Even if you don't know Dan Mintz's comedy, you may well have heard his distinctive monotone, which he's used to voice Tina Belcher, the breakout star character of Bob's Burgers, for the last five years.
With that knowledge in mind, it can be shocking to hear the stand-up work on Mintz's first comedy album The Stranger, out from Comedy Central Records last week. With one-liner after one-liner, he plumbs controversial subjects and works to surprise the listener with every punchline. "When I die, I'd like to leave my money to homeless people," he says during one characteristically surreal moment. "My wife and kids."
Between Bob's Burgers and writing for the Fox sitcom Mulaney and the Comedy Central reality spoof Nathan for You, Mintz is helping to shape some of the most talked-about comedies of the moment. Over the phone, I spoke with him about his stand-up, acting, and writing.
David Sims: How does it work to decide what's going to go on the album? Some of the jokes on The Stranger I've been hearing for a long time, some I didn't really know. What's your process considering you have to pack so many jokes into the album?
Dan Mintz: I've been doing standup for 15 years; usually you wouldn't take this much time to release your first album. I think my oldest joke I wrote in 1999 or 2000, so I felt a little bad for people who have been following me to do old jokes. But it felt like my first album is the first thing I've done where I had total control over how it was put together, so I just wanted it to be the set that I could be the most happy with. It wasn't hard to pick, the hard thing was getting enough jokes that I was happy enough with, because my jokes are like 15 seconds. You'd think 15 years is a long time, but it's really easy to go for years, especially if you're doing other stuff like writing, and just forget about standup. It was basically when I finally decided I had 45 minutes I was happy with.
Sims: To me, the layman, it does seem like when you're more of just a straight joke-teller with very short jokes it would take so much longer. If you're a storyteller comic who can go up and have eight bits, it's easier. Is that an uninformed way of looking at it?
Mintz: I feel like the flipside is, for the type of comedy I do, it takes less time to perfect the delivery, but a lot more time to do the writing. I probably ended up with like 130 jokes on the album.
Sims: Do you like the approach of having so many jokes because if the crowd is iffy on one it almost doesn't matter because there another one coming like 20 seconds later? Does that help you at all on stage?
Mintz: I mean, not as much as you'd hope. You still get momentum, and since there are places where people are supposed to laugh, it's a lot more obvious when you're doing badly. If someone's telling stories and you're entertained by them, you might not even notice that everyone's not laughing, but you definitely will notice if I pause at the end of a joke.
Sims: Have you ever thought about playing with your delivery or have you always felt your approach is the right approach for you?
Mintz: In theory I probably should try to play with it more, it's just when I got in my comfort zone and had something that was working, it was hard to try new things. I keep thinking I'm going to try and start telling stories on stage or other bits, and I never quite spend enough time on it to get it down. If I tell a story now, it doesn't sound like a comedian telling a story, it just sounds like a random person telling a story. It's a little awkward being on stage.
Sims: One thing I love is that your character will change from joke to joke. You're married one second, and the next second you just broke up with your girlfriend. It would be hard to add reality to that unreality that you're practicing.
Mintz: Yeah. If you're doing longer stories and then you're doing one-liners, they come across as fake and corny. And if you're doing one-liners and all of a sudden you're doing a story, it comes across as too soft. People expect a certain rhythm. I would say I locked into my persona pretty early; I wouldn't say it's how I am naturally but it's how I am naturally when I'm on a stage in front of people. That anxiety makes me be the character that I am.
Sims: It locks you into that mode where you're delivering right at us, and not really moving around at all. Do you think that it helps in terms of your material, which can be really risky and dark? Does the fact that you're almost out of character help soften the blow for the audience? How much trouble do you get in sometimes?
Mintz: I'm actually surprised at how rarely someone would be offended. I do think it's because I seem like a mild-mannered clueless guy. When I did Premium Blend, I remember I had a Holocaust joke, which is on my album. And that was on the list of jokes they told me I couldn't do. And you're always mad when people try to censor you, so I was like, can I at least do it to build some momentum and then you can cut it out? And they said that was fine, and then they didn't actually cut it out, and I was like “Oh no, I don't want that!”
Sims: So you yourself blanched.
Mintz: Right, but then I think one of my parents' friends from my synagogue growing up who I would have not wanted to see it said, “Oh yeah, that was actually like the one funny Holocaust joke.” It buys you a lot of leeway to be mild-mannered.
