Interview With Casey James Salengo
Written by Jerry O' Mahony
Casey James Salengo is a New York-based comedian who’s been on Jimmy Kimmel and has had a half-hour special on Comedy Central, which you can find here. His jokes also appear on a couple All Hail Art shirts. We talk to Casey on making it, not making it, and fucking with kids at Harry Potter museums.
AHA: Can you tell me a little about your joke-writing process? How do you know when a situation is going to make a good joke?
Casey: I feel like I still don’t really know. Something just pops in my head, and then you’ve got to try it out. I’m not the type to sit down and write out scenarios and write out jokes every day. Maybe I’m just lazy. I don't think it’s really my path. A lot of jokes came to me when I was in the back of the room, panicked, at an open mic, when I didn’t have anything to say. I’ve found the pressure of needing to come up with something new [works for me]. So I feel like I really need the pressure. A lot of stuff just pops in my head on stage that was said, and I turn it into a joke later. In the end, I need the inspiration to come to me, and then I’ll turn it into a funny idea. I write down, kind of, the idea of it, and then try to talk it out, work it out. So, rarely do I sit down and write out a whole bit.
AHA: Wait, so you’d just go to open mics without any material and just sort of hope that something would happen?
Casey: Well, I used to, because I used to go to, like, three open mics a day, like five days a week. I’ve stopped going to open mics for the past couple years, which is tough. I feel ike it’s kind of hurt my joke production a little bit, but I’ve started to do more shows and I’ve—I’ve also put this weird judgement on myself, which made it more difficult. I remember—and this is completely in my own head—I remember when I was just starting open mics and people would come that had been on TV and stuff. I would judge them more harshly. I would either want to do better than them to show, like, I’d be better than somebody who’d been on TV, you know? If they didn’t do that well, that would also be great. So it’s this weird judgement that I had when I was younger, I started putting on myself so it made it harder for me to go to open mics because I had been a dick about it when I was young. [Laughs]
And also, just from going to that many open mics for probably seven years straight, it’s too much time. It’s too much time to take out of your day. There’s other things to focus on. So now I try to—and yeah, a lot of times I would go to open mics and I would have no idea what I wanted to talk about and, so, sitting there panicking while other people went up, something would kinda bubble up in me. I’d write it down, I’d try it out. For every 100 jokes I’ve written, maybe like three work.
AHA: That’s a lot of jokes.
Casey: Yeah, yeah. So you come up with like, so many ideas. And you have no idea what's going to work. I have so many jokes that I have no idea why it works. So, yeah. Still don’t have a full grasp on why it happens the way it does.
AHA: How do you choose which jokes make it into your specials?
CASEY: When I did the Jimmy Kimmel thing, it was a little bit different [than Comedy Central], they were a little more lax about the standup. I honestly wasn’t too happy about my set on that. I think if you watch a lot of sets on Jimmy Kimmel, I think there’s only—really only Martin Urbano I saw kill on there, because their vetting process for how they do the jokes—they sort of ask you to tell them over the phone or have you write them out. Then they’re like, “Oh, it’s cool.” I even switched in one of the jokes that I had just written that week. Which I now wish I had saved for something later, because I feel like the way they shot it wasn’t the best. I don’t mean to talk shit
I mean, they stopped doing stand-ups because I think they didn’t have a good grasp on how to do it. When I got the [Comedy Central] half hour, that was pretty much all the time I had at that point. So I pretty much just told all the jokes I had. I was practicing the half hour for about two months, and it was bombing. A lot. I was, you know, I was trying to get the timing right, and I wasn’t used to doing that amount of time. I was trying to get the pacing down. If something wasn’t going well, I wasn’t going to have the ability to step out and comment on it or do something else, because I was trying to get these jokes in the right order. Then about three days before [the shooting date] they called me up and they said there’s eight minutes of it that I might not be able to use, because I had recorded [those eight minutes of jokes] for some app in Montreal years earlier that I had totally forgotten about. They were like, “Yeah, just put in another eight minutes.” And I was like, “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?” [Laughs] I’ve been running this nonstop, I don’t even know when I’ll be able to trial another eight minutes worth of jokes.
AHA: What, it’s eight minutes! It’s easy. Just, you know, talk.
CASEY: I know! It’s insane. They let me record the eight minutes in the special, then I left the stage and came back out for an encore, which was very strange.
