One of the things about being surrounded by a ton of comedians all the time is that more often than not you're going to hear some sort of theory on what it means to be funny. These can be fun, although it can get a little weird watching people circle into these feedback loops while everyone else is just trying to smoke outside. I never feel like I experience those loops when I talk to Steve Magnuson.
You can tell just from his comedy that he's a very precise, analytical person. And yet where others may come off as uncaring or dismissive Steve always comes off very humble/grateful. You get the sense talking to him that he's not a person who half asses things, and more importantly he's not a person who's going to leave you hanging just because you're a stranger, or in this case a disgruntled patient who's just trying to get their lab results at Kaiser Permanente where he works.
It's also just fun to hang out with Steve because you can almost see the gears working in his head when he's coming up with a new joke or explaining how he came across a dead whale on the California Coast; a thing that did actually happen to him on a recent vacation.
Steve and I met outside of a Whole Foods on a bench the other day. I don't know why we were talking about Malcolm Gladwell at first, but that's what happened.
Danny: Do you know about Malcolm Gladwell?
Steve: I know about Blink and the 10,000 hour thing.
Danny: I used to be really into him but then it was just one of those things where if you come at his arguments from a true scientific perspective you notice that a lot of data points are missing.
Steve: Yeah. It's a little bit of data and a lot of assertion and a cool story. That's what makes it appealing.
Danny: What's the book that the 10,000 hours thing is in?
Steve: Uhh...The Tipping Point!
Danny: Yeah! When you read The Tipping Point you're like, "Oh man! All I have to do is this one thing for 10,000 hours and it's just more complicated than that. I mean, he's right in that you should probably be working really hard on whatever you're doing.
Steve: That would give you a good chance to be successful, but not guaranteed. It's not like an input/output thing. Input work: Output success. Or laughs, I guess.
Danny: How have you been lately? We haven't talked in a quick minute.
Steve: I've been doing good in life and in comedy.
Steve: It's hard to break down that good. I want to unpack that good.
Danny: You can unpack it! Are there caveats to that good? If there are that's totally fine.
Steve: I've been feeling good ever since I watched the film Detropia. Before that I felt really whiny about my job and how I have to work 40 hours at a customer service job. But then once I saw what could be going on--or what might be happening right around the corner with an economic downturn--I'm very relieved to have a full time job and also to have a chance to do a lot of comedy.
Danny: That's good of you to say that. I probably would've watched Detropia and then thought I should be more grateful for what I have. And then 15 minutes later just be bummed out again. That's good you can switch that around.
Steve: It's not a sense of optimism. It's more like, "Thank God I have a job to survive".
I work at Kaiser and often times I'm just the middle chain of a very big bureaucracy and people are usually lost when they call me. Usually I know what to do but sometimes it's just a struggle to figure out who they are, how can I help them. Basic stuff.
I also still have to go to Kaiser for healthcare so sometimes when I'm on the receiving end of that I get very resentful to wait for hold music. People coming at me with classic, "Well that's not my department" attitude. They only want to help you to the extent that they think their job title is.
Danny: Wait. let me get this straight. You try to be good at your job and then you have to deal with people who are doing the opposite of that at your same job?
Steve: Sometimes they're phoning it in and not doing very good customer service. I love it when they're not phoning it. I love it when getting good customer service. I love getting hit by it.
Danny: Yeah, you can tell when someone is really trying.
Steve: I'm just glad to not be at work right now.
My friend traveled in Asia for a few months then he came back and said one of the best things about that trip was not having to be at work.
Danny: That's all he took from it? Do you need a vacation, man?
Steve: I went on vacation recently. I went to the Lost Coast. Did some hiking. I posted a photo album about it and tried to do funny captions on each picture.
(Steve's not kidding about that by the way. If you go to his FB and find the photo album referred to previously you'll find small summaries with each photo. It's incredibly funny and sincere and you can tell he's genuinely excited to share these goofy photos. Here's an excerpt:)
(Casey and I decided to take my car because it has AC. Actually, it doesn't have AC it just has the button. This AC button has great action and a satisfying click.
(Highway 101 was great scenery for podcasts. Without podcasts I don't know how the pioneers made it west or the Polynesians carved the Pacific)
(Calico Cafe was full of the art of Humboldt County. I am not going to kid around about how many permutations of cannabis leaves, naked tits, and clothed tits were in the art of Humboldt county. The art on the wall were meditations on how tits are hot and how the herb is the truth.)
