Apologies for the repeated delays, everyone. I’ve been busy dealing with real life for a few weeks, but I’m finally settling back into a normal (re: unending and underpaid) work routine. This means that I’ll be getting back to my promised “Comedy and assholes” series next week.
In the meantime, I wanted to talk about Gastor Almonte, a fantastic New York comic who released his first album, Immigrant Made, in April. You can find it on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you stream your stand-up, and if you have Amazon Prime, you can watch the self-produced video special version that Almonte also released. Here’s a trailer for it on YouTube.
I was going to talk to Almonte for a paying publication, but they decided late in the process that they weren’t actually interested. Which is a shame, because not only is Almonte’s comedy incredibly good, but the man himself is interesting and worthy of discussion and praise. The son of parents who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic, Almonte works by day as a landlord in his native East New York in Brooklyn, and spends his nights grinding at some of the city’s most prominent comedy clubs. After The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr. took notice of him after a club gig, Almonte’s local profile exploded. But on his own, the man works hard. He’s performed at several major comedy festivals, appeared on Comedy Central’s This Is Not Happening stand-up showcase, and guested on several podcasts.
Speaking of This Is Not Happening, here’s his “Brooklyn Batman” performance from 2017, which is a goddamn riot. Seriously. Watch all 15 minutes of it right now.
Anyways, despite losing out on the chance to highlight Almonte in a paid piece, he was more than willing to talk to me for the newsletter, so we spent about half an hour on the phone discussing everything from his stand-up beginnings to his family’s oral traditions and how they directly influenced his incredible storytelling abilities. Check out our full, mostly unedited conversation below.
Andrew Husband: The album has been out for almost a month now. The special’s been up on Amazon Prime for a few weeks. What's the response been like? What's it been like for you?
Gastor Almonte: It's been truthfully really touching man. The album in terms of numbers has done well. It hit number one on Amazon and on Google Play. It hit number two on iTunes. It peaked at number nine on the Billboard charts for comedy. Just a ton of stuff that proves that it's more than just my friends buying it. It was nice to see that. And then in terms of the special, it took an extra week to get it up than we had originally planned with some hiccups from Amazon, but once it went up, the feedback has been great. Just, again from what I'm seeing, we're at around 20-30,000 views so far, and it's just really exciting to see that it's reaching people outside of just my immediate circle. The direct feedback I'm getting, I am regularly being messaged by people that are connecting with the project. You know, telling me how they relate to it, sharing their own stories about their immigrant families, and their journeys here. Stories about their grandfathers. It's been truly beautiful.
I was reading in another interview in which you spoke about how a lot of material in Immigrant Made comes from about four to six years of doing stand-up and perfecting these bits. Is that about how long it took for this hour to take shape?
Well, yes and no. I think in particular with the first hour for most comics, you know myself included, it probably took that long because I was a new comic. A lot of the time is just discovering yourself and your process. I would say in terms of the idea of the hour and actually finalizing it took about a year and a half, but there are bits here that definitely took four to six years because I was a new comic just learning how to do stand-up and how to perform and be funny. In particular with the keys to the stories, I know that they were longer. I wanted to do them justice because of the people that I'm talking about and what I'm talking about while by the same token be good at my craft. So yeah, it took a bit longer because of the fact that, I was a newbie I won't have this process started and I hope it doesn't take that long for round two.
It goes to what you were saying about being a new comic and sort of figuring out how a lot of the nuts and bolts work in terms of just building bits yourself, but also testing them successively in different clubs. The first time takes the longest. After that, fingers crossed, it usually doesn't.
Right. I'm hoping that a lot of the lessons I've learned from this time around kinda allow me to see the process for round two.
Are you the type of comedian who, once it's recorded, that's it — you can't do it anymore? Or will you still tell older jokes when you're building stuff up?
