Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Boston Comedy Interview: MC Mr Napkins

Zach Sherwin's MC Mr. Napkins
The Album
Boston fans of MC Mr. Napkins, a.k.a. Zach Sherwin, have seemingly been waiting forever for his debut album. Sherwin already had enough hip-hop comedy in his repertoire to fill an album or two when he left Boston for Los Angeles in 2009. It finally happened when MC Mr. Napkins - The Album came out in November on Comedy Central Records. You can see the first couple of videos from the album over at Napkins' page on

Sherwin was back in Boston playing his CD release party on New Year's Day, and he's at the Women In Comedy Festival tonight at ImprovBoston. I spoke with him by phone while he was on the road last week.

How has the first year in Los Angeles been? Is it basically what you expected?

Yeah, it was a fascinating year, man. A lot of really good stuff happened. First of all, it was so exciting to switch things up from Boston. I love Boston so much, and I’ve actually been really fortunate and gotten to go back a lot. This year especially. But I’d just been there for, like, twelve years, so to make such a huge move and be all the way across the country, it was great to do something that dramatic. So on just a very basic level, that was really good.

And in terms of career advancement, it was really an exciting year. I started setting up roots in the L.A. comedy community. My album finally came out. I had my first TV appearance. I did this talking head thing on E!, the E! Entertainment Network, not the club drug. I made a couple of music videos, the first legit productions I had made. I got accepted to the college conference. So it was a really cool year. A lot of really cool stuff happened.

How did you get involved with the Women In Comedy Festival?

You now, I’ve been doing all these shows on the East Coast and I’m around Boston a lot, a d I was hanging out backstage at IB with Michelle Barbera, and she was like, hey, if you’re going to be around during this time, you should come do the festival. And as it turns out, I have three college gigs on my books that weekend. I’m actually going to be doing a college show and then zipping off for my set on the Thursday night at the fest, which is going to be really fun.

That sounds like a whirlwind schedule.

Yeah, it’s going to be fun. And can I say this? Micah Sherman and I wrote a really funny song we’re going to be debuting at the Festival and I’m really excited to perform it.

What’s the gist of it?

It is a parody. This is our second parody of a 1990s hit urban music song. Our first one is a “Regulators” parody. This one is a parody of “This Is How We Do It” by Montel Jordan.

Is this something you’ve recorded or done a video for yet, or is it brand new?

At this point it’s just me and Micah. It’s been really fun. I’ve never collaborated with anybody like this. But Micah and I would just write a draft and then send it via e-mail to the other one, and the other guy would make a pass at revising it and send it back. We probably have five or six drafts back and forth over the space of a couple of weeks. It was really fun and I’m really excited to see how it goes. At this point it’s just going to be a live thing that we’ll get to three or four times over the course of the many shows that will be happening during that time.

Are you going to have time to visit your old haunts or see any of your friends while you’re here?

I don’t know, and I’m actually going to pop down to New York during part of it. Some of my best friends in the world – I should say, some of my best non-comedy friends in the world are people who reside in Massachusetts. And of course I suspend the requirements of living and normal lifing to see those people when I get a chance to see them. The great thing about it is, since I’ve been doing so much comedy in the past few years, my closest friends are other comedians, and hanging out at shows is a legit way to get to see those people. So coming back to Boston, it’s like the epicenter of my comfort bubble. It’s so warm and fuzzy to be back there. I look forward to it for weeks and weeks.

How was the Passim release show?

It was phenomenal. It was great. A bunch of comics did sets. People didn’t do other things so they could be there for that show and traveled from far and wide. I hope it becomes a yearly tradition. It’s always packed, and it’s a super-supportive crowd. That place is great. They have a terrific sound system.

For those unfamiliar with the story, why did it take so long for the album to finally get released? I know it had been mostly done before you even left for Los Angeles.

