Paul Varghese on Vinyl (Sort Of): A Q&A with the Comedian on His First Album, Paul & Oates
It only takes about five minutes for someone in the noisy crowd of social drinkers at the Old Monk pub on North Henderson Avenue to recognize comedian Paul Varghese. An attractive blond woman recognizes him just as we sit down on the patio to talk about his new album Paul & Oates from Stand Up! Records and the big CD release party for it this Saturday at 9 p.m. Saturday the House of Blues. She gushes about the set she watched when he did an open mic some place where she worked as a waitress, and he seems more than a little incredulous to be recognized in public. He's grateful but even some of his responses have a hint of "No way" behind them. For instance, he pulls out his phone and tells the woman, "Can I write on your [Facebook] wall? I'm going to call your bluff."
Any objective party wouldn't be surprised to see one of Garland's most famous sons become such a familiar face. He built a stand-up comedy career the old fashioned way by playing just about any bar, restaurant and club with a microphone and enough room for a comic to rant about airplanes, parents and exes, long before DFW had a comedy community. Then he moved up to comedy club stages and picked up club and theater dates across the state and eventually the nation, which led to an opening spot for Dave Chappelle. Now it's all paid off with a new CD and a comedy career that has yet to reach its apex.
Varghese sat down to talk about the 12 years of material that went into the album recorded at a Saturday night birthday show last year at Hyena's in Dallas, how the Wu-Tang Clan gave him the idea for a jazz-inspired album cover and the pitfalls of being recognized when you're just trying to buy toilet paper.
Do you get recognized a lot now?
I still don't expect it, but it happens pretty much every time I go out as far as night goes. The weirdest thing is being recognized at Walgreen's while I was buying toilet paper because you never look cool buying toilet paper. At this point, I was like, OK, this is getting a little bit weird, but it still surprises me to this day. I don't expect it. If somebody stares at me for a long time, I expect it's because of a "there's something on your face" kind of a thing, but I've performed at every venue in this city. So eventually at some point, if you've been to any open mic comedy show or real comedy show within 12 years, chances are I was there at some point.
So are you still in the "Oh my God, I can't believe this is happening" phase or have you numbed out to it?
I'm not numb to it. I'm not jaded by it, but I understand how it can be annoying on a much bigger level. I still enjoy it because it means they remember you for something. I'd rather them recognize me for liking me than recognizing me for pissing them off, which is bound to flip the other way.
Has that happened yet? I can't imagine you pissing someone off on stage.
Well, when they get pissed, it's because either they heckled me or if I was in a bad mood and I shit on them. I've had friends of guys who have come up to me and said, "We saw your show at the Barley House and you made fun of our friend a lot. We thought it was hilarious but our friend has never been to a show ever again." So I know at some point, I'm going to run into that dude. As long as they remember you for something, that's all that matters.
So the first thing I noticed with the album is the cover.
Yeah, it looks like an old jazz album. That's what we were going for.
Was that your idea?
Yeah, it was mine. At first I honestly wanted to name the album The Saturday Early Show because it was literally the early show Saturday. I taped five shows, and I tried to figure out what I wanted to edit, but it turned out that Saturday was the first show. We taped at Hyena's in Dallas on my birthday weekend so it was a guaranteed sell-out. This was last year, not this year, but I edited maybe three jokes out of it. They just didn't feel right. There were a couple of jokes that I had written a long time ago and they just didn't sound right.
Three out of how many?
Uh, [the album] is 55 minutes long so probably 56-and-a-half minutes. This is also the only show where no one tried to give me a shot on stage or yell shit out .. .and I didn't want to announce that it was a CD taping because when you announce that, people just get overly excited. I just wanted to keep it as organic as possible. This would be like if you sat in the back row of that show at that moment. So I wanted to name it something like that.
The idea for the cover came from when the Wu-Tang Clan re-released their albums with jazz covers. I saw it, and I thought it was the most brilliant thing I've ever seen because I always loved jazz albums and to contrast that with the Wu-Tang, it was with a "Blue Note" thing. A buddy of mine who works for Dr Pepper Snapple [friend and fellow comedian Aaron Aryanpur] I just told him the idea that I wanted and I realized if you put Paul & Oates on there, at least they'll understand it's a joke. That's also my Facebook URL because Paul Varghese was already taken. It's a super common name. It's a name like when you get pulled over in India and they ask you what your name is and you want to get out of it, you say "Paul Varghese."
It almost looks like a Starbucks CD, which I know sounds kind of like an insult.
(laughs) No, you're right. I know what you're talking about. I wanted to press a handful of them on vinyl not just because there are so many vinyl stores here in the city but also because [the cover] would look awesome on vinyl. When you open it, it's the Dallas Observer picture, which really pops. I was wondering if it should be consistent with the front, but the guy who recorded it and designed it said it looks better when it pops. That's something I would never have an eye for.
How did you decide what material to do? Did you sit down and say what jokes you wanted to do, or I imagine by now, it's already all in your head?
I just did everything that I knew, which is why I edited some jokes out, but everything that I knew that hit like the way this show starts is not how I start every show, but I wasn't stuttering at all. I knew exactly where I wanted to go. So the new stuff that I'm working on now, I'm trying to record that by late next year, if not early next year.
Is there a bit on the album that you had to do or your fans would revolt?
