Alex Koll is an absurdist comic working in New York, he’s appeared on Conan, Comedy Central’s Live At Gotham and is a founding member of The Business, a weekly stand up show that has spread across the nation. His official bio notes that “Alex is currently flightless and unable to lay eggs.” He recently sat down with David Luna for a little chat.
David Luna: What is your earliest memory?
Alex Koll: Man, I don’t know. That’s a tough one. I have a memory of my mom rocking me in a rocking chair, but I feel like I was a little older when that happened.
It’s weird because I’ve been thinking a lot about it in context of myself, because I have a six-month-old and I keep wondering if or not he’s forming memories now.
DL: There are some people who can remember all the way back to when they were born or even earlier.
AK: Really? What do they say usually when it starts?
DL: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe feeling emotions from the tones of voice of people around them. There’s some writer, I can’t remember who. He recalled entire conversations. What do you call that, when you have complete retention of everything?
AK: Like photographic memory?
DL: Something like that but of every single word.
DL: Neither of us have that, unfortunately.
AK: Yeah, not me. What’s yours?
DL: Oh, my earliest memory? Huh.
I was watching a video of myself eating Kraft yellow American cheese singles.
AK: That’s fantastically specific.
DL: What kind of person were you in high school?
AK: I was a bonafide nerd, for sure. I found the pride in that at some point and ran with it. Again, it’s funny–I was rifling through some old school photos, and there’s just a jump between 9th grade and 10th grade where my hair goes down to my shoulders, and I’m wearing this ridiculous vest. It’s like, “This is the year I found the book on the ’60s.” And those were the six months I was a hippie, embarrassingly.
High school–at the beginning for a lot of people, I think–it’s the years when you bust out. You mature out of a previous personality or something like that.
Again, this is a very interesting question for today in particular. Today is my mom’s birthday, and when I was 17 she passed, so it’s actually been 20 years since she passed away. And that was my junior year in high school, so junior and senior year are very interesting for me.
I was a goofball for a long time.
DL: Has this been a very pensive day for you?
AK: Actually, it’s been an incredibly emotional day.
DL: Oh, wow.
AK: I did not expect it, but I have an excuse. I have a good excuse.
But, I guess I was a goofball for a long time. Definitely a clown. I’ve always been a clown. I was a clowny kid. I was literally into clown stuff. And I learned magic. That made me a huge magic dork. I moved up to San Francisco in the Bay Area and found my way into the kinda punk/alt scene that was going on there. So, there was this combination of being this goofball, and then adding an unusually high amount of angst, depression and world-weariness all of a sudden.
So there you go: I guess I was a lot of a person in high school. A lot. Also, I had cornrows briefly, but we don’t need to talk about that.
DL: Always experimental. Did you go to college?
AK: I did. I went to college way too long. That’s another thing that was all over the map. I started off with some English, and then I went to school for visual arts. I went for illustration, animation, and wound up with a BFA in photography, and a minor in design and all that other stuff.
DL: Do you draw or animate stuff still?
AK: You know, that’s interesting. I kind of bottomed out on that stuff. There’s a lot of complicated shit that happened then, but, like I said, I moved into photography and away from that, and I wound up doing it for a long time. I was an assistant learning photographer, and I did some portrait stuff and was doing that creatively for a while.
And illustration stuff, that’s always been something I loved, but I kind of hit a wall with it early on, and now I’ve actually started revisiting it. And actually, I’ve been trying my hand at traditional animation for the last six months or so.
DL: Have you done a self-portrait recently at all?
AK: Kind of.
DL: Photography or illustration?
AK: It’s funny, because I was remembering those were the assignments you had to do. It was always funny to me because if it wasn’t assigned, I don’t know if I would have done something like a self-portrait. But in a weird way, just to relate it to what I actually do [stand-up comedy], a huge chunk of telling an audience who you are is like a verbal self-portrait.
The closest thing I’ve gotten [to a self-portrait] is when I designed the logo for different versions of The Business, the show that I’ve run the last couple years and my face is on that, albeit without eyeballs.
I think a lot of comedians look down on
anything that has to do with a “comedy class”.
DL: How did you get involved with standup? How did that progress from what you were doing before?
