Ryan Hamilton has been called an edgy, boundary-pushing comedian…by a very small number of people. Most know him as one of NYC’s most reliably excellent comics who just happens to work clean. This spring, he filmed his first special right in the heart of Manhattan. It premieres on August 29th on Netflix. You should check it out, not only to find out exactly who has taken offense at this wholesome young man (it’s covered in one of his bits), but also because it is a tremendous hour of stand-up that everyone can enjoy. Not to mention that Ryan is just so charmingly sincere about it, “This is the first thing I’ve really put out, besides short TV sets, so you could say I’ve been working on this my entire career. So, with that said, I hope people like it. It was a real whirlwind and I’d say I put my whole person into it, so I hope people enjoy it.”
We spoke with Ryan about his journey from VHS tapes & MapQuest gigs in the Northwest to podcasts and digital streaming specials in NYC.
The IBang: Let’s start at the beginning, what’s your comedy origin story?
Ryan Hamilton: I loved comedy from a really young age. When I was 10, I loved The Far Side and I wanted to be a newspaper columnist like Dave Barry, I just thought that was the greatest job ever. It was a little bit later, around 12 or 15, that I got into stand-up, we’d watch Evening at The Improv. And I tried it for the first time around 18. I was a broadcast journalism major and a few of my friends were interested in stand-up, so we decided to produce these shows for our radio station. We did them around town at, like a pizza place and an arcade. But I wasn’t really thinking of stand-up as a career, so I finished college and went to work for an ad agency in Salt Lake City. I started doing stand-up just for fun with the goal of just becoming like a local emcee guy. Then I got laid off and I was kind of disillusioned about what I was doing anyway, and I had been hanging out at the clubs and doing more spots, so I just went and got a job as a parking valet. I got this one-nighter gig out in Montana because someone canceled. It was 30 minutes, I only had 15, but they said, “Just go do it” and then I started getting more of those so I decided to try to make my living at stand-up for a year. So, I moved to Seattle so I could get onstage every night and I was living very cheaply and between part-time jobs and these one-nighters, I was doing okay.
The IBang: Did you have any criteria going in about what counted as “this is working” or “this means I gotta get out”?
Ryan Hamilton: I was kind of like, “Let’s just see.” I realized early on that it’s hard to set goals in this business because opportunities just come and you take them. I had this romantic notion of doing comedy and being on the road that I was really drawn to, I would do these crazy gigs that I’d drive six hours to and sleep in the car some nights.
Then I did the Seattle International Comedy Competition and I didn’t even make the finals, but I won Industry Night and made a lot of connections, and that was really validating. With those connections, I moved down to Los Angeles for a little while. Then I won this Sierra Mist America’s Next Great Comedian competition, which was the first internet voting competition I had ever heard of. I did a set at a local radio station, it was in the parking lot of a Walmart, and you sent your audio to the judges and I was chosen as a finalist. It was an audio clip, just a little audio clip! They put it online and people voted and I won. Comedy Central had a competition around that time, too – that, I submitted a VHS tape to.
So it just kind of snowballed and I was meeting people and making connections. Comedy Central invited me to do Live at Gotham, so I came to New York. Amy Schumer was one of the people who told me, “You just have to move to New York.” And I knew Julian McCullough a little bit, so I decided to move to New York.
The IBang: You’re definitely very identified as a New York comedian. What made you pick New York over LA?
Ryan Hamilton: I ask myself this question often. I had never even been to New York as a tourist and I never thought as a kid, “Someday I wanna live in New York.” My dad is from Southern California and, if anything, I was a skater kid and surfing culture was so cool to me. And I even had better connections in LA. The Comedy and Magic Club was one place that found me early and would always be really helpful and give me a lot of spots. But when I was there for a couple of days [shooting Live at Gotham], I was intrigued. Honestly, I tend to do things subconsciously just to see if I’m able to do them. I think New York held that for me, I was drawn to the challenge of it. I also thought that maybe eventually, I’d get a job and move to LA, but then I’d never get a New York experience if I didn’t move there now. It just seems easier to move to LA from New York than the other way around. I was also mostly interested in just doing stand-up, and I’d done enough research and talked to enough people that I knew New York was, far and away, the place to be.
Three or four years in, it was pretty tough. There was a moment where I was pretty close to pulling the plug on New York, but I stuck it out, just living in dumpy places for a while and I started to get spots in the clubs and that changed things for me. Around then, I got Conan and I realized all the TV spots I’d done before that didn’t really mean anything, but the TV spots I did as a New Yorker meant something more, like “One of our guys finally did something.” Now I love it and I don’t wanna go anyplace else.
The IBang: I like that your story traverses so much technology – like in 2003 of course, they only put up audio on the internet, and you’re sending VHS tapes around, and now you’re here on Netflix.
Ryan Hamilton: Yeah, it’s crazy. I started when none of this stuff existed. The way you did comedy was that you’d do these road gigs. I remember printing out MapQuest directions and having this big pile of paper with all the directions of everywhere I was going. And I had this big laptop, when I got where I was going I’d have to get online using dial-up to check my email because people would email you a gig and if you didn’t respond quickly it might go to someone else. I wouldn’t even recommend anyone to do that now, it’s so different.
The IBang: But you don’t have a podcast, do you?
Ryan Hamilton: No, I’m like the only guy who doesn’t have a podcast. I don’t love doing podcasts, I don’t even do a lot of interviews, to be honest. I enjoy listening to podcasts, but I think it’s a talent I’m not that great at.
The IBang: That seems pretty much in keeping with who you are – you’re someone everyone really respects, but you aren’t out there all over social media and everything, yelling “LOOK AT ME!!!”
Ryan Hamilton: I don’t know if it’s to my detriment or my benefit. I kind of wish it were naturally more easy for me, but I’m really just trying to do whatever makes me happy and keeps me healthy and not worry about it.
The IBang: I never noticed you were “clean” until I read it in the description of your show at JFL Montreal this year.
Ryan Hamilton: I love to hear that!
The IBang: Why is being a “clean comic” such a…I don’t know, dirty word or a stigma?
Ryan Hamilton: I don’t like putting the label on myself, but business-wise, sometimes it helps. When you aren’t a big name, when people have to look you up to find out who you are, it helps them a little bit to understand… not necessarily what my comedy is about or what my stage persona is, but sometimes people are looking for that or there’s certain opportunities where you need to fall into that category. It wasn’t a conscious decision I made, but I was always naturally drawn to comedians who fall into that camp. It kinda chooses you more than you choose it.
The IBang: Yeah, I guess I’m really asking you to prove a negative, like “Why AREN’T you dirty?”
Ryan Hamilton: Yeah, it just doesn’t work for me the other way. I do love to hear when people don’t notice it. Like if a group comes up after a show and they are all being very complimentary and kind and one person will say, “… and you were clean!” and the rest of the group will say, “No, he wasn’t!” I love to watch the reaction when they realize… almost like I tricked them or something.
I don’t know where it comes from. I guess it’s that comedy fans really want you to be very raw, and I do feel like there are times when I’m very vulnerable on stage, but not in the same camp as a Jim Norton or someone else who is much more exposed. I think that’s part of the reason social media is much more difficult for me, and podcasts, I’m naturally a little more prone to being private.
The IBang: I don’t know, I think you can learn a lot about a comic if they are being true, even if they are being observational. You learn how they think and what their opinions are. It doesn’t have to be confessional to be revelatory.
Ryan Hamilton: You learn a lot about someone on stage no matter what they talk about. You still walk away thinking, “I know who this guy is.”