(The shore was covered in pebbles. The last time I walked on that many pebbles, the Home Depot worker had to tell me to stop it. With beautiful places like the lost coast, it's no wonder so many people work in garden stores.)
Steve: It got a lot of attention, especially the picture I took of a dead whale. One of the mornings we woke up there was no dead whale and then the next day there was a dead whale.
Danny: Did Facebook get all sad?
Steve: Lots of reactions to the dead whale. Very strong reactions to the dead whale.
So I saw it and I ran to get Casey my girlfriend who was with me and I was like, "You gotta come see this.", and she's like, "What is it?", and I'm like "This is once in a lifetime.". Dead whale. And I touched it.
Danny: You touched the dead whale?
Steve: Yeah I touched the dead whale. It giggled a little bit.
Danny: Really? It wasn't firm? How big was this whale?
Steve: Up to about my chest. And it was flipped upside down.
Danny: How long?
Steve: Over 20ft long. It was a long whale.
Danny: Man, I thought it would be firm.
Steve: The skin was firm but there was all the organs and visceral fluid inside which was very giggly, dude.
Danny: You must have hit the liver or something.
Steve: I had to see. I had to get the whole whale experience so I had to touch and try to displace it a little bit. Or flip it over and get a better ID because I couldn't tell what kind of whale it was.
Danny: There could have been anything on the other side of that whale.
Steve: It had the classic Disney striated lines. Like in Pinocchio. But it wasn't a humpback. I felt bad for it. I think it had a genetic disease. It didn't look right.
Danny: What was wrong with it?
Steve: It just looked like a tadpole. Maybe it was just a hungry whale. But I had to leave that whale behind. Left it on that beach.
Danny: Nobody picked it up?
Steve: Nah, it just stays out there. It rots. The rangers are too busy to move it.
Danny: The birds are probably having a field day.
Steve: I saw it in one of it's least decayed states, man. Authentic whale. I didn't think that whale affected me that much but here I am just spilling my guts about that whale.
There was also a chunk of baleen a few feet away from it and my girlfriend thought it was a car part.
(real talk, the baleen for sure looks like the filter to a Chevy Aveo or something)
Danny: What's baleen?
Steve: Baleen is the little teeth that whale have to filter out the krill, and they swallow the krill and I was like, "Look this is baleen" and my girlfriend was like, "No that's part of a car, Steve.". So I had to prove that it was biological. So I touched the little blubber on it. I studied biology. That was me using my degree. I confirmed it was dead. I confirmed it was baleen.
Danny: Do you find that bleeds into comedy at all? Analysis and stuff like that. I feel like I see you analyze stuff.
Steve: Oh yeah. You know I was pegged as an observational comic by the "Open Mic Night" Pokemon cards. I read my own card and it said I have "campy" observations.
(maybe a month or so ago somebody started making these Pokemon style cards featuring local comics. The creator chose to remain anonymous so they would just show up in little foil packs at mics occasionally)
Steve: Which I like that. I do a lot of observations. When I write my jokes I try to think, "Am I doing an observation here? Or am I doing wordplay". I try to make sure there's enough variety. Man, I don't want to be completely observational because that is a little too dry. I try to observation with a little bit of flavor mixed in.
I guess that's a lot of what standup, is it's just making an observation or telling a story. I want my comedy to be experiential. Like Rory Scovel. One of my favorite things is when he climbed up the scaffolding at the Moontower Comedy Festival.
(something that did actually happen at Moontower 3 years ago)
That was just a fun experience. I want the audience to feel like something is happening. And storytelling. I don't want people to spend their night filling up a show and sitting there to watch me try to convey something else. I want to have the story happen, or have the joke happen. I don't want them to feel like they're watching me be self indulgent.
Danny: You want to make them feel like you don't just repeat that every night.
Steve: I feel like our careers depend on that. To make it seem like it's unique every time.
Danny: Where do you think you're at career wise? Do you apply to festivals?
Steve: I've applied to a couple things and I've talked myself out of applying to others because I feel like I'd want to save money. I have the hope of having a career. Sometime. Yeah. I don't think I'm a powerful enough performer to be touring as a stand up comic, but I'd like to write on shows.
Danny: What would be a TV show you'd like to write on?
Steve: A late night show. I'd want to write for maybe a regular sitcom. Like, I really enjoyed Alpha House which is a serial comedy on Amazon. It's about republicans living together. And I really liked Wet Hot American Summer. They went all over with that show and it was totally ridiculous.
