Orny Adams is a thoroughly fascinating comedic specimen who leaps from one baffled observation to another just as quickly as he moved his mouth -- both onstage and off – in the Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian. Now, four years after the film’s DVD release (this November marks the five-year anniversary of its theatrical release), lasvegasweekly.com proudly reprints this 2003 Two Drink Minimum Magazine original.
Orny Adams. May 26, 8 and 10:30 p.m., $44. Playboy Comedy at the Palms Lounge, 942-7777.
“Pleeease blow smoke up my ass!”: Scratching the Surface of Orny Adams
By Julie Seabaugh
I don’t mean to be negative, but I want Orny Adams hung naked over a pit of snapping crocodiles.
-- The Charlotte Observer
The guy's such a throbbing bundle of arrogance, raw nerves and self-destructive insecurity that you can see the flame-out coming.
-- TV Guide
...inflated sense of his own talent...
-- The Miami Herald
...just another stand-up climber; no-lead and no-clue: arrogant, image-conscious and bereft of humility...
-- The Los Angeles Times
-- The Village Voice
-- The Washington Post
...a big swinging dick determined to convince the world and himself that he's God's gift to the comedy game. Ever camera-aware, Orny never shuts up about himself...
-- The Dallas Observer
...hungry, vain, petty, mean-spirited, desperate for recognition; just eaten up with jealousy, insecurity and surging egotism...
-- The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Is it any wonder Orny Adams is wary of the press? “I don’t read any reviews anymore,” he says. “I’m very skeptical about my critics, because what do they really about know me?”
“I’ve been burned by tape recorders lots of times,” he says. “I hate paraphrasing. Don’t tape and then misquote me. How is that possible?”
“I like being misunderstood,” he says. “I like the fact that I had a guy follow me around an entire week and wrote an 11-page article on me in a huge magazine, and he didn’t even get my eye color right. He got so many things wrong. I dig that. I go, ‘Wow, you know what, dude? I’m laughing at you.’ That’s sad. That’s sad.”
Go ahead, ask Orny Adams for stories of critic slaughterings, reporter betrayals and fact-checker injustices. He won’t hold back.
“But just what is an Orny, and why does the press hate him so much?” you may ask. You, my friend, are not a comedian. If you were a comedian, you would know who he is. You and your comedian friends would have been jealous of him, would have wondered how such a cocky guy could squander the exposure of a lifetime and would have badmouthed him in the back of a smoky comedy club. But away from your comedian friends, after you’ve trudged home from that smoky club at 2:30 in the morning and sprawled out in front of your DVD player, you may have secretly hailed him as a hero. But that’s only if you are a comedian.
If you are not in the comedy industry, you probably don’t know that Orny Adams was featured in last year’s “Comedian,” a documentary that illustrated the difficult, and at times, excruciatingly painful process of putting a stand-up routine together from scratch by following a certain Mr. Jerry Seinfeld around the country for 14 months. Beginning in February 2000, director Christian Charles and producer Gary Streiner, who also worked on executive producer Seinfeld’s popular American Express commercials, compiled 600 hours worth of material using a couple of hand-held digital video cameras. The film took in nearly $3 million at the box office, not at all shabby as far as documentaries go, but “Comedian” found its real audience with its May DVD release. It has since become such a cult success that everyone in the comedy industry, whether they watch him before performances for inspiration or curse him into the eternal fires of a heckler-filled Hades, knows his (unusual) name.
When the movie made its screen debut last fall, however, Adams went from a being a guy who had never been in any newspaper to being in every paper across the country in one day. He also found himself on the business end of a media whipping. He got flack for shushing a crowd during a radio broadcast, questioning the current relevance of Steven Wright and for not taking kindly to comedy manager Barry Katz’s constructive criticism being dispensed in front of Adams’ manager (and Seinfeld-wrangling legend), George Shapiro. Then there were the soundbites such as “I’ve got to live up to this image that not only I’ve created, but the media has created,” “The jealousy in this business is ridiculous” and “I’ve got everything that I wanted this year, and I’ve never been more stressed and more miserable” which, however true they rang with comedians, served as another point of critical contention.
