February 27, 2013

Some weeks ago at Big Terrific, Max Silvestri commemorated his thirtieth birthday and his decade in stand-up comedy by retelling the first joke that he had ever performed on stage. The bit was still very funny (what joke about jerkin’ it isn’t?), but more importantly, the moment itself, being charged with such milestones, felt particularly significant within the at-capacity venue.

Silvestri started Big Terrific, the free, weekly comedy night at Cameo Gallery, five years ago with fellow comedians Jenny Slate and Gabe Liedman, but currently hosts the show by himself. (In observance of this additional milestone, Silvestri, Slate and Liedman plan on celebrating the show’s fifth birthday with a Big Terrific comedy night on March 15th.) Over the last five years, comedians both unknown and well-known, including the likes of Nick Offerman, Kristen Schaal, and Mike Birbiglia, have stopped in on Wednesdays in Williamsburg to try out their material.

Offstage, Silvestri writes funny, biting recaps of reality cooking shows, such as Top Chef for Eater, and Rachel Vs. Guy: Celebrity Cookoff and Worst Cooks in America for Grantland. (Indeed, Bullett recently published a very opinionated piece on Silvestri’s recap of Worst Cooks. Let it be known that the views expressed in said piece are exclusively the author’s own, and that Bullett does not think of TV recappers as “the worst people on the internet,” especially not Silvestri).

It’s no surprise that Silvestri is into food. He is a loyal Guy Fieri fan (a rarity in New York) and has described eating a shrimp po’boy as a “religious experience.” When I asked him if he would introduce me to his favorite neighborhood meal, he told me to meet him at Brooklyn Star on Lorimer Street, so he could show me their meatloaf sandwich: “it’s very special 2 me,” he wrote in an email, “and I have eaten it both alone and also blacked out, both of which are sad wastes of money in different ways.”

We met, of course, on Fat Tuesday. Upon arrival, he ordered a “Wild Turkey Manhattan on the rocks with a twist”, and apologized twice: once to the waitress for the amount of words in his drink, and once to me, for being three minutes late, having just woken up from a ‘night nap’.

Do you usually take night naps?
I do, and I set my alarm for eighteen minutes, because any longer and I don’t want to get out of bed. But it’s only when I’ve been that ‘knives-in-the-eyes’ tired, which I happen to be today, [even though] I didn’t do anything last night. Well, I watched Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. 

Do you cook? Are you strict about Italian flavors when you cook?
I do. I am getting better at it. I was raised with a very certain New-Jersey-red-sauce flavor profile. My dad was raised by like, the Sicilian grandma, learning in the kitchen. How he cooked  is definitely how I got into Italian food.

What are your go-to dishes?
I sort of learned the chicken parm recipe from my dad. I do a lot of that, a lot of pizza, a lot of braises, like lamb ragout with gnocchi. Italian is not necessarily my favorite food to eat, but the way I entertain, or have people over, I very much associate with how [my family] entertained [when I was] a kid. Which is just so much Italian food, just plate after plate. You should walk away feeling gross.

Why the meatloaf sandwich at Brooklyn Star?
I really feel like it’s an underrated gem in the neighborhood. It had first opened on Havemeyer, when I was living in South Williamsburg. One night I was at K&M bar and needed food, so went and got the meatloaf sandwich. I brought it to the bar and was like ‘this is amazing, the bread is so soft!’ [The restaurant] had burned down a week later. BUT, two weeks after I moved out to this neighborhood, they reopened out here. It was just right: they burned down, I moved, and they followed me. Also, this is one of the only places where the kitchen is open ‘til 1:00. If it’s late, you basically have: deli sandwiches, Kellogg’s— (but you’re going to get shot if you go there—) the taco truck at the back of Union Pool (but you’re going to get fingered if you go there), and then there’s this, which is always pretty mellow.

How many times have you ordered the meatloaf sandwich?
Maybe a dozen? I don’t think there is any food item that I have ordered more in Williamsburg. This is the only place that’s my [go-to], well, this and Bamonte’s. If the meatloaf is my favorite late-night neighborhood comfort food, then Bamonte’s is my favorite neighborhood restaurant. It’s a red-sauce Italian place that’s been open for 105 years. It’s this weird throw-back, it’s still family-operated by a Bamonte, there’s valet parking, and if you go there at 6 p.m., it’s all Italian families celebrating, with a lot of really cheap black hair dye, big white perms, 2L bottles of Pepsi everywhere. I had my [thirtieth] birthday dinner there.