AHA: Well, that always feels nice.
CASEY: Yeah, it was very odd. They’re like, “Do ten more minutes.” So I just picked weird things, bits that were really spotty, bits that didn’t work anywhere or ones that I liked but didn’t land. I picked those and the taping of the half-hour went so well, I was so confident that the encore was just icing on the cake. I was so excited, so into the crowd, so confident, that a lot of the jokes from encore actually made it onto the special.
The shirt that I made for All Hail Art, the “Where Daddy going to sit?” That’s just a dumb fucking joke that I came up with with my friends. I was high with my friends and I kept saying, “Where Daddy going to sit?” over and over. Made them laugh.
I find with comedians, and a little more comedy-savvy crowds, it would kill, but with most audiences, they fucking hated it. At the end of the joke it kind of requires the audience to say, “Where Daddy going to sit?” and if it’s bombing the whole time, it’s like...
AHA: It’s like, “Daddy needs to find his own fucking seat.”
CASEY: Yeah! [Laughs] So that actually was one of the better jokes that went on the taping and got on the special and it’s the one people really like and they talk to me the most about.
AHA: You mentioned that you like to comment on jokes when you’re doing stand-up. That must require a pretty high level of comfort with being on stage, right? Where did you get to the point where you could talk about the joke on stage that didn’t work three seconds ago?
CASEY: It’s taken a while. I still can’t do it all the time, but I’ve been doing it for nine years at this point. A couple of years in, I had a little comfort on stage. I did, like, plays in college and hosting stuff. There was a dance that my buddy and me hosted, we got to write our own jokes in between the dances, and they went over really well. They had us work three times. We hosted, like, a fashion show, which didn’t go as well.
The fun of comedy, for me, isn’t doing the rehearsed bit and having it go well, because it’s like, “Oh, that’s supposed to go well.” The fun for me is being in the moment and riffing or commenting on something.
It’s been a few years and I’m still honing that skill right now, but that’s why I like to leave some air in the jokes so that there’s room for a spontaneous idea to come up that’s probably funnier than something I wrote down when I wasn’t in the moment.
Rory Scoville’s a big inspiration. He improvs a lot of his stuff. John Dore is another guy [who does that]. I opened once for him and he pretty much just did crowd work, riffing. He told maybe three jokes in an hourlong set. That to me is way more interesting, way more fun. I respect someone who writes something, has well-crafted jokes, but someone just enjoying themselves is a lot more fun for me.
AHA: When did you first start going to open mics?
CASEY: My first was when we were in college still, and we were doing the hosting stuff. I liked acting, but I wasn’t great at it. It was just left of where I wanted to be.
I felt like, sketch was sort of what I wanted to do. I basically just wanted to rip off Will Ferrel.
There was a little hot dog restaurant next door to the coffee shop I worked at. It had a little sign out front that said “Comedians Wanted.” I figured I’d always wanted to try that, so I built up the courage to try. It was my first time ever and they were like, “Ok, you can do twenty minutes.” Which is insane, for your first time ever.
I had jokes that I had been thinking about in my head for years that I could do if I ever did standup, so I just wrote up those. It actually went much better than It should have. Some stuff worked, some stuff didn’t. It was a forgiving crowd. That was the first time I did it.
Then, I just decided. I took some time off after college to raise money. I wanted to move to New York City and try whatever. I didn’t know if I wanted to do improv, or stand-up, or open mics. I moved and I started going three, four times a day.
AHA: When you were starting out and doing open mics a couple times a day, how long was it before was it before you started making enough money to live off of comedy?
CASEY: Oh, I still don’t make enough money to live off of comedy. [Laughs] I still don’t really know how [I lived in New York]. I didn’t make any money for five years. You make money here and there. Most shows you don’t get paid for. To this day, most shows I don’t get paid for. Before the pandemic hit, I started to get spurts of money here and there recording something for TV, something for Comedy Central Digital.
You make money here and there. When I made the money from recording my half-hour, that was the most money I had ever had at one time. I would just buy any dumb thing I wanted. Any bar I went into, if they had merch, I’d be like, “Give me that.” So I had all these t-shirts from all these stupid fucking bars.
AHA: And suddenly you were repping every bar in New York City.
CASEY: Yeah, I decided that’s what I wanted at the time.
