Jonah Ray On Applying A Punk Rock Ethos To Standup Comedy
Posted on October 14, 2014
October 14, 2014
by Nick Spacek
Comedian Jonah Ray is a man of many media. In addition to being one of the founding members of the Nerdist podcast, as well as his own podcast, Jonah Raydio, there’s his absurdly wonderful television program on Comedy Central, The Meltdown, which he co-hosts with Kumail Nanjiani. However, television and podcasts evidently wasn’t enough for Ray, because he’s just started his own record label, Literally Figurative Records.
The label aims to take punk rock’s DIY ethos and apply them to standup comedy. As Ray states on his Tumblr, “I had always thought it would be neat to treat my comedy as if it were a band. By making buttons, stickers, and of course, putting out a 7” record.” It’s an intriguing concept, because – in addition to releasing vinyl LPs and 7-inches of stand-up comedy, there’s a split single series the label will undertake called the Mutual Appreciation Society, pairing comedians and musicians.
We spoke with Ray by phone about his history in punk, Literally Figurative, and a whole slew of other things.
I know A Special Thing Records is helping you distribute Literally Figurative, but is your label a stand-alone thing or an imprint?
Jonah Ray: It’s essentially an imprint. I had the idea for it, and just personally, I wanted to clear with the AST guys, because they’ve put out my record, and they kind of have the L.A. scene label, as it were, and I just kind of wanted to make it friendly. Just kind of, “Hey, I had this idea and wanted to start my own thing. I hope it’s not going to be a problem.”
So, I talked to Ryan [McManemin], and told him that I’m going to be putting out weird things, and not too many full-lengths at all. Then, a couple days later, Ryan called me, and was like, “What if we did things together, and we just helped you with the infrastructure, and you just got to do whatever you wanted to do?” So, yeah – I guess an imprint would be the closest to what we’re doing.
I like the idea that you’re going to just put out a few LPs.
Yeah. The Nick Yousseff album [Stop Not Owning This] is because he wanted to put it out on vinyl. He didn’t know how to do it, and I think that guy is so funny. I felt I should be the one to do it, to help him out. And with Matt Dwyer, I just think he’s one of the funniest guys. He’s been around for so long, and someone should put something of his [out].
And the whole punk rock thing with 7-inches and whatnot, as well.
Well, yeah. I’ve had elements of that in everything that I’ve done, just by it being a part of who I am. Like, with The Meltdown show: I just thought it would be cool to have a poster for every show I did, like you would, if you were a band. You’d make a flier, if you were having a show. I always did them on my own, then I met up with this guy, Dave Kloc. He was like, “I like how you have a flier for every show. It’s like this cool punk rock thing. I’ll design ‘em, if you want.” And, so, that kind of started that relationship, which was pretty awesome. He makes such amazing stuff.
It was funny, because last night, on The Meltdown show, Dave Chappelle stopped in, and [Kloc] handed him a poster, and [Chappelle] was like, “What’s this?” [Kloc] was like, “We do a poster for the show every week, and [Chappelle] was like, “That’s a really cool idea!” [Kloc] ran over to tell me, “Dave Chappelle thinks something you did is a really cool idea!” I was like, “Well, we can all just kill ourselves.”
Yeah, exactly. People get weirded out when you say a term like “it’s a punk thing,” but it’s just like, a way I like stuff. It’s the aesthetic and the ethos of what I grew up with, and just the DIY thing. I just don’t see any reason for not doing things like that anymore.
You’re not the only comedian to equate punk rock with comedy. I know Marc Maron has compared the alternative comedy scene to punk before – just people eschewing the clubs, because their buddy has a bar with a back room, and they can do it there.
For sure. Yeah. Definitely. That’s been going on for a long time now, just with the early ’90s and [Janeane] Garafolo and Dana Gould, especially, starting these shows that were just in … rooms. They were in rooms. When I started doing comedy in L.A. in 2002, or going to shows in 2001, those were the shows I was going to. I couldn’t afford to go to shows in clubs. I had to use a fake ID to go to a show at a bar, or go to some coffee shop.
You mention in the post on your Tumblr that you were in bands that never got to the level where they could release something. What kind of bands were these?