How has your first week as a thirty year old been?
I had mild anxieties about turning thirty, not the age—I was pretty ready to be thirty—but it had been sort of a weird year. All of my comedy friends had just moved to LA. It felt like a very different landscape than I was used to.

Does everyone move to L.A. to pursue comedy?
I don’t think everyone needs to, and lots of people carve out good careers here. Moving to LA is kind of about whether it’s the right time and it’s not been the right time for me yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, you know, sooner rather than later, it was. 

Is that something that you’re seeking out?
I mean, I’m seeking out work and opportunities. The work is more important than the place, I guess.

Do you think New York is a good city to be a comedian in?
Absolutely. It’s a great city to be a comedian in and become a good comedian in. It’s a tougher one to get a lot of work in. If you’re a touring comic, there’s no shortage of rooms to perform in. But most comedians are also multimedia. They start out doing stand-up, but they also write and they also act. For all those other things, it’s far more lucrative [to be in LA]. There’s not a lot of TV shows that write here. There’s not a lot of acting, there’s less commercials, all the sort of things that pay for you to be creative. That being said, it also feels to me like the pool here has gotten even smaller. Even older people I know sort of look around and say, ‘We’re the only ones left.’

How did Big Terrific start?
The three of us had met at, I guess you could call it a club, but really it was this weird bar slash video rental place in Manhattan called Rififi that was the kind of a hub of downtown alternative comedy in New York. If you were young and into alternative comedy, like David Cross and Demetri Martin, that was where they were hanging out and performing in New York. We were all doing shows there, starting out, and you could get seen by older people, you would get booked on a show that had, like Louis C.K. and David Cross and John Glaser. Then Rififi shut down.

There wasn’t really any comedy in Williamsburg and it was this weird thing where all the famous comics and industry people were a little older and they lived in Manhattan, because most people above the age of 28 did then. But all the young people that I was inviting to my show, and the young comics that I was hanging out with lived in Brooklyn. This guy reached out to me right as Rififi was closing and was like, ‘I’m working at this record store called Sound Fix. Jenny and Gabe had been doing a show every other week but didn’t like their venue. They didn’t want to do a weekly, and I didn’t want to do a weekly, but we thought ‘if we do it together, we’d be able to pawn off the responsibility.’

Is it difficult now that you’re hosting alone to find content every week?
It is a little harder. When we were switching off, it was like ‘Oh, one week I can do a set of jokes I’m working through,’ but if I’m hosting it’s like, ‘Oh, I should interact and be fresh.’ But at the same time I think that I should be generating more material. Gabe, who is maybe my favorite stand-up, really didn’t do it much until Jenny got SNL. They were very much a unit. He got so, so good at stand-up when Jenny left. He was good before, but now he’s tremendous. As sad as it was that she got busier, it was the best for him. So I’m not worried about having to write more, because I should be [writing more].

Last week you told the first joke that you remember telling, which was a decade ago. What has been the trajectory of your career in comedy over the last decade?
Well, I knew going into college that I wanted to do comedy stuff, but I wanted to major in Classics and Computer Science. I took one class of each and thought, ‘these things are so hard and so boring, why did I think I wanted to do this?’ Meanwhile, I had joined improv troupes and was like, ‘this is so chill. There’s no homework. You don’t have to write anything, you just have to show up and be slightly louder and more confident than everyone else.’ There was a stand-up club on campus. It was these kids sitting in a second-floor classroom at 7 p.m. with school-funded pizza. They were all strangers just workshopping each other’s material. We had shows every week and like 300 people would come. [I remember thinking,] ‘300 college kids think I’m so funny every week, and they pay a dollar, that’s 300 dollars every week and we get to keep that money!’

Then this guy rejoined the group. He had taken a three-year break from school to do comedy professionally in L.A, and came back as a 22-year-old sophomore. I thought he was the coolest person. He regaled me with all these stories, telling me things like, ‘Oh yeah, working with Patton Oswalt, he has this bit that isn’t on TV yet.’  Within the course of the first year of our friendship, he kept saying, ‘You should do stand-up, you should stand-up.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know, it seems hard to start, I don’t write jokes down.’ I went with him to a club in Boston and he basically lied to the club owners and said, ‘this guy Max is really funny. He opens for me at college, I vouch for him. You should book him.’ So, before I did an open mic or anything like that, I had this date scheduled 6 weeks out at this club.