“The director, producer, Jerry; I don’t think they ever thought I was going to take that much heat,” he says. “They knew I was a controversial figure, and they’ve since apologized about putting certain things in there, like the scene with the car. I go, ‘I have to open my own door?’ It was me being funny. No, no, not to critics who wrote, ‘This guy thinks he’s so big he shouldn’t be opening his own doors? He’ll be opening doors for the rest of his career.’ Or e-mails, ‘Who do you think you are that you don’t have to open your own door?’ They’re missing it!”
True, blink and you’ll miss when the real Orny Adams stands up. “There’s not a second when I’m on stage and I’m not really laughing, excited, having a great time,” he says. “It’s not quite as serious as it looks, and I think a lot of people understand that. Some people don’t, but that’s the way I do my act. I texture it in certain ways so certain people get certain things and other people don’t.”
Adams can describe himself as socially awkward, shy and insecure while simultaneously laughing with strangers and harassing old acquaintances. Some of what comes out of his mile-a-minute mouth appears to be straight from the heart, some seems to be dispatched to test the waters, and some might be spouted purely for his own amusement. “I see the world as so uneven and unfair, and I like to report on it, but I’m not a depressed human being like it’s been said,” he says, most likely in all seriousness. “I’m self-lamenting, but I exaggerate a lot. Why not? It just makes it funny.” Welcome to the undecipherable entity that is an Orny Adams.
Orny Adams is in New York City for a week between gigs in Richmond and Cincinnati. He has pinballed all over town, from Gotham Comedy Club to Stand-Up New York to the Comedy Cellar and back again, hitting up to seven shows a night. “Any excuse to come back,” he says, trying to catch a waitress’s attention so he might order some iced tea. “This is where it all really got rolling for me. I worked these clubs every night for four years. There’s really no other education in the world than maturing as a comedian in New York City.”
He’s sitting in a booth at the Olive Tree Café, having just finished a blistering set at the adjoining Comedy Cellar. The word “Ornific” could theoretically be found in a thesaurus next to “energetic:” he’s known for his nonstop work ethic, but his personal interactions make hummingbirds seem positively lazy as well. In fact, it’s wise to don proper safety glasses and regulation padding before talking with him. Always in control of the conversation, Adams answers questions before they are asked, running on for minutes at a time, making points, supporting them, circling around the back alley of an answer and bursting out through the front door of fact, rambling, shouting, laughing, eating, granting audience to those who hesitantly approach him, mortally offending a waitress by casting aside unwanted onions into a bowl of chalk.
He’s not your typical entertainer, or human being for that matter, and he’s fully aware of it. “I was normal until I was 23 years old,” he says. “And then I entered this business, and it’s been chaotic ever since. I’ve never been on the same track as the rest of the world.
“I think I’ll always be somewhat of an outsider because I don’t pull my words at all. I say what I think and I feel. And it’s probably too honest.”
And there it is, the mystery of Orny Adams solved completely. What most people mull over safely inside their respective heads, he does outside. Case closed. Maybe not necessarily 100 percent honest in everything he says -- it can’t all be taken literally -- but he’s completely honest about why he’s saying it. And is that really so wrong?
According to the reviewers who criticized him and the comedians who continue to bad-mouth him, yes. And so the mystery opens back up ... why would he willingly alienate himself by spewing forth his own honest opinions? It’s not done out of spite, it’s not jealousy, greed, mental illness or a terrible childhood. Orny Adams is basically a nice, pleasant person. Unless you pronounce snap judgment. Then it’s a good thing you put on those safety glasses.
“You’d really have to see me do 10 shows in a row to really get what I’m trying to do,” he explains, eyebrows starting to scale his forehead. “You’d have to see me six months apart when I’m doing something else. I mean, all the stuff about the kids getting fatter, me not being able to sleep, the phone sex bits are all within a month old. That stuff is all … brand … new. You’ve just got to see how I put my stuff together.
“I’ve got no problem with you saying, ‘Orny Adams is arrogant and it kind of turned me off. His humor didn’t really make me laugh, but if you like such-and-such humor, you might like his.’ I’m not saying you have to love me, but to slam me in the way that they did, to say that this is the end of my career, that it’s suicide, they don’t know what they’re talking about!”
Orny Adams is basically telling you he doesn’t like the press. And that he doesn’t read reviews anymore. “I probably won’t read this article,” he says. “I would read it if you were like, ‘I wrote a very glowing article, please read it.’”