AK: Like I said, I was this ridiculously spazzy clown of a kid when I was younger. I always liked comedy. It was a huge part of me growing up. When I was really young, I listened to Dr. Demento every Sunday night. I don’t know if you ever got hooked on Weird Al. I think my first stand-up tape was Eddie Murphy, [especially] his first two albums.
For a few years out of high school, I just toured with this band. I’ve never played an instrument. I was basically like a go-go dancer, and I just wore these crazy outfits. All the bands I gravitated towards would get labeled funny, or they would be something that was really absurd and didn’t take itself very seriously. And one band in particular–that band was called Your Mother. I mean, the name kind of says it all. Ah, the ’90s…
The stage shows would just be chaotic. We’d do all this ridiculous banter in between songs, and it was us being goofballs, and we would purposely do stuff to annoy audiences. Punk audiences can take themselves so seriously–any music crowd can. And I think we really delighted in being as obnoxious and nerdy as possible.
So, that kind of ended, and I was going to school, barely. And my dirty secret is that there was this class: one credit, one semester, one day a week. It was a stand-up comedy class. Clearly, I was really curious about it. It was a weird experience. The instructor was wonderful. She was part of the LA comedy scene in the late ’70s. Karin Babbitt Chilcott was her name. So she knew all the players from The Comedy Store at that time, and she knew [Bill] Hicks. At the time I was just jerking off to Hicks and Andy Kaufman, and anything that was provocative and avant-garde. I would try and pump her for stories. Basically, I was the only one in that class that was actually doing the homework, like attending open mics and trying. You can imagine the cross section of people in a one credit, one day a week stand-up comedy class. Nobody did anything. They though it was a joke, which is a joke, in a joke, in a joke.
And the improv session–I used to call it my Screaming and Butt-Fucking class, because everything would wind up being that. So that’s it. I just kept doing it.
I think a lot of comedians look down on anything that has to do with a “comedy class.”
Even if nobody shows up and we lose money,
we’ll make a pact to do it every week.
DL: Did you have a hand in the creation of The Business? How did that get started?
AK: It was me and a couple other comedians just hanging out after a show, and we went to this place in San Francisco called Taqueria Canqun–that’s kind of a landmark there. We were having burritos, and I was talking to my friend, Bucky Sinister. Bucky had just started to dip his toe into comedy. He came from this spoken-word poetry world. I don’t know if you remember–there was this explosion of a spoken-word scene in the early ’90s, and at the same time slam poetry was getting popular. You know, it’s sometimes hard to find (unless you’re getting booked) places with longer sets to practice moving up from doing a small amount of time to headlining. Basically, featuring and then headlining. Bucky was looking at me and says, “You know what, I saw this storefront downtown, and I almost considering buying it, and then just living in it, and putting a stage in there and opening the doors all day. And then I’m just gonna read things, and people can come and go whenever they want.”
It was a ridiculous idea that I’m pretty sure he was totally serious about, which I would have loved to have seen happen. I was like, “Well, I kind of want to have a space where I can really explore too. Why don’t we find a theater, or some space that will let us do something really cheap, like the cheapest place we can find, and we’ll split it. We’ll just treat it like a utilities bill. Even if nobody shows up and we lose money, we’ll make a pact to do it every week.” Then we roped two other comics into it–Chris Garcia and Sean Keane.
And we found a theatre, across the street from Taqueria Canqun, this place called The Darkroom. They gave us a night, and we did it. At first, the four of us all got half an hour each, which we quickly found out was exhausting to an audience. But then it evolved over time. We got the hang of it, and I think we all found our voice. Slowly but surely, we built up a little bit of a name. I had gotten a little bit of exposure, and I’d been around to a bunch of festivals, so I knew some other comedians, and when they’d come into town we’d have them stop by. So, we slowly got this name of being the only real alt venue in town that had some kind of consistency and had an interesting format that wasn’t just a showcase. And we also tried to be snobby a little bit about it like, “This is our show; this is the four of us,” and we would have a couple guests or we’d have one other person do a little bit of a set, but we were at first really, really cemented to the idea that this was just for us.
So we hung onto that, and then four and a half, five years later we were sold out every week, and by then rotated some members. Chris Garcia and Chris Thayer both moved to LA and started The Business down there. And then I moved to New York last year and started The Business out here.
DL: Are there guests that you invite on specifically? How do people aggregate? Does each town have their regulars that are there consistently every week, or does it cycle through guests with maybe a few consistent comics?