Well, a ton. In Hawaii, bands kind of fizzle out real fast, because no one ever really sticks around. People grow up and they move away, or they get out of the military, or they graduate college. You’ve got friends just constantly coming in and out of your life in Hawaii. It’s very transient that way. I’d be in a band, and we’d make some songs, and then we’d record, and then we couldn’t justify spending the money on a 7-inch that we wouldn’t be able to promote or sell, because the band wasn’t around anymore – which is silly, because if you read all the stories about Ian MacKaye, the Teen Idles were already broken up – they had recorded all that stuff, but never put it out. So, [Ian] put it out, just to document the scene and the whole moment in time they were a part of.
That’s kind of how I feel about some of the stuff I’m going to be doing with the label: just document that time. Who cares if it sells or not? It’s kind of a neat thing.
So, the bands I was in – they were never going to go anywhere. There was kind of a punk, Screeching Weasel-y kind of a band called the You’re Outs. We had songs about gross pedophile dudes. We had a song about the movie Home Alone. We had a song about how my dad smoked my brother’s friend’s pot once. It was just a real silly, silly band.
And after that, I was in another, more serious band, called God Our Dictator – G.O.D. That was a little more brutal stuff, and then I was in this powerviolence band called the New Originals, and then I was in this straight edge, thrashy hardcore band called 36 Chambers, which was all about kung fu, and veganism, and straight edge, and we tried to sound like Botch. Not chuggy, metal stuff: more like Universal Order of Armageddon – NOT bro-core at all.
And after that, I started this band Quarterhead, which was just us trying to do Nation of Ulysses / Drive Like Jehu / Question Mark and the Mysterians and Captain Beefheart – the early hipster, proto-hipster kind of stuff. And all of these bands recorded.
They recorded, but did not release?
So, do you have all of this stuff in a closet somewhere?
Yeah, we digitized everything, so I have mp3s of most of that stuff. It’s all around. I almost thought, like, if I ever got to a place where I REALLY didn’t care about money, I’ll put out a 7-inch compilation of all the bands I was in. That’d be a funny thing to put out.
For the Mutual Appreciation Society series of splits, did the comedians pick the bands with whom they’re paired, or did you?
I just thought about pre-existing relationships, or stuff that would go well together. I mean, Sean O’Connor is with the Upset, and him and Ali [Koehler] are really good buds, so that went well together. That was perfect. Alex Hooper, who’s a really awesome local comic out here, one of the first shows he put on – he’s always bringing musicians on – he had FARTBARF on, and it was like, that’s a great duo there, too. And, just aesthetically, they have a really good vibe between the two of them.
Others of them just made sense for me to pitch out: I thought that Wil Wheaton and Nerf Herder, that would be a great combo. A lot of it was just me going, “What do you think of you guys and …?”
Of course, now a lot of my friends have now pitched their own splits. Jim Hamilton’s going, “Hey, I’ll do one with Riverboat Gamblers,” or something like that. It’s endless possibilities, but for the most part, I just thought of pre-exisiting relationships and aesthetics. I know Matt Mira is good friends with Jenny Owen Youngs, so I told him to ask her if she wanted to do a split. That was mainly, kind of how I did it.
How did you come to choose Mikal Cronin for your split?
You know, I was having a hard time figuring out who to do my split with, because I’m friends with a lot of bands, and a lot of bands that are really good. I don’t want to name any of them because I didn’t pick them! [laughs] But, uh – I struck up a very nice friendship with Mikal Cronin over the past year, and I really like the guy and love his music, and kind of just figured … y’know, I don’t even know why! Because it was tough: I was almost even going to do a split with my own music.
Like, I make music under this other name that I don’t ever put out, so it was like, “What if I do me, doing standup, and then me, doing music?” But, I felt like, “who am I to do that?” I got so weirded out some of the time, that I was like, I didn’t even want to be on any of the splits, because it’s very insinuative of me to be like, “oh, of course, I should be with this band or this musician.” I feel awkward about the whole thing, because in the end, it’s all a vanity project.
What led you to start Literally Figurative at this point in your career?
