Black Coffee Talk With Nick Callas

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Nick Callas is cool. He's cooler than your gran-dad's 67' GTO, cooler than that unlimited Uber commute card, and definitely a lot cooler than the temperature recently. The NYC based actor/comedian is going to be a comedy staple soon enough and I'm giving you the chance to get in on the ground floor. I recently sat down with him over some black coffee talking about life. Check it out.

Zeby - What was it like growing up in New Jersey?

Nick - I definitely felt that I lived in a sort of traditional, almost comically so, town where sports were important. So much so that you could be driving down the street, get pulled over by the cops and have the last name of the kid who went to the championship in 96' and get away with speeding. I always felt there was a hierarchy in my town having to do with family and social status. I lived in an upper middle-class neighborhood but was a kid who came from a family that moved a lot, divorced, so I always kind of felt like the poor kid in a rich town in a lot of ways. My experience I think was profoundly Jersey in the way that we were just a bunch of kids who were running around backyards and riding bikes through our woods and finding our own adventures in a place that seemed like a zoo. It was a safe habitat but had little dangers that we built for ourselves within it. I think when I look back at my childhood, there were things that were very difficult for me but then I zoom out a little bit and I say, "oh I was safe the entire time."

Zeby - Were you a trouble maker?

Nick - Not at first but now my mom asks me all the time, "What happened to my Nicholas?" She asks me that at least once a week because I was very quiet, antisocial, anxious and so scared of judgment when I was young. Whatever that might've meant. I went to summer camp once and it was traumatizing because I was suddenly alone. I had terrible separation anxiety from my mom and I cried for three days because I didn't know anyone there and very quickly comedy, outrageousness and acting out became a crutch. You know how some kids suck their thumbs to feel more secure? For me, making jokes and acting out was my thumb-sucking. It was a complete antithesis to how I felt before. I felt alive. It started to give me a lot of joy and friends. It gave me validation and approval. I ran with that

Zeby - Why do you think you changed?

Nick - I don't know, I remember the moment that I was aware of myself as a human being. It was a really weird thing and I'll never forget it. I remember being in my room when I was about six or seven years old and suddenly I had this thought that I was a person in this world and what does that mean? Who am I? I'm a character and I can hear my thoughts and I can't hear anybody else's. I'm definitely doing something but I don't know what it is. I don't know how I started but suddenly I'm aware that something's going on and that voice never left. It just instantly became a version of myself that coached me through every situation. It's that hyper awareness that really shaped me. I think that's when I developed the sort of compass that made it very easy for me to decide what was important. I always had an intimate relationship with how I thought and felt about something. It feels very akin to being an artist.

Zeby - What do you remember the most from your childhood?

Nick - A lot of discomfort with myself and a lot of trying very desperately to fit in. I lived my life by proving my value either by drawing or being funny. I felt like if I could show people a little bit of humor in situations I would have a pretty irrevocable value to social groups which I always felt like was the most important thing. It was always more than school and getting good grades. It always affected me more profoundly.

Zeby - Do you think that you do things subconsciously to get approval from your dad?

Nick - I think in a very basic psych 101 way that was probably true at some point in my early youth. However, the ultimate truth is that I fucking love Comedy and comic books and films and acting. I love these things more than I need people to tell me that I'm worth it. I love Jim Carrey movies in a way that if I grew up in the White House, in the greatest circumstances that you can ever imagine, those things would still mean the world to me. I am a fan of art before anything and one thing feeds the other so I'm sure part of the reason those things really resonate with me is because of the way I grew up. At the same time the reason why I participate in art is because I have a major adoration for it. The vast majority what I do, I do because I sincerely enjoy it and I really want to share my work. My best comedy comes from the feeling that I want to see other people laugh, not the feeling that I want other people to congratulate me. Those are the worst sets. Any comic will tell you if you go on stage and try specifically to do well, you won't do well. Getting on stage and just wanting to see people laugh always yields the best performances. Wanting to do well has this weird effect on being funny but being really funny is just that.

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"The closer you stay to the rules, the better you know when to break them."

Zeby - Do you ever think back to your childhood and have any regrets?

