If you’re seeing stand-up comedian Ryan Hamilton, you’re likely taken back by his friendly demeanor. The Midwesterner has a 60 watt smile, a lanky frame in a fine suit and a care-free attitude that reads as both open, yet self-aware. It’s both disarming and suspicious at the same time. And Ryan seems to know that.
“Where do you want to begin, should we start with my face?” the funny man asks in his 2017 Netflix Original Comedy Special Happy Face. “I look really happy all the time and I don’t feel like this – I feel OK, but I look crazy happy. I don’t even buy it.”
Reflecting on the seemingly obvious observation about his own appearance, Hamilton opens a door into the interior of crafting a calling card bit. “I’ve been opening with some version of “my face” my entire career,” he seems to realize. “I don’t know where it came from. It was one of those things where the audience told ME. I think I used to have a joke where I said: I look like a white Chris Rock, and then it just kinda morphed.”
The goal of any new comedian is name recognition, or barring that – face recognition. After all, entertainment is littered with ever employed THAT guys. “For a lot comics it’s an easy good way to start a show, because people are kinda always sizing you up,” Hamilton sums up. “If you can ever address what somebody is thinking and often that’s about our appearance in some way. A lot of comics have a joke about this is what I look like. That one really stuck for me. It became sort of the title of the special, but I hear that a lot from people. I didn’t know what to expect, but with in the first 30 seconds I was off and ready to go. I loved that, yeah.”
The audience, Hamilton reveals, has a much larger hand in what your act becomes that many likely believe. “Stand up is something that is refined over time,” he posits. “You talk about it, you keep what you like, throw it out. Stand up is a lot of editing, to be honest. At least, my process is. Sometimes you have things you expect to like to explore, but it’s the audience that tells you what you’re going to work on.”
The Idaho native never expected comedy to be his job, but he’s always been drawn to it. “You’re fascinated somehow, and then you just start getting on stage. Its almost like you can’t NOT get on stage. First time I ever got on stage was in college. I was a journalism major, had a little radio show, and I started doing stand up for my radio show, a few of us were interested in comedy. That was the very first time I ever did it. I was a student of radio, and I didn’t know what I was doing. It was all an experiment to me, to be honest. Then I didn’t touch it for a while.”
“I never thought of it as a profession,” the 42-year old is keen to highlight. “I was working and not happy with what I was doing, but my entire goal was to become a local emcee host. I thought that would be fun to do. But then I lost my job and was looking for another one and I got offered paid comedy work to go on the road, and do one-nighters in bars all over the north west, Montana and very remote, rural places that had comedy once a month or once a week. I got offered those, kept doing them and then I got a job as a parking valet to supplement things. Then I thought: what if I just try comedy for a year and see what happens? I had nothing to lose and I’d always loved it. Maybe its where I came from, but I just didn’t know anyone who went into show business. I never thought of it like that.”
But after making the move to the Big Apple, Hamilton’s knack for witty observations entered the next level. “I had a couple of television spots and my first TV spot was actually taped in New York, and I had hardly ever performed on the east coast at all. But I did this Comedy Central spot and I just became fascinated with the city. I always thought if I don’t do New York now, I’ll never have a New York experience in my life. So I moved and 3-4 years later, I was terrified and frustrated still – then a few years later, I loved it. Now I don’t want to be anywhere else. I did know even then that New York was a better place if stand-up comedy is your primary thing — there’s a lot of stages and the comics there are the best anywhere. Just being on shows with these people elevates you automatically. It pushes you. You can do a lot of spots, its true. There are so many clubs and you can just hop in a cab or a train and hit another club. Now, its hard to get into the clubs – I don’t want to paint the picture that you just show up and get stage time. Like even as someone with a few TV credits, it was harder than I anticipated actually. But the opportunity is there.”
In fact, Hamilton has accrued a few famous admirers while in the city. “Amy Schumer and I did our first TV spot together, actually. After she came right up to me and told me to move here. She said we’re gonna get a place! We never got an apartment together, but she looked out for me.”
Another supporter? Jerry Seinfeld. “Opening for Jerry has been great, he’s so generous and so kind and he’s become a little bit of a mentor for me. It’s a newer relationship, I’ve only known him for maybe a year and we’ve been on the road seven or eight times, it’s been great. He loves to talk comedy, and we have that, you know? It’s easy to form a relationship on love for comedy, because it trumps all. He saw me opening for a friend of his, [stand-up comic] Gad Elmaleh. Gad had me open for him at Carnegie Hall, and Jerry was there. I came off-stage and he was standing there, I couldn’t believe it. And we watched Gad’s set together. We were able to keep in touch a little bit, and eventually he asked me if I could go on the road with him.”
Just as he does on his Netflix series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the master of nothing loves to gab about the craft of making people laugh. “We go on the road for days and comedy is all we talk about! I love it. His passion for this is real, and that’s why he continues to do this. Its how he likes to spend his time. He enjoys working and really loves the whole process. From the travel to the show to the writing to the collaboration, he loves all of it. I watch every show [of Jerry’s]. We work on stuff. I’ve learned a lot from him. The way he respects the show, and respects the audience. How tight every bit is. The little nuances are what I’ve keyed in on. I’ve learned to really put a lot into my own act just from watching him. Because it’s all important to him. And it shows when you watch him perform. This guy is not just a great writer and has a great comic mind, he uses all the tools he’s got at his disposal. He’s physical sometimes, he’s big sometimes, he knows how to connect with an audience and the timing and the flow of the show. He’s a master. And He still writes every day!”
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With his 2017 debut special available to view on Netflix, the 6-foot-tall comedian has been going through a necessary (but difficult) transition of material. “I had been waiting to record a long time, actually. It’s not easy to get these one-hour specials opportunities, so I had put off options to do a half hour specials or an album because I felt like I wanted this to be presented as a one hour special captured in video. That’s what I was waiting for.”
While difficult to give up 60 minutes of battle tested gold, Hamilton is glad to see it find so many new fans via the streaming giant. “It’s stuff I’ve been working on my entire career, there might be jokes in there that are seven or eight years old. I’m OK with that, that was the plan. All that material takes time. There are also jokes in there that are five months old, probably. At the time, my strategy was I’m gonna put everything I have in this special to make it the best I possibly can. That’s what I did. I didn’t think how old or new, I thought this is the best at this moment that I have. I think people would be interested to learn how old some material is, especially on a first special. And after that, there is this demand for a special every year or two. So we’re doing things quicker than we used to. I would rather wait and have the right thing, than put a lot out there and see what sticks.”
Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 14, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. on Friday, June 15, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 18 and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 19 at Houston Improv on 7620 Katy Freeway. For information, call 713-333-8800 or visit improvhouston.com. $20-30.