An Interview with Storyteller Adam Wade

Photo credit: Steve Antonelli

Adam Wade tells stories on NPR and on stage with The Moth. He is a 20 time winner of the MOTH Storyslam. He’s been featured in The New York Times, Time Out New York, the Village Voice. and spoke at a Ted Talk.

We had Adam over for dinner and my wife made him Moroccan lemon-olive chicken, which probably didn’t compete with his landlady’s meatballs.

Godfrey Chan: Can you explain what storytelling is and how it is different and/or similar to stand-up comedy and long-form improvisation?

Adam Wade: For me, there are different ways of doing storytelling. Some people memorize — like an actor would do a monologue. I don’t do it that way. I incorporate funny moments, (hopefully they’re funny) but I really don’t tell jokes.

People like Bill Cosby — the way he frameworked his stand-up was telling stories. They weren’t really jokes. The punchlines were more just his reactions or him talking.

I always say that every time you tell the story, it should be a little bit different. It shouldn’t be the same. That’s why I don’t really believe in the memorization.

I’m not saying it’s bad. There are definitely great storytellers out there that do memorize. But you’re putting yourself in a box. Sometimes you may be feeling differently, and when you tell a story, it’s going to be affected that way.

I took a class at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in the early 2000s. When we did the monologue part, they taught that whatever said had to be true. Does that apply to your storytelling?

I always say my storytelling is at least 90% true. Sometimes you have to change names and things like that, but I think overall, you don’t want to hurt anybody.

Sometimes you have to combine two events that happened together. You’re trying to get everything in five to six minutes.

In memoirs, a writer will tell the reader they’ve combined characters. I think that’s a very good thing with storytelling.

There’s a saying that goes, “The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” Truth doesn’t always make sense. A lot of times with storytelling, it has to makes sense.

That doesn’t mean Abe Lincoln’s going to show up with a unicorn at the end, but I think the essence should be true. If you don’t have a girlfriend in the story, but you had a girlfriend — that’s not true.

But if you have to combine characters and situations, and events — it’s a fine line. If you go under that 90% [of truth], it’s difficult.

Here’s a segment about living in Hoboken during Hurricane Sandy.

During the hurricane, we were here in Hoboken for three days without power before heading to a friend’s place. Our neighbor would come in here through our balcony. We had candles, played games, and kept the kids occupied. It was a time that we got to know him.

A lot of your stories are based on your connections and the community living here. Can you expand on that?

I don’t know if it was my upbringing, but wherever I go or work, and whatever situation I’m in post-college, there’s a strategy of trying to figure out things and getting established.
If I’m working in a building in New York City, how long does it take before the security guards know my name. And how long before I know their name? It’s like a game. It’s a good game, because every job I’ve had, those are the guys that take care of me. All the time.

Whether I’m breaking up with a girl, or I get dumped, or I need five bucks for a sandwich, or I don’t have my ID card, it’s like the brotherhood of security guards in buildings.
It’s something I’ve always done. After working years as an NBC page, I probably knew more people in that building than anybody else because I just talked to everybody.

I was working for a vice-president of studio operations. I think the most impressed he was was when we were walking down the hall and 30 people said ‘hi’ to me. He goes, “I’m vice-president, and you know everybody.” It was a huge compliment to me.

Being an NBC page, I knew all the commissary guys. They knew I was going to get a ham or roast beef sandwich every day and I never had to pay. I just walked in the back, and they’d give me a bottle of Sprite, and a sandwich. The reason why was because I was nice to people. I talked to them, and I asked them what they did. I took interest.

I didn’t know anybody when I finally moved to New York. I wanted to meet people. Growing up in New Hampshire, you think New Yorkers are jerks and you’re scared based on movies. Fortunately, the people I came in contact with (and a lot of them were from other places) were just nice.

My biggest fear was that I wasn’t going to meet nice people here coming on the Greyhound bus after college graduation. But fortunately, it was just great.

New York is a unique place in that there are a lot of people coming here from other places, so that when you meet other transplants, you already have that in common.

People love an underdog and they’re rooting for you.

It was a great assignment being a page at Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Everybody was great there. I always say, “You’re everybody’s bitch”, but you were. You’d have to do everything for everybody. Why wouldn’t you be kind when you’re doing that? If someone does a practical joke on you, why don’t you just laugh? They’re giving you attention!
You’re a page for a year, and when you’re done, you have to be done.

It’s not like 30 Rock. You’re not a page for 20 years. So when you’re done, you either have to have a job, or leave NBC.

They had a job freeze, Bob Wright (head of GE at the time) was doing all this stuff, so nobody was getting hired, and I panicked. I talked to the vice president I had worked for, and all the other people, and they wanted to help me. But there were no jobs.

I remember one day when Conan ended, I was sitting there all sad — I don’t want to say I was crying, but I probably was, and Randy and Jimmy the sound guys asked me what was wrong.

