Safe in an Unsafe Space with Toby Muresianu

Toby Muresianu is “a very funny engineer” working in California. His show, Unsafe Space, brings together comedians and experts to discuss pressing issues that face us today.  David Luna recently spoke with Toby about the show and his approach to politics and comedy.

How’s the year been for you as an entertainer in the most entertaining year of our contemporary history?

I’ve had a lot of good, entertaining years in my lifetime, but this is probably the most ridiculous, in terms of politics. It’s entertaining. I feel like I’m a pretty boring person. I always enjoyed things being more boring and safer and better for more people rather than exciting but also terrifying. People always tell political comedians “You must be so glad that there’s lots of material with terrible politicians!” and I’m like yeah, but I’m a person first. I’m not that greedy that I’d rather live in an awful country with plenty of fodder for material.

How long have you been doing stand-up?

About 14 years now. I got off to a slower start. I was one of those guys who did it once a month, and then I got into it gradually, more in earnest around 2006. I started when I was a freshman in college so most of my focus was on studying and college stuff.

Are you pursuing comedy full time? What are your personal goals as a human being?

I had been an engineer at Microsoft for a couple of years, and then I left to do app development and stand-up comedy. I’ve done that for a number of years. Sometimes I’d be making my living doing comedy and not focusing on apps, and sometimes that would flip-flop. It’s always been a bit murky. I’ll take side jobs, engineering on a comedy podcast, working for Uber and then blogging about it. Generally, I’ve been a comedian more than anything else, doing tangential sidework related to comedy since 2009. The idea of “full time comedian” is kind of murky. I could make a living if I stayed on the road all the time, but recently I’ve been staying in LA more to focus on stuff here.

What have been your most fulfilling experiences as a comedian?

In 2013 I did the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time; I did an hour long solo show. Doing that and having a big crowd some days, just for me, that was the first time I’d consistently do an hour. I’d done it sporadically before that, but this was the first time it was my full show. I’m doing an hour every night, not filling it with crowd work. It was all material that I’m proud of, not throwing in hacky jokes to fill the time.

I was also running a show at the time, a compilation show. I was running two shows a day; it was a very hard experience. You’re in charge of promoting a show, everyone who comes in is coming exclusively to see you, and when you have a shitty set you take it personally because there’s no one else to blame it on. You’re responsible for it when it’s finished, but on the flip side, when it goes well, by the end of run you’re firing on all cylinders and it’s really rewarding.

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What are you involved with at the moment?

I always bite off more than I can chew, which is a blessing and curse. Right now, my big project is Unsafe Space, which is a live show and a podcast that I co-produce with my friend Lou Perez another comedian. It’s a live show where people do stand-up on controversial topics, and then there’s a response from experts in the field and a discussion with the audience.

Actual experts come to the event?

Yeah, we did one on guns with a constitutional law professor and a gun control advocate who had been in a mass shooting. And then we try to book comics with a personal connection to it. For that one we booked Ed Greer who used to be in the NRA and at one point shot a guy. It’s interesting to hear from people for whom these political issues aren’t just something they have opinions about but have personally affected them, they have firsthand experience. We have a podcast that we record in studio, and for that we mostly get people who are passionate about the politics but might not have the firsthand experience.

How long has that been going on?

Since last June or July, so about a year now. The show is monthly, and we try to have the in studio ones enough that we can do two a month; almost weekly but not quite. Weekly would be great, but we don’t want the live show to be overshadowed by the podcast. We’re a live show first, and the in-studio is really a supplement to that.

Getting back to other things I’m involved in, I write for Top Story Weekly which is a sketch show at iO West. I have written an app that helps run a comedy show, but it’s in sore need of an update. It was broken by an Apple update a while ago. I’m working on getting that back online. I do Roast Battle a lot. I never felt like I was in a clique except when I was in Seattle as one of the core people in that scene until I moved. This is one of the more recent things, I do Roast Battle frequently, and I have friends who go to all the shows. Afterwards we go to Norm’s and eat and run jokes by each other. That’s one of the communities I’m closest too.

How does the comedy app work?

