Interview With Comedian Mark Chalifoux
Comedian, and Cincinnati native, Mark Chalifoux, recently provided UC Clermont students, faculty, and staff with a virtual Comic Relief Happy Hour. The event was held on March 3rd and benefitted the UC Clermont Food Pantry. After cutting his teeth in the New York City comedy scene, Chalifoux has released an acclaimed comedy album, “Think Fast,” and continues to tour around the country while also providing digital content on his social media platforms. Before the Comic Relief event, our own Shannon Wells spoke to Chalifoux virtually, where they discussed his advice for young comedians, his previous job experience, the pandemic, and more.
Shannon Wells: What advice do you have for students aspiring to be standup comedians and journalists?
Mark Chalifoux: My advice would probably be the same, which is just get as much experience as you can. With journalism, you’re doing a lot for free. Writing for the school paper is a great experience, but you might also be trying to pitch articles to other local media outlets, trying to get experience with them, to try and learn. They are both things that you have to learn by doing.
With stand up comedy, it’s getting on stage as much as possible and lots of different rooms. When I lived in New York, I would do shows for students, I would do shows for tourists, I would do shows for locals, and I would try and get in all of these different pockets. That’s how you can get to the most universal jokes that everybody appreciates and all of the crowds will like.
Similarly, when I worked in media, it was a lot of writing for free, at first. But, that made me a lot better. It gave me a lot of experience and connections with other people so you can start getting paying gigs and different styles of writing – it’s just “do it all.” If you wait for somebody to give you permission to do it, you’ll be waiting a long time because there’s a lot of people that want to be journalists. There’s a lot of people that want to be comedians. If it’s something you’re passionate about you kind of just have to lean into that and do it as much as you can and you’ll breakthrough that way.”
Wells: How have you incorporated your method of writing with your previous employers and your writing position at “The Dad” into your comedy routine?
Chalifoux: I would say comedy is a lot about writing. Just like newspaper writing, it’s all about editing, you’re always trying to take an idea and distill it into the most impactful sentence. Or you’re trying to take a lot of interviews, different resources, and condense them into one article. So, comedy is not so different in that I start with a joke idea, a story. I’m trying to do the same thing where I cut it into the most impactful way to say it. The only difference is that I end with a punchline. Newspapers have a lot of facts and quotes. I’m doing the same thing of taking a lot of stuff and trying to edit it down to where I can communicate the thought, and then, for me, just have a laugh at the end of it. So, I think having that media experience trained me well to be a comedy writer.
Now that I’m writing jokes for “The Dad” on Instagram and Facebook. It’s a parenting brand, so it’s a lot of crossovers, anyway, because I have some jokes in my standup act about having kids and a family. But, there are a lot of jokes, too, that I don’t want to do on stage that would be perfect for them on Instagram and stuff because it’s for a little more targeted audience than my stand-up act. So, it’s nice to have another outlet and still work on those joke writing skills, but in a different medium. You know they are not on stage jokes, they’re Instagram jokes or Facebook jokes. So, it’s good to try different types of writing, just like working at a newspaper. iIt’s good to do Q and A’s, it’s good to do research pieces. It’s good to try column writing. They are all different writing muscles and I think they all kind of make me a better performer and a better comedian.
Wells: Who are the current and past comedians whose style intrigued you and in what ways?
Chalifoux: I would say I’ve been influenced by a number of comedians. I’ve lived in New York for four years, and I was exposed to some of the best comedians. At one of the first big club shows that I did Dave Chappelle dropped in to close out the show, so getting to work with him made me a big fan of his style. For better or for worse, at times, he’s just honest and authentic to himself, and that level of honesty and authenticity is something that made me really appreciate his work. John Mulaney was a big influence too. For the same reasons, seeing him around in New York a lot and just his precise writing ability was always a big influence. I was always so impressed with the way that he could take a story and make it really relatable, but also very, very funny.
Nate Bargatze is another one too who I’ve been influenced by just because he’s got more of that same topic material that I have where it’s a lot more of a midwestern base, a lot more family, you know that kind of stuff. So, I think he was a big influence, as well. Maria Bamford is another one. My style is not like hers, at all, but she’s somebody that’s so different and so wildly creative and funny that it inspires me in other ways.
Wells: What was your most productive stand-up for your career, and how did it impact your future shows?
Chalifoux: I have two moments that really stand out. The biggest one for my career was when I recorded a standup comedy album a few years ago and that was sort of the combination of ten years of hard work. It was a sold-out show, and it went really, really well. That helped boost my career by getting the other bookings and those tracks get played on satellite radio a lot. Just getting the royalty money from Sirius XM, and that sort of stuff, was a pretty big game-changer for me just financially. So, I would say that was probably the biggest for my career trajectory.
