Sean Donnelly is a New York based headlining comic, who performs at the best clubs in the city and in clubs and festivals all over the U.S. He’s got two podcasts, has appeared on the comedian’s Holy Grail of late night “The Late Show with David Letterman” and Conan, and had a ton of TV credits. His debut album, “Manual Labor Face” was released on Comedy Central Records in 2015.
Phil Provencio sat down with Sean and his dog in his Sunnyside, Queens apartment, and photographed Sean in and around his neighborhood stomping grounds as part of our continuing series, Up Next: A Look Through the Lens in New York Comedy.
This year Sean Donnelly moved to Queens, got himself his first “real apartment” with his wife of five years, and finally left behind nearly a decade’s worth of railroad apartments. Now, he says he has an actual separation of rooms, in Sunnyside. There’s a trade-off– Queens, he says, isn’t cool yet– but he’s okay with moving on from cool.
“I’m older. I don’t need to be in the cool spot anymore. I don’t need the cool cupcake shop. I don’t need to go to the cool bar. Also, I don’t like cool bars. I’ve always liked shitty Irish bars. I know it’s a cliché because my name is Sean Donnelly and all that, but they’re so much more fun,” he said. “You ever go to a fancy place with your friends? They’re like, ‘Meet me at this lounge. It’s this cool lounge.’ You get there and everybody is uptight because they’re just worried about what they look like and shit? Then they’re like, ‘Hey, what do you guys want to do after?’ Then you go to some shitty bar and you have the best time of your life. That’s how Queens is. That’s the shitty dive bar of New York City because there’s no pretense.”
Donnelly notes that people move to Brooklyn for the diversity, but Brooklyn isn’t as diverse as they seem to think. “If you walk around Brooklyn, it’s all hipsters or rich people. It’s all yuppies or hipsters. In Queens– this is the most diverse place.”
His neighborhood may be the perfect metaphor for Sean’s comedy. Sean can be sweet, and he can be gruff, or even silly, but never flashy or gimmicky; everything about Sean feels sincere. That attitude has been with him as long as he can remember. “I always… when I have it in the back of my head, ‘Don’t be corny.’ I think I have that from when I used to skateboard as a teenager when I was 60 pounds lighter. We used to be so cynical. I think that’s also a part of it where I just don’t want to be a corny comic when I’m onstage. I’m sure I am at times, but I try to be myself as much as possible.”
Sean’s love of comedy goes back to before he was a cynical skateboarder. As a kid, Donnelly said he used to listen to stand up albums with his dad- who worked as a jail guard at Rikers Island. “I was always a huge fan, always a crazy … Brian Regan. I used to watch all the shows.”
“I was into Brian Regan when I was younger and then when I got into high school age, I started getting into all the Tough Crowd comics. I was a huge Jim Norton fan, Patrice, all those guys. Tough Crowd was like…. a lot of comics just worshiped those guys because they’re so, so, so good. All those guys. I always wanted to do it, but I was like, ‘I don’t have the balls. I don’t have the balls to do it.’ Then what made me realize– I would produce a show with Joe DeVito who really is one of the first guys I met. I knew him before I did comedy because I helped produce a show with him at Jack Dempsey’s in Midtown. It just so happened there was an open mic around the corner. I think my friend, Blaine, and DeVito, they were both like, ‘why don’t you go check it out and see if you …’ I was like, ‘alright. I’m going to go see.’ I went around and I went to it. I watched the open mic and I was like … It was so bad that I was like, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ If you don’t do open mics, you don’t know how bad they are.”
Sean described the mic he saw. “Most people aren’t watching the open mics. I went around there and I watched it. It was so bad. It was that Maui Taco, smelly taco place in the basement. You stood on milk crates and there was a fake VW bus crashing out of the wall behind you. The lights were on. It smelled so bad. People would come down and just eat their tacos and just watch. They weren’t even there for the show. They would just come down, eat their tacos, watch the show. I went there. I watched it and I was like, ‘Oh, I could be this bad.’ Nothing against the comics. They were open micers, but I was like, ‘I can be this bad. I’ll at least try here once.’ I went. I had a Corona and a shot of tequila. I had my book with my five minutes and I went up and I did it.”
Sean has a theory that most people do well their first time on stage. “There’s so much adrenaline behind it and there’s so much … You’re so excited about it. There’s so much prep involved. It’s stuff you’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s not jokes you came up with that day or a week before. This is months and months and months of you writing down what you think is funny or it’s funny.” He remembers thinking after he got off stage, ‘that was fun.’ The next time up didn’t go as well. “Second and third times, bombed my dick off. I kept going and kept going back. Liked it enough where I kept going back each week. Then it’s funny when you think back to it. Second and third times of doing the open mics, yeah, I did poorly.”