I tend to try to avoid doing a joke once I feel it is burned I guess because I do want to honor the audience as well. I feel like if know me for the piece and you came and seen me you deserve to see something new. With that said, I have come to see that the world it a lot bigger than we realize. I have clips that might have 100,000 views and that number seems huge and yet realistically that still means I could do shows in New York and no one has seen the clip because there's millions of people here and millions of people in the country and so on and so forth. So in terms of that I tend to probably avoid clips where they've hit the million view mark, the This Is Not Happening stuff I probably won't perform anymore.
But something that like was on PBS and got 80,000 views, I'm willing to do that. In particular if I have a real honest take on it that might upbeat the story or in the case of the PBS story that I did, I literally performed it for the first time for that show. So I felt like I never really got to enjoy performing it myself and sharing it with the audience that I think would like it. There are exceptions, but overall I am of the sentiment that once it's out there I do want to work on something new just because it's one of the things that people are excited about. They see what you did online, they enjoyed the piece, and they want to come enjoy and share something new. They want to see what you're up to and that's my job. I want to constantly be creating new things for the audience and give them a reason to come back again.
I wanna follow up on something you said, which was when you're up on stage and you're performing, you want the audience to have a good time. You want them to enjoy it, to laugh with the jokes, to hear something new. For you, as the performer, as the comic on stage, how important is it to you that you're enjoying it?
I think it's immense. I applaud the comics that can do a piece over and over again and perform it at peak level of enthusiasm. I think that our job is to always deliver material at its best and the way you go about that is different for every comic. Some comics are able to go back and really recreate the feelings that they had the first time they performed that material. Others need to create new material in order to maintain that level of enthusiasm with the piece because if you don't have that, it shows in the performance. So me personally, I do tend to gravitate towards trying newer things. I'm always writing, I'm regularly booking shows where, to be frank, I might not always be prepared when I booked it. Just because it forces me to continue to create because I know that I personally don't like to perform material that I've already done. And I want the pressure to have to create something new.
For your writing process, are you physically writing everything out? Are you doing bullet points or recording yourself at shows to listen back to? What's that process for you?
I have to commend my wife and kids, they are incredibly patient with my process. One thing I realized is I genuinely need their approval and I really enjoy the fact that the few times they see what I'm doing, they're proud of it and they are impressed by it. They don't understand necessarily the process to get to that point, it's very vulnerable. They work with me. Every Saturday before major shows usually about two to three times every month and also during the work week, they specifically go out. They go to my in-laws, they go to my parents, just to make sure that I have allocated time in the house by myself because in order to write I actually need to verbalize everything. I'm literally pacing back and forth in my living room saying jokes out loud over and over again and working on different endings.
Me personally for writing, I need to verbalize everything. I don't actually write it down until I feel like I'm close to the joke. Then from there, I'll try that at live shows that I record every single set that I do and then on the way home I play them all back. I make a bunch of tedious notes, literally who's at the show, how many people were at the show, what's the capacity of the show, what's the layout of the seating, what time of day was the show, what was the weather, how high was the ceiling, how bright was the room, who did I go after, where was I within the order, and I review all those details and listen to the set once more the next day before I go attempt it again. Yeah that's kind of like my process almost every day.
Ideally when the kids are school, I'm pacing back and forth in my apartment. I'm doing that review process during the week and hopefully by Saturday I have a really solid bit that I could review again when my wife takes the kids out to see grandma and grandpa. Then on Sunday hopefully that'll make up for it and do some family time and remind them why I'm doing all this madness.
A lot of creative people, be it comedians or writers, have that physical aspect of it. Like, I'm a professional writer and I read a lot, which most people assume is a very sedentary thing, and it is, but it's also a lot of pacing. Plenty of comics I’ve talked to do almost exactly the same thing. A lot of it is in your head, but you also, essentially, have to act through it to get it down.
