Writing from the Foyer

Kevin L. Schwartz is a classical musician, poet, and comic famous mostly for living in his mother’s basement. Kevin L. Schwartz is a Princeton graduate who has diligently worked his way to the bottom. Kevin L. Schwartz has published poems and stories and such in various unimportant journals, and, more recently, appeared on tv. Kevin L. Schwartz has often been hailed as “the Mitch Hedberg of his generation,” which is odd because he’s the same generation as Mitch Hedberg. Kevin L. Schwartz has often been likened to Steven Wright in that they are both names. Kevin L. Schwartz is better at procrastinating in creative ways than at making real-life decisions. Kevin L. Schwartz lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he frequents Comedy on State. Kevin L. Schwartz is writing this biographical statement under duress.

Twitter: KevinLSchwartz, / Instagram: kevinlschwartz / Facebook: kvschwartz / TikTok: realKevinLSchwartz

When I first met Kevin L. Schwartz in the early aughts it was through the medium of online critique groups for poets and writers. For this interview (with which he benevolently agreed to humor me) we asked Kevin to reflect on the ways his writing has evolved over the last couple of decades, particularly in terms of motivation, process, and product.

Kevin says: For a long time, I did not write, or wrote seldom, and I never liked anything I wrote. That was a horrible period of my life. Not a single day went by where I did not wake up terrified I would never write anything half-decent ever again. 

To try to forestall this, once I could write, I wrote, wrote, wrote. Whatever came to me. I mostly wrote journal-entry-like thingies that I would then post on LiveJournal. Some were true; some were semi-true; some fantastical. I wrote “Onion”-type fake news articles. I wrote dialogs, but nothing I could ever finish. I wrote a disturbing number of jokes in the intersection between bar jokes and math jokes. 

Actually, one of my math/bar jokes went viral. I thought. “This is my chance at fame and fortune! as I kept track of how many Google hits it got, but eventually it peaked, and I half forgot about it. Some years later, I learned that that joke wound up word for word on a popular sitcom.

But none of that is what I hoped to be remembered for. I was writing on LiveJournal more to try to push myself into writing more poems and stories – and maybe eventually even scripts and/or and novels. 

I had agoraphobia. Have, rather. (Although I have a joke (which no one else likes) that I have DSM –the entire manual.) Anyway, month after month, my psychiatrist would assign me the task of getting out of my building every day. And every month I’d say, “Well, I got out – I made it here today,” and every time the psychiatrist would sigh and say that that does not count.

So, at one point, I was doing better, and getting out a bit. And my therapist assigned me to go write somewhere not on my block. 

There was this comedy club – Comedy on State – three short blocks from where I lived. So, I went there and wrote. And a guy named Mike Schmidt, an amazing comic, noticed me and realized I was a writer. (But not that Mike Schmidt, and also not that other Mike Schmidt. The third one. He’s a genius, but doesn’t show up much on Google.) And I guess he thought to himself, “We don’t have enough writers here in the Madison comedy scene. I need to get him up on that stage.”

So, he and I spoke a bunch, and eventually I made it a New Year’s resolution to get onstage at least once in 2014. And I did. And just as stupid coincidences had led me to the stage in the first place, stupid coincidences led to my staying, and to my getting on America’s Got Talent, and so on.

Now I still write because I have to, I guess? When I have not been writing, my life feels empty and meaningless. I write to give life meaning – but also still for fame and fortune. I kid, sorta. I try to convince myself that if I were famous I would have a bigger safety-net, more friends—just a better life. They say money can’t buy you happiness but also, “Can’t Buy Me Love” made millions.

I write a range of things, albeit a far narrower range than I did when I was younger. Mostly I write jokes; most of those jokes are short, or even one-liners; most of those one-liners rely on wordplay; most of that wordplay consists of puns. On a structural level, I joke about paradoxes. A lot of my jokes depend on hypocrisy or misapplications of logic. Or that’s how I see them. I joke about depression and anxiety but also about literature and music and science and whatever. The news. What I had for lunch. Stuff people are dying to hear about.

Q&A: Interview with Kevin L. Schwartz

What is your response to the saying that “puns are the lowest form of wit?”

I think there is also a version which says that about sarcasm.

And there are puns that are works of genius. Shakespearean, one might say.