It was in production forever. I remember telling you about it when I found out about the deal, and that would have been summer of 2009. The release date was November 2010. Why did it take so long? I don’t know that there’s any one answer to that question. There were a few reasons. One is that, as opposed to just an album where a stand-up goes onstage with a mic, does three or four shows and then kind of supervises the editing but it’s mostly done by a sound editor, this was like a studio album. There was a lot of back-and-forth with my DJ. Even though it was already all recorded by the time I left for Las Angeles.

I actually did record it in the last days of my Boston residency. Even though we knew it would exist as of the summer of 2009, there was still a lot of work that needed to be done. So probably five months to get all the recording set up. There was a lot of pre-production that needed to be done with the music. And then recording was only about a week. From there, my DJ needed time to mix it all down. Working on my album was not his full-time job. Scheduling was crazy with that. There were a lot of parties – there was me and my DJ and my management and Comedy Central. I don’t know. But I would say it was only about a year from the announcement to knowing when the release date was. Boy was that not a concise answer.

You had some hurdles to clear with getting permission for music and such, right?

That was occurring at the same time all this stuff was going on. Starting early in 2009, my DJ and I started figuring out what the nuts and bolts of our arrangement were going to be. That took forever. We had a very lengthy process where we were all lawyered up and we were back-and-forthing percentage points and all that. It was complicated. I’m glad we did it, because now when things come up it’s very easy for us to figure out how it should fit.

How does that relationship work as far as writing? How much of what we hear onstage is you and how much is your DJ?

The beats are a hundred percent my DJ. Not a hundred percent… When I was in Boston, I would come in with ideas for melodies and he would craft beats in a tailor-made way to fit the melodies. But I haven’t replaced him with someone in California that I’m working with exclusively or anything. So while we’re doing it remotely, he’ll just send me batches of beats and I’ll pick out the ones that I like and write to them. And then I’ll do little crude arrangements of them in Garage Band and send them back to him and he’ll make a higher-quality version of it tailored to my arrangement. And then I’ll go on with that.

Is there anything on the album that people who knew you from Boston might now be quite so familiar with?

There’s stuff that I almost never perform. I’m thinking of stuff like “Flora Fauna.” And there’s two songs that I wrote after I had gotten to Los Angeles that I certainly performed in Boston numerous times. “Geography Trivia” and “F-Bomb” are both things that I wrote early in 2010. Those are live tracks. We didn’t record them in a studio, we just taped a live show in a great little comedy theatre in Santa Monica that I like to perform at. I definitely don’t have the material to record a second album or anything, but I’ve got a good start going.

Will we hear any of those news songs at the Women In Comedy Festival?

Absolutely. I hate performing old songs for people who have seen them before. It is so uncomfortable for me. I’m hoping to have a ton of new material.

In Los Angeles, are you feeling any pressure to perform traditional stand-up and not do the music as much?

Great question. I have been writing more traditional stand-up. For the E! celebrity zinger show that I did, that was just writing very straightforward… they gave me a list of fifty celebrity moments they wanted me to write one-liners about. There was zero hip-hop chops involved in doing that. Which was really fun to find out that I could do. It was fun to do that for the first time and get it on TV. That’s a cool way for that to go.

I don’t know that there’s any pressure to write more traditional stand-up, but I’m doing all these college shows, and they’re an hour long. And it’s just not acceptable from a performer or audience standpoint to just get up onstage and spew out an hour of hip-hop where I finish the song, say “thank you,” and then say, “DJ, drop the beat.” So I’ve been working on writing more jokes or stories or even just things to say between songs. And that’s been really great. I love having that hour playground of a college show where there aren’t really industry eyes on you. Those are really safe havens for me to play around with telling stories and doing crowd work. I don’t feel comfortable doing that in the comparatively exposure-[driven] world of Los Angeles. Writing stand-up is super gratifying, and knowing that I have the raps to go to, it’s just being able to do another thing, which I think as a performer you always want to welcome in.

How comfortable are you with that? It sounds like a process you enjoy. Is it something you think you could fill a whole show with if you needed to?

How long a show? Like an hour?