[slowly] Well … I have the money right now to throw away. Not that I shouldn’t, like, save it, but this is stuff I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to put out my friends’ records. Say what you will about my comedy, and my standup or whatever – you may not like it, and I’ll go, “That’s your opinion. Maybe I’m not that good” or whatever, I don’t care – but I do know what is funny, and I know who’s funny, and I know who fucking deserves to have a record put out, and no one else was really doing it. I felt like I wanted to do it.
I re-read the book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, and all these bands that were on SST – they also had their own labels. Every band had their own label, so what was the difference if I had my label, and I was still a comic, as well? I always had the idea of doing a label, and I got tired of always saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if someone did this?” I got tired of saying it. It started making me feel bad about myself. It’s like, if it’s such a good idea, and someone should do it, why shouldn’t I be the one to do it?
Now that “Weird Al” Yankovic has been on The Meltdown, and you have an in, are you going to try and do a release with him?
[laughs a good long while] Yeah, I would love to.
I would buy a 7-inch of that version of “Dare to Be Stupid.” It could be single-sided. I don’t care.
I wanna know who owns the rights to that version. It probably belongs to Comedy Central. It’d be insane to put out something. And he’s out of his record deal, so who knows?
How did that particular performance come to be? It’s kind of mindblowing.
Well, we were trying to figure it out. I wanted him on the show, and he was like, “I don’t really do sketches or live, standup stuff. I don’t really tell stories, and if I’m going to play one of my songs, I really like to have my band along with me.” He doesn’t really consider himself a solo artist – it’s like, “I’m in a band. My band is ‘Weird Al Yankovic.’” He does it with those guys.
So, I was like, maybe we could figure out a different version of a song. I was thinking of hearkening back to his first TV appearance, where it was him playing accordion and Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz playing percussion on the case. He was like, “Yeah, well, I dunno. I already did that.” Then, I was like, “Well, what if we do your song, ‘Happy Birthday,’ which is a very punky song – let’s do it like an actual punk song. We’ll get, like, Fidlar or the Toys That Kill guys to come in and be your backing band, and we’ll just do it like an actual punk show. There’ll be kids dancing and moshing and stuff like that.”
In my head, it was like a reference to when Fear was on SNL, and he was, “Oh, like when Fear was on SNL?” and I was like, “Exactly!” But there were issues with cameras and stuff, so THEN, I thought, “What if we get Mark Mothersbaugh and he backs you up on a duet of you guys on ‘Dare to Be Stupid’?”’
We sort of got a soft pass of a “no” from Mark Mothersbaugh, and then [Al] was like, “I’ve always wanted to see what it would sound like with a string quartet.” We were like, “All right. Let’s do that.”
Now that you have a record label, a television show and several successful podcasts, do you have plans for things to come, or are you just taking them as the come to you?
It’s just like, you’re always spinning plates and working on other stuff. The podcasts: it’s not like it’s the main thing. It’s one of the things that you do. And, to say I have a TV show is technically correct, but I haven’t worked on that TV show in months, because we shot it in four weeks, and then edited it over two months, and then it’s done. The podcasts, you just do them for an hour, here and there, and then the label is just going to be something that goes along as I feel like doing it.
But, you know, I’m still a writer – I’ve written for shows and stuff like that before – I still go in and pitch TV shows and develop shows that I want to, hopefully, happen. I go on auditions that, hopefully, I get. Then, you just continue on, and try not to let one thing define you as a creative person, and do your best not to sound pretentious while talking about it.
That just sounds like a healthy way to approach life in general, to say nothing of a life in show business.
I think that every creative career is just never one thing. There’s no set way to do anything, so there’s no real way to be like, “I’ll do this, then this will happen, and then do this, and then this will happen.” It’s not structured like that. It’s really random, and it’s just how you want to define success and to feel like you have it or not, because it really is up to you.
You think it’s up to other people to define you as being successful, but it’s really up to you, and to be successful, for me, is just to be able to continue to make stuff – and to not be, like, fucking broke. I want to make enough money to keep on making stuff, and that’s all I really do care about: making a movie, or making a show, or making a record, or making a podcast. I just want to keep on making stuff, because that’s what really makes me happy, and to expect that any one of those things is going to make or break you? It’s wrong.
For more information about Jonah Ray and Literally Figurative Records, you can check out A Special Thing Records’ website at or Jonah Ray’s Tumblr. You can also follow Jonah Ray on Twitter, where he is @jonahray.