The only two things that I ever get compliments on or three things is the joke about convertibles (it's track three), the joke about taking the school picture and the jokes about my dad, which is track 13. That's what they identify with the most. The school picture and convertibles jokes are my personal favorite, and the funny thing about this CD, I would say maybe a fifth of the jokes are visual. So that was the hard thing. So I was like telling them [Stand Up! Records] what do you want me to do about this because the laughter was going so crazy, they had to actually edit down the laughter. There was like 30 seconds where you're like what the fuck are they laughing at? I had my friends listen to this final copy first, and they were like the convertible joke is visual, so why would you put that on there? I mean, I struggled with it for a long time.
Every comic who gets an album has a joke like that.
Yeah, you're wondering why are they laughing so hard at that?
I remember Mitch Hedberg joked once that he wanted to do an album where all of his jokes were visual.
I love visual jokes. I mean, Hedberg was like a huge influence on all but there's like 8 million influences on this thing. I'm all over the place. I'm influenced by George Lopez, Mitch Hedberg, Dave Attell, Brian Regan, Bill Burr. I would hate to be typecast as, well, we're going to go see him because he does 40 minutes of Indian jokes or 40 minutes of one-liners or 40 minutes of clean material.
Did you ever have someone tell you that you needed to find a hook?
I had it happen at NBC. I remember the last time I did Last Comic Standing, which was '07-'08. I remember I did my dad stuff on Season 4, and I heard that they didn't like ethnic jokes. So I knew that after the fact. So the next year I go up, I just do the convertible jokes. I had just done Live at Gotham with Comedy Central, and the way it works is you audition for the producers first and then the show. The producers go, "What are you doing? This is not what I want to see. Come back for the judges tonight and just do the ethnic stuff." So in my head I'm like, "Wait, last year you didn't want it and that's why I didn't get it and now I didn't do it and you want the other stuff." So I went and did it and I still didn't get into the show itself. I was the first episode but nothing past that. She pulls me aside and she goes, "Listen, I know I told you to do it and it would get you in and I know you didn't get in but I'm telling you that you need to keep doing that." At this point, it was like '07 so I was like six years in. I was like, is that really what it is?
To me, I've noticed it's a bigger hit when you don't even talk about the Indian stuff or my dad. Later in the set when I talk about my dad, the more it explodes. If I did it at the beginning, they would be like, "OK, I expected that. He's gonna do ethnic stuff." The longer you delay it, they go nuts. Even the new stuff that I'm working on now, about halfway through, it doesn't even touch it. It touches on ethnicity. ... It's not that I'm trying to get away from it because it's a part of me and I love it, but I'm at the point now that this is a legit label who recorded Patton Oswalt and Mitch Hedberg's Mitch All Together CD before it went to Comedy Central and Lewis Black's earlier stuff. My whole thing was like I can sit there and wait for Comedy Central to tell me to record an album or I can do it myself instead of me waiting to get discovered.
Did they come to you or did you go to them?
[Stand Up! Records Founder] Dan Schlissel emailed me right after Last Comic in '04, and I only had 10 minutes or 15 minutes at that point that was somewhat salvage-able and he was like, "Hey I'm starting this label, do you have enough to record a CD?" and I was like, no, I don't. Literally, we just kept in touch. Every few months, he was like "How's it looking?"
I was more worried about the turnout. I had the material back in '09 or '10 but I was worried because at this point. I wasn't headlining whole weekends at clubs so if it was only 40 people at the Addison Improv on a Thursday, I don't want to record my CD then. So when it worked out that I have a following here now that I can say I'm having a CD release party and everybody shows up. Now if I want to record a new CD, I can say come out, be supportive, don't heckle and I can flood it. I can differentiate when a comic doesn't have a huge crowd at the CD taping and most people just listen to it for the first time, if they two people people laughing and they're laughing, well how come nobody else is laughing? My favorite CD to listen to audio-wise is Dave Attell's Skanks for the Memories, and it sounds like you're in the middle of a crowd because it's so loud. Even if you don't laugh at it, you're laughing at it because the crowd's going nuts, and I told [Schlissel] about that and he got it. If you're at the comedy club, you never want to be the only guy laughing at the joke. It makes you feel awkward. I think people are like that with comedy CDs.
How did you hook up with the House of Blues?
The press here has been great to me. Every single one of them: The Dallas Morning News, the Observer, D Magazine. Then stuff went viral and it just became word of mouth. I opened for Dave Chappelle last year and that got House of Blues on my radar and then they fucking fell in love with me, so that's why they book me all the time, which is ridiculous for a local guy to get booked in that theater. There's five clubs in the city now and open mics every night so if you really hustle, you can get everywhere too. Two years ago, it wasn't like that.
To me when big name theaters jump in on it, that's when things are about to blow up. Why are you booking these local guys on a Saturday night? They want to build up the scene, and they didn't know anything about it until the Chappelle thing and then they were like, whoa, who else can we bring in? When they approached me, I thought they were going to give me a Thursday in the restaurant, but they were like, no, we're putting you in the big room and the very first show we did there last summer, 800 people showed up. Dirk [Nowitzki] showed up, and he's a fan of mine, which helped too, so that gives it crazy credibility, and he's sitting there and at the after party with everybody taking pictures. So everyone is like "Who the fuck is this kid?" and everyone starts hearing about stuff, and I think at that point, it's just word of mouth.
So are you terrified about the reviews for your CD?
Oh, are you kidding me? Yeah. (laughs) I talked to Joe Tone (editor of the Dallas Observer). Joe wrote my profile and I told Joe about it and Joe's like "I actually want to review it, too," which they never do.