"A lot of people say, 'Oh, it must be hard to do clean comedy.' I think it's actually challenging to be really funny and really dirty at the same time. To be truly funny and dirty is really difficult because you have to concentrate on what the focus of your humour is and not go for the easy thing."
– Kermet Apio
Guy MacPherson: You've been living in Seattle since 1985. Have you ever had the urge to move away to a bigger media centre?
Kermet Apio: Yeah, I did. I think every comic has that. I did for a while and then my girlfriend became my fiancée, then became my wife. We became parents and then after that it was just kind of, if it happens it happens, great. But I don't have the lust for it that I did probably eight to ten years ago.
GM: I guess as a comic, as long as there's an airport it doesn't matter where you live.
KA: Exactly. And you know, the business is sort of reaching out a little bit more now. There are a lot of showcases that happen in Seattle, or in Denver. I mean, even in Vancouver with the Vancouver comedy festival that's popped up in the last three years. There are a lot of situations where the industry will come to you in a way. So it's kind of nice. If you do get a showcase in Seattle, you'll be one of 15 comics whereas at one in L.A. you're one of a few thousand. Plus I also think that the road makes you better. When you're in L.A., you're just trying to showcase your best seven minutes. When you're on the road, you kinda work on everything else. So I kind of made this commitment to try and get better. I did the Aspen comedy festival in 1998 and I thought that was it; it was going to be my big break because Aspen's a pretty big deal. And all it taught me was that I have some work to do. So I just made the commitment to stay on the road and try and get better and go from there.
GM: How did it teach you that?
KA: The quality of comics was so high. It was unbelievable how good everybody was. I definitely didn't feel like I had no business being there or anything like that. It wasn't a feeling like they made a mistake by putting me on. Certainly when you watched some of the people – and these were people who I had seen on TV on Comedy Central or on Letterman or whatever – that just knew how to do the short set, knew how to go about it. So from that standpoint I just realized I had some work to do on how I present myself in a short set. Because a lot of it is you spend a few years in comedy learning how to write jokes and then after that it becomes trying to figure out your voice. And that's the important part, when you start to figure out what is it I say when I come up to those people who don't know me at all. Where is it that I speak from? It's just a matter of realizing, okay, it's more than just writing jokes; it's really, truly about creating a person that people can understand or relate to in some way. Then the jokes mean more. They're funnier. They're more true. They're more honest. Whatever your character is.
GM: So you're always learning.
KA: Trying to, yeah.
GM: I guess the good thing about these festivals for you is that as a headliner you don't usually get to work with other headliners. So a festival is sort of like a conference for you.
KA: It's true. You get to run into people you never get to see. You see their 8x10 next to yours in a club, but you never get to see them. But then also to see a high calibre of comedy all the way through. It's great. It kinda makes you realize, okay, don't start thinking you're a big-time headliner. Remember that there's always someone out there working harder than you are.
GM: Have you played the Vancouver festival?
KA: Not this last year, but I did the year before. I did 2004. It was a blast. I was so impressed with how it was done and the comics. I don't get to see a lot of Canadian comics and I was so impressed with the comedy up there.
GM: Have you played any of the clubs up here?
KA: Occasionally. I haven't really done a club up there in I want to say ten years.
GM: And you're so close.
KA: Yeah, but especially with the border situation... After 9/11 it got trickier. So it's a little harder to get work across the border. Not that they don't want me there. They want us there, but you have to pay a certain amount at the border and have all the right paperwork there so that when I get there I can sign
GM: You were just talking about the character and persona. How much of you on stage is Kermet Apio off stage?
KA: Most of it, really. I think I'm really getting to the point where I've tossed a lot of stuff out of the act that just didn't fit who I am. The act is basically about a guy from Hawaii who lives in Seattle who travels around doing comedy and is married and has two kids. That's really most of what the show is. I don't do a lot of observational... Most of what I do is reactions. I sort of muse about things in my life that make me fear something or worry about something. It's become more just the story of my life.
GM: I've read that your act is clean. Is that for any particular reason?
