Duncan Trussell is a writer, actor, and stand up comedian who can be seen regularly at the Hollywood Improv and The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. He has written and appeared in sketches for Fuel TV’s Stupidface, Showtime’s La La Land, Comedy Central’s Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time, and HBO’s Funny or Die Presents. Recent TV credits include MADtV, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Roots 3. Duncan hosts his own podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, and he frequently appears on Joe Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. It was great to meet him and talk with him about his tour, his podcast, and psychedelic meditation.
[laughs] Sounds great, I’m excited for you. So how did you get your start in stand up?
After I got my Bachelor’s in psychology, I moved out to L.A. because I thought it’d be cool to live there. I found a job at The Comedy Store. And working around all these comedians, they eventually got me to go up on stage. And after a while, I became the talent coordinator at The Comedy Store. So even though I was working, at the same time, I was learning from the best on how to be a stand up comic. I’ll never forget those years. I became filled with so much valuable information on stand up comedy. It was an amazing experience.
Who are your comedic influences?
George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Doug Stanhope, Joe Rogan, Andy Kaufman, Tim Heidecker, Louis C.K., and Neil Hamburger. And I’m sure I’m missing a bunch in there, too. I love comedians who do stuff that’s purely unique to their own self. I also like comedians who, like Carlin, are some kind of necromancer. Carlin would do this filet knife attack on whatever weird delusions that happened to exist in the audience’s mind. And ya know, people complain about that style of comedy like, “Well, that’s not really funny!” It’s just a different kind of funny. It’s the type of funny that teaches you something. It’s the kind of funny that gets you to look at something in a different way—in a way that you’re not normally conditioned to look at. And that’s what makes it exciting.
You chose to be a comedian instead of a doctor. How did your family react?
Terribly! [laughs] I spent a REAL LONG TIME being dead fuckin’ broke. DEAD BROKE! And that’s just how it is being a comedian—you don’t make money right away. It was feast or famine. So I’d work a buncha odd gigs, doing whatever I had to do.
What were some of these odd gigs?
I would design websites for people; do freelance work. I tried to do commercials, and for the life of me, I COULD NOT book a commercial! I got ONE commercial with Mercury Insurance—they paid me six hundred dollars. That was it for me and commercials. [laughs] But after a while, I met (Joe) Rogan, and he started to take me on the road a bunch. Somewhere in that time frame, I got a manager and I got a writing job on the Nick Swardson Show.
Do you feel resentful toward your parents for not supporting your decision to be a comedian?
You know, I could be resentful that my parents didn’t fully support me and my decision, but at the same time, name all the funny comedians whose parents completely supported their comedy. [silent pause] Comedy is an art form that blossoms through rejection. In fact, it’s dependent on rejection. From doing your material over time in front of enough people, and seeing what works and what doesn’t work—that’s how you become a good comic.
How do you overcome the feeling of bombing on stage?
The only way to learn is to go up on stage and eat shit—that’s rejection. Having such a bad set to where you feel the venom of humiliation moving through your veins for the next few days—that’s what fuels you to work harder. The only antidote to a shit set is a good set.
Most people we grow up with choose the “normal” route to life. Is it worth taking the “crazy” route?
In all true endeavors that are worth taking, you have to leave the comfort of the village and journey down the crazy, weird road into the dark forest that stands in between you and where you wanna be. And the journey always ends well if you pursue it hard enough. It has to. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a risk—it wouldn’t be worth anything.
How did you feel about “leaving comfort of the village” for this crazy comedy journey? For some, those things are hard to let go.
The idea in life is not to get too caught up in the drama of the past, or the anxiety of the future. It’s been said, that your past is just a story to tell, to keep people alive in the moment. Your past is no longer there—it’s completely extinct. It’s annihilated. Your brain has neurological clusters of chemicals that it holds together to remind you of the past, and to give you a sense of continuity. But the past doesn’t exist. It’s just THIS FUCKING THING RIGHT NOW. In our culture, people get really into the past. But if you’re fretting over the past, then you’re not living in the moment.
