Does Aisha Tyler sleep? That’s a question you might reasonably ask after looking at her IMDb page for a moment or two. She’s a regular on two TV shows — FXX’s Archer and CBS’s Criminal Minds — while also hosting Unapologetic, a new talk show for AMC. And that’s in addition to all the other one-off hosting gigs she takes on. And yet she’s always fresh, funny, and on point.
Tyler got her start as a standup comic in the late ’90s, at a time when, she says, black women were often pigeonholed into a certain style of comedy while she was much more comfortable making jokes about her love of all things geeky. She followed that up with a hosting gig on Talk Soup, and from there, her career took off and continues to fly high.
But when she joined me for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I wanted to talk to her about those early days in standup and what she’s learned from them as she’s gone forward to a career that’s included performing in front of many different kinds of audiences, from hosting presentations at the annual E3 video game show to performing live with her Archer castmates.
Tyler’s answer about what she learned from the very start of her career was incredibly smart about what it takes to make something that reaches other people, and about how hard it can find those people in the first place.
So I’ve excerpted it here, lightly edited for length and clarity.
I wasn’t one of those kids who collected comedy albums and dreamed of being a comic. I was a very bookish kid and very nerdy and a social pariah for a fair part of my childhood.
I had Seth Green on my podcast years ago, and he said it’s great that nerd culture’s being celebrated, but you can’t claim to be a nerd unless you played alone for a significant portion of your childhood, which I did. I would say until I was in high school or the end of middle school, I was just a total loner.
It made me a good observer of other people and a lover of movies and comic books and video games, which were all things I could do alone to amuse myself. But I think the observational part was what played into me becoming a comedian. Chris Rock has said that if you’re an outsider, you try to get funny or tell stories to either a) ingratiate yourself or b) prevent an ass-kicking.
I was going to be a lawyer or something, but I was unhappy in my day job and felt like I wanted to do something creative. Standup was the only thing where you didn’t need to know anybody or have an agent or get booked for. You could just go do it. And I thought I would just try it and see if I liked it.
I fell in love in one [time]. It was not ... I wasn’t funny. That’s not important! [Laughs.] I just liked being up there. Every comic will tell you your first set is your best set for, like, the next 10 years, because you have no expectations and every laugh is like this magical gift. And then I spent a long time after that just being adequate and serviceable and panicked and nervous and tic-y. But I was passionate about it.
And look, I look the way I look and talk the way I talk, and when I started doing standup, it was right at the heyday of Def Comedy Jam and later the Kings of Comedy. I was not doing or sounding like any of the stuff that people expected an African-American woman to be doing or saying onstage, and it really took me a very long time to find my tribe.
I had to be really committed to authenticity over laughs. I could have played a character. I could have gone up and pretended to be somebody else. But I knew early on I was never going to be able to do it in an authentic way. I was going to have to stick to my guns and talk about the stuff that was personal and meaningful to me, and then hopefully people who were like me would find me.
I think doing things that way — and I think this applies to any field, especially an artistic field — made me a stronger and a mentally tougher comedian. I would just be like, “This is who I am, and I’m just going to keep doing this and being as good as it as I can possibly be until the right people connect with it,” versus being a bellwether and trying to swing every which way [to] what was the most popular kind of comedy. Alt comedy was popular. Def Comedy Jam was popular. I was like, “I’m gonna stick to my guns.”
It made me, I think, mentally very, very tough. I had a lot of sets where I didn’t get any laughs. I say this all the time, but killing doesn’t make you funny. It’s only bombing that makes you funny. When you kill, you just, like, drop the, “Fuck it! Follow that, bitches! Bam! Shots!” And you walk off, rubbing your stomach and flashing your tits at everybody. [conspiratorially] That’s not what I do, guys. I’ve just seen it. [Laughs.]
But when you bomb, you really have to reexamine every creative choice you’ve made and think about if it was the right one. And slowly, slowly, slowly, my audiences found me. So what you get from those live shows is a true understanding of what’s funny, like a marrow-based understanding of what’s funny. When you do it long enough, you just know, “This is gonna land. This isn’t gonna land.” I’ve been a standup for 25 years, so now I have an intuitive sense of what is going to work.
And then you just get a fearlessness that translates into every other aspect of your work. When you fail enough in front of a group of people who are telling you, right then, “I hate you and what you do and everything you stand for,” and you don’t die, then nothing can hurt you.
Was there a time when you bombed, and it didn’t work, but you were like, “I know this is funny; I know this material works”? How did you gain that confidence to just find the people who thought it was funny too?
There was a comic who was working really prevalently when I was in San Francisco, when I started in the ’90s, and he did this bit where he got onstage ... and he ate a pack of Hostess powdered doughnut gems and read from, like, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It’s funny as a concept, but it kinda didn’t work, but then it kinda did. So he’d get up there and he’d start, and it was kinda funny.
And then when people realized there was no punchline, they would get really annoyed with him, and then they would get angry, and then they would boo. He just was relentless. He just would not stop. Disgust turned to moderate respect turned into people cheering him on turned into, like, “This guy’s a genius.” So the common denominator is just relentlessness, right? A willingness to commit to your choices.
There are a lot of comedians who have done this. A different kind of example of this is the infamous set Bill Burr did at the Weenie Roast in New Jersey, when he got booed, like a solid wall of boo for, like, 10 minutes. [Tyler is referring to this 2006 performance in Camden, New Jersey.] And he had to stay onstage for 10 minutes or he wasn’t going to get paid. It wasn’t like people were ignoring him. They were just actively screaming and throwing things and calling him names and cursing his offspring. And he was just like, “I’m not moving.” And it went from this wall of boo to this standing ovation.
It doesn’t mean that just standing up there and refusing to move is going to get you anything but arrested, but I think what made me continue when it was awful, or at least not particularly fun, was I loved being a standup. I loved it, and I loved it more than I disliked bombing.
There was this one set at this place in San Francisco called the Brain Wash. It was, like, a laundromat, and they would do standup shows there in a back room a couple nights a week. They were open mics, essentially. And the whole audience was comics. It’s not that they don’t want to laugh; it’s that they don’t care to. They’re looking at their set lists. They’re waiting for you to get off so that they can get on. I remember doing this show and not one laugh. And it was so funny to me. I got offstage and was like, “Nobody laughed! That was amazing.” It was like a feat. That was when I knew I was a comic. That did nothing to me. It just made me strong.
Interesting art comes from people who are unwavering in their vision. For me — something I know now; I don’t think I knew it then — I just thought, I’m gonna be a comic, and I’m not gonna stop. You start to mine little veins and they feel good to you. You put jokes down because they’re getting laughs, but they’re not right. They don’t say anything important. And you slowly cobble something together.
But you have to be a glutton for punishment. You have to want to be out at 1 o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday night, and you have to want to work for no money and be insulted and ignored. You have to really want it. If you can’t tolerate those things, there’s no point. It’s not a glamorous job. Chris Rock is glamorous, sure, but 30 years later, he’s glamorous. Every comic will tell you they went through a period where it was the least fun it could possibly be.
For more with Tyler, including her thoughts on Lana Kane after nine seasons of Archer and discussion of making her way past cultural gatekeepers in pop culture and nerd culture, listen to the full episode.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.