Best Laid Plans: One on One with Paul Conyers

Every comedian dreams of their first comedy album, their first special. They imagine clever names, album art. Fellow comedians, riffing in tight social circles, will say “that should be the title of your special,” to another comedian’s poignant, offhand comment. That suggestion is stored or laughed off. Still, the lingering hope and desire stands. Whether those comedians reach the heights of comedy fame and fortune is incidental. Putting out an album, or a special on television, DVD, streaming service, is a big deal. It’s a tangible thing that audiences can buy directly from the comedian after the show. It can’t be overstated how impactful merchandise is for touring comedians. There will be album release stand-up shows with the comedian’s favorite and closest comedian friends, tours, a wave of enthusiasm and excitement.

Comedian Paul Conyers recorded his album Above the Fray in November 2019. It was released in May 2020. The video special of the recording was released August 2020. Conyers didn’t get the typical fanfare of putting out a new comedy release.

Conyers: I got great reviews and feedback. But couldn’t do much with it. I was hoping to leverage my first special into maybe getting some club dates. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that. Still super proud of it. I’m happy with everything we were able to do with it. The timing was not ideal, I guess.

The pandemic hit stand-up comedy hard, obviously.  Putting out a comedy album during a time when people literally could not go see live comedy at all for several months,  and when they finally could club capacity was limited, is a rough way to make a debut. Still, it wasn’t the first roadblock in comedy Conyers faced. He once quit entirely.

Rooster T. Feather’s, a comedy club in the San Francisco Peninsula/South Bay since the [80s], hosts a new talent showcase every week. While comedians would need to apply and be booked in advance, the criteria was far from restrictive. Rather than trying stand-up at an open mic, Paul debuted at Rooster T. Feather’s new talent showcase.

Conyers’s debut couldn’t have gone better. Friends and friends of friends who came out to see him perform were “screaming-drunk,” laughing at everything the newbie gave them.

Conyers: “It was the worst thing that could happen to me… You shouldn’t have that much support out the gate. It took my ego on a trip that took years to recover from.”

Paul’s quick ascent to the top of the comedy world was followed soon after with an even bigger show at an even larger venue. A friend of a friend helped Conyers get booked on a show produced by premier Bay Area comedian, and Uproar talent, Kabir Singh—check out his albums The Calm Before the Storm and Welcome to the Future. The show took place at the San Jose Improv in October 2010. It would be his second ever performance. Paul Conyers was ready.

Conyers: “I made every mistake you could possibly make to get ready, leading up to it and during the show.”

The cascading calamity of errors and folly began with Conyers’s mindset towards his jokes. He threw them out. All new material! Those old jokes were behind the young comedian. Conyers did a little riffing during the Rooster T. Feathers set that went over well. He was going to do that again in addition to writing new jokes.

Conyers: “It was one of those things where the moment I got up to the green room, I was like, ‘this is going to be bad.’”

The other, more established comedians were networking and talked shop. Conyers scribbled out the untested jokes he had as a means to remember them. The night’s host asked him what he wanted as his introduction. Paul, in a panic, didn’t have anything. The host elected to stretch the truth for the new comedian and stranger; they said that he saw Conyers “around, working on his stuff.”

Conyers: “And [in that moment] I was like, ‘man I feel like they know you’re lying. I feel that they can sense it.’”

A number of things colored the evening. For instance, the San Francisco Giants were on the verge of winning their first World Series in over 60 years, their first ever since relocating to the area. Comedy insiders know that sports fans rarely want comedy in conjunction with games, especially high stake ones. And they will never celebrate winning it all in venues where you’re chastised for being loud.

Also, the showcase was billed under the “Outsourced Comedy Tour,” centered primarily on South Asian, East Asian and Latinx heritage performers, all of which Conyers was not. Still, Paul only had to do a shorter set, right in the middle of the show for a warmed up audience. His then-girlfriend, now-wife—who he asked to not attend his first, boisterous set at Rooster’s in case he sucked—was in the audience, along with a few college friends. What’s the worst that could happen?

Conyers: “I start doing this untested, unproven material. And shocker, it’s not going well. And two things happen. One is I step on the microphone cord and kick it out of the microphone. [Plugging in a microphone] is the easiest thing in the world. You line up the three prongs, you press the button, you push it in. [But] if you’ve never plugged in a microphone before, and you’re bombing in front of your friends and loved one, and your hands are trembling… It took me 45 seconds to get the [microphone cord] back in. I almost just dropped it and walked off stage…

And then a minute later this woman stands up, she got the update on her phone that the Giants had just won. So she stands up and [says], ‘Giants win! Giants win!’ And everyone starts high fiving and cheering. And they kind of forgot about me for a couple of seconds. But then they remembered where they were and I had to drag them back to this hell that I created for them.”