Early on in my stand-up I bumped into Anthony DeVito, who's gone on to become a real mentor. He told me, he's like, "Yo listen. I sit down and write, but I know funny people that do it in all sorts of ways. It doesn't matter as long as you understand your process and you could replicate it. You could find work and it'll work for you. So figure it out and then just stick with it. That's who you are."
Figuring those things out for yourself can make a huge difference, and it all just depends on how your mind works.
I think it's huge. I feel like if I don't do that I'm ignoring the fact that the performance is a unique piece of art in and of itself. I think the words are incredibly important, I think the way I say it matters, but I think the room that I'm in matters. If it didn't, every stand-up set would be the same. There would be no purpose to come to a live show. I feel like every live show is its own unique moment. Understanding the dynamics that affect that, allow me to better present my stand-up differently and to better adjust for the different moments that might come up.
I'm a really big fan of your style of comedy, which is all about storytelling and combining long, complex narrative bits. Is that something you saw in the comics you liked, or is it more personal? Like, was storytelling a big part of your family?
It's actually very directly from my family. On Sundays growing up, we use to go to my grandparents house and literally the men would sit in the front yard and they would tell stories to each other and politics. One of the things that I didn't touch on in the album is that the kids literally weren't allowed to hang out with the adult men because they would tell adult stories. Some of them would talk about their date that week or they would complain about their boss or whatever the case may be. It was something that I noticed that I wanted to be apart of. They would let you try to tell a story, it's just that usually you're seven, eight years old, you're not really offering any depth to a 35, 40-year-old man with your issues. Like hey somebody stole my crayon at school. Your stories are lacking.
Every now and then I notice that my stories were so good that they would let me stay in the circle. If I told it well enough and if it was funny, they would let me hang out with the grown ups for the rest of the day. All of my other cousins would get a little jealous of it and it was a point of pride to me that I was good enough to stay in the circle and hang out, in particular with my dad and with my uncle also that were in my opinion the greatest story tellers in the circle and still are the funniest people I know. It was also a challenging because it only lasted for that Sunday. If I wanted back in the circle, I'd have to do a new good story. Otherwise, you'd have to go play with the kids again. I enjoyed playing with my cousins, but that seemed exclusive to me and I always chased that. Now when I'm doing these stories that I'm performing on stage I really feel like I'm just doing honor to what they did every Sunday. It was just the way to pass time among your brothers.
Now that they see you doing this professionally and you've got an album out and you've got a special out. You go up on stage and are essentially doing this, going and telling these stories and these jokes. What do they think about that now?
Now that the album is out and that I've been on TV, they're very happy. I was in the cage until about two years ago. Thankfully they're starting to see that it's paying off and they're on board. They're very happy about it. My dad has asked a check because I talked about him on a few different stories. It's definitely something that they're proud of now. Ironically I've been on Comedy Central twice. I've been on PBS. I've been on Vice. I have my album out. I have a special out and the thing that they are most proud of is that I did an interview for a local Univision Philadelphia newscast, because that was the first thing that they actually understood. It was the first thing that they understood the credit. They don't really watch Comedy Central. They didn't understand the magnitude of it.
That interview was like, “Oh wow, this is a real thing.” They put it on one of these shows. I'm like, “Dad, this clip has like a million views.” He's like, “Yeah but that's not real. This is a Spanish news station talking to you.” So it was nice to have that moment for them. Instead I was being frank, to me it means a ton because part of what I touch on at the end of the album is the fact that when they came here they kinda had to really be blue collar and take whatever work they can get in order to provide for their families. It always makes me wonder, if my dad or my uncles were first generation American. What kind of artistic skills they might have developed and what kind of careers they might have persuaded. Is my uncle really a stand-up up? Is my mom a painter? I'll never know that because they never had the option to be. Those weren't realistic things for them to pursue. I feel like me doing this and hopefully winning at it, is a way to kind of show them you made this possible and understand that while you sacrificed the ability to do this, that it's paying off now with this generation.