“I’m going to be done and I know everybody, but I can’t get a job,” I told them. Those were my knights in shining armor.

They made a couple of calls to who they knew at NBC Sports. NBC Sports was the only department I didn’t work on as a page, and the next Saturday I started as a runner there. Thanks to Randy and Jimmy.

When people say, “Don’t worry you’re all set,” you can’t count on that. They want to help you, but sometimes they just can’t. A lot of times, it’s people you wouldn’t expect — two sound guys from Conan getting me a job at NBC Sports.

As a page do you have a special appreciation for 30 Rock?

Yeah, I do. I love Tina Fey, her book [Bossypants] and Jack McBrayer [Kenneth the page] — he’s a very talented guy.

He did a lot of sketches when I was a page at Conan.  Not much different from the character in terms of kindness.

Bringing it back to Hoboken, there’s a guy named Teddy Coluca who’d always play a mechanic or a referee. He’s been in a lot of movies and TV — a great character actor. The day rate guys that would come in and do one sketch, you don’t have to get them coffee, but I always would because I liked the guy.

I’d always come to Hoboken to meet him at Picollo’s or Antique Bakery — so it was cool meeting interesting people.

When did you realize storytelling could be something you could stand up in front of an audience and perform for?

I was a production assistant for Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn eleven years ago. At the time I was doing a lot of stand-up shows in the city playing the guitar. Colin was nice enough to give me advice. Stop playing the guitar, and to really start working on the vignette stories I had in between the songs, he said it was really good.

The advice was beneficial because I was doing that stuff for comedy shows and it was not working.

I was still adjusting to getting on stage without a shield — which was the guitar.
You go after five people that would tell straight jokes, and then you get this guy up there who’s all “I can’t get a girl.” It just wasn’t clicking.

One night I was having drinks with a Tough Crowd producer John Bobey. He told me, “You have to start doing this thing called The Moth. You just tell stories.”

It took me six months before I finally went. There was a Story Slam — I put my name in a hat, and the audience seemed to love it. I felt the connection to them. They were carefully listening patiently and were very pleasant.

I got up on stage and told one. It wasn’t a home run or anything, but that first night was a very special moment.

Andy Borowitz (Borowitz Report, New Yorker writer, Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire creator) was hosting that night. I remember him shaking my hand and saying, “Great job.” And the producer Jen Hixson just gave me a lot of confidence to go back.

I found my place. It was amazing.

I’m getting the sense that people relate to your stories because it’s how you’d tell a few friends in an intimate setting. They feel that connection to you and you’re relatable.

It’s taken time too. For the first couple years of the 11 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve been afraid to be myself. I was a strong caricature of me on stage. The more I dialed it down, the more I was successful at connecting to audiences. I think that’s more important than anything.

“Try to be how you are in the office,” is one of the things Colin said to me. I was popular amongst the production staff, because I was me.

How difficult was it to transfer that to the stage?

It easily took five years.

Another thing I did, I’d be so nervous, I’d be pulling my shoulders or my neck out. People just told me to relax — to actually move my shoulders down — still nasally but talking like me.

Here’s a story where you’re in the Hoboken Shop Rite deli counter.

During these moments, when do you realize they’re going to become stories you’ll use?

A million things happen, but if I think about it two or three times in a week, I’ll put it in a shoebox of ideas. It depends if a show’s coming up and I want to work on new material. It has a lot to do with if the Moth have slams and have themes that fit.

The UCB usually has a show on the last Wednesday of every month called The Nights of Our Lives. I’m trying a new story eight out of twelve times — so I’ll look in the shoebox — look at the themes they have for the shows, I’ll just look for what could possibly be used and go from there.

The Magnet Theater seems to be the place where people go because the UCB has gotten too big. Can you expand on that?

Improv is as big as its ever been in New York. It’s good to have an environment where both the UCB the Magnet and the PIT can exist. Anybody that’s interested in it can try a level one at each one, and see which one they’re most comfortable in. A lot depends on the environment and the person.

All three theaters are producing people that are doing a lot of stuff — commercials, TV, Saturday Night Live. So there’s a lot of criss-cross.

I’ve seen people that perform at multiple theaters. I think everything’s intertwined now.
There are a lot of venues now besides the theaters. There are like 50 storytelling shows a month. It’s like that with improv now. There’s the Player’s Theater in Greenwich VillageThe Creek and the Cave, and the new Treehouse Theater on 29th Street.

It’s all intertwined into one community now. So if you’re taking classes and can’t get on a house team there, maybe you can get on a house team at another place. I’ve met people that have done all three schools and they all seem to be enjoying it, and they continue to to do it. So all three theaters, whatever they’re focusing on, they’re doing something right, because people keep wanting to take classes there.

I took a class in 2001 at the UCB. When I saw my first show there, I thought it was amazing. And it’s cool seeing people move on to SNL or Broad City.