First of all, please do not think all of us comedians out in L.A. are rolling outta bed at 5:00 am every single day, living one hundred percent productive lives. [laughs] I mean, we can order marijuana here! We can legally call a number, and a guy will come over to our house with a credit card machine, [laughs] and he will bring you the type of marijuana that you can only find from down in the depths of Roswell, New Mexico—like THE most powerful, pungent, insane sativas that are known to man! [laughs] There is a HIGH level of distraction out here! [laughs]
What do you do when you get sidetracked ?
You hafta enjoy the downswings just as much as the upswings. It’s okay to let yourself slip out of a disciplined state into the depths of the darkness that’s inside of you from time to time. Going in and out of a stagnant state to a disciplined state—living in different ways—it’s a crucial part of understanding yourself. There’s no RIGHT way to live. Find what works for you and what makes you happy. And then you’ll find your natural cycle.
I think sometimes comics tend to feel good only when things are good. How do you feel good when things are bad?
Human beings have a myriad of personalities that are all existing together within our body—just whirling around all the time. Trying to maintain a contstant state of ego just isn’t gonna happen! If you feel good only when things are going good, and then you feel bad every time things go bad—then you’re living in a fabricated dualism of life, which is a remedy for fuckin’ misery.
How do you stay focused and disciplined?
Being disciplined, working super hard, waking up early in the morning—a lot of these things, personally, have given me a million times more satisfaction as opposed to not having any dedication or ambition. Once you start identifying happiness within your discipline, you start becoming addicted to discipline. You begin to love the exhileration of it.
How do you not let the pressure of future goals get in the way of being present and enjoying the moment?
If you try to instill any type of permanence in your life, then you’ll immediately start worshipping the future. And worshipping the future results in being empty in the moment. And if you’re empty in the moment, then you’re not observing life as it happens around you. And if you’re not observing life, then what the fuck do you have to talk about on stage?!
THE DUNCAN TRUSSELL FAMILY HOUR PODCAST
What has having a podcast taught you about comedy?
This business is shifting so radically with the emergence of the technology that lets us do podcasts and upload YouTube videos. The internet is now our own mini network. Just by having an internet connection, you can reach out to so many more people than you could ever imagine. And because of this, things that used to be a necessity have now become things that you really don’t need so much.
Such as what?
You can make viral YouTube videos—and make good money through whatever YouTube’s advertising deal is. And a network will come along and try to buy your product and try to turn it into a show. Yet, the money the networks offer will be substantially less than the money you’d be making on your own—not to mention, these networks want creative control. So it’s like, “No way! Why would I sell you MY show for less than what I’m already making on my own, when I have complete creative control over it?!” The geographical hierarchial thing is becoming less and less relevant than it once was.
Therefore, the route to becoming a professional comedian has changed as well?
The dream of a comedian used to be to get on The Tonight Show. And doing just five minutes of clean material would put you in front of all these people in hopes that they would come see you at your shows. But with podcasts, you’re able to do HOURS of anything you want—and be able to be who you are. They give you the chance to reach out to people in ways that you can’t fuckin’ dream. But I hope I don’t sound like I’m denigrating—I think it’s fucking laudible and awesome to be on The Tonight Show. It’s a beautiful thing when comedians reach that level of acrobatics. I’m just saying that it’s no longer a necessity.
THE BUSINESS OF COMEDY
How has technology changed the way in which comedians, or any artists, distribute their work?
Nowadays, comedians can self-distribute their own work. You can go to any comdian’s website and digitally download their own stand up special. But, [in a deep Medieval accent] there was once a time—WAYYY BACK IN THE DARK AGES, if you wanted to distribute your work, it had to be recorded onto these ANCIENT silver discs that people once called CDs! [laughs] And they were packaged inside these crazy cases! [moment of laughter; back to his regular voice] And then those CDs were sent to the record store where people could buy them. But the only way that you could get your shit into the record stores was by giving NINETY percent of the profit to the label that was putting your work into the record store.
But now, these record stores are no longer the market. I mean, what—you’re gonna go to the mall—and pick up a COMEDY CD?! Who does that anymore?! [laughs] So now, with the technology that we’ve been given, we can record and distribute all on our own—with just a laptop! Now the artist looks at the label like, “Well, now I don’t need your technology OR your help, so what is it that you have to offer?” [Medieval accent again] “But, you get the NAME OF THE LABEL!” [back to normal voice] That’s it! It’s simply having THEIR brand name on YOUR work so that they can say how such-and-such comedian is part of their conglomerate, and they’ve been approved as a worthy comic. That’s it.
