Cash Levy is not just any regular stand up comedian who goes up on stage and tells jokes. Cash incorporates an incredible amount of crowd work that puts his sharp wit and his improvisational skills to the test. His expertise has allowed him to be seen on Comedy Central, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Comics Unleashed, and Comedy.TV.
Cash most recently produced and released his one-hour special, Cash Levy: Crowd Control which was sold to Mark Cuban’s network, AXS TV, becoming the first stand up ever on that network. Cash also hosts the widely popular podcast, Cashing In With T.J. Miller. Cash had just come from an audition, and was nice enough to take the time to talk about his career, comedy advice, and how he snuck into multiple super bowls.
Cash, how was your audition?
Eh well, you never really know with an audition until you find out. Some auditions can go really well, you walk out and get excited, but then you never hear back. And others you think hadn’t gone so well and then you end up gettin’ it, so ya never know.
After the audition, you have no choice but to just sit around and wait for the big answer. What is that in-between waiting period like?
Well, I try not to think about it much afterwards. Nothing can be done about it at that point anyway. You get a lot better at not even thinking about it much. There’s no rhyme or reason behind it. So I just always kind of assume I’m not gonna get it, ‘cause those are the odds, ya know? [laughs] But, when I go in there, I expect to get every role.
BECOMING A COMEDIAN
All comedians begin at the open mic level. But what did it take for you to move past that level and get to where you are?
For me, it was just having to quit my job and having a ‘Sink or Swim’ mentality where it was like, “I’m not going to survive if I don’t get these gigs.” That’ll push you, ya know?
And, open mics are great to go back ‘n stuff, but it has to be more clubs than open mics at a certain point.
But again, every single thing I say, someone can say the complete opposite. That’s what’s so interesting about comedy. Everybody has a different path. But for my situation, it was to try to get quickly into the clubs and onto the road as quickly as possible…because I didn’t have a job.
What was your day job before you pursued comedy full time?
[chuckles] I just kinda waited tables outta college. I mean I’ve pretty much done stand up since…well, it’s pretty much the only job I’ve had really. [laughs] And stand up becomes more like a job than you thought it would be, but it’s still a fun job. There’s not that many jobs where people will thank you afterwards, ya know?
Was it weird telling your friends and family that you wanted to be a comedian of all professions?
Well, I grew up in the California Bay Area, so I think it’s more common for people there to have such different types of jobs.
But whatever people might say, nobody really cares about what you’re doin’. People will only care about themselves anyway. [laughing] Like, they don’t care how well you’re doing, they don’t really care…and I don’t blame them. I dunno, people don’t care one way or another, I think, so I try not to worry too much about that.
As far as my family, I think they were fine with it.
I needed a job where failure would be embarrassing. Public failure, public humiliation, it’s a great motivator, ya know? [laughs]
There’s no public humiliation if you fail in a lot of jobs, and that’s why I think some people don’t work very hard, and I don’t blame ‘em. I needed a job that was gonna keep me motivated, where if I didn’t work hard enough it would be really embarrassing.
CASHING IN WITH T.J. MILLER
How did you and T.J. link up?
We met in Chicago at Zanies. We were working together there and just really enjoyed each others’ improvistaion, and then we met up again in L.A. and just really enjoyed talking to each other.
What is T.J. like in real life? I think he’s super funny and super goofy. Is he just as goofy off stage as he is on stage? Or is he one of those comedians that’s super shy in real life?
[laughs] I wouldn’t say he’s super shy. No, he’s not. [laughs] T.J. is always looking for whatever’s funny about any situation. He’s just got a great sense of humor. I’ve really enjoyed doing the show with him. I mean there’s nobody else that can go from goofy to philosophical so quickly and so seamlessly.
T.J. is known for having an insane work ethic. But what does that even mean for a job like a stand up comedian?
He’d probably hafta answer that, but I will say that he’s one of the hardest workers that I’ve met. If you look at all the different types of aspects of this industry that he’s involved with: voice-overs, stand up, acting, music, podcasting—that can keep a guy pretty busy. I mean, it’s unbelievable how focused he is on each thing that he’s doing. It’s pretty impressive the amount of stuff that he’s doing, ya know? And, he’s super funny.
