Orny Adams equates standup comedy to surfing. Like a lot of comics, he lives or dies over each show. Maybe even more than most. That’s the impression you get, anyway, if you watch his obsessiveness in Jerry Seinfeld’s documentary Comedian.
“Take surfers,” he says on the phone from Winnipeg, where he’s performing with the Just for Laughs tour, which plays Surrey on Thursday and two shows in Vancouver on Friday. “They surf every day. They catch waves. But sometimes you catch that perfect wave and you take it all the way to shore. And that’s what you want your comedy to be like. You don’t want to catch half the wave. Some nights you catch half the wave.”
Critics described him as “unctuous”, “mediocre”, “petulant”, and “unlikable” in the 2002 film. That was eons ago, pop-culturally speaking. He was, as a cocky and neurotic up-and-coming star, more concerned with fame than anything else.
But by most accounts, he is a powerhouse now, a comic who hits the stage with energy and solid jokes, leaving the audience breathless with laughter. Despite having achieved a modicum of success in Hollywood (he plays lacrosse coach Bobby Finstock on MTV’s Teen Wolf), Adams is more dedicated than ever to the craft of standup. Even after 20 years in the business, he still over-analyzes his routine nightly.
“I’ve always felt like I’m a comedy outsider,” he says on the phone from Winnipeg, “I’ve always felt like I wasn’t part of any group. And I never wanted to be part of a group; I just wanted to do my work and do good work and then go home. I mean, even after these shows, a lot of the comics socialize and go out for dinner. I tend to go back to the hotel room and get into my head and look at my notes and figure out what I did that I’m happy about and what didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. I feel very raw when I’m on-stage so it’s hard for me to sort of shake that immediately. And I think maybe this is something I’m more aware of now that I wasn’t earlier on in my career and why I wasn’t so social. And I think absolutely not being part of a group has hurt my career in many ways.”
He’s not too concerned with the past. He knows who he is and how he has and hasn’t changed.
“I wouldn’t call myself insecure; I would say I have a need to be loved and appreciated,” he says. “I think one of the greatest differences between Orny Adams pre-Comedian and current Orny Adams is I don’t feel the need to announce or proclaim my comedy to be anything great….All that matters is when I step on that stage, the audience thinks I’m funny and when I step off the stage they still think I’m funny. Everything else is really not important.…I just want you to look at me on-stage and think, ‘He’s funny. That’s clever. I’m enjoying what he’s doing.’”
As we’re more aware in the age of reality TV than we were 11 years ago, the edit you get on-screen dictates perception, and Adams’s was largely negative. But he’s okay with it.
“I know that there was an earlier version that I saw that I liked better where there was more of my humour in there, more of my jokes, and more balance to me,” he says. “But listen, this is what I signed up for, unbeknownst to me. I was unaware. You know, I did it, it’s out there, I’m not embarrassed, I’m proud of everything I’ve done. We’re gonna get knocked down, and that’s beautiful; the question is how do I get up and how do I handle it. And I think being in Comedian has made me a stronger comedian, which is really what I want in the end.”
Those who’ve seen his act recently can attest to that. Still, the brash reputation that comes across in Comedian precedes him.
“Brooke Shields came up to me and said, ‘It’s your Blue Lagoon,’ ” he says. “It’s my legacy.”
And as we all know, there’s no surfing in lagoons.