Mike O’Connell sees a certain seriousness pervading the world. The sort of thing that might put a damper on your day or ruin your weekend. His advice: Laugh at it. Laughing and getting others to laugh has helped Mike O’Connell tremendously, whether it be making a joke when he didn’t know the answer in class or coming to terms with his own mortality.
Mike’s made a lot of people laugh, which has earned him the title of Rolling Stone’s Hot Comic of 2005, a spot as one of Variety’s Ten Comics to Watch in 2007, made his video What’s It Gonna Be one of the most watched on Funnyordie.com, and earned him a production deal with MTV Studios.
That Other Paper What is your earliest memory of seeing or hearing things that make you laugh?
Mike O’Connell My grandfather was a really big humor inspiration. When I was little he was just a silly, silly man. He kind of didn’t live in the adult world. He was always making me feel that it was okay to be funny; that being funny was a beautiful part of life.
TOP What do you mean by “okay to be funny”?
MO I would say that there’s a certain kind of seriousness that pervades the world. I’ve always just enjoyed people that live with a sense of humor. I know a lot of people kind of don’t and take a lot of things pretty seriously. That way of seeing the world is slightly superior. [laughs]
TOP What makes it superior?
MO I think it’s better to go through the world lightly, with the attitude that it can all be laughed at.
TOP Was your grandfather the primary influence on your comedic sensibility at a young age?
MO He kind of had a corny sense of humor. He allowed me to see the world in a silly way. Later on my parents took me to Second City – I grew up in Chicago – so I was going there for a long time, and that was a big part of my world.
TOP Seeing Second City at a young age, were you able to see some performers who were big stars?
MO I saw Chris Farley, Bob Odenkirk, Steve Carell. Those guys are obviously amazingly talented, but to see them live, from five feet away, is very inspiring.
TOP Did your parents actively bring comedy into the house?
MO There were a lot of Woody Allen books around. That was a big early inspiration. All of Woody’s writings I read very, very voraciously. They always had a good sense of humor. We all love laughing, the O’Connell’s.
TOP What were you like in school?
MO I was shy for a very long time. I never did very well in school; I was kind of a mediocre to bad student. I finally realized that having a creative mind is not in your best interest at a young age because if you’re not good at math and you’re not good at science then that looks very bad. You’re more expected to figure out what you’re good at when you’re older.
TOP You were shy in school, but what were you like amongst your friends?
MO I’ve always had a lot of energy, so I’ve always enjoyed being energetic and crazed. I was not the clown but the spaz, a little bit.
TOP At what age did people start noticing your comedic abilities?
MO I starting running for president in 8th grade, and I would write ridiculous songs to try to win the student council presidency. It worked. People starting saying, “You have the ability or the nerve to do this stupid bullshit in front of people.” I guess that’s one of the things that not everybody can do: embarrass themselves publicly.
TOP Since you were shy before then, when was it that got you to came out of your shell?
MO Around that time, 13, I realized that it’s a big benefit to be able to make people laugh. It can kind of change a situation, y’know? You can kind of disarm people. Also, once you see people laughing, it’s kind of hard to turn back. To see someone laugh really hard at what you’re doing is an addictive, beautiful thing.
TOP Was there a particular situation that made you realize this usefulness of humor?
MO In school, when you don’t know something, you can make a joke. That at least throws people off. [laughs] That happened quite often; not reading something and then trying to bullshit my way through it. You make the kids laugh. You get a reward – you still get a B. With older people, if you can make the dean laugh, that’s pretty good. It changes the relationship.
TOP Do you think that by being funny you may be counteracting a sense of inadequacy caused by a defect of self or circumstance, i.e. poverty or social ineptitude? It’s kind of a tool to make things easier to go through. Did you fine this to be your own experience?
MO It is a response to the way the world is. It can be very difficult. It can be very surreal in its punishment. It’s not about how I was neglected when I was little. I also like the creative aspect. It’s nice to create things.
TOP What did you mean when you mentioned the punishments of the world?
MO I think when everybody goes through the world, there are experiences that are strange and private and just go on in your head. Everybody thinks about the point of everything. It’s a really funny thing that we all have in common. We all go through the same thing: You have a life and you try to figure out what it’s all about.
TOP What’d you think of all the philosophy in Woody Allen’s writing?
MO Woody Allen talks about philosophical issues in a really funny way. It’s always blown my mind. I think that you can use comedy to address whatever you want. I find philosophy to be very funny. Thousands and thousands of years of philosophers have come up short. It’s ripe for parody. Plus, we can all do what they do, which is think about what life is about.
TOP Did you participate in any clubs when you were in school?
MO No, I was just doing theater stuff and playing football. Other than that, I was just sort of smoking cigarettes. [laughs] I also did do these ice shows for a couple of years, back in the day. Which was pretty awesome. It was pretty manly.
TOP You did what?
MO Ice shows. Skate dancing. Dancing on ice. I was 10 at the time. We did a Rocky-based piece. I had a big solo where I went into the middle and lifted a big weight. It really just changed my life. [laughs] If there were a tape of that I would just fall over.
TOP Was this like figure skating?
MO Kind of. They would try to make it as manly as possible. Unless we were wearing spangled outfits, which we actually did once.
TOP So they would pick different movies and make that the theme?
MO Rocky was just the one, I think. The other ones were generally a little more flamboyant in the outfit area.
TOP How long did you do this?
MO I did that for about two years. I was playing hockey, and my dad was pleased by that, but my mom was like, “They should do an ice show, too!” [laughs] Which is very logical.
TOP And how did everyone react to these performances?
MO I don’t remember much. It was like going to a Spring Sing, where everybody’s required to go and be really happy about it, even thought it’s just a bunch of kids who can’t skate lifting fake weights and wearing sweatsuits stuffed with newspaper to look like they’re bulked up.
