Backstage at a Portland comedy show one year back, I found myself sitting next to one of my favorite rock musicians. Hutch Harris
of The Thermals
was doing some observatory comedy words back to back with me, and what I thought was maybe just a one night performance experiment was actually Hutch laying the groundwork to commit to taking standup comedy seriously as a secondary career.
I was more than a little horrified that a guy I'd once followed on tour, who wrote two different songs that make me cry like an idiot from the opening chords on, was now starting a square one in a different discipline. I swore that if I had roadies and a fan club in any other pursuit, I couldn't imagine starting from ground zero in the world of open mic comedy. Hutch giggled and said, "I like it," and honestly, who can argue with that?
Now, a year into doing shows together in multiple cities, I wanted to explore some of Hutch's transformation and experiences in an interview, because I still don't know why he does it.
So let's start with comedy. Why, God, why would you do this to yourself? You know you don't have to, right?
Hutch Harris: Seriously, what is my problem? [Laughs.] I was talking to (Portland comedian) Amy Miller the other night and she also demanded to know why I would do this. I guess I just really wanted to for so long, and I'd been somewhat lurking around the Portland comedy scene, psyching myself up to do it, and then I convinced myself I couldn't for so many reasons. As soon as I started doing it, it turned out to be everything I wanted it to be. I don't get...nervous for music shows anymore...that kind of fun anxiety? But I do get really nervous for comedy, and I love that this feeling is back.
When did you stop having that fun anxiety with music?
I'm not sure but I was happy when that went away. You obviously don't want to feel that way all the time, and I think it dissipated as I gained confidence as a musician. But there is a coolness in that painful anticipation, and I've found it here again.
What was your first comedy show?
Last year I did Amy Miller's Midnight Mass show. I had performed a few songs on there as a musician over the years, and she suggested that I should give standup a shot. After the night, I started showing up to multiple mics a day, because I loved it. There was a mic right by my house and comedian Andie Main refused to let me not attend that. I started doing mics around town just before that to prep, and got to Midnight Mass with two very solid minutes of standup comedy. And everyone from Portland comedy was on that show, like Ian Karmel and Steven Wilber, so it was nerve-wracking to take the bullet in front of them.
How do you approach writing standup versus writing music?
Standup is such a singular approach. I get an idea out in the world somewhere and I write it down and try it that night. It's workmanlike. Songwriting is my mystical. I start playing and just see what comes out, but I try not to think too much about either. I find that focusing too hard stifles any creativity. I take a lot of walks.
Rhythm and timing are key for both. What I love about standup is that you can do it differently every night. You can add and subtract, whereas the songs I write -- I'm not in a jam band -- so that's basically how they'll get performed every night. And I like that about The Thermals' songs. But back in standup you can get up and change the order to make something new or even bail on doing jokes all together and just talk to the audience. I certainly could never do that in a rock show.
Do you feel...I don't know... a combination of complicated emotions over starting over at square one in this form of entertainment -- doing open mics?
I love it. It feels good to start something fresh. I did an open mic last night and it feels really nice to be something brand new. Bombing or people not laughing doesn't bother me at all, so having five minutes at a mic is really enjoyable for me. There's been maybe two nights in the past year where I became legitimately bummed because of a set I did. You can have a shitty set and feel fine after because there's another show later that night. And even when something goes wrong, it is interesting to examine where it went wrong and learn to make it work.
It's fascinating to see how crowds react. Musicians are spoiled because people always applaud when you're done, no matter what. But in comedy you have to gauge a reaction in how they feel about the show. In rock, if people are moshing they are having fun, or in a small town they might just be giving you attention, and unless people are dancing it is hard to tell. In standup you have to take your place in the room to figure out if people are liking it or not.
Who are your comedy idols?
Mr Show. We got signed to Sub Pop the same month as David Cross signed and did "Shut Up You Fucking Baby." And then at the 15th anniversary Sub Pop show we cornered Cross to tell him how much we loved him. Beyond that there's Todd Berry, Jon Benjamin, and growing up me and Kathy listened to tons of Pryor. Other than that Saturday Night Live back when I was in high school, and we worshiped that cast with Chris Rock, Carvey, Lovitz, and so on. That's all we would talk about on Monday.
Have you found your voice yet?
I'm still finding that. I didn't understand what it meant until I stopped trying to manipulate it and just say things naturally. I abandoned schtick in favor of just speaking. I have a very laid back approach that keeps getting me compared to Tig Notaro. I'm not sure if I'm totally that laid back, but it's a very nice compliment. I just like backing away from being big and loud and annoying -- a joke shouldn't need to be bigger to make it work.
Is this pursuit of comedy easier for you because you're such an attractive beautiful man?
Answer seriously, for journalism.
You went on tour under the name Hutch and Kathy earlier this year. What sparked that?
We released an album together in 2002 and it got a vinyl release for Record Store Day this year. Thermals were on a break so we did a little tour, which is something we hadn't done in that capacity for thirteen years, so it was nice to play smaller, intimate venues. Thermals are super loud and fast which I love, but our set basically doesn't let up until the last second. It was nice to talk to the audiences here and build something together.
Was this newfound need to get intimate fueled by standup?
Absolutely. Standup has been a tool to help me with other stuff. I already felt very comfortable on stage. But for big rooms. Kathy and I did a private show at a TV network during their lunch break, and it's a very different thing to connect with like twenty people in a lobby, and having done standup I felt much more comfortable dealing with the awkwardness of a small audience. It's nice to be lunch-break charming.
You've contributed tracks to an Amazon pilot called "A History of Radness" -- where is that going?
I hope it gets picked up. I like doing songs like what I composed for that, because I can just record them in my basement. The score to the show was done by James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins. There's a brother and sister who have a high school band and I wrote the song they play in the episode.
What's on the horizon?
There will be some news from The Thermals later this year, but until then I'm just doing standup. Have to keep busy!
Any plans to hit up open mics while you're on the road?
Sound check at five, open mic at seven, back to the show at nine? Sounds good to me.