Interview with William Stephenson
Written by : Bryan Murray
As a first time writer for this website, I found it appropriate and best way to kick off my inaugural post was with one of the people I’ve come to realize was there for one of my wife’s and I’s first experience at live comedy in New York City. It really is one of those moments that stick, that giddy and excited feeling someone gets as a child opening a present. That was my experience tugging on my wife’s jacket upstairs of the Comedy Cellar before their late show on a week night. Looking behind me at all the comedians that I recognized at “The Table” and looking up at the closed circuit television to see Chris Rock finishing up a set. I don’t remember every performer that night, but the MC for the evening definitely stuck. It was someone with this truly amazing energy, that of a ball busting family member. Taking shots at the audience while still remaining relatable. That was William Stephenson. It was really an honor to get to chat with him for a while, a true veteran in the New York City stand up community while remaining truly humble and doing it truly for the love of stand up and performing
My wife and I got to check out the show Saturday January 9th at Broadway Comedy Club where he closed out a great show with Chris Murphy as the MC, Russ Menev, Wali Collins, Tommy Gooch, Jerry Shack, and finally Will. Afterwards, we got a chance to step outside and have a conversation with Will where we found out this was only his second time performing at this club and has been a while performing outside of hosting.
We’ve seen you multiple times hosting in the city, where did you start and was it hosting?
“I first started in DC, at an open mic. Then after a few months they started letting me host after about two years I hosted a show with two comedians from here. It was Bill Scheft and Adrianne Tolsch, both of them told me ‘Hey come to New York’ and got me a spot at Catch a Rising Star and a few months later I moved here and have been here ever since”
How long have you been doing comedy for?
“Since November 1982, I don’t do math on Saturday’s.
It was a great moment to witness the surprised excitement hit after my wife (who is obviously much better at math than either of us) tell us that it has been around 33 years. I expressed the amazement how some pivotal moments happen how they stick so vividly. Knowing the first moment of doing stand up was amazingly one of them for Will. He briefly explained to me the moments surrounding that.
“It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving 1982 (11/21/82) Michael Jackson just came out with Thriller. My girlfriend at the time had been urging me since around September to try stand up. So, I resisted for a minute…. She even helped me write a few jokes and my first open mic five minutes, four of that….the audience was trying to help it along. They knew everybody was gonna suck, but I got a decent laugh that last joke and made me wanna come back the next week. ”
Were you always passionate about stand up or was it a little more of a right place, right time situation?
“Well, in High School I was President of the Drama Club and the Drum Major in the Marching Band. When I was in High School I had a Teacher’s Assistant who thought I was funny and said ‘ Get in a van with me let’s go to LA and be comedians’ I was 17-18 years old I’m not getting in no van. Kinda wish I had started back then but, you know, happens for a reason.”
What are your feelings on the belief of needing 10,000 hours until becoming an expert or in this case, a real comedian?
“I don’t know. I think one of the great things about stand up is there is no one way to do it.”
That night was a really great example of “no one way” to do stand up. Each performer varied in character, revealing, clean, dirty, some focusing more on crowd work as opposed to sticking much tighter to written material.
Do you feel there is a major difference between hosting or in the line up?
“Absolutely, there’s a big difference. Last night was my first time here doing a set around the same time and I commented about it on my Facebook. You don’t have to do as much audience interaction. The easiest thing is to say ‘Where are you from? What do you do? Why is your shirt f*ked up?’ As a host you want them to like you and you want them to like everybody else. I try to set them up…. For me, and I’m not sure but I think it’s the same of other comics they wanna hear that healthy round of applause when their name is said. There’s a big difference between coming up to a nice solid round of applause as opposed to ‘Ah, F*K we gotta do this now’. You wanna give the audience hope that the rest of the show is gonna be good as well.”
Toward the end of his set this evening he made a comment to the effect of, if you enjoyed the show tell a friend, if you don’t tell the internet. We briefly spoke on the new internet culture that has been surrounding especially comedy as of late. Although he admitted it was out there, he said that he’s been able to avoid it by doing just that. Avoiding those outlets, he just recently signed up for Twitter, refused Facebook for as long as he could, and only before that was he on MySpace.
Does a comedian now need social media to get out there even in New York City?
“It’s a marketing device, and marketing is the least thing that I’m interested in the 33 years I have been doing this. I mean, if I had been more involved perhaps I’d be on a show or something by now but when I first started doing this and I looked 5-10 years down the line as ‘just a comedian’ that is great to me”
For someone who has been doing stand up for such a large part of your life, is it strange to see your peers move onto other outlets like TV and movies?
“I don’t mind at all, just put me in one of your movies every now and again. That’s how I got on everything else I’ve been on, people have asked me to do it…..Louie put me in one of his shorts, one of the first things he did 20+ years ago and then he put me in Pootie Tang and then on the pilot of his show. Getting to open for him in Milwaukee and Detroit couple years ago, that was a dream come true.”
We began to wrap up a little by going into how Louis, like Carlin was big on flushing out and having a new special yearly. And how now, a lot of other comedians have been following suite. I feel it has a lot to do about being how accessible and the fact there is so many more outlets are out there to experience comedy. In that I admitted it seemed from speaking with Will, getting that comedy special or sitcom isn’t anywhere near top of the list. “Don’t get wrong I’ll do it, but I’m not gonna try to do it”. Admitting he doesn’t have an agent or manager, which is so rare to see any success being had without a team of other people.
“I been avoiding fame for 33 years and doing a hell of a good job at it. I always hated being that person who can’t walk down the street without a trail of people following into the store to find out what type of toilet paper they use. The level now, I can handle luckily, when walking around my neighborhood most people don’t know what I do and I love that. Occasionally I get the ‘Don’t I know you’ which is fine. If I had blown up when I first started doing this, I woulda been the biggest douchebag.”
It really was an honor to get to stand outside a comedy club with someone who after so many years in the stand up scene, just wants to be funny. I have respect for someone who doesn’t want a manager or agency telling him what to do and being able to stick with that for so long. To be able to reflect with one another on how comedy can have such a lasting effect, where he can recall in an instant to such detail the feelings and moments even before his first set. And more than just a funny joke, subpar audience members, what a comment thread says. Something sticks. If in the New York area, Will regularly hosts at the historic Comedy Cellar as well as multiple clubs hopefully regularly at Broadway Comedy Club. Broadway Comedy Club is right near Times Square with shows constantly visit Broadway Comedy Club for details. And if you got something nice to say, feel free to follow Will on Twitter @newweeeyum and on Facebook at William Stephenson. If not, go somewhere else on the internet.