And that was it. Paul Conyers was done. He was resigned to being a normal person, working a normal job. Eventually Conyers came to the realization that he would grow old and bitter if he didn’t give stand-up another chance. Six years after that disastrous night at the Improv, Conyers returned to the stage.

Since then, as you can hear on Above the Fray, Paul Conyers has matured into a strong writer and endearing performer. Conyers has a noteworthy balance of arrogance, sarcasm, misdirection and atypical insights. In short, he’s an adorable prick.

Conyers: “I try to be ‘right’ for the ‘wrong’ reasons. It’s the most fun angle for me to take. Because I’m not an outright contrarian. I’m never going to be the comic in the leather jacket that hates everything. I want to be smiling. And I want to make fun of the thing that you care about but with a wink so that you think, “clearly he’s just being a jerk up there but it’s fun.’ I really want everyone to have a good time.”

When Conyers was approached to record his album, it was the beginning of a months-long process of writing, refining and honing his material into a cohesive, long set. Most comedians en route to their first special will cobble together years of material and run through the set multiple times. But finding places to do 50 minutes of stand-up anywhere, let alone on a deadline, can be tricky. Some up and coming comedians source their album reps with headlining weekend engagements or their own produced shows. Conyers had to be more resourceful and meticulous. He broke up and performed Above The Fray in chunks: 20 minutes here, 30 minutes there. The first of his two tapings was the first time Paul performed his album all the way through.

That workmanlike attitude to joke writing persisted throughout the quarantine. Live shows became virtual overnight. Conyers pivoted his material towards the pandemic to avoid being disingenuous.

Conyers: “I’d see comics do their regular bits like, ‘I was at a party with my wife…’ and, I’m like, ‘no you weren’t!’ There’s no parties anymore!”

Paul had to throw out his jokes again, and challenge himself to write, albeit with different circumstances than his San Jose Improv debut and with a little more wisdom. Everything was a learning process. For instance, jokes that worked online didn’t necessarily translate to the new, live, outdoor comedy experience, and vice versa. Certain act outs for jokes worked better online because Conyers could emphasize emotions in a close and intimate way. Traditional stand-up is arranged to be expressed in the distance.

“It’s been a lot of writing with no one and nowhere to work it out… It’s sort of the inversion of the album. When I knew I was going to record the album I had this 30 minute chunk [of material] and I had to work really hard to get 15 to 20 more solid minutes. And now I’ve written so much [that] I’ve got quote-on-quote “an hour of new material” but it all sucks because I haven’t gotten to work it out anywhere. 80% is going to end up in the garbage… It’s a good problem to have but it’s definitely going to take more discipline as things are starting to open back up.

It’s a fun challenge. I’m really enjoying it. I’m enjoying seeing the stuff that I really like that is going to work after the pandemic… I try not to fall in love with anything that’s not going to work a year or two from now when it’s time to (hopefully) record another album.”

Still, at the time of this writing, comedy is slowly coming to grips with a hopeful yet uncertain future. The “new normal” is a constant conversation for touring comedians as regulations shift across different states, hard hit comedy clubs hustle to fill dates and new technologies are deployed. Paul Conyers saw a wide range of what “pandemic comedy” had to offer: outdoor comedy with noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones, Zoom shows, indoor limited capacity shows.

“November to February—that was when everything was shut down (there were no shows). Other than that, I’ve been able to do a show outdoors every now and then. And the crowds always seemed to be pretty fun. They were happy to be out and doing something because people do miss that. Very few crowds were super tight. Most crowds are super grateful, they’re excited to be doing something. Even the ones that are outdoors—it’s a little cold and windy, [and] it’s not an ideal condition—they’re happy that things are starting to come back…

There’s nothing like the indoor show at a venue where people know comedy is happening… The laughter gets insulated, it bounces off the walls, it becomes more contagious. So I try to keep that in the back of my head for this entire thing. [My jokes] do “okay” in an outdoor, socially distanced show with noise canceling headphones, so it’ll probably do pretty well when I have people’s full attention…because there’s not a Chick-Fil-A or a sideshow in Oakland going on [nearby].”