Furthermore, I think that it’s in the execution, usually, that you find the quality of the joke. I don’t think “one-liners” are inherently better or worse than “observational” jokes or “confessional” jokes. They’re just different genres.

Who are your comedic influences

The Big Book of Jewish Humor” when I was growing up; also Douglas Adams; later, Jack Handey with his “Deep Thoughts.” To me, he was the saving grace of “Saturday Night Live!” Steven Wright. And, of people I know personally, the one who had the biggest impact on my current writing style is Mike Schmidt.

How does it feel to be compared to comic icons like Steven Wright for your dead-pan delivery style and killer one-liners? What do you think makes your comedy one-of-a-kind?

It feels awesome to be compared with Steven Wright. (At least, when it’s not sarcastic.) Wright is one of my all-time biggest comedy heroes. Except it does make me feel bad for Wright. But it’s unlikely he will ever find out.

I don’t really think my comedy IS one-of-a-kind, but IF it is, it’s because I am a dork. I have lots of weird allusions and such. I am like if Demetri Martin had a baby with Bill Nye and Steven Wright. Some people would pay good money to see that movie.

When you perform, to what extent are you in character?

Usually I’m mostly my character. The incidents may not have happened, but the thoughts behind them are my thoughts. Some of my jokes are totally a foreign character, though. I have jokes in which the narrator is a serial killer or a Nazi or a pedophile or lives in Janesville. Sometimes I just go where the twisted language and/or logic takes me, and sometimes that is a very dark place. Few of these jokes make it to the stage, though, and fewer still survive multiple performances.

In what way or ways is comedy “meta”. And in what way is your comedy a reflection of or on yourself?

The ideal joke is utterly surprising, and yet, in retrospect—but ONLY in retrospect—absolutely inevitable. I should say, that’s AN ideal, not the only. So, by taking an idea and flipping it around—that’s what a perfect joke would do. Everything would be set up and everything would also come as a shock.

I think that’s meta or recursive or however you want to phrase it. It’s about itself.

“The other day I— no, wait, that wasn’t me.” That’s a joke by Steven Wright, I might have misquoted it, but look how it takes the initial idea and reworks it. It does not go off and say, “The other day I ate ice cream — oops, no, an elephant!” and end with some random thought.

How do people generally react to your comedy?

They laugh. That’s why you invited me here. 

But the real answer is: their reaction depends a lot on which people, reacting to which joke. A lot of my jokes upset people. My darkest jokes upset people for being too dark. Once someone wrote a letter to the editor of a local college newspaper attacking my jokes as too dark.

Also, people often dislike the political or religious nature of a joke. I have gotten more hate—but maybe also more love—for my “Five Things”/”Jesus Quipped” joke than any other specific joke.

On the other hand, I have had a lot more people declare “I love you!” since I started doing stand-up, in 2014,  than in my life up until then.

What have you learned about your craft over that last decade or so?

I have learned how to write and perform a one-liner adequately. I use a minimalist style somewhat because it’s just how I am and also because it’s the one style I can actually pull off, onstage.

I write shorter stuff now than I did when I first started. I use far fewer allusions than I did. And when I do use allusions, they are now more to pop culture rather than what pop culture would call snob culture. For example, I’d far rather listen to Bartok than to Britney, but I realize that my audience does not share that view.

When I write just for myself, there are a lot more literary and non-pop cultural references. One of my friends calls that my “MIT set”. This is a classic me joke:

[Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” Maybe not. But if that lion bit you, you’d get the gist.]

This is a classic me-at-a-comedy-club joke:

[Who here appreciates libraries? [AUDIENCE CHEERS] Shhhh!]

I used to write a lot of math/science jokes. But that has not led to anything  (except that one time on tv), so now I try to avoid that type of thing. I don’t avoid it,  but I do try.

What other factors do you consider when you edit your work?

If I’m writing for the stage, then it has to be pronounceable and also aurally comprehensible.
Is the joke clear enough? Is it too clear? Is it already a common idea? (I will usually Google to see what similar (or identical) jokes are out there.) How is the rhythm? Does it flow off the tongue well? How is the “timing”? Does it “snap” at the end? If not at the very last syllable, how far from it? Can it be revised to get it closer?

What role does social media play in your creative process?

