Ryan Joseph is an Austin-based comedian on the rise. Through trial and error, he found his voice through the stages of Seattle and Los Angeles, landing in Texas with a distinct joke-writing style marked by succinct wit and dark humor.
However, behind every “dark comic” is a full person–someone different than the character they’ve cultivated on stage. Ryan Joseph is no exception, and he allowed me to dig deeper to figure out what makes this joke-machine tick.
When I first saw one of Ryan Joseph’s fearlessly edgy performances, I didn’t expect his off-stage demeanor to be so gentle. I certainly never dreamed he’d let me probe into the depths of his backstory, or (politely) insist on a full-on photoshoot wearing what this writer considers his iconic red bandana, one that’s seen the stage many times.
My recent conversation with Ryan Joseph revealed some of the biggest misconceptions people, myself included, might have about him.
By this time, Joseph has done an exceptional job of honing his craft. However, he didn’t know from the start what style of joke-writing would work for him. When he started doing stand-up comedy on a whim in Seattle, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into.
RJ: In the beginning, I had no jokes. I didn’t know how to write jokes. I thought you just go on stage and talk, and people laugh. It was a heart-wrenching, horrible experience. You just feel like you’re about to die when you go on stage, and maybe I got, like, one little chuckle or something by accident.
There was a moment where my girlfriend at the time asked me, ‘Have you seen Anthony Jeselnik?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ So I watched him, and I saw him doing those quick, dark jokes, and it was great. Then I looked at Stephen Wright and Rodney Dangerfield, and it just clicked for me–realizing what a joke really is.
Another pivotal moment happened when I was on stage. I told a joke where I compared myself to the creepy, dangerous-looking kids you remember from being a kid in school. I got big laughs. That made me realize what people see when they look at me, you know?
Everything started clicking in my mind as far as what I needed to do next. I started writing these really quick, shorter jokes, and they were more fun for me to write because they felt more difficult. I started getting really good responses to them. I realized that no one knew who I was, and they weren’t going to listen to me just talking about my life. They’re not going to pay attention to me. And usually, you only have five or six minutes. So short jokes were perfect for that, because the little bit of attention they give you after that first quick joke starts to grow.
Once Joseph started dedicating to himself to his new style of writing, he got more and more laughs in Los Angeles. He described this as the time that he became addicted to stand-up comedy. What was it that had him so hooked?
RJ: I think it was what I was looking for in terms of the immediacy of the payoff after the hard work. Because you go home and you write, and right away, you take it somewhere and get that gratification of laughter.
So, I kept doing stand-up. I was about two months in, doing stuff at Flapper’s in L.A., and I would do Bringer Shows at the Comedy Store. Then I did the Ventura Comedy Festival. I would do open mics and everything else I could–just grinding it out constantly.
RJ: I’m not the person that I am on stage. I think audience members think, ‘Oh, this guy’s creepy.’ Or, ‘He’s an idiot.’ Because I act really dumb, too. A lot of times, I get away with saying my jokes because I act dumb.
One thing people usually don’t realize about me is that I’m not making jokes out of nowhere. My stuff is very deliberate. I wish I would have started stand-up sooner, but I was in college.
I’ve never wanted to say it because it takes away from that persona, but I went to school. I went to Florida State University for undergrad and got my degree in literature. Then I went to Antioch University in Seattle for grad school, where initially, I was going to study teaching. I also went to the University of Washington to get certified in Instructional Design. I was like, ‘What do I do? I guess I’ll just keep going to school and get more loans.’
I’ve had people say to me off stage, ‘You’re nothing like I thought you would be.’ There’s this misconception that you have to be yourself on stage. You’re on stage! That’s the last place I want to be myself. That’s the only place I can escape from being me, you know?
I’m a very gentle guy, but we all have these dark things inside of us. We know these things exist. A lot of us want to reject that. I give people an opportunity to bring that darkness out, and maybe even make them feel better about it afterwards.
The best feeling was when a guy sent me a message. He said he was an unhappy person, and seeing my comedy helps get him through the day. It was the nicest thing anyone could say. I used to be afraid that me pursuing comedy was about becoming famous or successful. When I realized my comedy could actually help people, it made me feel like the thing that I’m good at is helping people. That’s what keeps me going when I feel like nothing’s ever going to happen.
RJ: People assume I’m hateful because I say offensive jokes. I don’t have the capacity in my brain to be hateful.
I like telling those jokes in order to push the line. I feel like we’re not allowed to say things. I feel like art should be able to do whatever it wants to do. It feels like the last refuge in this age of cancel culture. I also just find really crazy stuff funny. I find it funny to say things you’re not supposed to say; that’s what makes it special.
I look at it all as a joke. On stage, I’m not thinking about my problems. It’s always great when you get a laugh; it feels amazing.
Now the feeling I get is that I write this great joke, and it clicks together. My jokes are very precious to me; I don’t even know where they come from, sometimes. Although I work very hard at making them just right, I’ve had plenty of times where no laughs ever came. But now when I tell a joke, and I know the room’s about to roar…it’s given me this confidence in life. Even when people don’t laugh at a joke, that can be a good thing. Then I’m diving into another emotion they have: tension. Because when you can bring that laugh out of them again, it feels even better.
I don’t like it when people get offended. I’ve had people walk out of my shows before, and it doesn’t make me feel good. That’s not my intention. I’ll act like it’s funny and awesome while it’s happening, but it’s sad to me. On the other hand, though, I’ve learned to appreciate those people. Their outrage can make the jokes even funnier. Other audience members love it when I walk people.
Want to dive into more of Ryan Joseph’s comedy? He’s got lots of plans in the works. Currently, he’s hosting two shows in Austin, TX:
You should also check out more of Joseph’s content on his YouTube channel and Instagram. If explicit content isn’t your thing, beware of what you’re getting into–but take it from me: Don’t knock him ’til you try him!