KA: The main reason is that I'm a very lazy person. When I started out I had a few things that weren't necessarily dirty but they maybe had words in it that were, you know... And I just sort of realized that certain words get a reaction. They get a shock reaction. It's a laugh, but it's not really a laugh. It's more of a, hey he said something naughty. And I realized that my favourite comics, the kind of comics I was watching on TV that I really liked, were really trying to get to the heart of the joke as quickly as possible. So I realized that if I really wanted to try and get to another level – because that's what we're all trying to do; we're trying to get to the next level – I had to get rid of anything that resembles smoke and mirrors, anything that looked like it was just a joke for joke's sake. And certain words will do that for you. They give you a nice rhythm, they give the audience a nice rhythm as to when to laugh, and shocks them into attention and that sort of thing. And so it was my way of kind of saying if I give myself a chance to do the smoke and mirrors, I will use them. And then I'll just be the same comic forever. So I wanted to try and figure out how do I learn the next level. I'm not a prude; it's not something I set up, to say I'm going to be a clean comic. I just sort of saw the comics that I liked and realized the kind of work they had to put in to get to where they are. That's the idea, basically.
GM: And yet there are comics who use these words who are at that next level.
KA: Oh, absolutely. No, no, there's a lot of comics I love at that level. But I know me, and from me I wouldn't have worked. I think it's actually quite challenging to make... And a lot of people say, "Oh, it must be hard to do clean comedy." I think it's actually challenging to be really funny and really dirty at the same time because every dirty joke you write could be the formula of dick joke or could be shock laughter, but to be truly funny and dirty I think is really difficult because you really have to concentrate on what the focus of your humour is and not go for the easy thing which many comics will do. Believe me, I enjoy a lot of dirty comics. I just know I wouldn't have been that person. If I had a lot of dirty jokes, I would have done them because they were easy to get. And when you're starting out in comedy, it's a great way to get free drinks. That's really all I would have done. Those comics you talk about, they were ready to work at it. They have faith that what they can say is very funny, that happens to have certain words in it and so they work hard to do that. And I'm just not that person. So I had to set up parameters that made sure I did the work.
GM: These comics also run the risk of alienating a segment of their audience.
KA: Although the good ones calculate that in. There are certain comedians who are really good and really popular who know that every night you're going to walk anywhere from five to ten people, sometimes more. But the good thing is, the people who really like those comics will come back and see them whenever they're there. They understand that that's part of the game, that they're going to offend some people, they're going to get letters, the club's going to get some
e-mails. They stick to their guns.
GM: Who are your favourites or influences?
KA: I'd say my biggest influence when I first started out was Garry Shandling. I'm such a huge fan of Shandling's. And I've been a fan of Letterman's since he started, when I was in high school. Shandling, Letterman... There's quite a few out there that I really, really like, but those are the two that probably influenced me the most.
GM: I guess another positive in working clean is that you get more television opportunities. Although I guess that's changing with cable TV.
KA: Yeah, there are, when you do any network show. Although Comedy Central has some leeway in that they'll just bleep. If they like the set, they'll keep it and just bleep the words. But the network stuff you have to be clean. So yeah, it does create that opportunity. But like I said, I never intended it that way. I purely intended it to try and keep myself from being lazy.
GM: What year were you on Star Search?
KA: '93. I think it was the second-last season.
GM: You won two and then lost one?
KA: Yeah, won two and lost one.
GM: Do you get any money for that?
KA: No, no, not really. You got the TV per diem money. But that was kinda cool because I was 23 years old. You got a free trip to Disney World and got free passes to Disney World. It's kind of cool except when you realize that once the loser goes home, you've got these passes to Disney World but you're hanging around in Disney World by yourself. It was really odd.
KA: Yes, it is. It was very weird. You realize nobody goes to Disney World by themselves. Nobody. But it was good. It was my first national TV show and I didn't know how to work TV. It's a really educational experience because TV comedy is very different. Especially that show because that show was such a young crowd. There were singers and kids and all these different things. So that show was a show that had a lot of really young kids in the audience and a lot of families. And at that time, I didn't do anything outside of clubs, really. So it was a real different experience to go up in front of that audience. And then to have to deal with how cameras work.
GM: Is that the main difference or are there other ways doing comedy on TV is different?