Most people use Apple’s built-in timer, which you can set it for when you want to give people the light or set it for the end of their set and remember to give the light at minute till the time. This app improves on that. It lets you set a time and a reminder time for the light. When you choose to light someone, you can choose which screen to show. The most popular is a screen with the amount of minutes remaining, so from across the room the comic knows how much time they have left. The other thing it does is keep track of how long the clock has been stopped. So if you forget to reset for another performer, you have an idea of how long it’s been. You can adjust it while it’s running to allow for more time, or if you start the clock 15 seconds late, you can deduct that. It’s an improvement on the existing option, but it was popular while it was working.

As a person living in the world, what are your biggest concerns for our country?

I think our biggest concern is partisanship and antagonism. I think people in the political spectrum tend to vilify too much. I think people get wrapped up in issues that are symbolic and not important, like bathroom laws and wedge issues that go to the forefront. My fear is that it’s a massive imbroglio because we focus on these emotionally charged issues and not the day to day business of running a country where we can get pragmatic solutions and incremental improvements on the systems we have. Sometimes it’s necessary to make major changes, but I think the antagonism and the emotions are far bigger than the problems that we face. It’s counter-productive in finding solutions to them. I don’t think that running a reasonably efficient and successful country is as much of a black art that we’re constantly guessing it is. For the most part we have 180 countries in the world and 100-some years of modern history; we know roughly how to get successful solutions. We keep fighting these old battles about overarching issues like “the government’s always bad” and “we need to toll the rich and have the proletariat’s take over.” Come on guys, just get a grip and do your fucking jobs. We can use the solutions that generally tend to work and not be fooled by demagogues and ideologues who propose to do more harm than good or engender heated debates that do more harm than good.

I think the world has steadily gotten better despite the fact that we tend to focus on the negative. Generally speaking, global poverty has been plummeting, standards of living have increased. We’re in a safer world than we’ve ever been. We have access to better nutrition than we ever have. There’s opportunity and social mobility in a way that people downplay. I think that looking at this as “how horrible everything is, it’s worse than it’s ever been” is a real strain when you look at the world. I think that we should continue to do the best we can in a quiet and productive way instead of this emotionally charged battle that we have going on. When you have democracy, it favors people who can make people angry. I think H.L. Menkin said “the basic aim of practical politics is to make people as angry as possible so they turn to you for a solution.” I think there’s something to that. In all parties you want to make things look bad so you make the case that you have the solution. If stuff is generally okay, people don’t vote for you because they don’t feel that sense of urgency, or you’re not manufacturing a sense of urgency. That’s a time bomb, because when you get people more and more agitated that can explode in a way that hurts us all.

This year is a good example of that. Over in LA, are people outspoken about their politics? Has it gotten heated, or are people on edge waiting to see what happens? What’s the atmosphere like over there?

I think it’s all on Facebook. That’s where 99% of the political back and forth I see takes place. People generally don’t talk about politics that much in person and I find that when they do, as in my show which I started in response to all this vitriol online. I said “let’s stop talking past each other and put people in same room with people who know what they’re talking about so we can have a constructive dialogue instead of just lobbing grenades back and forth. I find that when you talk in person, people are a lot more understanding than they are online because they’re accountable for looking someone in the eyes, and they know they’re going to be responded to. They have more empathy for someone they can look at and talk to and know they like, as opposed to someone typing behind their keyboard where they’re being watched by all their friends and there’s a pressure to grandstand and have this anger that’s not tempered by talking face to face.

Sounds like community building on top of stand-up comedy.

That’s my hope, that it’s force for good. More than a place where there’s something that people laugh at. I would like it to be a place where people go regularly and listen regularly and they have a way to find a reasoned, smart and also funny way to dialogue about the issues.

Those areas exist. There are some talk shows that are good, but I find that some of the shows online also are one-sided or prize people that one-up each other, rather than having a productive dialogue because that’s better for ratings.

Who chooses the topic for your show?

Lou and I, we reach consensus and throw out ideas. There’s never a shortage of topics, even topics that we did, once you pick one you realize there’s so many aspects to it. Like healthcare, there’s so many angles to look at it from. You could easily have six shows on healthcare and the different topics related to it. Sometimes I’ll have 6 topics written down for a show, I’ll look at my watch and it’s an hour later and we’re still on the first topic. Everyone’s paying attention and there are laughs in room and I wonder if I should even move on to the second topic; you cover more ground that way. When I started doing it, I was like “Well, we’ll talk about this and when we run out of stuff to say we’ll move on to the next topic.” People never run out of stuff to say unless you change the topic and force them to.

