While Jamiroquai’s Travelling Without Moving album plays in the background, Sean Patton sits in the rear courtyard of New Orleans’ Hi Ho Lounge enjoying a pre-show Cuban sandwich from a local pop-up kitchen. “I think, without a doubt, that New Orleans is one of the best places in the country to perform because the city has more of a pirate feel to it than it ever has. A kind of swashbuckler feel. I think to live your life successfully as a swashbuckler there’s a certain amount of intelligence you have to possess. Not book intelligence, but street intelligence. That’s a far more fun intelligence to deal with. You have audiences full of intelligent swashbucklers. You can’t ask for a better crowd.”
Patton got his start in New Orleans before moving to NYC, where he worked his way up the scene, earning appearances on Comedy Central, Conan, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and a slew of festivals. He’s learned a lot from his past (“I prefer to be stone cold sober onstage”) and has big plans for the future (filming a one-hour special, writing a TV show, taking his one-man show overseas). I talked to Patton about his comedy influences, the value of hack comics and his plans for 2016.
Isaac Kozell: Do you mess with psychedelics?
Sean Patton: I personally do not. I learned that my brain is not hardwired for psychedelics. I don’t even smoke weed anymore. But I think you would be hard pressed to find a more pro-marijuana activist … not activist. I hate when people say activist when what they mean is that they just agree with it. But I love marijuana. I love the effects of it on other people. I love the benefits of it. I just personally don’t partake. But I love being around people who are high.
IK: Did you ever experiment with it in comedy to see how it affects you onstage? Or do you have a go-to now, like a particular drink you enjoy before you go up?
SP: I’ve been high on stage before, certainly. I remember one time it going very poorly. I was too high to keep a thought. I thought the audience would just be amused at how high I was, but they were like, “Nah. Not that amusing, bud.” Lately I prefer to be stone cold sober onstage. Getting fucked up is great. We all do it. But at the same time, the places you can get to in your mind when sober, the pathways are deeper. I’ve had moments where I’ve written entire bits onstage where I think if I were drunk or augmented in any way I wouldn’t have gone there.
IK: When you first started, who did you emulate, if anyone? Most comics jump in and start imitating their favorites. For me it was Mitch Hedberg. I loved his style. I just started out trying to fill four minute sets with one-liners, before realizing that it’s not sustainable for what I wanted to be. I had to move out of it. Who were your comics that you modeled your style after when you first started?
SP: It’s crazy to say this out loud because it seems like such a fanboy thing to say, but I’ve been a Louis CK fan since 1995, only because when I was 16 I saw a young comedians special from Aspen. It was hosted by Gary Shandling and had Dave Attell, Dave Chappelle and Louis CK. I remember seeing him and being like, “Oh, this guy is funny.” Same thing for Dave Chappelle and Dave Attell. But I really latched on to Louis. It wasn’t for another 11 years that he started to blow up. I feel like there’s a formulaic origin story that a lot of comedians say – not because it’s not true – but a lot of comedians will be like, “I loved late night from when I was 10. I used to stay up and watch Letterman and Conan. Oh, man, Seinfeld. I used to go home and watch Seinfeld episodes.” If that’s your origin story, great. For me, I didn’t give a shit about stand-up growing up. I loved humor, but in the early ‘90s there was a lot of shit on TV that didn’t speak to me. The first thing that did was Mr. Show. I saw that because I was grounded on Friday night. I still remember the fucking sketch. It was the one where they cut to the prophet who was fasting and he gets up to say a few words but he can’t stop saying, “I’m so hungry.” I remember thinking that was hilarious. But the first stand-up that really made me want to be a stand-up was Sarah Silverman. She played a version of herself on The Larry Sanders Show. She played a writer on the show who eventually got to do a stand-up set. I remember kind of taking the journey with her over that episode. Her preparing to do the set and then actually doing it. I really fucking connected to it.
IK: This was before you ever did stand-up?
SP: Way before. I think I was 17 or 18 when I saw that episode. I felt that desire to create something that people could laugh at. They actually showed her set and I was like, “This is fucking funny.” It wasn’t Paula Poundstone or Richard Lewis. Those were the comics I remember from my early days. Lots of sportcoats and references to being Jewish. A lot of things that just didn’t connect with me. But with her I was just … I really felt it. But by the time I started doing comedy I would honestly say that I was emulating Sam Kinison. I was louder and more aggressive onstage, not because I thought louder was funnier. I just thought louder moved more. It was all about the energy. I believe that 100%. I mean, you’ve got to write great jokes, but I believe that writing and performance are on par. I’ve seen it go both ways. Certain comedians out there are very popular, but they don’t have good writing ability. They can perform though.
