Kyle Kinane admits he’s paranoid. He’s always seemed aware of how precarious a career in comedy can be—his breakout album, Whiskey Icarus, referenced that old Greek tool who started the whole “flew too close to the sun” cliché—but his new special, I Liked His Old Stuff Better, just comes right out and says it. That name’s trying to head off a particular kind of criticism, but it also speaks to the fear of any working artist. Some fans just don’t get into the new stuff. When you see .38 Special at a chili cook-off, you want to hear “Hold On Loosely”, not anything they’ve put out since Reagan left office.
“It’ll pop,” Kinane predicts of the current stand-up bubble. “It’s a flooded market right now. That doesn’t mean there’s not amazing people doing stand-up. There are, more than ever. It’s another reason I’m paranoid about losing my position in stand-up, because there are so many people doing it so well.
“There’s nothing special about what I’m doing. I just got in there a couple years before everybody else did. That’s how I look at it. That’s how I preserve my place and stay humble with it. I don’t deserve this, I’m lucky to have it, if it goes away I can tell the universe ‘thank you’ and I’d move on to the next thing.”
He’s wrong about at least one thing. There’s definitely something special about Kinane’s comedy, from his hilarious specials and albums to his, uh, Twitter fights with salsa companies. Old Stuff debuts on Comedy Central on 1/23 at midnight, and reaffirms that he’s one of the sharpest and most personable comedians working today.
His modesty isn’t an act. It’s just the way you are if you’re raised right in the Midwest. “I don’t know if it’s a Midwestern thing or a Catholic thing,” he theorizes, “but I just keep feeling like the other shoe’s gonna drop now. Like I didn’t do anything deserving of the good luck I’ve had other than finding comedy, finding something I was gonna do for free anyway. Without being too ‘aw shucks’ about it, the fact that it’s taken me this far, I’m still blown away that this is a reality for me. So paranoia is setting in right now. Now I can only go down.
“I was raised in a way,” he continues, “where you get a job, you get a family, you get rid of your dreams by the time you’re at least 18 or 19 so you don’t do something stupid like piss away your 20s and 30s trying to be in a band and trying to be a comedian or something. It’s pretty wild right now.”
He almost makes success sound like a complete accident that he never could’ve predicted, but obviously he’s worked hard at comedy. He readily acknowledges that comedy is a hard job and that it takes a lot of work to succeed at it. He didn’t just wake up one day, brush burrito rice out of his beard, and stumble onstage to fame and glory.
“[Comedy]’s not an easy thing to be successful at,” Kinane admits. “A lot of people that are trying it find out very quickly that there’s a lot more effort that you need to put in than just showing up, getting drunk and being everybody’s pal on stage. That’s funny for one or two times but it’s not going to happen. Everybody tries out karaoke. Karaoke’s a fun night out. How many people do it and go like ‘y’know what, I’m taking this to the next level, I’m going to be a professional singer’? It weeds people out.”
Kinane’s rapidly hitting that point some comedians worry about, where they become so successful that they lose sight of what made their act work in the first place. Kinane doesn’t entirely believe in that fear, though. “I don’t want to agree with that whole ‘you can’t be happy and be a comedian’ thing,” he says. “Definitely when you are a comedian and it’s based around the struggle of the day to day living, and your success as a comedian takes away those day to day struggles, you did kind of implode your own creation in a weird way. Still, I don’t want it to keep being ‘oh he got drunk and ate dumb food again’. I am that, but how many times can I beat that horse to death? Now it’s more jokes like ‘yeah, things are okay,’ and I’m trying to adjust to it.
“That’s the thing,” he continues. “For so many comedians the whole relatable point is that people have shitty jobs and are lonely so you bitch about that stuff and then you bitch about it well enough that suddenly you don’t have to have a shitty job anymore because people like you bitching about your shitty job so much they let you tell jokes for a living, and then I’m happy. I’m trying to not do comedy from some sort of disingenuous, angry place. If I was like ‘man, my job sucks’ that would be disingenuous because it doesn’t suck. My job is telling jokes, so that’s great. I try to be as honest as possible about it. Whether that loses people, oh well. Tough shit, I’m trying to talk about the place I’m at in my life, you know?”