Sims: Now that you have the album out and you've collected what you think is your best material, what happens now? Are you going to try and build up a faster repertoire for another album?
Mintz: My plan after recording it was to start not even thinking about another album but to start writing as fast as I could to get a set together that didn't have jokes from the album. That was a year ago, it didn't quite go according to plan, I've been a little lazy about writing new jokes. Well, really I've just been busy with other stuff.
Sims: It seems like you've been incredibly busy, you work on Bob's Burgers, you're writing for Mulaney and you wrote for Nathan For You. How do you switch between those modes? Mulaney is a multi-camera sitcom and Nathan For You is a totally different beast.
Mintz: It's not that hard. When you're writing on someone else's show, you don't have to think as hard about nailing the perfect tone because you're kind of just like, here's 20 ideas I thought of, and they can just pick the closest.
Sims: Right, and they can just modify it to their voice however they'd like. But what's it like on Mulaney? I think it's fascinating that it has this very straightforward, traditional format, but it's messing with that around the edges in the darkness of the humor. How has that process been?
Mintz: It's been really fun for me. I've been friends with [John] Mulaney for a long time, but I still was a little bit nervous about working on a traditional sitcom, because I tend to think of more absurd ideas. I was really happy with how the tone did allow for absurd things to happen, which made it a lot more fun for me.
Sims: Has it changed at all since the early episodes? It's an interesting case because it switched networks [from NBC to Fox] and it's been shaken up more than once. Is it still in an evolutionary state or do you guys have it down now?
Mintz: Every few episodes is like, we have this more figured out now, but there's never a point where we're like, we don't have this figured out. It's been a gradual process. There have not been a lot of moments where we sit down and conceptualize what the show is. It's a lot of internalizing stuff. The biggest change was definitely when we switched networks. The NBC pilot had a lot more of a hook to it. It was about how [Mulaney] used to drink but doesn't drink anymore. The pilot was a lot more about that. And when Fox picked it up, we got six episodes and there wasn't much pressure to over-analyze the pilot and change everything. It was a little bit more open. The consequence of that is it's harder for critics to wrap their heads around what it is. You don't have a simple hook, which in hindsight that would have been nice to have. But it ultimately makes it a better show, when you're not stuck in a simplistic conceit.
Sims: I think that's one reason the reaction has been a little baffled. “He's just a comedian, that's the whole show?” But there's so much room to play around in that world.
Mintz: Yeah. I mean in hindsight it seems so obvious that that's how people would have reacted to it, but I don't think we expected it.
Sims: You work on Bob's Burgers and you wrote an episode last season as well. Did you enjoy that experience?
Mintz: I would love to write another one when I have time. That was an interesting experience, because going through the early drafts with them, I realized, even though I had been there to record every episode, I didn't totally understand the voice of the show. In some ways it's very grounded, and in some ways it's very heightened, and I didn't quite have my finger on what was what. I'd pitch them things and they'd be like, that's too crazy. Now I understand the show so much better having gone through that process.
Sims: Has it changed things for you to have your voice be Tina? Because it's 99 percent the same, when you're performing or even just meeting people, is there some reaction you get because you're the voice of a teenaged girl cartoon character?
Mintz: If they don't know who I am, no one notices. But for stand-up it's great. If the host announces me as Tina, I get a free laugh off the first thing I say. I have to be a little careful that my opening joke is not from a male point of view.
Sims: There's a collaborative process working on that show, right? The actors record together.
Mintz: We almost always record together whenever we can, usually there's one person who can't make it. But there's a lot of improvising. I'm probably the least improvisational actor, but it's really fun to listen to other people do it. And then they force me into it, cause if they go off-script I have to keep up.
Sims: That makes more sense for Tina anyway, that she'd be more hesitant to do something unusual.
Mintz: Yeah, and I usually think, the funniest thing would be if she just sat there and blinked, so I don't say anything. I may just be telling myself that.
Sims: You've also found a repertoire of noises she makes that I feel is a little out of your comfort zone. Was that immediate when working on the show, or did you come up with her groans and sighs as you worked on more episodes?
Mintz: I never volunteered them but [creator Loren Bouchard] would say, “We need a sound here.” And I would try things until we figured it out.
Sims: What are you planning next?
Mintz: I really do want to focus on standup again. The thing about writing jobs is, you can't really turn them down. When there's an opportunity, and it's something I want to do, I would do it. But it would be nice if the timing works out to focus on stand-up.