You have that, which you go through pretty quickly. I still, you know, maintained jobs on the side. Dog walking, or moving, or playing Santa Claus at a Christmas party. Sort of makeshift bartender here and there. I host trivia nights, bingo nights. You’ve got to do whatever.
Before the pandemic I started working at the Comedy Cellar for about six months. It’s kinda sporadic how long you work there. They’ll give you some weeks with six spots and some weeks with none. If you get regular spots there, you can make a good amount of money. They were recording This Week At the Comedy Cellar, so I was doing that and making money. I was starting to make a good amount of money off that. I’d say their are times when you’re making sporadic amounts of money, and there are times you aren’t making any money at all.
AHA: Were you hanging out with comedians when you were first starting out, and you got job ideas from them or was it literally just whatever you came across?
CASEY: I was hanging out with comedians when I started out, yeah. Once you start hanging out with comics, that’s pretty much the only people you want to hang out with. You’re hanging out around comics so much and you’re saying so much fucked up stuff, and then you hang around people who aren’t comics and you realize they don’t like the stuff you’re saying. [Laughs].
I got a job at a Harry Potter museum. I got it from a friend of mine from college. He was part of a bunch of people from my college who moved here to be actors. He must have moved away pretty quickly. I was doing tickets, then I auditioned to be one of the wizards and got the job. I did the Sorting Hat for the kids. I didn’t know anything about Harry Potter. If I didn’t like the kid, I’d put them in Hufflepuff.
I had that, and then my girlfriend at the time got a job as a staffing agency, so I got temp work through that. Once we broke up I was homeless again [the first time was in my high school days], so I was just going to open mics with all my belongings.
I actually met my current wife—my wife, I mean. Wow. When I met my wife, she was a comedian as well, and we met at an open mic. I had all my belongings with me, and I can’t believe that she saw this homeless guy at an open mic and thought she one day wanted to marry him, but hey. Worked out.
Dog walking is a very common comedian job. I had a comedian friend who ran his own dog walking business so I worked with him for a while, then I started moving people. So, yeah. Pretty much any job I get is through other comics.
AHA: You’ve landed some pretty nice spots with Kimmel and at Comedy Central. How many of that was just you knowing a guy and how much of that was through just someone important being at one of your shows?
CASEY: It’s really just all luck. Anything I’ve gotten is really just blind luck. Right place, right time. Not discounting my ability, but no matter how good you are, you just need a lucky break and I happened to get a few of those.
I was auditioning for Montreal Just for Laughs, the big festival up there I auditioned for two years but they didn’t think I was ready. On my third year, the booker for the festival became the booker for Kimmel. She saw me there and she set me up with that, so that worked out.
The [Comedy Central] half-hour, they just asked people to submit tapes, so I didn’t think I had any chance of getting that. I thought I was years away from doing that. It seems like something you’d do when you were, ten, fifteen years into comedy. I was six years in at that point.
My friend and I had a show at the Pinebox Rock Shop, and we filmed that to make a tape. The crowd was just incredibly good that night. I submitted the tape and them I got it.
That was a complete shock. I never worked with Comedy Central before, and I just didn’t think it was a possibility.
AHA: Do you have any last quick tips for people starting out in comedy who maybe want to get their own half hour?
CASEY: My tips would be—I don’t know. Most advice I’ve gotten doesn’t work for me at all. A lot of people who give a lot of advice seem full of shit to me, to be honest. The only advice that has ever worked for me is just getting onstage as much as possible.
It has to be an obsession for you, or else it’s not going to work out. And that’s not something you can force. I’m bad at school, I’m bad at sports, I’ve been bad at everything I’ve ever done. I started this and suddenly comedy was an obsession. I wasn’t forcing myself to do it. I was just sprinting around New York to do open mics because I was obsessed with it.
Just keep getting out as much as you can. Make sure you’re out doing it. Find whatever methods work for you and don’t try to shoehorn yourself into what other people think you should be doing. Just find what you should do.
AHA: Awesome. Thanks for talking, man.
CASEY: Thanks for having me.
Jerry O’Mahony is a freelance writer based out of New York, New York. He covers science, art, and anything else that lets him justify his Liberal Arts degree. You can find him on LinkedIn or on Cabin Fever Dispatch, his blog covering the science of the coronavirus pandemic.