At one time writing – or at least typing – was my main means of communication. Online. Most of my social contacts are still because of writing and/or comedy.

Social media now plays a huge role in virtually every stage of my creative process.

To take a few examples…

I spend most of my day at my computer, whether I am typing or reading or staring into space. I spend as much time as I can DMing with friends, and often ideas for jokes occur to me during those DMs. If no one is free to chat, I try to get ideas from articles or whatever.

I might write something on a keyboard or on a notebook or on the back of a napkin, but if I like it and I don’t misplace it, it will eventually find its way to Facebook. 

I have a FB “group” that is a place for me to store my jokes. There are some other members of this group, but for the most part most of them do not say anything. Then, when I think it is ready for other eyes, I will post it as a public status update. Then, if it fails to reach some metric — say, three likes in an hour — I will take it down. If it gets, say, 20 likes, I will post it on Twitter. Then, if it does well on Twitter, I will post it on Instagram.

Most comics do something vaguely similar, but they do it at open mics rather than using social media. I hate going to open mics, for a slew of reasons. So, I try to work things out online instead, which is a terrible idea, but it’s what I do anyway.

I have jokes I’ve placed in my “feature set draft” that have literally never been said onstage. Which is nuts.

What does it mean to be successful as a writer?

There are lots of different ways to be successful. I used to think I needed to be avidly read 100,000 years from now. Now, I’d like to get 100,000 followers.

Joyce Carol Oates (namedrop!) told me that young writers want to be remembered after they die. She doesn’t care about that. She says since she does not believe in life after death, all that matters is what happens to her work while she is alive, and maybe while those who know her are alive.

With all due respect, I disagree. But not as ferociously as when I was 17 and still thought there was a chance I would be the next John Keats.

In what way would you like to have that lasting impact that will outlive you, in a perfect universe?

I would like to have a job writing for a show I loved. But. I also don’t think I could live in L.A.

Well, when I was fresh out of college, I wanted to be like John Keats and change the world with my writing and then if necessary die at age 25. Now, it’s more like… what can I eke out of my talent?

I have often been told I lack goals in comedy and that that is a major thing holding me back. But so many comics have so many goals, and their talent can’t cash that check. I’d rather see what happens rather than be disappointed over and over and over.

I guess I’ve been taught that I am vastly, vastly less brilliant and talented at something than I had thought. And now I feel like… why should I make assumptions about my talents in this, any more than previous things?

Everyone who is half-decent at comedy gets told they are brilliant by SOMEONE. Because people have wildly divergent ideas about comedy. Also, no matter how funny you are, people will say you’re an unfunny idiot.

To borrow from my friend Charlie Kojis, one of the very tip top comics in the Madison scene, to succeed in comedy, you have to overestimate your talent about 30%. Too much more, and you’re just delusional. Too much less, and you’ll give up in despair.

That was not intended as backhanded compliment of Charlie. Madison has some solid talent.

How did your appearance on AGT impact your career? Your personal life?

So far, I don’t really have a career, so “AGT” did not have much effect on it. I get offers, but I almost never accept them. Usually they are not practical. (“Hey, I’m a comic and booker in Sydney, and we’d love to have you come down and do a 20-minute feature spot…”)

The IMMEDIATE impact on my personal life was enormous. For the two or three days after “my” episode first aired, I could not walk two blocks without at least one person recognizing me and stopping me. Sometimes in the middle of the street, to my horror and to the annoyance of traffic. That faded gradually.

Is there longevity (if not immortality) in being a passing part of an institution of pop culture? Or does it feel more like the proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame”?

Both. But more the latter. I sometimes think about what I would (en)title my first comedy album, and for a while I settled on “1.5 Minutes of Fame.” I thought that that was a perfect fit, since the sets I had to perform for “AGT” had to be 90 seconds each — even if they later cut them to different lengths. But then I remembered Google and found that everyone else had thought up that name before I had.

Is that true online?

You mean, have people recognized me? Yes, to some extent. It’s not remotely as extreme a reaction, but there has been recognition. Which, once I stop doing this or get worse at it, will fade quickly.

Remember “Leave Britney Alone” guy? What is he up to? People don’t know or, as often as not, even care. He’s an old meme.

Not through any fault of his own. Just because of the nature of memes on the Internet.