KA: There's a ton of ways. It's also different because the audience sees themselves as part of the show. Whereas in a comedy club, you go in and it's dark.
You're anonymous. You're just going to enjoy the show. On TV, there's someone prompting them to applaud at certain times, to cheer at certain times. They feel like they're part of everything so you have to really approach it as the audience has to know that they're welcomed in and are part of what you're doing. And they know that they may hear their laugh on TV. So it is, it's a very different thing. And then also, you got two minutes and ten seconds, I think it was. If you think about in a club, even if you're opening you get 15 minutes. So you've got to establish everything in two minutes.
GM: It's almost like you want to tell the audience not to laugh.
KA: Exactly! If they really get going, it's three jokes and you're done.
GM: Were you up against anyone who went on to fame and fortune?
KA: I won against a person who I haven't seen since. Another person now works in the AFTRA office, the union. She works in the AFTRA office now and hasn't been doing comedy for a while. And the third person, the one that beat me, I saw him on something a few years later and then I haven't seen him again. I haven't heard from any of the three. Of course, they're probably in an interview saying the same thing about me.
GM: Did you try to get on Last Comic Standing?
KA: I did the Chicago audition last year. They said bring three minutes and after about a minute and a half they turned my papers over and said "thank you"
and that was it. It was kind of like, I just flew all the way to Chicago, and I got on the flight two hours later, so I was in Chicago for a total of about five
hours. But what happened was, a lot of comics who I look up to, who I consider mentors, had the same thing. We were laughing because we were all comparing our time. I think I was about a minute-twenty and there was a comic who I consider ten times funnier than I am who said, "Oh, I was more like a minute-fifteen." And we were all just cracking up. I thought, well, if these comics had the same thing, I won't feel so bad. Really, they were only looking for
twelve comics in all the cities they go to.
GM: There are lots of ups and downs in show biz, aren't there? Even from show to show. You can kill one night and the next night you go, "What happened?" Do you start questioning yourself or do you go, "That was just a bad night"?
KA: I've been in the business long enough where I don't take it as personal anymore. I think definitely for a long time in comedy you do, you take it
personally. You think if they hate the jokes, they hate you. But now I can definitely after a show critique myself and think, okay, what could I have done differently? But at the same time, I can also go, "Well, we'll try again tomorrow. I'll do this different or I'll do that differently." And then I absolutely let it go. Especially when you're passionate about comedy the way you have to be, it gets you. So a few years ago I learned to stop taking it personally. I stopped getting so worked up about it and being more analytical about it: is there anything I could have done differently, is there a bit that I should be working on that's not where it should be, and stuff like that.
GM: Did you win the Seattle competition one year?
KA: Yeah, I won it in 1990.
GM: There have been some good comics win that competition.
KA: Yeah, there have been quite a few good comics. It makes me look good. (laughs) But I won it quite a long time ago.
GM: Is the Comedy Underground your home club?
KA: Yeah, the Underground is my home club. I do a lot around here. There's a lot of Indian casino gigs out here. And there's also a lot of corporate work and a lot of company events that have comedians. There's a lot of that kind of work here. A lot of technology companies.
GM: How did you hook up with the people up here?
KA: They saw me at an Asian theatre here in Seattle. I'm not sure why they were even down. I think they were just checking out the theatre. We wound up
talking afterwards and they mentioned they had wanted to do a little something and have me come up there. And I told them I'd love to because I absolutely love Vancouver. So I said yes, just let me know.
GM: Hawaiian's not considered Asian, is it?
KA: Right, but I'm a quarter Chinese. But it's really weird because for a long time it would say Asian-Pacific Islander, which is an odd thing because they're nowhere near each other. So I think I'm being counted more on the Chinese part.
GM: Is it a grandparent that's Chinese?
KA: Yes, my grandmother's Chinese. My dad is Hawaiian-Portuguese and my mom is Hawaiian-Chinese. So my whole grandmother's side is Chinese.
GM: So you can work the Hawaiian shows, the Chinese shows, the Portuguese shows...
KA: I wish it would work that way! I've been trying to work those angles but it hasn't really come that way. But yeah, I'm excited to be invited to this.