Hitting the Funny Bone with Comedian Adam Sank

Comedian Adam Sank has been working the funny bone of the industry for over 15 years.  With appearances on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, The Today Show, CBS News, Vh1, CNN, truTV and Sirius-XM, he’s now hanging up his stand-up hat. 

He announced his retirement from stand-up this year with his final performance, recorded at the historical Stonewall Inn last November, being released April 16th by 800 Pound Gorilla Records.  The album, titled “Adam Sank’s Last Comedy Album,” brings the comedians career full circle. The Stonewall Inn was the recording spot for Adam’s first comedy album, “Adam Sank: Live from the Stonewall Inn,” which went all the way to No. 1 on Amazon and iTunes’ comedy lists.

His humor will continue with his weekly podcast, The Adam Sank Show aka ASS, on his website www.adamsank.com

(photo by Michael Martin)

I had a very candid chat with him about the ever changing industry, being politically correct in today’s day and age, his coming out, and what it feels like to say goodbye to stand-up.

Being an openly gay entertainer is not as forboden as it once was.  As a 15 year veteran in the industry, how hard was it for you to gain footing in the comedy world?

When I started out in 2003, there were already a number of openly gay comedians who had made names for themselves — Bob Smith, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Jim David and Kate Clinton, among others. But it was still considered something of a novelty to be openly gay in stand-up. We were seen as very niche performers with a limited potential audience. Comedy bookers usually only wanted me for gay-specific shows, like during Pride Week or whatever. I found out early on that if I wanted to perform regularly, I’d have to produce my own shows. On the other hand, that’s often the case for new comics, gay or straight.

Have LGBT comics become more legit in the stand-up comedy circuit?

Oh yeah. I think the biggest change is that now we’re not seen as queer comedians. We’re just comedians who happen to be queer. It doesn’t define us. When I started out, almost every joke I had was connected my gay identity, and I feel like that was kind of the norm. Now you see these young LGBTQ comedians, and they might do an entire 15-minute set without once mentioning their sexual orientation. Or if they do, it’s just dropped in casually, like “So I dated this guy once…”

(photo by Michael Walter)

How do you build your comedy sets?

In the old days, I would sit at a computer and literally try to write jokes, as one would write a script for a play. But I found over time that the funniest bits were the thoughts that came to me spontaneously, when I wasn’t trying to write. Anytime I’m doing something mundane, like working out at the gym or taking a shower — boom. That’s when funny stuff hits me. Whenever that happens, I try to speak what I’m thinking into my phone as soon as possible. I’ll save it as a voice memo. Then, a week or two before I have a big show, I’ll go through all my voice memos and listen to them. Sometimes I’ll hear one and think, “Oh, shit. This is terrible” and I’ll just delete it. But often, I’ll find there’s really something great there, and it’s at that point that I’ll type it all out word for word. Then as I’m typing, I think of new lines to add to the joke. It just kind of grows until I finally feel like, “OK, this is done.” After that, it’s a matter of reading them over a few times. I’m lucky in that I can memorize anything I’ve written rather quickly.

What I agonize most over are the words I’m going to say at the top of my set. The opening is the most important part. It’s what sets the tone for your set. It’s also what makes the crowd decide whether you’re funny or not. So, if you blow the opening, you’re done.

Stonewall Inn has brought your stand-up life full circle.  The site was home to the recording of your first comedy album that hit number 1 on the charts and was home to your final stand up shows.  What does performing at Stonewall mean to you?

So, there are two things. The obvious one is that it’s such a historic and revered landmark for the LGBTQ community. When a gay person performs there… it’s kind like playing the Apollo Theater if you’re African-American, you know? You feel like you’re part of history. But the second thing is, upstairs at Stonewall is the perfect place to record an album. The room seats 65. So, it’s intimate and cozy, but there are enough people to make good laughing noise and the acoustics of the room are perfect. I’m a bit of an audiophile. When something doesn’t sound perfect, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. So I knew from watching shows there and doing shows there that they had excellent mics and speakers and a great all-around room sound. Plus, Mike Salinari, their GM, is a sweetheart and sexy as fuck.

(photo by Ilaria Conte)

What did you learn most from appearing on Last Comic Standing?