WORDS OF WISDOM
In your podcast episode ‘Blue Haiku’, you talk about how a group of lawyers who met with you before your show, rudely asked you if you did comedy ‘Full Time’. Why do you think comedians get asked such ignorant questions?
That is the downside of being a professional comedian. Even though you’re making a living at it, it’s almost like if you’re NOT a household name, people will continue to ask those questions. And it does get annoying. You wouldn’t ask that at any other type of profession.
But the way I see it is this: Yeah, you get those rude questions, but also what other job would people thank you afterwards and tell you that you made them feel better about their day? It’s still a pretty cool job on that level, ya know? So you kinda hafta take the good with the bad. But it’s not easy sometimes when people say discouraging things about you because you don’t happen to be super famous.
And alotta people just don’t realize that they tend to say the wrong thing. The public, once in a while, tends to say the wrong thing. They don’t know what to say. [laughs] Ya know? They don’t understand this job. They’ll say something inadvertently that can be kind of rude to a comedian. Not alotta people understand what we’re doing.
Does being a comedian make it difficult for people to take you seriously in real life?
Umm…yeah…but I’m kind of one of those that likes to save it for the stage. I think that being a stand up has made me less funny in real life. [laughs] ‘Cause I think I was always trying to kinda prove myself to people, and now I feel less compelled to do that. Only around my friends really, am I funny off stage.
Is it harder to make people laugh when they’re older than you, as opposed to people who are around your age or younger?
When you’re younger, I think it’s harder to make older people laugh. Then probably, I assume as you grow older, it becomes harder to make young people laugh. But right now I’m kind of in between, so it really hasn’t been that big of a problem.
Jealousy amongst comics. Does it still occur with comedians at your level? And if so, how is it dealt with?
You know, I’m surprised at how competitive comedians are with each other. There should be more respect, and be more proud of each other for getting into this really hard business.
I’m happy when a fellow comedian does well. And usually they’re people I know. I root for the people I know and are friends with. The people I’m closest to in this industry, I’m always happy when something good happens for them, ya know?
Other advice for comics?
What I think is very funny about stand up is that you have this insulated world that they are taking too seriously at times. Comedians take things very seriously when it comes to stand up.
And there are all these different worlds that everybody thinks is their entire world. Like jet skiing…I bet there’s jet skiers that think that jet skiing is THE most important thing in the world! [laughs] I just think sometimes comedians ironically take themselves a little too seriously.
Like when we scribble in our notepads furiously? Does it get to a point in your level of experience where you don’t even need the notepad anymore?
Well…I wish I scribbled in my notepad more! I mean, most of my ideas on stage are just thoughts. I have a really hard time committing to any type of game plan. And that’s just my kind of my thing. My hour special was primarily improvisational, and that’s why it’s called Crowd Control.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Is your crowd work always off the cuff? Or do you do it so much to where you use the same jokes on different people?
It’s both. There’s no doubt that there are common things that people will say if I ask a good leading question. Sometimes the crowd will say something funny in the direction that I’ve never been before. And sometimes I’ve heard things that people say and I have a plan. And then at other times, I’ll have pre-written jokes to fall back on if I don’t feel like it’s going anywhere. There’s alotta improv where I’ll definitely walk off stage and go, “God, I can’t believe where that went! I had NO idea that it would go there.”
By having so much crowd work and improvisation as part of your act, does it scare away Comedy Central, HBO, etc. from doing a special with you, since you’re act is not completely scripted?
Absolutely. In fact, those were my initial conversations when talking about doing an hour special. That’s how that conversation went, saying that “We dunno what you’re gonna do when you get on stage! It seems like you make it up every night! Can you give us a tape of just your prewritten stuff??”
And I said, “Well, but this is kind of who I am, it’s what I do…” And they were like, “Well how are we’re gonna spend all this money to film this guy if we don’t even know what he’s gonna say?!” And so I just decided to produce my own special, and then I sold it to Mark Cuban. It was really cool to be able to be on his network. My special was the first stand up ever on that network. So that was pretty cool.