AK: It’s interesting, because it’s a different animal in every city–it kind of has to be. The way it operates in San Francisco–I don’t think it could operate anywhere else in the world. The tone we built there, and the scene, it’s a big fish in a small pond, so there are certain characteristics that come with that.
We have a lot of the people in town that do it (the local comics), but then we can scoop up some people that come in from out of town. It’s got a bit more of a uniqueness to it. It’s got a very special thing to it. Also, the tone of it was us having this freedom to really stretch out, really get personal, and go off format of what’s expected in a club. Wherever alt came from in the very beginning was like this real alternative to the clubs and the expected comedy scene in town.
When I moved to L.A., it was very different. I think at first I had a little bit of a hard time finding a place and a rhythm because it had to be a little bit more of a structured show, and it started out as being a drop in a big bucket of so many other shows going on in town. After about a year it went on hiatus, and now they just opened back up again. Three of our members from San Francisco moved down there, and so what used to be the show there has started up again in L.A. with Bucky being the only original original member still in SF.
I started here [in New York] with Jared Logan, Kerry Klenk and Michelle Wolf, and they liked the idea of what the SF model was. So we were looking to do an alt venue at a bar or a theatre. We initially got approached by a really regular stand-up club, The Stand, and they wanted an alt-y show so we said, “Okay, let’s see how this goes.” I thought it was good there. It was very different. We had to run a very tight show. There was really a lot less chance for experimentation, but we still tried to put the four of us as the center of the show. One of the interesting things is for almost three months Janeane Garofalo was on the show, almost every time. And that was good, because she can be considered one of the founding mothers of the alt scene. So at times she set the tone for us to be more free form.
But we’ve moved on from there. We’re actually looking for a new venue where we could be closer to what we wanted it to be.
I still have trouble inviting people out to see me,
especially if I’m friends with them. If I love them,
I don’t want to subject them to what I do.
DL: Who are some of your favorite living comics you would consider to be your contemporaries?
AK: Arj Barker and Robert Hawkins. Arj has some popularity, since he moved to Australia where he’s humongous. And Robert Hawkins does the road for most of the year and is one of the greatest guys nobody’s heard of.
DL: What is “Boomtime,” and does it still exist?
AK: It does not in any tangible form still exist. I don’t think we ever officially broke up, but I don’t think we’re ever going to do anything again. I don’t know–maybe we’ll pull something off. It was actually Brent Weinbach, myself, and Moshe Kasher. We came together because Brent and I had written a couple of very bizarre sketches, and we were performing them live every once in a while in San Francisco, years ago when we started. And then Brent had met Moshe, and they had done a couple of the same things. And then somebody asked us to do something together with the sketches, and we decided to write a couple more and pull it together, and then we had a small show together. I have a feeling it was Brent that probably coined the name “Boomtime,” or I think he was just saying that a lot at the end of jokes at the time, so we decided to pick up on that.
We had a live show, and I liked the tone that we had mixed together. We liked a lot of odd stuff, and we got to perform a lot. We did Sketchfest in San Francisco and a few decent shows for a while, and then we got to do a series of videos. They’re all online, but they never really wound up going anywhere. That’s always been disappointing, I think, for all three of us. Every once in a while, Brent will write me and he’ll say, “I watched the videos. They’re really funny”.
DL: Did the people closest in your life support your decision to be a comedian? I imagine these would be the same people that were there when you were supporting other artistic ventures.
AK: Yeah, I think of all the things that I’ve done, this seemed at least mildly stable, considering I have a long penchant for getting into unexplainable and bizarre bullshit, just doing that for a while, aimlessly. This seemed to be a path I stayed on.
I’ve always had a very supportive family. My biological mother, my stepmother and my dad, they were always very encouraging. They knew I was a weird kid. They liked to encourage and let that flourish, and they really made me feel good about my creativity. I’m incredibly lucky to have found and been with my partner for ten years. She has, from the very beginning, been supportive in ways I still don’t believe. I feel that was a stroke of luck, and I appreciate it every day. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of people who really back me and believe in me.
Back then, when I first started doing this, I was very quiet and clandestine about it. I still have trouble inviting people out to see me, especially if I’m friends with them. If I love them, I don’t want to subject them to what I do.
As far as the arts go,
it’s not love/hate.