Nick - I think I'm too aware of myself and my thought process to have regrets. I'm not the kind of guy to think, "Oh man, a year ago I did this when I should've done that". I'm constantly overly-hesitant with decision-making to the point where I'm so aware of myself that I actually consider whether or not I will regret something frequently. I'm always competing with what the best choice should be. I don't have any regrets because I think I do a pretty good job of making the decision that I should be making. Sometimes I find out that I was wrong but I know that I was trying my best.

Zeby - What are you afraid of?

Nick - My biggest fear lately has become time. I'm really scared of time because I'm 23 now and I feel like the last two years disappeared so quickly. I've never felt that way in my life. I've always felt that I was aging at this really slow pace but as I get older,I'm realizing that it's easier to observe life experiences. Now, a year is not just a year. A year now for me is how many sketches did I film? How many standup did I write? How many portfolios have I drawn? How many songs did I record? Knowing that time is so limited is terrifying to me because there's so much that I want to do. Every day I have 30 new ideas and they're finished in my head but they don't exist in the real world so time has become very terrifying to me. I know I'll only be able to give 1/100th of myself to the world artistically.

Zeby - Does that scare you or have you become content with it now?

Nick - I think I'm more content with it because I can't fight it really. The only way to fight that is to compete with myself and make the things I want to make and care about the things I make. Not just performances but also relationships. I realized a week ago that I've changed and I think that at least in terms of my worries for who I am, I changed a little for the worst. I think it was a result of trying hard to get more done and be more productive but my character shifted and I want to make sure that the artist I am is in line with the person I want to be.

Zeby - Do you think that people's image of you is the same as your image of yourself?

Nick - I think I feel happy when those things align. That's not always the case. Actually, It's pretty much always not the case. My validation of my ego comes from getting people to see the part of myself that I want them to. The thing is, everyone's got a Facebook page. People who aren't film makers have Youtube accounts and people who aren't poets have Twitter and everyone's constantly going, "here's the me I want you to know me as." It's almost like we are just putting these holographic versions of ourselves into the world and forcing them to interact with each other but nothing is coming from that because it's two fake versions of two real people. I think my job as a comedian is to cut through all of that and give the most sincere version of myself that I can. When I promote shows, it's hard because there's no real vulnerable way to promote a standup show. You say, "Hey. Here's the day, here's the time, here's the location, and I hope that it's good and you should come to it." Theres a lot of ego in saying, "I am entitled enough to think that you need to come and pay to see me perform" so a lot of what I'm doing all of the time is going, "Me! Me! Indulge me!" I feel an obligation to make sure I give people something in exchange for indulging me. A lot of people put pictures of themselves up on Instagram or Facebook and they're asking themselves to be indulged but they're not giving anything in return. As an artist, my job is to make sure that whatever your ticket price was, you got that amount in perfect comedy.

Zeby - Speaking of comedy, do you remember the feeling you had when you watched your first comedy special?

Nick - I don't remember the first time I watched a comedy special. It was probably Jim Carrey's Unnatural Act or Dane cook's Presents. It might have actually been Gree Barnes' Comedy Central Presents... I remember a lot as a kid watching cartoons, specifically like DragonBall Z or Batman, feeling like that stuff was really important. I remember I would kick, scream and cry to skip soccer practice just to watch DragonBall Z and I think at the time I just thought this is what kids like. This is what I like. It's okay to like cartoons and as I got older, a lot of the stories stuck with me. I realized I have a passion for storytelling. I don't remember the first time I watched something that made me feel that way but I remember being at a seafood restaurant with my mom and my brother one night and I said to them, "I'm Jim Carrey." My brother said, "No, I'm Jim Carrey." We had a Jim Carrey impression-off and his impressions were a lot better than mine but I felt like Jim Carrey was a part of me. I remember having the feeling, "You don't understand. I know you like this movie but like, I made that movie!" I remembered having a really intense connection with those movies and I was almost offended if somebody else told me they liked it. I think that's a popular feeling among artists and people alike. An odd proprietary feeling over the art that resonates with us. We feel like we contributed to its creation, because in a way, we did.

Zeby - Do you like to know everything about the people that you like?