Trying to explain learned lessons of non-partiality and journalistic ethics is a waste of breath. “Well then what am I doing here?” he asks. “Pleeease blow smoke up my ass! [Laughs demonically] That should be the title. [Laughs even more demonically] The [huge magazine]’s article was great, because he slammed me, and then he said, ‘And the last time I saw Orny, he turned as I was walking away and said, ‘Don’t fuck me.’ And that’s what he did. And he had the balls to put it in there and make himself look like such a creep.”
Orny Adams wants you to know that he and Jerry Seinfeld are good friends. He, Seinfeld, Christian Charles, Gary Streiner, they’re all friends, good friends!, to such a degree that Adams puts Charles up when he visits L.A., and to such a degree that he dialed Seinfeld’s number immediately after receiving his first official death threat. “I’ve got to check in with him,” Adams says of Seinfeld. “He’s mentoring my career. He’s VERY supportive. He really is. So all those people that thought he put me in the film to make me look bad, it’s just SILLY! It’s so silly.”
During the sole scene the two shared in “Comedian,” Adams worried about his friends building impressive lives and careers as his own remained rooted in smoky clubs. Seinfeld scoffed at his misgivings and offered showbiz wisdom in the form of a Glen Miller anecdote. Both went away feeling no malice, yet critics pounced on the interaction as the tongue-lashing from a talented veteran the upstart deserved.
Adams came to be involved with the film after Seinfeld had paid the latest in a string of surprise evening visits to Gotham, once again bumping Adams from the bill. When the camera crew asked what he thought of Seinfeld’s act, he did what he does best -- used his greatest strength and his most difficult hurdle: he gave his honest opinion.
“I said, ‘Well, it’s nothing new. I’ve seen it before; it doesn’t move me. I think comedy’s more introspective now than straight-on observational. It’s observational plus how the world affects me. I’d like to see that, like to see what it’s like to be Jerry Seinfeld. Tell me what it’s like not to do your own shopping. I want to know, Jerry, when you see a shirt you like, do you buy 10 of them so if you lose one, if one rips or something...? I want to know that stuff.’ They showed it to him, and he said, quote unquote, ‘He’s the only one in New York who has the balls to criticize me. Follow that guy.’ And that’s where it went. He called me the most honest man he’s ever met.”
The footage ended up being too aesthetically dark for use and was ultimately discarded. Also absent from the final cut were scenes of Adams playing with a group of children, scoring a development deal with Warner Brothers television and moving to L.A. from New York. But what he lost in screen time, Adams made up for in support from high places. “He’ll call and ask advice, as do my other friends,” he says of Seinfeld. “I’ve got some big people talking to me, because they know I will never mince words or pull punches.
“And every time I saw the film, I was right next to Jerry, and we were like little kids, picking on each other’s lines. He would say, ‘I love that line. You’re right about Steven Wright. You’re right. You’re right. I love that you say that. You’re right about a manager; a manager should be happy to have you.’ He’s like, ‘I’m going to tell everybody you’re a younger version of me; I used to say those things.’ He was very reassuring. So I never thought anything of it. I thought it was great.”
Which is why it was such a shock when the reviews came out, and Orny Adams, honest criticizer, was hit with brutal criticism of his own. “They weren’t attacking Orny Adams the character, they were attacking me,” he says. “Tell me anybody who went from a complete unknown to being attacked at that level. I can’t name that many. On a personal level. It wasn’t like it was my first film and I was playing a character, and they were like, ‘He’s a horrible actor.’ They were saying, ‘He’s a horrible person.’ Well you know what, I hope those people can’t sleep at night. And I hope that guy who wrote the [huge magazine] article doesn’t make another goddamn dime writing and he can’t feed his kids. Because I’ll adopt them. And they’ll have a real parent who has a soul. I mean that. He’s soulless. He’s a coward. Oh, it will come back. It’s karma. It’s karma.”
But Orny Adams doesn’t really like talking about the movie. “Let it be what it is,” he says. “It’s like Dylan said, ‘Don’t look back.’”
But with some prompting, look back he does, and the musically-minded, Massachusetts-raised Adams reminisces about his parents taking him and his two sisters to the Boston Pops every Fourth of July. And he looks back on attending Emory University in Atlanta, where he performed “once or twice” at the Punchline Comedy Club and majored in philosophy and
political science. “It taught me how to research stuff; how to be disciplined,” he says. “I tackle my jokes like I’m writing a thesis.”