Oh God! Not much. I guess I learned how manipulated reality competition shows are, and how they have almost nothing to do with talent. I know that sounds like sour grapes, but it’s not. I’m not saying, “Oh, I should have made it further.” Truthfully, I had only been doing stand-up for five years at that point, and I was still finding my voice onstage. But when I saw who they cut and who they advanced… I mean, some of the ones who made it to Vegas my season had no act. They just had a certain look or fit a certain demographic that the producers were looking for. If you look at who made the semifinals, I guarantee you you haven’t heard of any of them since then. Meanwhile, there were veteran NYC comics who are geniuses that didn’t make it past the first audition. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.

Do you remember doing your first stand up show?  What was that like?

I remember everything. It was at the old Gotham Comedy Club, which is now the Metropolitan Room. It was a “bringer” show, meaning I had to bring ten audience members in exchange for seven minutes of stage time. I remember thinking, “How am I going to fill seven minutes?” Which is so funny because now I could take up seven minutes just telling one joke. I prepared for weeks. I remember I took the day off from work so I could practice all day. And when I finally got onstage, my legs shook the entire time — not from nervousness, but from adrenaline. It was an intense high. And it went incredibly well. I mean, the audience was all friends and family of the performers, so it’s hard to get a true gauge of how you did at those shows. But I felt like, wow, this is what I was meant to do.

You have announced your retirement from stand up.  What made you retire?

The short answer is, it’s just time. I’ve had a blast doing stand-up, and I don’t regret a moment of it. I’ve just turned 48 and in show business, you get to an age where you realize, this is as far as I’m ever going to go. Or at least, I realized it. And rather than being sad about that, I feel incredibly relieved. Because it’s like, I have nothing left to prove. I don’t need to do this anymore. But I still have my podcast (The Adam Sank Show), and I’ll continue doing creative stuff. I’d love to do play or a movie if someone has a part for me!

Check out Adam’s full announcement on Facebook here.  

(photo by Paul Physioc)

Is this like Cher, where you will have other final shows?

So many people have asked me this that I actually do a joke about Cher on the album. The truth is, I will return to it if I’m offered an extraordinary amount of money for a gig. But even then, it would be one-off — not an actual return to stand-up.

Who were your first inspirations in comedy?

As a child, I owned comedy albums by Joan Rivers, Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy. I listened to them over and over again — so many times that I eventually knew every joke by heart. It’s funny, because they all had complete different styles of comedy. But they were all masters of their game.

One time when I was about 13, my mother fell down a flight of stairs. She wasn’t seriously injured, but she was in a lot of pain. In my family, we used laughter get through painful situations, so as my mom lay in her bed, we played the Eddie Murphy bit about his Aunt Bunny for her: “Lydia! The bitch fell down the steps again!” I have this vivid memory of my mother laughing and crying at the same time.

How has the industry changed the most over the years?

Well, social media has been the biggest change. It’s no longer about how funny you are or how original your voice is; it’s about how many followers you have. When I started out, the ultimate dream for comedians was to be on “The Tonight Show.” Now the dream is to have a million-plus YouTube clicks. Actually, I know people who have been on “The Tonight Show” who are still working their day job. Meanwhile, there are “YouTube stars” with no discernible talent making tens of thousands of dollars for a single live appearance. It’s insane. I’d say I’m getting out at the right time. On the other hand, because of Netflix, there are way more comedy specials than they’re used to be. So I guess that’s a plus.

(photo by IAMBMWPHOTOGRAPHY)

What is your take on having to be politically correct as a comic?

It’s tricky. On the one hand, I’ve always said that I don’t think any words should be off-limits on-stage. Because for me, it’s all about intention — about how you use the words. I feel like nowadays people love to be outraged by something they’ve heard or read without stopping to consider the actual intention behind the words. And I think that does have a chilling effect on comedy and free speech in general.

On the other hand, I’ve become a lot more sensitive to how hurtful certain words can be in and of themselves. On my first album, I did a joke that included the word “retarded” several times. It was about a gay, intellectually disabled guy at my gym. Like most of my jokes, the punchline comes at my own expense — not his. I’m the butt of the joke. It’s hard to explain, but the punchline is “Somewhere, there’s a guy talking about the gay, retarded guy at his gym, and he means me!” Anyway, I’ve since heard from people — including mothers with special needs kids — who say that the context doesn’t matter. The word is painful for them… period. So, you know what? I stopped doing the joke, and I stopped using the word. It’s not much of a sacrifice for the sake of sparing someone from pain. I can make other jokes and use other words and still be funny.