There were times early on that he said were so bad, that looking back, he doesn’t even know why he kept going. Like one night, he remembers a 5 minute spot he did at the Village Lantern. “They would put up the barkers. I bombed so bad I heard a guy in the audience go, ‘this guy stinks.’ He wasn’t even trying to heckle me. He was trying to be quiet. That’s when you knew I was bad when they’re trying to be polite because it’s so bad. He’s telling his friend, he goes, ‘this guy is so bad.’ I heard it from the stage. I don’t know why I kept going, but I kept going. I’ll never forget that. That was one of my worst moments, but I was six months in. Yeah, yeah. Exactly.”
It’s been ten years now since that open mic, and Sean still loves doing comedy. He describes the 10-year arc as like a roller coaster. In the beginning, you’re doing bar shows with your friends, and you aren’t doing it for money, and that he described as great times. Later, when you are relying on stand-up for money, it’s a lot harder, but the best times are when you do so well you get a chance to something great like a late night spot. “The roller coaster aspect of it is so much fun. The idea that you cheat life in a way. You’re winning in a way, not to be corny and use the Charlie Sheen thing from 10 years ago, whatever the fuck it was. You’re cheating life in a way. You’re doing something.” He doesn’t agree with people who call it brave to go on stage. “It’s not even real work,” he said. “It’s one of those things that people are so scared of, they wouldn’t do it. That’s why they have respect for it, but you’re not doing construction. I’ve done construction. It sucks. It’s the worst.”
He’s also worked at a Blockbuster, and got fired from being a doorman- not at a comedy club, but in a residential building in New York City’s Upper East Side. In a move straight out of a Seinfeld episode, he got fired for leaving the door open on a nice day. Apparently the son of the owner of the company that owned the building didn’t like that the door was open while the AC was on, and got Sean fired. He got hired back, then fired again, but he says he’ll never forget the incident. “Because it’s one of those things where you’re like, ‘How do you get fired from a doorman job?’ You know what I’m saying?”
When he’s not working, Sean spends a lot of time with an 80lb English Bulldog named Rickles, who happened to be hanging around during the interview. Throughout the conversation, Sean multiple times apologized for his jingly collar and unwillingness to be ignored. “Get out of there! Stop! Stop now,” Sean would say before answering a question. “He is such a pain in the ass. Come here. Come here. Hey, hey. Come here. Go ahead. Go ahead. Hey, hey.” Donnelly’s love for his bulldog is well known among friends and you’ll see him all over Sean’s social media. “He loves people. He loves hanging out with everybody. Then he loves bags. He loves chewing on bags and stuff,” before adding, “I’m sorry,” yet again. But apologies are completely unnecessary because everyone loves Rickles.
Down time is different for comics, than it is “regular people,” Sean explained. He loves movies, and hanging out, but when you do comedy, he says, it’s a weird life. “I have friends of mine that are married with kids. I don’t have the same life as them. It is a different setup. You’re not on the same schedule. They’re past certain things. I am still going out at night. I have to work on weekends. I have an opposite schedule, whatever it is.”
“I was walking by a bar…I was watching all these people drink on a Saturday night and I was on my way to a spot. It made me realize, ‘Oh my god. I don’t remember the last time I just went out and didn’t do a spot and hung out for a drink.’ Literally just went out with my friends and then went back….that was five years prior maybe that I did that, where I met up with non-comedy friends and did that. I felt like what’s his name in Christmas Carol when he goes and watches his life. You’re just watching these people party in this giant front window and I’m watching them like, ‘Oh my God.’ Then I was like, ‘I miss that.’ I really don’t. It’s a miserable existence in a way if you’re into that thing, but then I realize at the age I am, I wouldn’t be doing that at this point, so whatever. It was a funny moment, you know?”
Like a lot of comics, part of Sean’s time “off” is spent working on podcasts. Donnelly formerly had a podcast called My Dumb Friends with Dan St. Germain, who he calls “a very funny comic and my good pal, my best buddy.” Now, no surprise, Sean’s current podcast is about movies.
“My friend has a podcast called How to Watch Movies the Right Way. We watched Cloverfield Lane and then we went and talked about it afterward. It was one of the most fun times I’ve had. I’m like, ‘I love movies already.’ I’m like, ‘Let me just do a movie podcast.'” But because there are so many movie podcasts, he wanted to do something different. The first idea he came up with already existed, and even had the same name he wanted to use, but the second idea stuck. Donnelly loves bad movies, so he decided to focus on them– Sean’s guests are asked to come in and defend their favorite bad movie. “The first one we did was with Dan Soder. He defended Cocktail with Tom Cruise and people got up in arms when you say that because they’re like, ‘That movie is awesome!’ That’s why it’s such a great idea, I think, because movies bring emotions out of a lot of people, especially those types of movies. People are like, ‘No, what are you talking about? That’s a great movie!’ It’s like, ‘No, you enjoyed it. It’s not technically a good movie.’ That’s the premise. It’s called Defend Your Movie. I have a Facebook group for it and all that jazz. It’s on iTunes and Google Play, et cetera.”
Follow Sean on Twitter @seanytime, and tweet at him using the hashtag #defendyourmovie to tell him which movie you would defend on the podcast. You can also stay up to date on what Sean’s up to at seandonnellycomedy.com.