He eventually moved to New York City, where he hosted “America After Dark” on Discovery’s Travel Channel and appeared in national commercials for Coca-Cola, ESPN, GTE, Starbucks and AT&T, among others. As captured in “Comedian,” Adams hit Montreal’s “Just for Laughs” festival in July 2000. Soon after, he landed his development deal with Warner Brothers television and consequently moved to Los Angeles. In December of that year, Adams achieved what every up-and-coming comedian dreams of, scoring the hallowed Letterman spot. He had gotten everything he wanted that year, and he had never been more stressed and more miserable.
But that’s all strictly in the past. “Who cares about history?” Orny Adams asks. “It’s all about moving forward! It’s all about now and what’s next.” In fact, he hasn’t even watched his complimentary DVD of “Comedian,” he doesn’t want to talk about history, and he doesn’t want to talk about the press. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks anymore. Honestly.
“Are you going to tell me what you think of my act?” Orny Adams asks between coughing fits. “You haven’t even told me what you think.”
He seems truly interested in hearing an honest opinion. Perfectly cocked eyebrow; model furrowed brow. But than again, maybe he is hoping for an ego boost, or some generalization to stubbornly defend himself against, or even a shred of inconclusive evidence that all the previous journalists have been dead wrong about him. Or maybe he just wants an honest opinion. He listens intently to rushed babble on the merits of finding a unique balance between physical and cerebral humor, between observational and political, between ...
“I don’t do the political stuff that often, but one night it just hit up front, and I go, ‘Wow, I’m going to keep doing it.’ The rest of the country’s sick of hearing it, but New York isn’t,” he interjects. “I just want to go, ‘All right, get these people in the first few minutes so they respect me.’ The fact that I could get everyone silent is actually better than getting them to laugh for me. I got them sort of to lean in and listen.”
A few evenings before at Gotham, his plan of attack had been to hold off being funny at the beginning of the set to place an emphasis on building the laughter throughout. Adams has become a master of unpredictability, constantly shuffling and reshuffling his timing, prop use (“I prefer to call them instruments”) and material so that every show is markedly different. Each bit must remain on High Alert throughout the set, ready to be called into action. Every topic, every tantrum from his 10-year career: shark attacks, backpacks with wheels, DNA evidence, “that one joke about Amsterdam, which is sort of new, and you know, I don’t necessarily like to talk about drugs, but it’s sort of not a drug thing for me. But I was curious, having seen the film, is that what you were expecting?” Around Orny Adams, everyone is in a Code Orange.
Another stammering, poorly thought-out answer to his question; more eyebrows, more coughing. “All the shows, it wears on you. Wears on you,” he says, unwrapping a cough drop. “And I just am so passionate, there are certain jokes that just vibrate through my body. That stuff means so much to me, I’m so passionate about what I say, that it really takes a toll on my body. It really does. Even when we’re talking now, I really ... I mean all of it. It’s really important to me that I convey my message.”
Orny Adams is simultaneously talking, eating a hamburger, sucking on a cough drop and bringing a thick wad of folded copy paper forth from his pocket: his typed joke notes. The kung pao chicken, terrorists and virgins, the psychologist girlfriend; all traveled a long and treacherous journey through catalogued and searchable lists, journals and notebooks to emerge as stage-worthy material.
As one of the more memorable Orny scenes in “Comedian” illustrated, he has a lot of comedic thoughts to keep track of, and a very complex method of doing so. “Want to know a secret?” he asks, eyebrows reaching dizzying heights. “There’s so much more than that. The system is so complicated, because it involves a computer, too.
“I had a nervous breakdown the day we did that filming, because I couldn’t explain the system. After it’s logged into a book, it goes into a computer. Every revision is dated and saved, and I can save them all and look at [joke versions] one through seven, because sometimes the way you say it the first time is the best way. And by the time you revise and revise and revise it, you go, ‘Wow, I really lost the essence.’
“I always have a pen, the same pen. I will have it for three months until it runs dry. If I lose it, I go crazy. It’s the hardest thing, because I really feel like the ink is precious, and that I’m pulling jokes out of the pen almost like Michelangelo used to look at stone and could see people stuck inside the slab.”
