Matt Graham, a comedian once known in the Boston comic realm as the master of "non stand-up stand-up," has one of the most daunting resumes we've ever seen. He rubbed elbows with Louis CK and Janeane Garofalo on the comedy circuit in the 1980s, then made appearances on Conan O'Brien, wrote for SNL and even earned the admiration of podcast curmudgeon Marc Maron.
But Graham recently took an eight-year hiatus from comedy, devoting himself to two of his other impressive talents -- Scrabble and NCAA basketball. Back in 1997, Graham placed second at the World Scrabble Championship. Then at the age of 40, he tried out for Hunter College's Division III basketball team.
If these experiences weren't enough, Graham, who has battled with alcoholism and depression over the years, has recently added "Theatrical Performer" to his list of professional achievements. After avoiding the crowded platform of comedy clubs for nearly a decade, he wrote a one-man show, titled "This Too Shall Suck," which he performed on a new type of stage -- the Fringe Festival. Described by NYTheater as "an emotional punch in the gut rhapsody about being human," the show is a sincere and often hilarious overview of Graham's tumultuous life, from his brush with fame in Boston to his darker days living alone in Queens with his cat, Ruth.
"This Too Shall Suck," which is enjoying an extended run at Soho Playhouse, marks Graham's baptism into the world of New York theater. Last month, we had the chance to speak the comedian about his crossover career, the competitive world of Scrabble and why he prefers his new cabaret home. Scroll down for interview.
When did your career in comedy begin?
When I was five years old I would memorize Woody Allen and perform lines at dinner parties and summer camps. So that was really the beginning of my career as a comedian. The nightclub years? I did that over and over and over as a teenager. I dropped out of school. I had truancy problems so they really forbade me from coming. So I spun my wheels for a few months. Spent some time in Indianapolis. I wanted to leave there very much.
And you finally ended up in Boston?
Boston -- that was an odd conclusion. I liked Steven Wright and I was curious about what was going on there. I worked with Boston comics on the road who said good things. I hadn't worked with any New York comics so it wasn't a decision I made with great depth of thinking, which is often the case for me. I just liked [Wright]. Whether it was the best place to be, I don't know. New York was tougher. There was more energy in Boston back then.
In Boston, Janeane Garofalo said you were the one guy in town she thought would be famous. At that time, did you think fame was in your future too?
I was sitting on pavement when she said it. I think she meant it. People thought I was a wunderkind. Gee, at that point, no later than 1985, I might have still thought it too. But I wasn't developing at the rate I wanted. Everything was moving away from jokes. Steven Wright had made short jokes big for a while, but you could see that was on the way out. I just couldn't be objective about my act. I was confident to the point of being cocky. I was more interested in drinking than my career. I assumed I would just do well and [success] would come eventually.
You worked for SNL, under Colin Quinn at Weekend Update, but you were fired 4 months in. Was this a breaking point for you in your career?
Well, it was a mix of, like, being a big break and a nervous breakdown. You know, it got me more work and credit to this day. I ended up writing at Conan. But it was frustrating -- there was no winning. It was stressful to get fired. People assumed I was fired for being irresponsible, but that was not the case. I worked really hard and I just didn't get stuff on [the show]. I had never had a job and I didn't know how things would happen in life. That you'd get paid all that money and not get a real shot. Even in that short time I was probably making six figures with residuals.
When did you decide to depart from comedy?
It was a slow process. I was really into it until about 1993 or 1994. Around 1992, I got into Scrabble, with my girlfriend. I got very into that. I became removed from comedy because of that. I was more interested in studying and playing to get better than going to gigs. I still did gigs for money, but I didn't go out of my way to get them. Somewhere around that time, I was a little burnt out and tired. I started to become less insecure though. Being insecure helps people do better in this business. I was finding it too difficult to be thinking about who was getting a break. I was able to change, which was great for my personal life but not for my ambition.
How did this Scrabble obsession begin?
I started in 1992. I went to a [Scrabble] club for the first time and was introduced to the scene of the game. I rose pretty quickly and qualified for my first World Championship in 1993.
What was the allure of Scrabble competitions?
I just really liked the game -- the puzzle-solving aspect. In a way, it's not so different than if you asked a great guitarist why they wanted to play guitar. They just love it. It was easier to be great at it because I loved it. It's funny because I had felt I was under the microscope and their was so much subjectivity in my life. What I liked about Scrabble was nobody got to make a decision on whether I was good or not. I was not popular amongst the players. But because I could win, the numbers decided whether I did well.
What was the general response to your Scrabble enthusiasm?
To me becoming a Scrabble rock star? David Cross was the only one that made a point of it. He made relentless fun of me when I was still roommates with him. He'd say [Scrabble rock star] mockingly. He couldn't wrap his head around why you would do something that wouldn't make fame or money. The ironic thing was, though, that my biggest prize was $10,000 for second place [at the 1997 World Scrabble Championships]. And I made more money teaching people privately. I taught people how to gamble on bridge, gin rummy and backgammon. I was actually pretty successful at that.
You mentioned that you were still drinking at this point. When did sobriety happen?
I played Scrabble for years and I did some comedy, but my heart wasn't in it. I wasn't totally out of [comedy] until 2001. I was known by the Conan producers and I would go out and do jokes and we would do 5 or 6 sets in different clubs. It took me about a year and half to two years to quit drinking. I always knew I was an alcoholic but I just didn't think I would ever do anything about it. Then I quit.
Interview with Marc Maron on "WTF with Marc Maron"
And then you decided to become an NCAA basketball player?
Yeah, at Hunter College. I had never played and I was not fantastic. But I was a good player, good enough that I could have played Division III. Again, I just wanted to do it because I loved it.
When did you decide, “Alright, basketball stardom isn’t for me, I think I'll do a one man show"?
From 2003-2011, I was in love with this cat [Ruth] but my social life was slow. I had become very flat and unexcited about things. I had a date with this cute girl at one point but I ended up not getting a second date. It was frustrating! My lack of social life. I realized that I wanted a creative outlet. I was in a manic state about the thing with the girl and I wanted a way to express myself creatively.
I like theater because I was never into the cut throat world of standup. It draws a super type of insecure person. It draws people who compete not necessarily by bringing the best product, but by making it difficult for other people. I didn't want that environment and that's why I entered the theatrical environment. Theater owners are more down to earth. They'll actually get on the phone with you. Comedy bookers are either busy or come to feel quite important and you just can't get them on the line. I also like that fact that my show is different. It's not purely comedy, but I do a little standup. I just don't have to make people laugh every second.
What are you hoping to achieve with “This Too Shall Suck”?
It started out with just a desire for money and women, now the biggest rush for me and what I work for every show -- I pray that I can on my knees -- is that I can help and ensure people. Because my struggles and my life and my passion can be inspiration for people. To make them cry and appreciate life. This is not something I thought I would do. I'm very egocentric and selfish, but totally by chance and not some noble action, I ended up bringing out something really great.
The show has been extended into May 2013. Congratulations!
It's been quite an honor. At the [Fringe Festival] Encore series, 187 shows vied for 15 spots. And ["This Too Shall Suck"] was accepted. I'd been so used to standup where everything was such a struggle, I didn't know how much I would be accepted. You know, I think theater adapts well to all kinds of cabaret environments. This type of show can be done at theaters that aren't too big, that have the right seating structure. There are a lot of laughs in the show, but it's not standup, because it's not anything. It's a totally different kind of vulnerability.
You can catch "This Too Shall Suck" every Thursday from 8-9PM at the Soho Playhouse in New York.