IK: One that I always go to is Kevin Hart. When someone says they love Kevin Hart I ask what their favorite Kevin Hart joke is. They usually can’t recite a joke. But they love his presence and energy. They feel good after watching him perform.
SP: And I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve seen hilarious, great joke writers get onstage and fail to capture anyone’s imagination with just verbal regurgitation. You’ve got to find that balance. For me, I never wanted the audience to get bored. When I first started I would be loud and would move around, which is kind of my natural presence. With time, I realized that I was doing that too much. I was forcing myself to move around and be loud because I thought I was losing them. But I just had to take what I was saying up to a higher level and then take how I was saying it down a notch or two to find the balance. You will always be fucking with that balance. If you’re a guitar player you’re always going to fuck with the levels. You’re always going to fuck with distortion versus wah-wah. That shows you how much I know about guitars.
IK: The only two pedals out there.
SP: It’s distortion or wah-wah.
IK: Do you feel like you’ve finally found your voice?
SP: I feel like I’ve found my voice, but I haven’t captured it. My voice is this wild animal. I know what it is. I know where it roams. We’re friendly with one another. But sometimes it takes off and I don’t see it for a couple of minutes, which I actually like because I feel like if you capture your voice, lock it away and only show it to people when they’re paying to see it it’s going to become … not hacky, but it’s going to get dull. But if you let your voice get free, knowing that some days it’s going to get away from you and you’re not going to know where it is, when you find it it’s going to be stronger.
IK: How do you define “hack?”
SP: Unadventurous and safe.
IK: It sucks when hacks crush.
SP: But you’ll notice it’s in hack audience situations. I’ll put that on the audience as well. I’m sure there are lots of people in their mid-thirties who live in a condo in the suburbs, with two kids they thought they had to pop out, who think that Bud Light and Budweiser are the extent of the beers out there, who only get out once a month and haven’t read a book in 10 years. I’m sure they’re nice people, but when they’re at comedy night in a sports bar or Friday night at the Arlington Improv, that’s a hack audience. Let the hacks have them.
IK: Is there room for hacks in comedy?
SP: Obviously. The days of the comedic superstar are over. Society is too aware of comedy now. You can’t have a Chris Rock anymore. Some people will say Kevin Hart did it. But like you were saying earlier, ask someone to tell you a Kevin Hart bit. I get it. Maybe Kevin Hart has sold out more arenas than Chris Rock, but in the whole comedy zeitgeist, Chris Rock is a fucking superstar. I think most people our age could quote Bring the Pain, especially the more controversial bits. But even guys like Aziz … to us, Aziz is huge. But he’s a lofthold name, not a household name. Hannibal is an apartmenthold name. Now it’s all about finding a niche. Let the hacks exist because they keep the hack audiences away.
IK: We just celebrated New Year’s. Do you make resolutions?
SP: I just made one today to record and listen to every set starting tonight. This is my first set of the year tonight. I feel like an idiot. I’ve seen people do it for years. I was always like, “Ah, I hate the sound of my voice.” But I did it recently while I was working on my solo show and it’s insane how much it helps. Health-wise, as I sit here shoveling pork shoulder into my face, it’s impossible for me to be healthy in New Orleans. Too much delicious food, too much fun drinking to do, too much debauchery. So thankfully, I don’t live here. I leave tomorrow and when I do, I’m going to eat more green stuff, drink less beer, watch myself. When I come back, fuck that. It’s all about moderation.
IK: Your album Standard Operating Procedure came out in 2012. Are you working on a new album or full-length special soon?
SP: What I’m trying to do is make my first hour special happen this year. I want to do it independently. I want it to look and feel a certain way. I want it to be shot here. In a perfect world I’m shooting in March and releasing it later this year. I’m also continuing to work on this solo show, which I’m going overseas with hopefully this year. This year I just want to perform more and see more places, like Humboldt. I feel like we’re in an era where comedy shows are becoming more artisanal, if that’s the word. It’s less big clubs/big venues and more small shows/more venues. I just want to get out there and do it.