Adams has a habit, like many other comics, of stopping to write when inspiration strikes, wherever he is. He also has a habit of secluding himself in his apartment, shutting the air off and sweating the material out, a la Jack Kerouac, when inspiration hits. “I would imagine if someone witnessed it, it would almost be scary to watch, because I probably look like a madman. Nothing can stop me, just get it down get it down, getitdown!!” he says. “You’re scared because you’re not writing, and you go, ‘Oh my god, I’m tapped. That’s it. I’m done. I’m done.’ And all the sudden, boom, another explosion.”
“Don’t fuck me,” Orny Adams says with a grin. The mark of a true stand-up master: repeating references throughout, emphasizing the bits he wants you to remember. The act may fold back in on itself and rebranch out in countless directions, but some central themes remain. Quite honestly, the guy is mesmerizing, and deep down inside you know you must not fuck Orny Adams. Must not fuck Orny Adams. Must not become another story.
Or maybe he really doesn’t care at all. He’s got his life out in L.A., and he keeps busy. He recently wrote a few award-show jokes for someone he calls a genius and is fielding offers from the WB and TLC networks.
He spends a lot of time answering his e-mail, of which he gets a lot. In fact, he has gotten so many and such gushing e-mails that A&E asked him to contribute to an upcoming show about fan letters, also featuring notes to the likes of Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King Jr. “I’ve inspired a lot, which is the greatest compliment you can give me,” he says. “Because I think of who inspires me, they’re geniuses, so that means so much to me.”
He doesn’t have a manager any more, because he left George Shapiro. “Yeah, I left George. Time to move on. It wasn’t going in the direction that I needed it to, and so I left him,” he says. “I just haven’t decided where I’m going to go next, or if I’m gonna. I’m enjoying being on my own.”
Was it amicable?
“On my end it was. You’ll have to ask him how he feels.”
He doesn’t want to speak for Shapiro, and he doesn’t really want to talk about the split. And doesn’t want to talk about his background, or the movie, or the press. Honestly.
Well then, what are his current goals? “Oh yeah, that’s interesting,” Orny Adams replies to what appears to be the only question of the evening he didn’t expect. “Just to become the sharpest comedian that I can.” But honestly, he’s already a regular Ginsu. Quick and cutting, he shines in the spotlight. “I really enjoy it because it’s the only time in life that I’m completely autonomous and bereft of direction from other people, so really that and to continue to move forward, to continue to build a steady career. I’d love to be in something, be in films more than anything, and draw my audience. I just haven’t found that vehicle yet.”
So he’s put it all behind him, all the stuff he doesn’t want to talk about, and he is looking ahead. A too-honest man, adrift in the possibilities of the future. Searching for something more than the soundbites, more than “Comedian.” A new era of Orny is dawning. Honestly.
“When do you think I’ll be able to put this movie to rest and never have to talk about it again?” he asks over the phone a week later.
No rambling, poorly-thought-out answer this time. Instead a pause, and then a wave of pity. “I don’t think you’re ever going to be able to do that.”
“Well I’m going to have to, and I’m going to just pray that I get another project so I can start talking about that.”
“But you know, it’s in your body of work now. You talk about how people have to really study you to understand your work, and that was the first thing you became really known for, so it all goes back to that. No matter how much you want to bury it. It’s like you did porn somewhere back there and somebody’s always going to dig it up.”
“Yeah, yeah. Boy, I hope this isn’t as bad as porn.”
E-mails follow, and the voice inside gets louder. Must not fuck Orny Adams.
“I guess it is also important to me that people understand that I understand I still have a LOT to learn and that hopefully people can learn from some of the choices and roads I have gone down,” he writes. “I want to give people a chance to get into my head. But inevitably, I will come off to some people not favorably. To others a hero. But I am very nervous about coming off as I had not intended,” he writes. “I am hoping that some of my writing, to you, will clarify me and where I am coming from and replace some of the driftwood in the piece. Driftwood being the stuff that may alienate some ... I like this format -- gives me a chance to think,” he writes.
He explains and clarifies and reveals, and yet he remains a mess of contradictions, energy and eyebrows. An honest, opinionated enigma. The indecipherable entity that is an Orny Adams.
“I never knew that being ambitious and driven would offend so many people,” he says. “They caught me at a time when I really was pumped up about myself. You couldn’t get me acting that way now. NO WAY. No way. I’m too smart now, but isn’t it a beautiful thing that they did? Isn’t it great? Isn’t it great to look back and see how I’ve grown? I’m proud of that.”