The second biggest, starting out two or three years into stand-up comedy, was when I got my first paid set at a big New York comedy club. It was my first that I was a paid regular, and that’s what set me up there to get a lot of stage time at that club. It felt like the moment that I first felt like a real comedian. This was three years into my career, but it was a big club saying “hey you are now one of our paid regulars.” It was the show that Dave Chappelle dropped in on and closed out. I got to work with a lot of people from Saturday Night Live, and people that have been on TV, and Netflix at this comedy club. So just getting those connections, and that experience in front of those crowds was huge to my early career.
Wells: When your album “Think Fast” debuted, what key aspects contributed to its success?
Chalifoux: I think what was most important for me is that I waited to release it. A lot of comics will try and record one earlier in their career when it’s not quite ready, or they’re not quite good enough at joke writing and performing. I waited until I was ten years in because I wanted it to be as good as it possibly could be. I think that helped.
I also think that honestly, probably the biggest thing was the fact that it’s pretty clean. Stylistically I’m not a dirty comedian, and when you have jokes that are clean, they can play on more of the satellite radio stations, and they get a wider exposure on like Pandora because they’re jokes that appeal to a lot more audiences. That sort of helped the reach get a little bit farther and bring some new people in that hadn’t heard me or been exposed to me before.
Wells: How did the pandemic affect your career?
Chalifoux: It affected it in a few pretty significant ways. Obviously, first of all, live touring sort of went away overnight. A lot of comedy clubs closed down and you couldn’t perform live. Then, when we did start performing live, it was a lot of outdoor and parking lot shows, so that was tough to get adjusted to. It’s just like any creative endeavor, the more you do it the better you are at it. If you do it a lot, you’re well-practiced in it. When you have to take big chunks of time off, you’re going to be a little bit rustier on stage, so I didn’t feel as sharp.
The second biggest change was finding other ways to do it. I did Zoom shows, which I’m doing today. I’ll be doing a Zoom show for the college and that can be weird, especially if the audience is muted, but you have to find other ways to connect with people. That’s also when I really ramped up writing for “The Dad.” I had been writing for them a little bit and then I leaned into that really heavily during the pandemic. That was really fun for me. I tried some new things that I hadn’t done for them before – some sketches, some Tik Tok and Instagram stuff – like making memes and things like that. Writing joke memes. That was actually a really good, positive thing for my career because it gave me another avenue – not to only practice joke writing – but to make money writing jokes, find a new audience. I feel like that has meshed really well with my standup career.
Wells: What was it like being interviewed by Channel 12?
Chalifoux: It was fine. When you’re doing shows you have to do a lot of press. Usually, it is local press and when you get to a certain level, if you’re super famous, then you can just show up in a city and everybody will come out. At my level I’ve got to do morning radio – sometimes it’s morning TV. It can be hard because some of those hosts are better than others. Some of them know how to set up a comedian to succeed on their show, laugh, and sell a joke. Some of them try and be standoffish a little bit and pretend like they’re better than the comedian. So that can be aggravating to deal with.
But with Channel 12, I don’t really get nervous for those anymore because I’ve done a lot of the morning TV in different cities. I will always like going on Channel 12, it’s my favorite one to do in Cincinnati whenever I’m doing shows locally because they have a good time. When they are enjoying what they do they’re more excited to have you on, hear what you have to say, and really set you up to succeed. So that’s one of the morning shows I always like doing.
Wells: Do you want your daughters to follow in your footsteps?
Chalifoux: I would love for them to follow in whatever creative pursuits or other pursuits that make them happiest. I don’t know that I would necessarily advise anyone to go down the standup route because it can be very challenging. There are a lot of people that want to do it and it’s hard. It’s a hard thing to get started in because there are a lot of shows that are tough. In the early days, you have to really be passionate about it. You have to really want to do it, but the same thing applies to being a writer.
I don’t know that I would necessarily advise them to go down that path unless it’s something that they really wanted to do. It is a competitive field and it’s something that you have to be passionate about, and really work at. On the flip side of that, it’s hard for me to discourage it too much because my life is making jokes. That’s how I pay my bills – which is a pretty great life.
From my standpoint, being a writer is another pretty great life. You are telling stories to the world. You’re informing the world. You’re connecting with people – helping them share their story – and that’s a pretty interesting life to me.
I have friends that have more straightforward jobs where it’s like you show up at nine, you leave at five. You punch your clock, you deal with your spreadsheets, your power points, that never appealed to me. The life of a writer always seemed way more interesting to me because you’re going out in the world and you don’t know what your day is going to look like from day to day. Same sort of thing with a comedian. I don’t necessarily know what the next few months will look like, or the next few years, because I might get a job writing for a parenting brand on Instagram and Facebook. I might get a job working on a TV show. I might do a big college tour or a bunch of corporate shows. Maybe I’ll do a lot of comedy club work, or maybe I’ll open for a more famous comedian and give a theater tour. You kind of never know where you’re going to go. You just know that it’s going to be a fun ride if you keep yourself open to it.
So, if that’s something they were passionate about, I just would want to do anything that I could to make them successful and make sure that they’re happy with whatever they go after. As long as they have anything they’re passionate about and are willing to dedicate themselves to, that’s when I’m going to be there supporting them.