Yeah, Abbi [Jacobson] and Ilana [Glazer] are really nice people. At least of the people I’ve met, there are not a lot of jerks. Going to a Magnet or UCB holiday party, there are a lot of nice people.

And if you get intimidated because someone’s been on TV, they’re just like us.

I took a class that Rob Corddry taught. I used to have a webcomic. When I launched it, I emailed him asking for a quote. He came back with one immediately.

Personally, I never felt any uppityness in the theater. I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the bigger names, and they’ve always been very positive.

Maybe it’s the nature of improv. In stand-up, it’s just you out there, but in improv, you have to make the other person look better.

There are some memes with Amy Poehler that relates to teamwork and improv. When I look at storytelling, I believe in the same type of things. By teaching storytelling at an improv theater, I’ve met so many really nice people. I’ve been doing it for five years and I haven’t met too many assholes.

It’s like college again.

Yeah.

I have plenty of friends in New Jersey who take the bus to New York. Can you share any other secrets of navigating the Port Authority?

Always buy your passes when you get off the bus in the morning. Put it in your calendar like on the 20th so you don’t have to deal with that line. Don’t wait until the 29th.
If there’s a long line, go to the bookstores for a half hour.

If you work off of 9th or 8th Ave., always walk 9th Ave. Don’t walk on 8th Ave. It’s a lot more peaceful. Ever since Sandy though, I’d rather take the PATH.

Can you tell me a storytelling childhood moment?

I was very good at social studies and English, but my father wanted me to get better at science, so I went to science camp when I was twelve.

We had to do a group project, and I was the only one that could really talk. I always clicked more with adults than kids, so we had to present this to about ten science teachers.

My dad went to the presentation. I talked for ten minutes, and they loved me. I thought I did really well, but when I got in the car, I was waiting for him to say, “Good job,” but he didn’t. So I asked him what he thought.

“I gotta be honest with you,” my dad said. “I didn’t like it. You did a presentation on science, but you didn’t talk about science. You catered to the crowd. There was not an ounce of substance in anything you said.”

That stayed with me more than anything — whenever you’re on stage, give the audience a little substance. You don’t have to give them life and death situations, but give them some type of substance. Something that’s real and you.

You have to do it the hard way, which is asking “What does it really mean to you when this happened?”

A lot of people can entertain people, but if you can give them an ounce of substance or humanity, and hope within these stories, hopefully they’ll remember them.

I notice that your stories usually end positively.

Yeah, you hope.

You reveal a lot of personal details in that story. How do you decide how far into detail you go? And in this particular one, do you tell the woman?

No. Creatively after a while, you’d go crazy worrying about people’s feelings. You just have to dig in and do it. I’m not the type of person that’s going to insult someone — especially in this type of story when I’m hooking up with a girl. I don’t really have to worry because I’m not getting graphic, and if anything I’m being self-deprecating.

In life and in stories, I’m not directly trying to hurt people. Whereas some people do do that. I stay away from that.

On Todd Barry’s podcast, you tell a story of meeting a girl at a bar and when a friend tells her that you’re a “comedian”, she asks you to tell a joke. Would you rather meet someone that doesn’t know who you are or no?

It doesn’t matter. As long as they’re a nice person. I’m not going to get too picky.
I’m guessing that if it’s someone from a performance, they can appreciate your humor and can relate to you more.

Dating girls that have seen me perform is a bit easier because there’s less awkwardness. They’ve seen me do what I do on stage, so they’ve seen me put it all out there. They probably understand, I’m not there to entertain.

Sometimes when someone who knows I’m a comedian, they’re like “Entertain me.” And when you’re in relationships like that, and you’re laying in bed and they say, “Can you tell me another story”, it’s a difficult thing. I’m kind, and I’ll do it, but then I’ll ask, “Is this what this is about?” But I can’t get too picky

I mean if they do ask, it’s nice, they care I guess. It’s tricky.

What are goals? Where would you like to take this?

In the next five to ten years, the dream — I’ve been working on a book for three and a half years. It’s from age five, to high school graduation. At first, I thought it was a young adult book, but I think the demographic is 20-40. You hope younger people would read it — I was always interested in Freaks and Geeks and The Wonder Years which was a different generation. I’m hoping it will connect to that and people over 40. You want to hit everybody.

Are there publishers interested?

There’s a lot of interest.

Tell me about Sundays with Marie.

It’s almost like a hybrid of everything we talked about tonight. For four and a half years, I lived above an Italian lady in Hoboken. Her and her sisters have practically adopted me. I’m 39, they’re in their 80s, they cook for me a couple times a week, we have long conversations — as far as community and being part of a family, it’s amazing. I’ve just been very fortunate. The past four and half years have been great. I’m very thankful.

Something like that has kept me in Hoboken. Because I wouldn’t want to leave them.

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