With so much artist independence, how important is it to still have an agent and a manager?
It’s all about having a fair collaboration based on true value. And you definitely do need a team with these people on it. Now, these guys are having to readjust and adapt to the changes in the business the same way the labels are. But what the agents and the managers do, is they scan the entire market to see what’s going down so that they can find people for you to work with who share the same artistic vision. They’re an entertainment sherpa, who will navigate you through this journey to get you to where you need to go. But don’t focus on that just yet. Focus on working really hard, and they will appear when it’s time.
JOE ROGAN & PSYCHEDELICS
Joe Rogan is a good friend and a great mentor to you. He’s quite an inspiration. What is it like hang out with him?
Nice fuckin’ guy! He’s had a humongous impact on my career. He was the first guy to take me on the road as a comic. I’ve always respected him as a comedian, and the fact that he thought I was funny—that really pushed me through a lot of dark times.
It’s really awesome how Rogan has helped so many comedians get to where they are.
What he’s done is so cool. A lot of comedians out there are weird about not wanting others around them to be successful. They wanna be at the top of the pyramid, and they want everybody else to worship them. But Rogan is really into the idea of helping comedians succeed. He really gets a kick outta putting comics like Ari Shiffir, me, and Joey Diaz on HIS podcast—because now all of a sudden OUR podcasts are benefitting. The people who listen to Rogan’s podcast now find us and listen to ours as well. And he loves the fact that whenever he takes us on the road, now we can draw a crowd. Such a great guy. He really wants us all to succeed. He’s a combination of an awesome friend as well as a mentor. He’s a cool motherfucker! AND he’s got a floatation tank!
What is that like to go into the floatation tank?
It’s a very cool experience—definitely worth checking out. It’s a type of meditation where you hafta learn to calm your mind. The more you do it, the better you get at it. The way Rogan describes it, your mind is like a filter, and its job is to filter out all the different things that are happening around you. There’s all this movement and sound and distraction, and all kinds of crazy activity that’s constantly around you at all times.
And so what a float tank does is it suddenly removes all the energy that your brain exerts to filter all that shit out. The floatation tank functions as a filtration mechanism for reality—it removes all that extra stuff that your mind puts energy into filtering out. So suddenly, all that extra energy now goes into your consciousness without having to focus on anything extraneous. It’s a crazy thing.
Sounds trippy. What general advice do you have for anybody who partakes in meditative psychedelics?
I’ll give you the advice that’s been given by all the great psychonauts of our time—Terence McKenna, Timothy Leary, and Richard Alpert. And the general consensus is: If you’re gonna take a powerful psychedelic, do it in the company of people that you trust. Do it in a situation where the next day you don’t have anything to do. Ideally, you’d want to have a day before the experience where you just get to relax. You want to reduce your anxiety levels by as much as possible.
And whenever you have a psychedelic experience, you want to go into it with an intention—something you want to gain out of it, something you wanna learn, something that you’d like to develop in yourself. And then, have time afterward with the group of people that you’re doing it with to talk about what you just experienced. You can look at it as a form of interdimensional fishing, where you’re journeying into an alternate reality.
My advice is this: Do your research before you do anything. And research it as if you’re going on a rocket into outer space. If you were going on a rocket, you would wanna know who made the rocket, where it would take you, what would happen to you—really investigate it and learn the history of it. And be smart about it. So many people take this stuff lightly. They take it like it’s a party thing, when it’s supposed to be something that has the ability to transform your life into something better. And I’ve gone to Six Flags on mushrooms—it was a MISERABLE experience. It was SO creepy.
Psychedelics are wonderful teachers that teach you the truth. And whenever somebody is teaching you the truth, they’re simultaneously teaching you to be happy. And anyone who can permanently teach you to be happy is someone who deserves a great deal of praise and respect. Sometimes your teachers come in the form of friends, sometimes they come in the form of gurus, and sometimes your teachers grow on cow shit. [laughs]
Interviewed & Written by: David Gavri