It’s worthwhile and worthless.
DL: Do you have any vices?
AK: Wow. I don’t know. I don’t know if I have anything really, anymore. I’m getting old and boring, I suppose. I just fucked around with a lot of stuff; you know, booze and some drugs and stuff like that. I’ve been lucky enough none of that has ever blossomed into a real vice, never taken hold of me. I have plenty of other personal things to tackle that I think are cyclical enough to take the place of a vice.
DL: Have you ever had any experiences with psychedelics?
AK: Yes, I have, actually.
DL: Which ones? Which ones did you enjoy the most, or get the most out of?
AK: Mushrooms. I did LSD once, and, I don’t know, do you consider Ecstasy a-
DL: Yeah, it’s psychedelic.
AK: I did that a couple of times. The diminishing returns on that were enough to make me go, “Okay, I don’t need to do this anymore.” It was really weird; that stuff showed me its face really quickly. There are definitely some things that gave me some mental gifts, things that I still retain to this day that were positive.
As skeezy as this sounds, one of the first times I did it was with the majority of the San Jose State Female Swim Team. And there was absolutely nothing sexual that happened, but I think it helped me get over a lot of fear of… women? You know, just like being a nerdy, introverted guy. It felt like all of a sudden that helped out a lot. But at the same time, one other time we were with some awful girl I couldn’t stand. She was annoying, and I couldn’t stand her. And then she stood up to sing, and she sang awful, and then I realized I was standing up and applauding and encouraging her. And as soon as that was over I think, “This is an incredibly dangerous drug”.
I had kind of a weird, dark period that coincided with me starting stand-up. And I think around that time is when I was doing most of my experimentation. Mushrooms was the most that I’d done up until that point, and then I didn’t do it again for ten years. And then, very randomly, a friend of mine asked, and we went near woods to do them again, and that kind of brought me back to the fold a little bit. It’s been a thing I return to every few months.
DL: Do you think humans have free will or is the concept of choice illusory?
AK: I feel like I’m stepping in a snake pit because I know these are big, defined terms and concepts that I really don’t understand, but on the basics of it, I guess I do think of free will. Yes?
DL: All of the cells in your body, and all of the atoms in your body are completely different than the ones that you started with, so it seems like we’re this continuation, like a stream or a sequence. There’s no concrete. No one can point to the self. How would that factor in? Do you think we’re meat that has a spark? Do you think there’s something special about humans, like we have a soul, or something? Not that I’m begging the idea.
AK: No, no, I understand, the ghost in the meat. You know, I never allow myself to make any certainties, like statements, which is probably awful for my career as someone who talks to people. I guess I have to believe that, yeah, there is something that exists. There’s something.
Once that’s gone, everything just becomes meat, that’s it. As far as consciousness, what’s behind the eyeballs, I guess I do feel that there’s something more there. What that is I have no idea. Also, just to think for the entire duration of history, every culture has tried to put a name to it, be it spark, be it the ghost, be it the spirit, be it the soul, be it stardust or electrical impulse. What ever it is, I think the collective unconscious, stuff like that, some sort of energy. Damn it, I think there’s at least enough out there to feel like that’s going on. Science seems to really want to chase that down, how we work outside of the meat. It feels like everybody’s chasing that ghost. So I hope it’s there.
We’re all just on a wild ghost chase.
DL: Sounds like a name for a really awesome comedy album.
Do you hope humans survive beyond this millennium, maybe even go live on other planets?
AK: Do I hope? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s worth putting energy into hoping for something like that. I’ve come to the point where it’s really cool that we even think about it. There’s billions of ideas everybody’s throwing out at all times, and we never know for certain which one of those are going to take hold. It’s crazy, organic and often feels like a chaotic process. Yeah, that would be spectacular. I don’t know if I’m going to get to see it or get to be part of it. But I also just kind of assume that in all of those projections and theories and things that people are hoping happen, that the really awesome stuff, or really interesting stuff is going to be the completely unexpected things, the stuff that breaks the pattern.
DL: Do you feel like you’re part of this larger system, contributing to the evolution of culture?
AK: Well, I guess I do. I have to say that I am pretty occupied with the bigger ideas, which is a horrible prison to be in.
If you believe that that’s happening, then everybody’s contributing to it, even the person that falls off a cliff and dies. Like, I wrote a joke about some guy who fell off a cliff. It’s the impact that then pushes it forward. It’s every little thing.
