Comic Joe List stays grounded as career takes flight
When Joe List got the call that he had landed his own “The Half Hour” special on Comedy Central, he was at the movies. He let it go to voice mail, then got a text from his manager to call ASAP. List suspected the call was about the special, which he tapes Wednesday at Royale along with other comics in the series, but he waited until after the movie was over to call back.
“I was, like, this has to be I got it,” he says, speaking by phone from New York. “So it was distracting me from the movie, but it definitely felt good.”
It’s not that he wasn’t grateful, or even excited about the opportunity. It’s just that after nearly 15 years of doing comedy, List, 33, a Whitman native, has learned to be measured in his reaction to good news. “Everything is still like, OK, I’m glad I got that, now let’s try and keep moving forward and keep working,” he says. “Because it’s not like the old days where there’s one thing you can get and you’re like, ‘All right, I’ve made it!’ ”
Luckily for List, he has more than one thing going on. He is featured in the trailer for the new season of NBC’s stand-up contest “Last Comic Standing,” which kicks off July 22. He can’t give any details about the show, but says he did well. The two television appearances could boost his profile considerably and help him get more headlining spots, more road work, and most importantly, more fans.
List is hopeful for all of that, but right now, “I still have a bunch of holes in my calendar,” he says. “So I’m still at a point where I’m like, I’ve gotta find some work here. So it’s weird. It feels like you’re never done with comedy.”
Since moving to New York in April 2007, List has been supporting himself with stand-up gigs. He had saved enough money to help him make the transition, but says he was “unbelievably poor, with electricity being turned off and stuff like that.” Former Boston comic Nick Di Paolo helped make the transition easier, bringing List on the road with him as an opener. List says he has been an influence and an inspiration.
“He’s like my comedy dad,” says List. “He got me on the road, and I got to watch him so many times and learn how to be a great comic, I think. He’s been unbelievably helpful. Continues to be. Just a great friend. He was one of my favorite comics before I kind of became friends with him, started working with him.”
The two make for an odd couple, politically. Di Paolo is more conservative, List more liberal, although List admits he doesn’t follow the news as much as his fellow comic. “I’m just like, war seems bad and gays seem nice,” he says. “Those are my views. I can’t argue or debate with Nick because he’s smarter than I am and watches more news and has a lot more knowledge of things.”
List and Di Paolo do share a healthy respect for sarcasm, but List is more self-deprecating and worried (he once created a character called “The Ultimate Worrier,” a play on the pro wrestler “The Ultimate Warrior”). “My friend’s like, ‘You have anxiety? You should meditate,’ ” List once riffed. “Oh, I should sit alone in a room with nothing but my thoughts? That’s a cure for anxiety? What is your cure for my ADD? Sudoku?”
List worked as much as he could when he first got to New York, getting out every night to perform and doing 15 to 20 sets per week. He did that for years without much of a break and started to get discouraged until he got some advice from another former Boston comic, Gary Gulman. The two met to talk in fall 2012, and List admits he was angling for career help — a good word with a manager or agent.
Instead, Gulman told him to stop worrying about the industry and to focus on what he could control. Write more. Get to be as funny as you can. “I remember being almost mad at him,” says List. “Like, ‘Ugh, that’s not what I wanted. I wanted you to get me things.’ But I was like, I guess I’ll try that. And it completely changed everything.”
Last June, List finally caught his TV break when he made his debut on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” It had been a dream of his since before he told his first joke on a professional stage. He says he felt like the ’04 Red Sox, a lovable loser who had finally won. He calls it “the highlight of my career, and probably my life to this point.”
The positives are accumulating for List. He also cohosts the “Tuesdays With Stories” podcast with comedian Mark Normand, something he hopes keeps him in people’s minds between gigs. “Years ago they’d come see you, and then you’d be like, ‘All right, I’ll see you in a year and a half. Keep an eye out for me.’ But now they can see you and go, ‘Boy, we loved you,’ and you can go, ‘I have a podcast,’ and they can hear you for an hour every single week. You’re part of that person’s life.”
What will it all add up to? List knows he can’t predict that. “It definitely feels like I’m in a good spot right now,” he says. “It could be a really good spot. We’ll see.”
At: Royale, 279 Tremont St., Boston, Wednesday.
Tickets: Free, RSVP at www.theblacklistnyc.com/ccboston