TOP What music were you doing this to?
MO (sings) “Gettin’ strong now….” [laughs]. That one – the theme. Man, you feel like a champion when that song plays and you’re little, and the lights are on you.
TOP How did you feel about school then?
MO I loved English and reading, all that stuff. It’s great for so many reasons and terrible for so many reasons. If you have a talent for something that doesn’t fit in with schooling, I think you might feel small for those years. Especially if you don’t have a very practical talent.
TOP How did you display your eccentric behaviors?
MO I had a lot of leisure suits. My grandfather had these old velour pajamas. I would wear those to school. My parents just hated it. One time my father was scolding me for grades – he’ll hate that I said this – he’s goes, “Y’know why you get C’s? Because you dress like an idiot. That effects what people think of you, ya know that?” [laughs] “Yeah, that seems to be the case, but I got these clothes, so what am I supposed to do?”
TOP What other eccentric sort of behaviors did you exhibit?
MO I was a very excited young man. [laughs] I would take off my clothes at parties. That kinda guy.
TOP You keep referring to yourself as “that guy.” Do you think that some sort of outsiderdom, alienation, or isolation play a role in – not just your own development as a comedian – but the development of comedians in general?
MO Standup, especially. If you go deep, it is a kind of solitary endeavor. Even though the audience, of course, is so necessary. But all the work you do is in your head, so I think that if you’re doing it right, it is private. I remember somebody once said, “Oh, you’re just overthinking everything.” Yeah, I guess that is sorta true. [laughs] If you over think, you think about some of the darker stuff.
TOP What is your view on death?
MO Before you die, it’s very important to have as much joy as you can, and not be afraid to do that.
TOP Death can strike at any moment, so do you think we should always try to be joyful?
MO Yeah. That’s probably a pretty good way to live.
TOP If your death was imminent, what would you do?
MO I would probably try to write as many songs as I could. Try and be as creative as I can. I don’t think I would go to Egypt or something. I would just try and concentrate on what I have to offer to the world.
TOP What is it that you did after graduating from high school?
MO I went to Loyola of New Orleans. That was a good time. In my hometown it felt like the ’50s, almost. Safe, suburban. Then I went down to New Orleans and it was a very, very different world. That was a big eye-opener.
TOP What were some things that were different for you?
MO Well, freedom. Not like I was chained in the basement. I did live in the basement, but I was not chained there. Just the freedom to do whatever you want. The drinking age was 18. I got drunk and crazy. Culturally, it was amazing. The music and the people. The people of New Orleans are the asset of the city. I was just there a couple weeks ago, and everybody is like your neighbor. It’s something I miss.
TOP What came first for you, improv or standup comedy?
MO I was doing plays at Loyola. Somebody in the play asked me to come do this improv group. I did that, and that’s where I met Dr. Ken. The head of the group was having a standup competition, and he’s like, “I put you in the competition. Write some jokes.” I did it, and I got to the finals with my first performance. I thought I was gonna win it, and, of course, I totally didn’t. It was pretty, pretty funny. It was a great night because I realized I could do it. The woman in front of me was about 15 years older, and she went up with a belt full of dildos. She’s like, “Look at this one!” and that was her act. And I’m like, “Man, I’m gonna look like a pro!” [laughs]
TOP After that, did you start doing open mics in the area?
MO I did open mics every once in a while. I continued to do the improv group and plays, things like that.
TOP How long were you in New Orleans?
MO I was there for four years. At my last improv show, Ken was there, and somebody got mugged in front of the place, and the bartender shot a shotgun, sending everybody scattering. I thought, “Maybe it’s time to leave.” [laughs]
TOP Where did you head to next?
MO I had written a play for my final project at school. I did this play in New Orleans for the summer after graduation. During that time, I was like, “I just want to be a standup comedian and I want to write.” It’s a good decision in retrospect, but when you say that, there’s just a trillion things you don’t know. I moved back with my mom in Chicago and did open mics and shows in Chicago.
TOP When is it that you left Chicago?
MO In 2000 I moved out to LA. I did the Chicago Comedy Festival in ’99. I got a manager out in LA and I decided I’d better come out and see what the wonderful world of entertainment held for me.
TOP Was it because you had a manager in LA that you went there?
MO I was gonna go to New York, but I had friends in New York and had visited, and I thought, “I don’t think I’m hard enough for that place.” I’d been out to LA when I was 10. That was the only other time I’d been out there. I had fond memories of it, and I thought, “Why not go out to LA; it’s sunny as hell.” I wish I went to New York because the standup scene out there is so amazing and inspiring. But if things weren’t going well with the industry out here, I just went into my head and started writing what I wanted. That’s a great benefit.
TOP Throughout all these travels that you had, what were some of the things that were influencing the development of your comedic sensibility?
MO I’d always been reading plays, and re-reading plays. A lot of that. A lot of older movies.
TOP What do you think of the term “alternative comedy”?
MO I’ve been frustrated by it a little. Some network had a file on me, and it just said: “Mike O’Connell: Alternative Comic.” What does that mean? That sounds bad, if that’s the only thing you know about me. But it’s just people treating the medium creatively, which should be under the umbrella of comedy, because every medium grows. It’s an easy way to group something that’s unfamiliar. People love that. [laughs]
TOP You were named Rolling Stone’s Hot Comic of 2005. How did that come about?
MO I decided to go out to New York and do a bunch of shows. A friend of mine got me a show at Joe’s Pub. A guy from Rolling Stone was there and thought I was good enough for that moniker. That was great. It helped me get on Kimmel, helped me get going.
TOP Have you found that humor, and your humor in general, is a useful tool to help you make sense of things?
MO It gives you the perspective that no matter what happens it’s never the end of the world. You’ll probably just laugh about it later.