Not only that, but it sort of sets that example for your own kids or for nieces and nephews or anyone else of that next generation after you that they see what you're doing and they're like yeah this sort of thing is totally possible for us. Or something else that's not possible for-you know what I mean? It kind of passes on.
Yeah, most definitely. I think it was a real key moment for me when I resigned from my job and started pursuing this seriously after some real heart to hearts with my wife because I felt like I was sending a mixed message to my siblings who, right now they're 18 and 17 at the time. They were in high school and to my kids who were just starting to ask me real questions about what I did for a living. It felt hypocritical to talk to these four individuals that I care about and tell them they can be who they want to be when… I'm not old by any means, and I was already waving the flag. I was 29 when I started doing comedy. It just seemed odd to me that at that age I had already was dying to, I'm going to do a corporate job because it pays well despite how I feel about it.
So this kind of gave me an opportunity to backup what I was saying to them. You know what I have a dream and if I work at it and I'm dedicated at it, I can achieve it. If I can do that with the additional hurdles and responsibilities that I have as a parent and as a husband and as a homeowner, imagine what you could do if you start out with this pursuit even younger.
It’s only been a month, but what's next? What's your next goal post?
My general goal is to continue to make art that makes people more and more aware that people that look like me and that sound like me are far more similar to the rest of the country than people realize. I think there's a very direct idea that when you hear my accent, you hear East New York, Brooklyn, you automatically have certain expectations of, “Oh, this guy might be a gangster, this guy might be dangerous.” Once you hear my stories you realize, oh he's just a family guy. He happens to be in the neighborhood that I don't understand all the dynamics of, but overall he and the people from there are just middle class working people trying to do the best they can. The more that I can do that with my art, I feel that I'm doing some small part in hopefully making people aware that we're more alike and it makes it more difficult for us to be ignored and forgotten about, but we're making decisions politically.
So that's kind of like the meta idea of what I'm trying to accomplish. More directly I just want to make so much more art. I'm already working on my new hour. I have a real specific idea of kind of doing honor to the women in my life with this next one. With the current hour with Immigrant Made, I shouted out East New York and my heritage with the Dominican Republic. Something I noticed is that I very directly spoke to the men in my life. I talk a lot more about my son and my father and my grandfather. I'd like to kind of flip that on this next one and talk about my daughter and my sister and my wife and my mom and grandma.
That's kind of what I have in mind with this next project and I have some things I'll be doing to make that interesting. Besides that I also have some really cool Gorilla marketing tactics that I'm going be rolling out for Immigrant Made the rest of this year that I think will be very East New York and Dominican specific that I think people will get excited about. I don't want to tip my hat off too much on that.
Finally, just because it's one of my absolute favorite jokes from the album, have you had a chance to watch Avengers: Endgame yet?
[Laughs] Thanks for asking. I have not. I will not wait until the end of the last week like I did with Black Panther, but I am definitely taking my wife and kids to see it. I'm probably going to do honestly, two trips. I'm going to go separately with my wife, so I can see it like a normal date night movie. That's something that we've learned, we can do that. We can enjoy the movie in and of itself. Then if the kids want to take me to go see it seven in the morning on a Sunday again, it is what it is. I'll be a good parent. I know that I will have enjoyed it beforehand with the Mrs.
If you like sketch comedy and absurdism, then you’ll love Saturday Night Live and Detroiters alum Tim Robinson’s new Netflix series, I Think You Should Leave. It’s cringe-worthy sketch comedy at its best and weirdest, and I usually don’t like anything that remotely makes me cringe. But this? It’s good. As Robinson explained to Seth Meyers on Late Night, many of the show’s sketches were rejected bits from his SNL days. It’s easy to see why they were rejected — SNL is mostly crap at the moment.
Don’t forget, I actually want you to respond. Send me whatever questions, comments are snide remarks that you may have about my thoughts on stand-up comedy, or comedy-related matters I didn’t cover, but are nonetheless on your mind. To get in touch, simply email me and we’ll go from there.