This weekly blog series features interviews taking place at the Dallas Comedy House open mic with me and some of the funniest stand-up comedians in the area, most of whom just happen to be my best friends! Read to learn about your favorite local funny people and about the curious emotional makeup of people who like to go onstage alone every night to get laughed at. This week: Thomas Nichols—Comedy Monk
Thomas Nichols enters Dallas Comedy House, gangly frame shrouded as usual in a hoodie, and creeps over to me on the couch. He holds a plastic cup of water, for he is an exception to the blog's title. Unlike most comics, Nichols is a teetotaler and abstains from alcohol, drugs, and smoking. He pretends to lurk above me ominously, staring me down until I stand and he immediately drops the bit as we both break into grins and hug. Nichols' act snakes from joke to joke in a similarly expert fashion, a terse feat of misdirection from a man whose earnest grin and lifestyle suggest the innocence of an adolescent. But between his expert handling of a crowd, masterful grasp on joke structure and incredible maturity and emotional intelligence, Nichols reveals himself onstage as an old soul in the lanky, sugar-addled body of a 16-year-old (he is 24.) Offstage, he is one of the friendliest, warmest people I know and has a strange and mysterious Web presence that totally fascinates me but I forgot to ask him about (details on how to friend or follow him at the bottom of the article).
How old were you when you started stand-up? 19.
What was your first set like? Terrible! So bad, man. I've still got it on tape, and I watch it every year just to see my progression.
So what brought you to stand-up, what started your passion for comedy? I was really young, like four or five. I told my grandmother two jokes, the worst jokes I've ever told in my life. One was, "What did the pig say to the farmer?"
What did he say?!?! "Don't eat me." It wasn't funny, but they all laughed, because it was cute. And my aunt, when I was 10 she gave me a Robin Harris' Bébé's Kids album. It's also an animated comedy, really funny—the movie was based on the album. You got to watch it, any comic, you got to know about this guy Robin Harris, he's funny as hell. I listened to that CD until it broke. I remember a year ago I found a brand new copy of it. I only had like $15, but I bought it on the spot.
So what made you decided to start doing stand-up? What changed when you were 19 to inspire you to go for it? Two things: One was I really needed something different because my parents divorced. That was the big thing, my parents divorced, and I needed a way to get away from the house. I knew I loved comedy. I was writing jokes a year before I started stand-up. My whole senior year of high school, if I wasn't writing a poem, or a song, or a verse of something, it was a joke.
To me, that's the closest thing to stand-up is writing poetry. I definitely can see that in your comedy, especially, there's such a strong rhythm, and its very tight. The way it's structured, yeah. I grew up in a structured home, so structured jokes and structured comedy...anything I do that I love and am passionate about will have structure to it.
You're a technician. Yes.
And you're like that in life, as well. You like being in control—you don't drink, you don't take drugs. Well sometimes you might think I'm on either one of them due to my actions
Right. I mean you eat like a stoned child. I eat like a single man! I mean, I am a single man but I shouldn't be single.
You're someone who needs a girlfriend to be like "Hey, cut that out!" Exactly. Like, "Put that candy down!" Change my life a little bit.
How long have you been doing comedy now? Six years last week. I can't stop.
Have you always worked on your act the way you do now? You're very methodical, you go to open mics a lot, you know exactly what you're going to say. Actually, recently I've been trying to stray away from that a little bit. To go up and not know exactly what I want to do but have an idea about what I want to talk about and then go up there and do it. Of course, I have punchlines in my head already or an opening to the joke already, but when I go up there and kind of free-ball a little bit, it lets me be me more. It brings the emotion I've captured or how I truly feel about the idea to the stage. It's realer, if that's a word (laughs), more authentic to them. Then I'll do that a couple times. Eventually, I'll get the wording of it right, then the joke is ready.
I'm kind of jealous of you, because a lot of times I'm a big sloppy mess, my process is all over the place, and you come from such a place of intention. That's just the way I am! But it's fun to try new things. Like on my sixth birthday, my sixth comedy birthday, I went to the Arlington Improv and I told all my jokes to the wall. I've never done that before, and it just killed it. And if I can do that, that's something that really tests a joke. If you can tell your jokes to a wall, without looking at people and it works, it's gonna kill when you're looking at them. When I did that, people didn't understand why I was doing it, but the jokes were still like (snaps) hitting. Now I can go to open mics, and if I feel like there's a wall decent enough or close enough to do it, I'll try it and if a joke works when I perform it like that, it's probably strong enough to be in my set.
You've worked a long time to do that, though. Would you recommend your path to comics who are just starting out, of starting with a structured set and then loosening up as you have more experience? (I would.) I can definitely say that. It's learning the mechanics first, learning that you should move the mic stand out of the way. When you start to get a little comfortable, then you can change it up. I always believe that your style chooses you. You have a lot of off-nights sometimes, because your style is either trying to change, or updating itself, so you're writing all this material, trying to figure it out and get it ready for the set and it's updating. It's like a computer—it's updating by itself, then the computer has to catch up and figure out what it has to do. That's your brain.
Right, I mean if your act isn't an expression of your emotional body, it's not gonna be very good, you gotta be true to yourself. True to yourself, exactly. And I try to deceive that sometimes, I try to have fun doing things I wouldn't usually do.
You do a really cool thing where you kind of book gigs all over the country on your own, without the help of a group of comics or an agent. When did you first decide to do that? It actually kind of came to me, it was weird! One of my best friends in comedy, Jason Brown, he's from Tulsa, there's a room up there called Looney Bin. I ended up doing that room with him, they ended up booking me again—usually they come to me. I never thought it would come as fast as it did. In my first six months of doing stand-up, I got booked to go to New Mexico. It was fast! It was like, "This is not happening!"
So the frequent road work you do—you didn't decide to make your own opportunities, the opportunities, the booking agents, came to you. Just from going up. Just got to keep going up at these open mics, and people will help you. And I'll help people if I can, if I have the power to do it. If I can help people outside of comedy, I should also be able to help people inside of comedy.
You're kind of like a monk of comedy, you don't drink, and you're just so devout! I can definitely see that! (laughs) I'm definitely a student. I was a student before I started stand-up, honestly. But I kind of skipped classes every now and then. (laughs)
Alright, where can we see you do stand-up next? I will be at the Misfits Art Gallery in Dallas on Saturday, November 8, at 8 p.m. There'll be a bunch of artists. It'll be an art show, but I'm doing a set. December 11 and 13, I'll be at Dallas Hyena's, then the following week I'll be at Fort Worth Hyena's. And for up-and-coming dates, you can always go to tncomedy.net. I have my Twitter, website, and Instagram on there.
Lauren Davis is an improviser and stand-up comedian from Dallas, Texas. Currently a student at the DCH Training Center, she can be seen weekly performing improv with her troupes LYLAS: Girl on Girl Comedy and Please Like Us, as well as doing her stand-up act at clubs around the area.