Like many comedians, Kinane eschewed a traditional theater or comedy club for his new special. I Like His Old Stuff Better was recorded at the 40 Watt, the legendary rock club in Athens, Georgia, where bands like R.E.M., Neutral Milk Hotel and the B-52’s used to play. It’s a good place to see a comedy show, and about as different from a comedy club as it could get. The beers are cheap, the bartenders are friendly and you don’t have to worry about two drink minimums or paying for table service.
“I grew up going to see bands and going to see music and it’s just a different energy going to a music venue,” Kinane says about playing rock clubs. “Not all comedy clubs, but a lot of them still feel antiquated. You walk in there and everything’s wacky and there are goofy murals and wacky songs playing and it always seems a little bit cheesy to me. I always liked the energy of going to see a band, being in a dirty rock club.
“And also it’s just sometimes people coming to see me, maybe they don’t have the comedy ticket price and two drink minimum money, so if you can get a ticket you can get in and you’re not forced to sit there and worry about gratuity—I mean you should tip your bartenders—but like having two drinks and table service? Nah, just grab a seat, watch the show, have a good time, don’t worry about where you’re sitting or standing. It just feels a little more organic and relaxed.”
A place like the 40 Watt has a personal appeal to Kinane, too. Before he was a comedian he played guitar in a band in Chicago. They didn’t release anything, but they played out, and that segued into the start of his comedy career.
“I’m not knocking comedy clubs, they have their business model that works for them, but I started comedy not anywhere near that business model,” he says. “I started in Chicago doing bars and the comedy club there early on wasn’t very welcoming to new folks, at least the management. So we just did our own thing at these bars. It was $5, and at the same place I was seeing bands we were doing comedy, and that’s the model I started up in. I just like that better. I’m not saying it’s better than a comedy club, but I prefer it. It feels better.”
I Liked His Old Stuff Better is Kinane’s third special in the last five years. That’s a pretty fast pace for a comic these days. Against, though, stand-up is the man’s job. He’s done work on TV and in film but he’s a comedian first and foremost. New material is what keeps him employed. It’s what keeps him out of a day job, so he’s constantly working and creating.
As Kinane explains it, “My only quality control is proving that, alright, I put something out that people laughed at and they’re going to come see me tell jokes, can I make them laugh just as much or keep them entertained just as much as previous stuff? That’s the only way I can, that’s my only job security, writing new material. I don’t have to do it every year. I’m not going to try and hold myself to some standard like Louis C.K. or anything, but that’s how I preserve this dream that came true, is by continuing to generate new material and making sure people will sit and listen to it.”
Like many comics Kinane’s not big on repeating material after it’s been broadcast—his analogy is that jokes aren’t like songs, where you want to hear your favorite ones over and over. Still, it’s not a static art form for him. A special like I Liked His Old Stuff Better is a snapshot of his comedy at a specific time, but to Kinane it’s not a definitive document of his material or of him as a performer.
“That’s the great thing about comedy,” he explains. “It’s never going to be finished. There’s nothing I can look back on and say ‘no, that’s perfect!’. It’s this weird coral reef, it’s always growing and changing form and every time there’s a special or album that I’ve recorded, that’s where I was at with that material at that moment. At that moment that’s when I thought I was happiest with that material. And y’know a few months after that I’m like ‘ah this is what I’ve could’ve done with that, shit, I could’ve approached from a new angle,’ but it’s already out there so start talking about new stuff.
“But it is great to find something, to be in a creative position, where it’s never going to be done, and it’s not torture. Comedy is my Winchester Mystery House. I’m just going to keep adding on to it and growing and putting stuff here and there, and it’s a puzzle that’ll never be done.”
And when he hits a block and that puzzle becomes too hard to work on, Kinane musters that paranoia and Midwestern work effort and forces himself to shoulder through.
“I’ve been in a slump for like a month and a half, two months, a writing slump, and every time it happens I’m like, nope, I’m done. My career is over. I’m out of jokes. But now in the past couple of weeks I’ve had new stuff. I’m bombing with it, but I’m excited to talk about it. At least I have something to say.”
I Liked His Old Stuff Better
airs on Comedy Central on Friday, 1/23 at Midnight ET / 11 PM CT.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy section. Probably 30% of the beers he’s had in his life were drunk at the 40 Watt.