Danny: It's funny, when you said sitcom for a second I just pictured you writing for Everybody Loves Raymond or something like that.
Steve: I'll figure it out. Maybe if it's not writing for a sitcom it'll be something else. I do want to try writing sketches.
Danny: Ya got an anxiety?
Steve: In comedy?
Danny: Yeah yeah!
Steve: I don't know how to let myself go and stop worrying. Like, I went off antidepressants and since then I've been hung up on how I'm doing, what I'm doing. I just want to have enough time to write. I just want to put that time in. I keep track of my time. I try to do 15 hours a week.
Danny: Of writing?
Steve: Of writing or watching or reading but mostly writing. But I keep track of all that time. I try to write good tweets. I find I get booked most when I've been posting on social media.
Danny: I feel like that's true. People know that you exist more.
Danny: When did you come up with that Volvo bit?
(a couple months ago Steve did a presentation for Chad Chats, which is a local show that basically satirizes Ted Talks. The presentation was about Volvos and how they're reliable cars but it veered off in hilarious ways as well. Check it out here)
Steve: Oh Volvos. Well, I did a little Chad Chat about Volvos and how to get a Volvo. I grew up in Tigard, OR and lived a little ways out of town so I was always isolated. If I wanted to hang out with a friend or something I'd always have to get a ride from my parents, make arrangements, make play dates; convince them that it's be really cool to hang out with that kid. I really had to sell it.
My Mom always had a Volvo and she'd always tell us the virtue of having a Volvo. About how they were so safe, how "this is such a great car". She'd see one and just go, "there's another Volvo right there". And so as a teenager I inherited that Volvo and I drove it around and I sort of made it my muscle car. I'm like, "Yeah! This is a Volvo. I keep it clean.".
That's about as muscle-y as you can get with a Volvo
Danny: Making sure it's tidy.
Steve: People would say, "How fast from 0 to 60?" and I'd say, "I don't know but it's really tidy.". So yeah, I always had this weird affinity for the Volvo and decided I wanted to tell people that.
I also brought stuff for this interview. Here's a joke book from the 80's.
Steve: I've been correcting the jokes. I've only gotten a few pages in. It's really hard cause the first chapter is about marriage, so every joke is basically, "UGH. My fuckin' wife!", because it's the 80's. But I did rewrite one of them. It goes:
"Hey. Did you hear the one about the 80's comic who's going to prison?", and then I say, "Oh wait a minute. He's actually getting married."
Steve: They're all like that. And I just have a few more pages to go before I'm done with the marriage and dating ones.
Danny: So you read them and make different versions of them?
Steve: Yeah. I read them and I think, "Why does this joke suck?". Why is it dated? But then sometimes it's a really good joke and I'm like, "Oh. Nice one.".
And I wonder if I was going to write a joke like that how would I change the subject or change the punchline. I try to make it my own but not so close that I'm stealing it. I'm not using these on stage I just want to go through all of them.
Danny: You should absolutely do a bit where you talk about how you're "fixing" these jokes.
Steve: There's lots of different people in this book. We got Tim Allen, some woman named Marsha Warfield. I guess she was big back in the day. Conan O'Brien; there's some good jokes in here. I actually just saw one from Rush Limbaugh. Was he a comic?
Danny: I feel like he's only done talk radio. I think?
Steve: Well here's the Rush Limbaugh joke.
"Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream."
Danny: That's so mean! That's not even a joke. Even if you tried to say it like a joke it'd come off super mean.
Steve: I wonder if Rush Limbaugh even knows it's here.
Danny: One of his people know's it's in there.
Steve: This was like before Twitter. This was comics trying to get there material out there. I found this at a library closeout even and picked it up there.
Danny: Well I'd love to see your "fixed" jokes on stage eventually.
Steve: I fix my own jokes too. I write myself monologue jokes and then I try to take a look at them again and punch up my own jokes.
Danny: How mechanical.
Steve: I'm pretty mechanical. It's more of an instinct to know how I'm getting laughs.
Danny: You doing any cool shows soon?
Steve: I got a show tonight. Can these readers come to this show tonight?
Danny: I'll tell them about it later if you'd like.
Steve: Do you have more questions for me?
Danny: Nah, I think i got it. Thanks though.
Steve Magnuson is everywhere and nowhere. More specifically you can see him performing At Comedy Night @ Al's Den 8/28-29 at 10:30PM. Check him out.