the worst construction worker in the world.â Man, if thatâs the case, Iâd 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?
âI donât care that much about that stuff,â Shane insists. âI really, really love stand-up. But I am working on some other stuff.â
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.
âI dabble in other stuff,â Shane admits, âbut 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.â
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.
âI have such a terrible attention span that stand-up really lends itself to the way that I think. Itâs an amazing and under-rated art form and I really love it. Itâs never been my goal to be particularly famous or be in huge movies or anything like that â I just want to create a fan base doing stand-up so when I go to places people come out and know what Iâm about. I get to goof around a little more that way.â
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 builderâs labourer on some construction site, surely there must be people he grew up with who see him now on Conan OâBrien and exclaim to whichever family and friends are watching television with them, âHim? Howâs he a star comedian?!â
âYeah, Iâm sure thereâs a lot of people that are caught really off-guard,â Shane agrees. âI wasnât a guy who got picked on a lot or anything, but I wasnât 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 didnât even know that I was there. So Iâm sure itâs pretty shocking to a lot of people. Iâve actually got to see a lot of my classmates who have come out to shows that Iâve done in the States.â
I didnât think Shane was ever the kid that was mercilessly bullied. He doesnât do the angry ârevengerâs comedyâ. The overtones of âthisâll show âemâ you sometimes see in other comicsâ material are totally absent in Maussâs unique work. Although, he does have a nice little joke about his childhood:
âI once participated in the four-year-long popularity contest called âhigh schoolâ and I lost miserably â which was devastating because the reward was a career at Applebeesâ¦â
(C) Shane Mauss
Because I donât quite react as I should â comics see through a courtesy laugh immediately, and some of them arenât so desperate to be loved that they accept them anyway â Shane asks, âdo you have Applebees here? Applebees is a crappy chain diner.â Well, for all I know, it could be a legal firm in the States. Clearly, âApplebeesâ would be âMcDonaldâsâ in Australia. Point is, popular kids in high school often become the losers in adult life, which Shane finds âvery funny; very justâ. Hmm. Perhaps there is a touch of ârevenger comicâ about him. Still worth noting, the joke contains the âabout-faceâ so common to Shaneâs humour. So itâs probably safe to turn the discussion to his opening routine about getting rich with the bumper sticker.
âThatâs one of my favourite jokes,â Shane says. âI love to make audiences really uncomfortable and think that Iâve taken something overboard or that itâs not gonna be funny, and then thereâs that release of tension. Thatâs one of my favourite kinds of structure.â
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 itâs been cracked. He applies this knowledge to his own writing: âIâm constantly guessing where Iâm going to go with it and where other people think Iâm taking it and then I try to go as far off-course as I can. Itâs a lot of fun. Itâs kind of like a puzzle.â
Yeah, but I particularly like it when he does all of that, with a level of shock â making the audience just a little bit uncomfortable. When that happens, Shane âcalls itâ. He lets the audience know heâs aware that he put them in that predicament by addressing them as âmy uncomfortable audienceâ in the next stage of the joke set-up. It reminds the audience that heâs still in control, making them more likely to laugh, rather than be offended.
âMy favourite thing,â Shane adds, âis to find a way to break down something shocking or offensive in a very innocent, likable way that makes people go âokayâ¦â. Like, I talk about really nasty sex in a very adorable way, where girls go, âoh, thatâs cuteâ about stuff they really shouldnât be laughing at. I try to find a way to make myself likable that way.â
Rest assured, it works.
Shane in action
Hereâs the clip of Shane Maussâs first appearance on Late Night with Conan OâBrien. Unfortunately, embedding has been disabled, but just click the link (or look the stuff up on Shaneâs MySpace). Of course, as ever, you should be seeing him live whenever youâve got the chance! And hereâs Shaneâs other homepage.