Nick - Oh yeah I've become very obsessive to the point where a lot of the time, I have to pullback. For example, Eminem is a guy whose art I'm so in love with to the point where my appreciation for what he does has become an education for me in writing and music. I need to pullback a lot of times and examine that art form from a different perspective and find new influences. When something gets in my ear, almost involuntarily, I start to over digest it. If I see an artist that I really like, I'll go back and I'll look at everything they ever did just to learn and grow from them.

Zeby - Do you think that the saturation of social media is good for art as a whole?

Nick - I don't think it's a phenomenon. I think it was the natural progression and what was always going to happen. I don't think there's more bad art or less good art. I just think we're seeing everything and since we're seeing everything, people's standards are going up. When something is genuinely good, it's mind boggling because we're so inundated with bullshit. When Bo Burnham comes out with a comedy special that has a song about something that's insanely nuanced and he's performing in a way that's idiosyncratic, people say "Oh my good look at this. This guy's a genius!" Then they go through the rest of what is on Netflix and say "This stuff if okay. It's fine." A lot of bullshit is good because it forces everyone to really care about something being great.

Zeby - When's the last time you watched something that made you think, "How did I not think of that?"

Nick - There were definitely songs on [Bo] Burnham's new special. That's good because when I see someone do something that good and if it's intimidating to me, I instantly absorb it and say, "I can do that too. That guy just did it." It shakes me for a second and then I go "Yea, I can do that." When I was 19, I did a show and another comedian on the show was so physical and engaging and hilarious. At the time, I was working on a joke that was frankly just boring, later that night I thought about not doing comedy anymore, and even later I realized I should just go be what I want to be as well. You can just do that. I think part of being an artist is to steal, not the material or cadence or character, but the courage and the commitment to vision. Allow yourself to participate and be open to other people's work and let it influence your work.

Zeby - Do you like the way that comedy has changed?

Nick - I think that the bells and whistles change but the engine is the same and it will always be the same. If you put Lenny Bruce, Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Louis C.K., Charlie Chaplin, and Lucille Ball in a room together, everyone's going to make each other laugh. That's because comedy really is the most universally human language. A newborn baby in Africa in 1760 will make a french guy from 2038 laugh. Comedy is just a way of expressing to each our ideas. You can do it whatever way you want. I think that comedy changes because the culture around it changes. There are comedians now who are famous on Twitter. That literally couldn't have existed 20 years ago. The means change but people don't. People are comedy, the culture is just being affected by it.

Zeby - When you start a project, do you have an end goal in sight?

Nick - Yeah, I do and it's different for every project. Sometimes, I'm really sensory evocative about stuff and sometimes it's just something that's kind of stupid but still funny. I feel an obligation to complete the task but there's no monotony in what inspires me.

Zeby - Does everything you do have to have a meaning?

Nick - Yeah, It has to have a meaning for me. Even if it's silly. People watch my comedy and everyone get's a different feeling out of it. I've had people tell me one of my jokes was my best joke and it's about a monkey in space and I've had people tell me my other jokes about more "serious" subject matter are better. People will respond to different things. It's important to make a decision and stick to it based on your initial vision.
Zeby - Do you think you'll ever be content with yourself?

Nick - I hope so. I'm very immature. I'm still very young by most standards. By my standards, I'm really old. I'm 23 and theres only ever 1 more second promised to me so I feel very old all the time. At any given moment I'm the oldest I've ever been. I'm tired haha. I've been this for 23 years. Everyone says you have so much time and I just feel old. I think that with youth there comes an immaturity that makes it difficult to admit that I might be happy and difficult to accept the happiness. I think there's a false narrative that with happiness or with content comes a sense of complacency and I don't know if that's true. Some of the best moments, decisions, and creations in my life have come from elation and a moment where I was super excited so I hope that I can establish content.. I would like to get to a place where I feel like I don't need anything else.

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"When things are really tough, I think about Batman a lot"

Zeby - Do you ever look back and re-watch your sets?

