Duncan Trussell Kicked Over the Ants’ Nest, and Moved to New York City

Of all the funny people we follow, is one of the most thought provoking, subversive and engaging. We profiled his brilliant podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour as one of our picks for The Podcast You Absolutely Have To Listen To. And as much as we love his podcast, those of us who live in New York rarely got the chance to experience his stand-up performances live. So when Ari Shaffir told us that Duncan was moving to New York City, we were thrilled. I got the chance to sit down with Duncan at the comics table at The Stand Comedy Club late one night between sets last week, to talk with him about the move, and how he’s enjoying New York so far.

Duncan voiced a few reasons for the decision to switch coasts, but at the top of his list was the desire to do more stand up. “I got sick of the traffic in LA. I was living in Pasadena, driving 40 minutes to do a spot at the Comedy Store,” he said. It was just not possible to get on stage as often as he wanted. “And a lot of my friends are here.” One of those friends, Ari Shaffir would tell Trussell he would get up three or four times a night in NYC, something that was impossible to do in Los Angeles. “I wanted to experience that,” he told me. Past experiences with NYC were uneven for him, but after a few trips that he called “shitty” were replaced with some good experiences, he had a new perspective. “I thought, ‘oh, this is like a really beautiful, powerful city’,” he said. “It’s a painful place, and comedy is so rooted in a kind of pain. If you start getting too comfortable it can fuck you up. So I thought, “Oh, I’ll do that.”

Behind that somewhat practical rationale to uproot and move clear across the country was something a bit deeper.

…it would kill me because I was sitting in this place in Pasadena, comfortable, not taking any risks, not doing anything really that could even come close to matching that. So I started feeling a bit like a hypocrite.

If you’re not familiar with the Duncan Trussell Family Hour, Duncan explores some pretty provocative topics often touching on spirituality and encouraging a healthy curiosity about the universe. Duncan’s conversations have inspired many listeners. “A lot of people who listen to the podcast would email these stories about adventures they were having. And in some way or another, they would connect the inspiration for these adventures to the podcast. So people hiking the Appalachian Trail, going to live in Spain or just diving into the world and doing insane stuff. And these emails, it makes me feel great that in some way or another my podcast may have inspired someone to go out of their comfort zone, but it would kill me because I was sitting in this place in Pasadena, comfortable, not taking any risks, not doing anything really that could even come close to matching that. So I started feeling a bit like a hypocrite. And if I don’t kick over the ants’ nest– that’s something that Alejandro Jodorowski said– which is that sometimes you need to kick over the ants’ nest and watch how the ants build it up again. So that too. Well, I thought, “Let’s kick over the ants’ nest and just dive into the unknown here and see what happens.”

Once the idea was in his head, it took Duncan about three weeks to make up his mind- a relatively short time period to make such a major change. He called his buddy Ari, and said he wanted to plan the move. The timing was great because Shaffir was just about to take a month-long trip to Myanmar, and invited Duncan to stay at his apartment while he was away. Ari’s encouragement settled things. “He’s one of the most honest people I know on Earth, and if he thought that I wouldn’t like it out here, if he thought that it would suck for me, he wouldn’t say to do it. That was part of it. So yeah, I just did it.”

As anyone who knows Duncan might expect, he stayed true to his plans to kick over the ants’ nest, and got rid of most of his belongings, donating it all to his Burning Man group. “I have this great group, the people I go to Burning Man with, and so they have a compound in the desert, and so I just gave them all my stuff for the compound. And then yeah, got rid of everything, almost everything. I still have too much stuff.”

Once his stuff was taken care of, he hopped on a plane and just moved to NY and got the full NY experience right away, staying in the East Village and diving right in to New York culture and the New York comedy scene. If his early impressions are any indication, he’s going to love living in NYC. “It’s the best food ever. Everywhere you go is the best restaurant you’ve ever been to. You walk down the street, you can walk into like a fucking Portuguese pancake boutique. You’re always going into these incredible environments. I love it. I’m just getting slightly acclimated. It was very stressful.” Already he has a favorite restaurant- Momofuku, and says he’s gaining weight from all the easily accessible food, something he calls wonderful and terrible at the same time. “You dial a number and any food that your order, GrubHub, you have food instantly.”

Getting acclimated to the New York comedy scene has its own challenges, but that’s another place that Shaffir was able to be helpful. “Ari contacted a few different clubs who have been very welcoming to me, thank God, and have given me lots of spots. The New York Comedy Club and The Stand, in particular, have just been amazing. I’ve really been enjoying that.”

Trussell said he’s been really happily surprised with the New York audiences in the clubs.  A comedian friend had told him that one of the differences with New York clubs, is that you have to talk to audiences. That was unsettling at first because he thought that meant the crowds in New York would be heckling-heavy. But he’s found just the opposite. “They’re awesome,” he said. “There is a spirit of collaboration with the audience that feels a little different from LA in the sense that you can start a conversation with someone in the crowd and they will quite often respond in a pretty hilarious way, and they won’t keep bothering you after that moment is gone. It’s like they know how to do it somehow. I don’t know what it is. But I really love that.”

Without calling it better or worse than the West Coast, Trussell says he has noticed a different timing and rhythm to comedy on the East Coast, and says the level of comedy in New York is impressive. “It’s pretty amazing to see this entire community of supremely funny comics, and the hosts are killing. You see a person going up first in front of a cold audience and they are crushing in three minutes. That’s a pretty special thing to witness. And I’ve seen that consistently here.”

But most of all he’s enjoying being in a new environment. “It’s important as a comedian, if you can, to put yourself in different comedic ecosystems so you can really see the different … ‘Cause people rise together. So if you have an incredibly strong comedian, that person’s setting a bar. And witnessing them will teach you. A style of comedy will emerge, and that’s always part of comedy. If you look back at the different eras of comedy, you’ll see different styles all the time.” He compared the change in style from the Eddie Murphy era of comedy- the red leather glitzy glamorous era of comedy with Louis C.K.’s more black t-shirt solemn and existential observational comedy. “You can see, oh my God, this is a completely new style that we’re witnessing here. And now you can see another emerging form happening. Who knows what it will be?”

You can see Duncan performing all around the city, and we highly recommend that you do. Before he decides it’s time to kick over the ants’ nest again.

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