What do you current comics gets right today?  What do they get wrong?

Oh, you’d have to ask someone who watches stand-up more than I do. I’m kind of burnt out by it. I’ll watch a stand-up special if there’s a huge buzz about it — like when Hannah Gadsby did “Nanette.” But honestly, I’d much rather see musical theater than stand-up. Or even watch a great reality show, like RuPaul’s Drag Race.

(photo by Michael Walter)

Were you always the funny one growing up?  Were you the class clown?

Yes and no. I was very funny, but I was also very intense and emotional. I craved attention and loved it when I could make people laugh. But I could also cry at the drop of a hat, like if someone criticized me or gave me a dirty look. Basically, I was a little freak. I think having a family that valued humor as much as mine did help me develop my comedic skills though. I always knew I could get out of trouble by making my parents laugh.

What was your childhood like as a gay kid?

I don’t want to say I had an unhappy childhood, because I have a lot of happy memories. But I definitely suffered for being gay. Not just gay but flamboyant. I spent many years teaching myself to butch it up. Which is so fucked up when you think about it, because I was basically teaching myself not to be myself. Middle school was the worse. I was terrorized every single morning on the school bus. It got so bad that the school ended up moving me to a different bus. I think once I got into high school and found my clique — the musical theater dorks — everything got a lot better.

What is your coming out story?

The short version is, the summer after my sophomore year in college, I finally worked up the nerve to go to my very first gay bar, in Saugatuck, Michigan — which is over 150 miles from Ann Arbor, where I went to college. I walk into the bar, and the first person I see is my fraternity brother, Will. I had no clue he was gay. It was a complete shock, but also a delightful one because he was the hottest guy in my fraternity. We instantly became close friends after that.

You host a weekly podcast, how does your performance differ on the podcast in relation to what we’ve seen in your stand up?

Stand-up is about finding the comedic version of one’s self. When I’m onstage, it’s me, but it’s also an exaggerated and very specific version of me. Whereas on the podcast, it’s just me as I am all the time. I find radio and podcasting to be so much more intimate than stand-up. It’s like talking to your friends, as opposed to talking to an “audience,” you know? Plus, I don’t have to be funny all the time. Sometimes on the podcast, I’m deadly serious. Or I’m angry. Or I’m sad. The main thing is, it’s real.

As a fellow podcaster, I’d love to know – how do you keep your voice heard in an industry where almost everyone (even my mom) has a podcast?

I’ll let you know as soon as I figure that out. We have hundreds of listeners, but we’re still trying to build our audience. It’s definitely a challenge.

What are you like when you aren’t “on” – is what we see in your comedy the real you?

As I said earlier, it’s a version of me. I do love telling stories and making people laugh in real life. But I also like to think I’m a good listener.

Among my friends, I’ve become kind of a parental figure, I think. I’m older than most of them, and my life is pretty stable these days. So they come to me when they’re in chaos, and I try to talk them off a ledge. Also, my stand-up persona is that of an out-of-control sex pig. I was that once, but I’m way less slutty these days than I used to be. I’ve learned to put sex in perspective. I mean, I love it it — it’s a wonderful part of life. But I don’t need to have it all the time to be happy, and in fact, having it all the time can make me very unhappy. I think these days my main goal in life is balance. Like, what do I need to do every day so that I wake up feeling good in the morning? That’s what I focus on now.

Rapid Fire:

Celebrity Crush: Channing Tatum

Person from history that you’d love to roast: From history? Like George Washington? I don’t know. Hitler, I guess. But I’d want to actually roast him — like set him on fire.

Hobby or habit that you have in your personal life that we’d be surprised to learn about: I meditate every morning.

Topic that you would never write a bit about: Beyonce or Britney? Probably neither, because I almost never talk about pop culture in my stand-up. It’s always consisted primarily of humiliating stories about myself.

Alexander Rodriguez

Alexander Rodriguez

Alexander is the host of iHeartRadio/Universal Broadcasting Network's 'On the Rocks' Radio Show. He's the love child of Chelsea Handler, Johnny Carson, Graham Norton and Judy Garland and is addicted to everything entertainment.

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