Nick - Yeah, I do a lot. I look back and often say, "Ugh that sucks!" It's easy to see your mistakes when you've grown and sometimes I look back and think "That was good!" I feel like an honest relationship to what I made is the most important thing. If I look back and think "Oh man that was amazing!" It would mean I'm not getting better or doing anything different". My hour now has music, spoken word, different types of jokes so I'm growing and trying new things. Maybe people will like it less but that's good too. Maybe people will like it less but that's good too. Liking something is the enemy. You want people to either love something or hate it. If someone really hates something of yours, it means you're growing. You're trying new things.

Zeby - How do you go about choosing the jokes that go into your special?

Nick - Whatever works honestly. I think comics would be lying if they don't say this but you do what works. Good comedians are comedians who can make shit work. I'm doing the jokes that work and that people liked. I have bits that I think are hilarious but people didn't like them so they're not in the special.

Zeby - Do you feel like you're selling out then? For the sake of success?

Nick - There's an intricate balance you have to keep. You can have 10 minutes of material that works because it's challenging or fun for you and it can be very effective but you haven't changed anything or shaken anything up. You need a degree of that but you also need to make sure what you're doing works. This goes back to what I said earlier that you have to give people their money's worth. They have to leave the show thinking that the show was great and you have to incorporate a sense of fantastic to your show too. The only way to do that is by taking risks. You can't learn how to be great at comedy without sucking really fucking bad at it.

Zeby - Why'd you choose Tisch?

Nick - I chose Tisch because it was in NYC and I wanted to do standup here. I knew my parents wouldn't let me go to school in NYC because all of the schools are so expensive but Tisch was so reputable that my parents said yes. It was really my excuse to go do standup here[in NYC]. If I went to school in any other city, I wouldn't have been able to perform. Tisch is also the only place I know of that has a degree in sitcom writing and I felt that there was a lot of success to be had. Also, I just wanted to be around cool art kids too. We talked about regrets earlier and Tisch wasn't exactly what I signed up for. I don't look back on my early years and think of my college life. I think of it more as an early experience of comedy. Which is my own doing. NYU is like a bad girlfriend in the sense that she sold herself to me and was everything that I could have ever wanted and it was specific things I needed from her that I got but everything else was a facade. I didn't get to study film as extensively as I wanted.

Zeby - How passionate are you about acting? So passionate.

Nick - Do you see it as another means for your comedy? Yeah I do but a lot of people box actors with actors and singers with singers and so forth. I don't want that. I just want to make stuff. The way I see it, I'm just an artist. Comedy is the language I speak best but I just like to make all sorts of art and acting is part of that.

Zeby - I saw your Instagram and noticed you're big on fitness. Where does that come from?

Nick - It comes from seeing people like Usain Bolt and seeing him run 16mph thinking, "That's crazy!" We humans can do some crazy shit! Of course it's partly genetic but it's mostly training. I think humans have an obligation to use our bodies. If a human being can run 16mph and you sit on the couch feeding yourself to death, what are you doing? You could be jumping over a fence or learning how to twirl a baton. If you keep working towards that fitness goal, it becomes easy to remember how hard you worked and then that helps with achieving other challenges.

Zeby - Do you like challenges?

Nick - Yeah, they scare me at first and but when they're not there, I go look for them. Once I find it, I either fail or rise to the occasion. I like challenges when I accomplish them!

Zeby - You were asked in 2014 where you see yourself in 5 years. Are the challenges and goals you wanted to overcome then, the same?

Nick - I would say that it's not particularly the end goals that matter. I can say if those goals and challenges from 2 years ago were still mine now and if I only have 3 years, I probably won't be able to accomplish them but I've learned so much. What is more important and what is more real is what I'm learning to achieve those goals. It's hard to make a specific goal and accomplish it exactly. Some things just don't happen as you'd like.

Zeby - Do you think everything happens for a reason and are you a religious person?

Nick - Yeah definitely. If you just say those words, then duh. Everything happens for a reason. However, the idea that everything happens for an important reason doesn't make sense to me. I lean towards a more existential standpoint in the sense that you have meaning to things you give meaning to and what's not important isn't important. I look back over my life and think, "Huh, did that happen because God wanted it to?" That might be the case but that doesn't have anything to do with me. It's not going to influence how I live my life.

Zeby - Do you look for solace in God when things aren't going your way?