How old were you?
I guess I was 19. The club was on the third floor of a Chinese restaurant. I was nervous. [My friend’s] girlfriend gave me a little Moleskine, which was the first notebook I’d ever had, and she said, ‘You should write ideas in this.’ I was like, ‘WHAT IS A MOLESKINE? I’m going to be obsessed with this, I’m going to fetishize this thing forever.’ 

Do you still write in a Moleskine?
I don’t. I’m too digital. I use Evernote, which syncs with iCloud. You know, the future!

How do you feel comedy in general has changed over the last decade? You do stand-up, but what about other forms of comedy, like your recaps and comic writing?
To be perfectly honest, the majority of the money I’ve made in comedy has not been in stand-up. It’s been in video and writing. I did some sketches, I did a series for Details. The timing kind of worked out because YouTube was just becoming a thing when I moved to New York. I made this video with the other Gabe in my life, one of my best friends Gabe Delahaye. I put it up on YouTube and it had a couple hundred thousand hits, which was a big deal at the time. We started getting all these crazy offers to do paid Internet things. Anyway, I don’t think I ever wanted to be the kind of stand-up comedian that has a really tight five minutes of jokes on a late night show.

Does that even exist anymore?
Yeah. There’s almost been a resurgence of that in the New York scene. My generation really looked up to these guys that had built non-traditional career paths even if they were super strong stand-ups, guys like Eugene Mirman and David Cross, who don’t quite do normal stand-up, but tour rock clubs. They’re not going on the road and hitting Yuk Yuks in Indiana. But there’s almost been this swing back where this younger group of comics really fetishize the life of a road comic, of building the joke and hitting three rooms a night. They’re just so into the art, but none of [my generation] were.

Do you see yourself alternatively as a food writer?
No. I don’t think of myself as a food writer. I sort of weirdly cornered this genre accidentally by writing about shitty cooking television shows. I don’t like food writing. I don’t think it’s interesting to write about something I like.

You don’t like the shows that you watch?
No! I would never watch them for free. And I’m not somebody who likes watching bad shows. It’s not like I watch Real Housewives. I didn’t mean to become a food writer, but a lot of my writing is about that.

What do you think of Padma?
She seems like she’s probably a terrible person in real life, but I find her beautiful and ethereal and very watchable, because she behaves so strangely against the grain of how a normal human acts. She’s so weirdly in her own universe and so self-involved that it’s very funny that her job is to engage. I would not watch the show if she was not on it. She’s kind of this odd sea creature. 

Is there anything you want to do differently now that you’re a grown-up?
Well, my thirtieth birthday is also linked to my entering this next phase in my life where comedy has to pay all the bills. I think I just have to be responsible now. I don’t have to work that hard, but I have to keep working. I feel like it’s fairly easy to have a certain arrested development in New York. You never have to be that responsible because there is always a 38 year old who goes out, or someone who doesn’t want to work if you want to go to the beach on Tuesday.

Have you ever celebrated Fat Tuesday before?
No, but growing up I celebrated Lent. You’re meant to give up vices, like chocolate or something. I think I gave up videogames for a month. Most of my friends were Super Nintendo at the time, and I was a Sega Genesis defender, but then I kind of stepped away. Maybe Lent worked. I didn’t play any videogames in high school. I was very bad at Goldeneye, and I didn’t want to do something I was bad at. So I was like ‘I’ll just be too cool for videogames and that will get me out of this. I’ll give it up for Lent, forever.’

What’s next?
Eater is paying me to go on the Top Chef celebrity cruise. My girlfriend and I are going. The whole boat will be Top Chef, and I’m going to write a long form piece on it. Many past winners and contestants, as well as Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons and other people involved in the show, will be there. I’ve started looking at cruise ship blogs, and there’s this whole weird fat-person world. I saw this thing on Lifehacker, “15 Things You Don’t Know About Cruise Ships”, no one tells you that you can take as many of the candy toppings from the soft serve bar home in a cup.

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