If money wasn’t an object and you could take on any personal project, it can be as big scale as you can imagine, what would you work on?

This is it. When you do comedy, that’s what you’re doing really, you better hope that money’s no object because not a lot of it is coming. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do Unsafe Space. There’s so many ways you can invest your time in the [comedy] community now; you can do a podcast, social media, Instagram, Vine or blogs, or go on the road, work on your 7 minutes, start a live show, write a pilot, write for UCB and take classes. There’s so many ways you can invest your time. What I wanted to do was invest my time in something I want the most to be successful. I don’t want to invest my time in writing spec scripts that help get staffed on a sitcom that I don’t care about while I wonder if what if I have is my dream job. If you’re going to invest all your time in something and you really put your heart in something that you want to be successful, why not have it be your ultimate fantasy? Why create a stepping stone for yourself? For me it’s Unsafe Space. Ultimately, I’d like to be doing it on a bigger scale as a TV show or a podcast with 10,000 downloads, going to festivals or Montreal, something like that. That would be my dream.

I think it’s important when you do comedy to enjoy every step of the way. The fundamentals have changed. If you don’t like doing stand-up in front of 15 people, you’re not going to like it that much more when it’s 15 hundred. It’s still the same microphone, you’re telling the same jokes, you’re hoping for a laugh, why wait and imagine that you’ll enjoy it at some point down the line? Honestly, even the most successful people like Seinfeld, he was a comedian and he got a show, one of the most successful TV shows of all time, and now he does stand-up. If you don’t like stand-up to begin with, it’s never going away so why are you doing it now? Just do what you want to do. If you want to do something for money just work at a bank. I have the option where I could just work as an engineer or whatever, but if I’m going to do something it’s because I truly want to, not because money’s a concern.

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Stand-up comedy has been revered for a long time, it seems to be one of the only professions someone can pursue where it’s completely dependent upon their character and their timing and other than that they can be whoever they want. It sparks a chain reaction in interests in certain topics, whatever they happen to be talking about it, and it can spread and have an effect on what people are talking about in the world. It’s like Hannibal Buress talking about Bill Cosby. Or [comedians] are markers for where we can be as a society, like Louis CK, he says a lot of vulgar things and it’s hysterical and it works because he’s very sincere and what he talks about “be a decent person, don’t be a shitty person–

But I am a shitty person.

Yeah. It resonates with people because it’s so real. Comedians are public speakers who don’t seem pretentious while talking about real things and people listen to them. Whether or not they’re consciously taking it into better their own lives, I think it does. As a comedian, how do you feel about your profession and the effect it has on the world?

You look at your John Olivers, your Jon Stewarts, Adam Corollas, they definitely influence their audiences. It shapes the dialogue nationally and what beliefs are okay to have. When they hit a nerve and go viral. It’s also important to laugh at yourself, one thing that I like is when comedians don’t take themselves too seriously when talking about certain subjects. You can’t just be another talking head with an agenda, you have to be human, and that increases the respect that people have for you and your words.

People who have a big role in shaping things aren’t just stand-ups, but columnists. Abe Lincoln was writing takedowns in the Springfield paper, roasting and vitriol, but it was funny. The humor, that makes people love it more, the more people love it, the more they share it, the more they connect with it. If something makes you laugh, you’re more likely to want to like it than be predisposed to it. It’s a powerful way to influence people and change their beliefs and perspectives.

If you had one week to live and you were aware it was only one week, what would you do with your time.

Well, I guess I would do a nonstop fuck-fest.

I guess I would try to put pen to paper and have some parting words for the world. Try to make the world as much of a better place as I could, while taking time with my loved ones as much as I could. This may be a little cheesy because it’s my high school’s slogan, but a motto I’ve taken to heart is “not for oneself.” I think I have, and other people have, a responsibility to make the world as much of a better place as possible. That being said, it doesn’t have to be a grand change in the world, we have the biggest effect on those we’re closest to, our family, our friends, you don’t have to change the world on a national, international, or public level. If you’re making the world better for the people around you, that is often more impactful than swinging for the fences.

You can follow Toby Muresianu on twitter @tobymuresianu and learn more about Unsafe Space by following @UnsafeSpaceShow or visiting their website.

Interview conducted by David Luna
Artwork by David Luna and Kevin Cole

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