I feel like live audiences have been responding to me differently since my IG posts have been going viral. Like, when you walk back from the stage to the back of the room, your friends and fellow comics will sometimes high-five you or whatever. But now it feels like there are dozens and dozens of strangers who want to do that, too. Like, they think they know me

Can Internet fame be channeled into an IRL career in comedy? Maybe. But if so, not fame at my level. And even if I had 19.6 million followers instead of 19.6 thousand — I would not know how to go about doing the transition.

Side note: it occurred to me recently that I have roughly the square root of the number of followers of the biggest few IG accounts.

For the luddites among us, what do followers get you? Is it transferrable for regular people?

Well, I just got a check for—no, that’s right. I was just informed by YouTube that I’m eligible for up to $111 for my videos for February, 2022. The other platforms also pay, to varying degrees. Not me, not yet, but to some people, and in theory to me eventually.

The more followers you have, the more useful you are to advertisers and platforms themselves.

What are the most rewarding aspects of greater visibility as a comic / writer? What unexpected pitfalls have you had to navigate?

Those “likes” and “follows” and “I love you”s are heroin for dorks.

Is there a danger in counting followers becoming obsessive, like quarters into a slot?

*looks up from counting followers* Um, what did you ask?

If you have OCD, you’re going to OCD. And if you get very into social media, followers and other “metrics” can take over your life.

But I am the exception! *cough*


No, I really DO waste an awful lot of time and energy worrying about the metrics and the derivatives of those metrics.

Are there things that help you avoid becoming overfocused or overstressed by social media metrics

I know that posting something and then doing something important — like having a psych appointment — is a TERRIBLE idea. It does not so much distract me from the stats I am missing as distract me from whatever appointment I am in.

So what’s this about going Instagram viral?

Well I’ve been posting on standupshots subreddit on Reddit for several years. Some of those jokes went kind of viral ish. They’d get maybe 8,000 likes for me but someone else would post them somewhere else and they might get 150,000 likes.

So, more recently, someone took a  pirated clip from my “AGT” set and added a music soundtrack on Instagram. And when someone told me about it, it had about 300,000 likes.

Was this another comic?

No, this is all they do. they pirate and add music and get more followers. And by not tagging me, they make sure none of those followers follow me instead of them.

I figured, well, I missed that opportunity, but still, I asked that they tag me in the post. But I didn’t pursue it more at first.

Anyway, it eventually reached 2 million+ likes. And copies of it reached even more. One reached li 3.5 million likes.

So, as I saw it was still gaining likes, I pestered them more and more to tag me.

Then, finally, it reached about 2.015 million… and suddenly they found my requests, and they were kind of irked, and asked why I had not texted them (???).

So, I try contacting bigger accounts to try to get them to intercede, and they ignore me.

So, I say, I’m going to try to make some reels and see if I can do this, too.

Jake Snell, a fellow comic, makes most of my reels for me. We look at a video of a set and decide which joke to use and what the text should look like. I started uploading in December 2021,  and at first, the uploads didn’t do so great. Gradually they did better. 

But it also got harder and harder to find good video of jokes that landed well, because I didn’t have a whole lot of videos to choose from. A lot of them had the same jokes, and sometimes people’s heads got in the way of the shot, or the angle was wrong for a reel, or it was too blurry; or things like that.

So now I really want to make a bunch of videos to use for reels. But, since Madison’s Funniest Comic Competition will use up the open mic nights at Comedy on State for all of April and much of May,  I am thinking I might at least TRY to film myself just telling jokes, even if I have a tiny audience or no audience. I have been warned over and over and over NOT to do this. But I also figure, if it bombs… well, Instagram won’t care. They just care about the ones that do well.

Why do they say not to do this?

Because laughter is a social activity. People are less prone to laugh if they feel they are the only one laughing. So you want an appreciative audience, even in a reel. IN the reel itself.

Surely there are exceptions?

Yeah, like, Bo Burnham did an entire hour special alone in his house during quarantine. And it’s brilliant. But people point out, “Yeah, that’s Bo Burnham. You’re no Bo.”

We see a lot of one-person comedy skits that go viral: remember the woman who went back in time to warn herself about 2020?  