Well, do you think you’ll ever get to a point where you’ll do a full headlining set without using a song?

God, that would be really cool just to be able to do. A lot of my material is about rap. At least at this point, it’s sort of like a bridge phase where I’m telling stories about things that have to do with rap stuff. Well, that’s actually not overwhelmingly true. I’m starting to expand the subjects a little bit. I just did a show in Los Angeles where I was like, “Okay, hit the beat,” and the apparatus that they had that was going to be playing my beat totally shit the bed. I had to just go and tell jokes, and to my pleasant surprise, I did eight or nine minutes of just stand-up and it went great.

It wasn’t like a “prove yourself” comedy club crowd, it was a friendly hipster audience. But it was awesome and super-exhilarating. The people who run the show were looking kind of panicked because they know I’m a musical act, and I was like “It’s okay, it’s okay.” And I just did a stand-up set and it was fun. It went well. And afterwards I thought, wow, that just happened.

To answer your question, I would love to have that much stand-up material. In a show where I’m doing raps and stand-up, it’s great to have more material that you can use in an hour. If I had an hour of stand-up, I would have so much material to have at my beck and call. I hope it does happen. It would be cool to start doing that.

Obviously, the focus is on the music. That’s what you’re known for, so you wouldn’t want to diverge from that too much, I would think.

No, but on the other hand, I’ve been starting to take a long view. I’m not going to be able to be an informed, young comedy rapper for twenty more years or twenty-five more years. And even if I could, I don’t know that I’ll want to be. I love hip-hop music. It’s the artform I was into before I was into comedy. But it seems advisable to develop more tools in my toolbelt, like being able to write for TV, and being able to write scripts, and just branching out a little bit. I at least want to try to be able to do that stuff before I decide that it’s not for me. So yeah, I’m not going to stop writing hip-hop songs, it’s the thing that I do, and the reason I’m doing this. Doing jokes is a new thing, and that variety and novelty are great. It’s really refreshing artistically and creatively. To succeed telling a story that has no hip-hop to it, it’s just exhilarating. I’m familiar with having good sets with songs, so to have more stand-up is very rewarding.

Do you get vastly different audiences in Los Angeles than you would at, say, The Comdy Studio here?

I think the Comedy Studio audiences are pretty unique and special. There is one venue out in LA that I think is kind of comparable, the West Side Comedy Theatre. It’s like a cross between The Comedy Studio and ImprovBoston. It is an improv theatre. It’s smart and friendly and community-oriented. They give me a lot of stage time. It feels like my home, my comfort zone in LA.

I think the audiences at the Comedy Store or the Laugh Factory or the Hollywoon Improv – they’re good. They’re comedy club audiences. They pay a lot and they have to buy drinks and they want you to do a good show. And then I have this cool little hipster room going in Echo Park where there’s always people there to see comedy, there’s always a bunch of people who don’t know there’s going to be comedy in the middle of Sunday night dinner and drinks at this place. And they’re also really cool. So I don’t think the crowds are awful or way less receptive to performance or all jaded by the industry. The people I’m performing are aren’t.

What’s next for you when you get back to LA?

When I get back to LA, I’m working on a bunch of videos that I’ll be putting up on the Internet. I’m doing some really cool collaborations with some friends who live in Los Angeles who are doing cool stuff. I’m really excited to keep the tour stuff going as much as possible. I’ll be doing more live dates around the country. I love traveling. It’s so invigorating. It gets me in a good place creatively. I’m hoping to do more stuff like the talking heads thing I did. It was so fun and such a cool, different thing to do. And I write every day, man. I’m just trying to get as much music and material out there as possible. That engine is cooking, too.

Women In Comedy Festival - Musical Comedy Royalty: 10PM, $12. Mainstage. With MC Mr. Napkins, The Micah Myq Club, and The Princess of Parodies - Traci Kanaan. ImprovBoston, 40 Prospect Street, Cambridge, Ma, 02139. 617-576-1253

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