Nick - I think I beg for help in my own sub-conscious way but I don't consider myself Christian, Muslim, or anything. I don't consider myself an atheist either. I think that in life there will be challenges and I think that it's impossible to not cry for help from some ethereal force when you need help. When things are really tough, I think about Batman a lot. I say to myself, "Discipline is how you'll get through this." It sounds corny but I really think that's the case. I think that most of the time whether or not you believe in god, you have a way of coping with things that scare you and you have some sort of practice to alleviate that fear.

Zeby - Do you think you do those rituals because it helps you feel better or because of muscle memory?

Nick - I think you try to train your muscle memory because it makes you feel better. I think that the things you do that are very altruistic, make us feel better by doing them. We think it'll help us in some way. One of the reasons why I do comedy is because it helps me. It makes me feel better.

Zeby - Do you think that when you do your comedy it's the end all/be all?

Nick - No I don't think so. It's like when you see actors at the Oscars that say "This award is for the kids in Darfur." No, its not. It's important to look at these things with a bit of reality. If we were in an apocalypse situation, comedy would be the least of our worries. There are other things that are more important. However, I think part of reason we strive and live is so that we can indulge art. Art is humanity's favorite thing. It's our most honest way of communicating what we're experiencing and if there's anything I've learned in life, it's that you need to communicate what's going on with you.

Zeby - What do you want to be remembered for?

Nick - Today, I feel that when it's all said and done, I want to be remembered for getting the best I could have gotten out of myself and the people around me. In terms of a specific goal, I want to do what Robin Williams did, what Jim Carrey does, or any other great artist does which is introduce a little levity to people's lives when maybe they didn't have a friend to talk to. I want to make people really happy and I want to make people think about themselves by way of art.

Zeby - Do you feel like you're working towards that?

Nick - Some days, but it's hard to because in order to achieve that very ethereal, lofty, vague, goal, you have to make a lot of small, specific goals. There are days where I say, "Okay cool, I had a productive day." and I try to do that every day. I try to be .1% closer to the person I want to be every day. I think it's too soon to know.

Zeby - Do you like receiving compliments? Is it ever hard to?

Nick - The short answer is yes. I need it. More circumstantially, I often feel very uncomfortable. Whenever I make something, I operate under the assumption that it's amazing and not in a vain way. I think that part of the reason I make those things is because they're impressive to me. I don't own the initial idea. The initial idea is just something that I see but I try to execute it so that I can re-watch it and like it someday. In a weird way, when someone compliments me, I can't help but think, "Yeah, I already know. I made it." Part of my brain says, "Duh, that's why I made it." Thats why it's the insults that hurt the most. Those can be earth shattering because you just committed yourself to this idea that you were so impressed by and then someone comes along and basically says, "That thing you thought was good, I don't think it's good." It's those criticisms that I hear the loudest because you only need 1% re-assurance because you already believe its good. That's why you made it. Those criticisms are far more valuable than the compliments. They remind me that it's not just important if I think something's good, other people need to think that as well.

Zeby - How do you balance the narcissism you inevitable get in the industry v.s. being a good person?

Nick - I think you balance it by continually challenging yourself and by failing a lot. If you keep trying and keep challenging yourself, whether or not you're actually good, it puts a timestamp of where you're at and you grow from there. Kanye West is a guy who everyday, people have a different opinion of. One day people call him a genius and the next he's an idiot. How can he drop a thousand point in IQ in 24 hours? He's continually challenging himself, some people don't quite see that.
Zeby - Do you have any specific goals you do to make sure you don't become the person you don't want to become?

Nick - I don't know if I have a good answer for that yet. I'm quarreling with that very idea. Who am I? How do I get to be the person that I want to be? So as for any specific practices for becoming the guy I want to be, I think it's just to look in the mirror as much as possible and ask myself, "Who are you right now?", "What have you done today?", and "Is this what you want?" I ask myself that a lot. I think that's important. Always ask yourself, "What are you doing?"

Nick Callas is headlining Caroline's on Broadway Wednesday night at 7 PM. Get your tickets at http://www.carolines.com/comedian/nick-callas/

(Photos by Andre D. Thompson @AndreDThompson)