As far as the arts go, it’s not love/hate. It’s worthwhile and worthless. Those are the feelings that I oscillate between. On the one hand, it’s really great and amazing that there’s this thing that happens that is kind of disconnected from money and survival. It occupies this complete other place. And some people say it’s like food for the soul. If the soul really exists, this stuff is there to further the evolution, the development, the satisfaction of that part, which may or may not be completely attached to us.
But then there are the other days where I’m like, “I need to stop doing this and go work at a food bank because if I really wanted to use my time to help the world, then I should be out there putting food directly in people’s mouths.” Thinking of it that way seems pretty counter-evolutionary.
Maybe I’m helping.
I’ve, for a long time, put a really high value on
experience more than anything else.
DL: I would think so. There are people who have more advantages financially, because they were born and raised in a higher class, so they have more wealth and influence. But they use it to become this overstuffed pig, not contributing anything, just taking, where everyone else is kind of in the middle or on the bottom providing for everybody. It all bleeds into one another, but we kind of are forced into these positions where we have to consider using creativity as a possible means to provide for ourselves. So, you were saying it’s detached from the meat, and it serves to feed the soul or whatever. It’s now become, for many, a tool to go back to being able to survive. Even though in it there is all this good “soul stuff,” there’s also the end result of “I now can eat and do this again”.
AK: I even feel that that’s a necessity placed upon it inside a system that works on capital. You can figure out a way to monetize that because people want it, then it does become a survival thing. But I guess if that wasn’t around, who knows, maybe you make somebody laugh, they like you, and they’ll feed you or something. Yeah, I guess so.
DL: I would even like to imagine a culture where we’re all able to survive because robots and artificial intelligence and nuclear fusion all lead to everyone having free food and energy. “The robots have built everyone houses, everybody!”
Actually, we wouldn’t even need to build more houses. There are enough homes, in China and the United States, so that everyone could have a house. It’s just-
There’s billions of ideas everybody’s throwing out at all times, and we never know for certain which one of those are going to take hold.
DL: Allocating the resources to their proper direction. Maybe that’s why we need robots.
AK: That goes for food too. Some people just didn’t think about that and it’s like, “What the fuck are we all doing?” Why is that in all of this time, why has that never come together?
DL: What things in life bring you the most fulfillment?
AK: Being with family.
Like I said, I have a six-month-old and it’s a completely new experience, figuring out all of that. It’s crazy. It’s really crazy, and as hard as it is, building a family between the three of us is absolutely the most satisfying thing in my life, above and beyond everything else.
DL: What would you do with one billion dollars?
AK: I’d sleep in, a little bit. Well, no, I can’t do that anymore, not until the kid gets at least another couple years under him.
A billion dollars. I’d be overwhelmed. I would probably invest? I don’t know; I think I would honestly try and do some philanthropic stuff with it. Sometimes I think about what I would do if I ever got a windfall like that, in relationship to my career, and I feel like outside of the worry of keeping the lights on and being able to buy groceries, I would be satisfied. Investing in other people’s creative projects would be really satisfying for me. But, in the end, I really would not know what to do with a number that large.
What I ultimately would love is any adventure that would come out of it. Because I’ve, for a long time, put a really high value on experience more than anything else. And following your own curiosity–my partner and I value that a lot. If I could afford to take my kid and my lady with me, we’d just head out and not look back.
DL: You’ve been given one week left to live. What do you do with your time?
AK: I like to think that I’ve dealt with depression enough in my life that that would be enough of a kickstarter to say like, “Okay, I’m done with this shit. I’m not staying in bed, let’s go do some stuff.”
You know, people would say, “I’d try heroin! I’d do all the things that you’re not supposed to do because they’re too risky, and there’s no risk left, and it doesn’t matter!” But that seems kind of exhausting.
I would probably gather all the people I love and have a party. Wasn’t there a movie about some guy who did that? He was dying, he was terminal, and he threw a party, and he died there. He wanted to die in the middle of all his friends having a great time. I’d like to think that I was brave enough to do something kind or decisive like that, you know?
Alex continues his adventures in New York and elsewhere. Visit his website, alexkoll.squarespace.com.
Follow him on twitter @alexkoll.
This interview was originally published in our 2015 holiday bonus issue!