Mike Finoia, Live in Burlington
Mike Finoia is a New York-based comedian and writer for truTV’s Impractical Jokers. On Friday, Nov. 11 and Saturday, Nov.12, he recorded his first album live from the Vermont Comedy Club, using all local elements in the production. Friday afternoon, before his first show, we got a chance to interview him about his comedy career and upcoming recording.
How did you first get into comedy?
Mike(M): I grew up around comedy. I have a very hilarious family. My father and my grandfather are both very funny but in different ways. My dad’s very analogous and he’s kind of slick with words and my grandfather is just a clown—I mean not really a clown; he was an iron worker— but he’s a hilarious guy.
And I grew up watching Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, Benny Hill, all that funny stuff, The Odd Couple. I always knew it was something I wanted to do and I tried it, I went onstage at Carolines on Broadway in New York, it was a little writers’ workshop they had, and I got off stage a different person. I realized that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. It was funny, I actually told my wife today that after 30 years, when you finally realize what you want to do with your life and you decent at it, it feels good. This has been seven years of painful bliss, is what I like to call it. [Comedy’s] not easy; being on stage is the easy part.
What were you doing before you started comedy?
M: I did sales for quite a while. I’ve done quite a few jobs. I’ve landscaped. I was a tutor, did a lot of different things, but predominantly sales was my big career. Sales is something that is very similar to stand-up because you have to have faith in what you’re saying, and I think right away you need to be liked and trusted in order to captivate your audience. The only difference, I’m doing [stand-up] for me and not some corporation. It was a real breath of fresh air to get into comedy and spend my hours thinking and writing about stuff that I cared about and not some quota.
Why did you decide to record your first album in Burlington?
M: Well, I’ve always been a huge fan of the city Burlington. I started coming to Vermont when I was in elementary school with my friend that I grew up with. We used to go up to the Northeast Kingdom to help with his grandmother’s annual flea market, and I fell in love with the state then. Then right before college, we looked at a bunch of different schools in Vermont and we came through Burlington and it was really just an amazing place. It always caught me as a plays where people were smart and fun and knew how to have a good time. I’m also an enormous Phish fan, so kind of coming to the promised land up here was something that we did all the time, just to be around kindred spirits I guess.
Nathan and Natalie, who own the Vermont Comedy Club, and I became good friends about five years ago, and when it became time to perform here last year, I just fell in love with the club. I think it’s perfect for a recording. It’s a nice tight room, not a lotta ancillary bar noise and, you know, things like that. It’s very separate and sound proof and I thought no better place to [record an album] than a city that’s given me such a good time for over half my life.
How did you come up with the idea to use all local elements for your album recording?
M: So, you know it’s a just a thought that I had with life in general. We always have such great resources right at our fingertips, and yet everyone seems to just go the easy way and google “best audio recording in New York City” or “best artist in New York.” I thought, you know Burlington is such a talented place. There’s so many great people and such great art, why not utilize the resources that are at our disposal there. For me I feel that when you go to a city and you eat local, you shop local, you listen to local music, you drink a local beer, there’s something about the aesthetic and the craft that went into that. I really thought, why would I do anything else?
You know I had the chance to work with an artist named Bruno Tracy, and I gave him an idea for the poster. I said, “I just want to use a maple syrup bottle that kinds of human and bring in the lake monster and a map of the city.” He said, “I got it. I got it,” and just went with it. What he came up with was amazing. If I said that to an artist in New Jersey or Connecticut or New York, they don’t know Burlington like Bruno does. I just thought it would be a good way to say thank you to the city for having me.
I hope that the folks that buy tickets and come to the show will feel good that’s they’re giving back to local business. It’s not just going to some New York comic. It’s going right back into the pockets of folks that are their neighbors.
What kind of preparation goes into recording an album?
M: It’s interesting you say that because right now, I’m surrounded by three notebooks. My notes look like I’m a football coach and I’m planning a trick play. I’m always scratching stuff out and circling things and moving it from left to right. Really it’s about the flow of the set. I tend to be a thematic comic where, you know, if I’m talking about the legalization of marijuana per say, I’m going to do a chunk about that and I’d like it to flow concurrently into the next section instead of it being all choppy and all over the place.
So really, what I like to do is take a look at what I think would draw the crowds interest right away and let them know a little but about me and my position without being extremely first person. Like I don’t need to keep saying “I this” and “I that.” I’d rather just through my reactions to the topics I talk about get the crowd to like me and trust me to go along on the ride for the next hour or so.
I’m recording all four shows and my plan is to use one as the main album, but I like recording all of them, because I may think of something off the cuff or we may have a back and forth with the crowd that goes great. Also someone may drop a tray of drinks you never know. It’s always nice to kind of have backup, you know?
For your performances, about how much is pre-written and practiced, and how much is improv, off-the-cuff?
M: I always welcome a good interaction with the crowd. I’m not one of those insult crowd comics. I love to have a conversation with folks, so the way I design my set is to leave room for open-ended conversation. But, I always have some idea of where it’s gonna end up. Part of that, and I’ve learned this just through doing it, comes with maturity. It comes with practice in this art, because in the beginning when you get on stage, you just want to remember your jokes and you just want…
A moment, a second of silence is the scariest thing when you’re just starting out, but I like that now. I like to know that there’s some thought going on in the room and that we’re all kind of in this together and that’s never going to happen again so let’s just enjoy this night and challenge ourselves a little I’m not scared of silence anymore and I really enjoy putting out a headier topic than just your kind of what’s the deal with airline peanuts kind of thing.
As you're testing out your jokes, how do you tell if something works?
M: Really, it’s how I feel about it to be honest. There’s times when a joke will absolutely…bomb and you know that there’s something funny there. It’s just the mathematics or the equation that developed, the words that I chose, and something’s there. Something’s worth being worked on. You try that joke a couple more times and tinker with the words and finally get to the pop.
Then there are times where you can tell a joke that you’re kind of bored with, but with the same energy of you just thought of it right now and it’ll kill. It will do great. So, I think it’s having confidence and enthusiasm what you say.
You've traveled to a decent amount of places doing comedy. What's you favorite place that you've been to?
M: You mean other than Burlington, Vermont? I mean, I had the honor of working at one of the greats, maybe the greatest comedy club in the country, the Comedy Cellar in New York City. It’s legendary; it was a true honor to work side by side with some of my heroes. But, outside of New York City, Washington D.C., is a great place to do stand-up. San Francisco, Chicago Illinois, is yet again another beautiful place. Now, my prerequisite here is you know the club, the staff. If the staff loves comedy that’s so important. It’s always nice to hear someone who’s heard your set for a week still laughing at your jokes.
I’m also a writer for Impractical Jokers, the T.V. show on truTV, and the guys on the show go on tour and I open up for them on their national theater tour, so a couple of weeks out of the year I get the chance to perform at theaters of five to six thousand people, and I’m only doing a quick 15 minutes up front, but man I’ll tell you nothing feels better than getting up in front of literally thousands of people laughing at your thoughts and I’m forever grateful to those guys for bringing me with them, but it’s a whole nother ball game.
Do you have anything else to add?
M: Just please support live comedy. Burlington has an incredible scene of very, very funny people and you have a club owner that nurtures young talent. So, whether it’s an open mic night or a contest or whatever, don’t wait for the national headliners to come in. get out and support your local comics!