Your special was very funny. Considering the amount of uncertainty that goes with your improvisation and crowd work, you were very calm and cool the whole way through. How did you not get nervous about the fact that this is your special and that is MUST go well?
I appreciate that. I was concerned with that. I was actually most worried about the crowd, afraid that they would get cautious and not behave in a regular way. Ya know? Like, the littlest thing can change how they react to your questions! So there is that concern that the crowd might get a little squeamish about going down that road with me. But I kind of have a knack for finding strange situations in people. So, I was really happy with the way it turned out.
How did your act evolve into doing so much crowd work and improvisation?
I just got SO bored with doing the same jokes. And you just can’t write ‘em quickly enough! I don’t like doing them after a few WEEKS and sometimes you hafta work on a joke for YEARS!
So that’s one of the things I found…if I improv and riff into a joke, to me it seems more conversational, and I’m more excited to tell the joke. Rather than just telling it. There’s something very unnatural about stand up where you’re acting the whole night like you just thought of something, or something just happened. And then you’re recreating that every night. There’s a trick to that, and that is to actually have conversations with crowd members and then have that lead to a joke.
The other thing that was happening was that I was traveling early into my career and I was going to cities that I had never been before, and some of my jokes weren’t working as well as I wanted. So I just thought, “Man, I could really get people to laugh if I just ask them questions and then say funny things.”
How did you get into corporate comedy?
Well, I try to work clean so that I don’t hafta really make too many adjustments. And I think people came to my shows over the years and kept hiring me and telling me that I’d be great for their corporate party or meeting or conference whatever. And to them I was clean enough, and I seemed versatile enough.
What do you like about corporate gigs that you don’t get to experience at regular club gigs?
I genuinely enjoy it. I like how a lot of these people have never seen stand up comedy before, and when they do, they’re really excited. I like that there’s not too many performers on the show—that sometimes sort of tires out the crowd before you go up. I like that the audience isn’t drunk.
And more than anything, when you write a joke for a corporate group, you can only tell that joke for that group that night—for the rest of your life. Like, if you have a group of yacht salesmen, and you do a joke on stage about yacht-selling based on what those audience members told you about themselves, it’s fun because they know you only did that joke for them. It’s a very personal thing, and I get a lot out of it. Even though most comics don’t like corporate gigs, I find it very rewarding.
You are currently working on a book titled, No Ticket Required, which is about your hobby of sneaking into major, high profile events such as MULTIPLE Super Bowls! How do you pull that off?!?
[casually] Eh, I mean there’s been hundreds, maybe thousands of sneak ins: [takes a deep breath] concerts, sporting events, movies, super bowls, world series, NBA finals…there’s just been a lot of great events, and I’ve been doing it since I was a kid.
And they’re all different. Sometimes it’s just a matter of confidence, sometimes it’s a matter of climbing over walls… Generally there’s no prop stuff. There’s no costumes, no badges, nothing like that. It’s just a matter of knowing how to work an arena, ya know?
And I never did it to save money, I would just do it for fun. Sometimes I wouldn’t even see the event.
Aren’t you afraid of getting caught and not only being publicly humiliated, but quite possibly getting arrested?
Eh, I always have an alibi. Ya know? Like something as simple as, “Ohh I thought the bathroom was back here…” or “Oops someone told me the ATM was over here…” I always have some kind of reason as to why I’m in this strange place. I’ve never had to use those alibis, but they’re pretty useful if that kinda thing happens. I’ve never really had a problem with that.
What are some of the latest events that you’ve snuck into?
Mainly concerts these days: U2, The Stones, Eagles, AC/DC… And my wife is a really good sidekick, because she’s very innocent looking, she enjoys it, too. We’ve done some good stuff the last three or four years.
Ever thought about making a TV show about your sneak-in adventures?
People have actually pitched that to me, but I’m not interested in doing that. I don’t really find that enjoyable, kinda turning that into a job. This is a fun hobby for me. My goal is not to turn it into commerce. I just think it makes a better story on the page. I just enjoy it, and I think I can do it for the rest of my life.
Interviewed & Written by: DAVID GAVRI