I agree. I want to try to do it. There’s a video of a guy at age 7 interviewing himself at age 30. actual footage of him at 7 interviewing a future self, and then the actual future self responded years later. How he pulled that off, I don’t know. It’s truly hilarious, though. I don’t have that kind of video skillz. I did make that “We have ways of making you talk...” video. I filmed it in my room by myself.

Where are you now in your creative journey, compared to where you thought you would be?

If the creative journey is a trek across America, like Forrest Gump – I am still in the foyer of my building, but at least now I’ve got my shoes on.

I have two assignments I’m theoretically working on, aside from making reels and prepping for hitting the road.

1) Being more spontaneous. Not going so well, but I am trying.

2) Being more confident. Less apologetic. Again… trying.

On the road? To where?

Well, the first step would like be Chicago.

No point traveling to Kyoto to give a performance when I haven’t done any in Chicago.

Not that Kyoto is known for its bustling English-language comedy scene.

Back in the day you could travel as a poet, sleeping on couches in between cities, featuring at local open mics and art events where they might pass a hat. is it anything like that still today, for comics? What would being “on the road” look like for you?

That may still be true, but I can’t live that way. I have anxiety disorders and sundry health disorders. I have all sorts of requirements to be able to go anywhere.

“On the road” for me would mean traveling as little as feasible and as comfortably as feasible. Staying in places I feel comfortable. Which is admittedly, not many places. I am far from sure I can do it. I have been talking about it for at least 5 years now, and I am not entirely sure I am that much closer now than I was then. I get very motion sick very easily and I recover very slowly.

As an example: When I was on “AGT,” I was not able to stay in the regular hotel with the other contestants, the first time I went. Because 1) I wanted to get there at least one day early to acclimate, and 2) I wanted to bring someone along for emotional security. Whereas the second time, I was able to stay with other contestants, and it was a different experience. 

Also, frankly, a vastly nicer hotel the second time. Not that the hotel the first time wasn’t just fine. But the second time, it was niiice.

I was able to make friends with other contestants — and in some cases, their families — when not on set or anywhere near set. When the pressure was off, so to speak. You might spend all day sitting next to someone on a box for a shot, but not get a chance to really chat with them, if you’re being filmed.

The Beasha family was sooooo nice to me. The second time, when I was — for the first few days — there alone? They welcomed me into their family and sort of took care of me. Emanne, the daughter, was that tiny adorable opera singer from my season (season 14, 2019). She did a WHOLE lot better in the competition than I did — which is appropriate — but they never made me feel like I was in any way inferior. They said they were my fans. They are one the nicest families I’ve run across. All the more amazing, for a show biz family.

If you leave aside the serial killings, I mean. But we all have our skeletons in the closet.

So… I KNOW my next trip will be and SHOULD be a letdown after “AGT.” But I am still not sure that I’ve prepared myself enough, if that makes sense.

How do you see comedy evolving in the digital age?

I think we will see the rise of TikTok comics. Comedians who burst to fame on whatever social platform and suddenly are headlining across the country or even going on “SNL” and so on. A lot of these comics will tank, because suddenly they are being asked to do something very different from what brought them fame in the first place. But some will thrive.

How do comics stay relevant?

They don’t.

Einstein wrote that science progressed not because the old fuddy-duddies were eventually won over by brilliance of the work of the young firebrands, but rather because those old fuddy-duddies died off, leaving a new generation of soon-to-be fuddy-duddies.

If that’s true, then comedy is a science.

Some comics are able to change with the times. Carlin, for example. Or Cosby. No, wait. That’s a terrible example. Louis C.K.? No, I’ll stick with Carlin.

But as a comic, one has to either retire or work very hard to stay relevant.

{{Keep up with the times. I won’t say “never use a word or phrase that is offensive” but be aware that there are words and phrases and even ideas that genuinely wound people. Is your joke worth those wounds? Is the wound necessary for the joke? Then keep it. But don’t pretend “they’re just words” or “they’re only jokes” if you know what you say is hurtful.}}

What do you want to say that I didn’t ask?”

If a comic performs, don’t be afraid to tell them you enjoyed their comedy, if you feel that way. 90+% of the time they are insecure and will appreciate the compliment. I mean, if you WANT to, don’t be afraid to.

I think that goes for poets too. And writers. And performers.

Nah. Just comics.😛

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