It all began when he dropped out of high school at Francis Lewis on Utopia Parkway. After getting his GED, he then went on to attend Queens College, only to drop out a year later to pursue his career in joke telling. He is currently living in his childhood home in Rego Park.
In his recently released standup-concert DVD - “Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film!” - McEneaney hosts an intimate night of musical comedy and standup with comedians Reggie Watts, Christian Finnegan, Rob Paravonian, Leo Allen, Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler.
I sat down with McEneaney last week at Urban Rustic, located at 236 N. 12th St. in Williamsburg, to discuss his lifelong pursuit of a career in comedy, his ties to the borough and his philosophy on what it takes to tell a joke.
What made you want to do standup?
I always felt I was funny, even though I was never the class clown and I could never make anyone I know laugh. But I always felt like if I could just do stand up comedy, or if I could get an audience that wasn’t just dudes from the middle of Queens, then I could do it.
Who are some of your influences?
I would say the big one growing up was Cosby. Any comedian from my generation watched “Bill Cosby Himself” a few times. My family taped it off HBO, and we would watch it together. My parents would laugh, my sister would laugh, I would laugh, but we would all be laughing at different things.
When I was a kid I discovered a guy named Tom Lahrer, who was like a musical comedian. Very smart, very dry, but then other than that it would be just whomever I could find on television.
When did it all begin?
My mom always tells a story when I was little that my first words were, “You want to hear a joke?” My sister would come home from Montessori High School every day, and she had a joke she heard in class and say, “Do you want to hear a joke?” And then I just babbled some nonsense and started laughing, and my sister was like, “He’s making fun of me.”
Is there a difference from being funny and doing standup comedy?
A lot of people can say stuff that can make people laugh. Like if you’re at a party, or if you’re at work, it’s easy to just come out with something to make people laugh. It’s harder to sit down and write something and then do it over and over again in front of a different group of strangers until it works.
How do you write your jokes?
It’s very rare for an idea to just hit me. I tried to do it that way for a long time, but it just didn’t work. So I’m very lazy, and essentially what I have to do is just sit down for like 3 or 4 hours every day and keep writing and eventually I’ll hit on something very interesting. That might be a funny idea that people haven’t tackled before and I’ll go and do it and try to write different punch lines around it. Generally I’ll walk away with like six or eight pages, which is not a lot.
How much of that do you keep?
If I’m lucky I’ll come away with a good joke or a good start for a joke, and once in a blue moon I’ll sit down and write the entire thing from beginning to end. But that’s so rare.
So you write for three to four hours a day. What do you do with the other 21 hours?
I sleep. I sleep for about 15 hours a day. Bill Hicks said, “I need eight hours a day, and at least ten at night.” But for a long time I was just writing and working on my standup stuff. Currently, until the end of June, I am working with the Red Cross on some longterm, post-Sandy recovery stuff, which has been a very interesting experience.
How did you get your first big break as a comedian?
My first big break was when I did Premium Blend on Comedy Central in 2001, and before that I was writing for the Humor Network and before that I was just doing shows in New York City. Comedy Central used to do “Open Mic Fight.” I entered the contest, and the head of East Coast Talent at the time called me and said she looked at my tape and I did not get into the contest, but she did want to offer me a spot on Premium Blend. I was like, “Man, that is so much better.”
Did you feel like, at that point, that you conquered something?
I did, but then I found out that wasn’t true. It was a great first shot being on TV, but then a lot of people have been on Premium Blend. But it got people looking at me and it got me gigs.
What is a bad crowd?
A bad crowd is usually a bunch of drunks that want to talk to you, each other or both. I’ve performed at comedy clubs where there are just these tourists that want to go see a standup comedy show, but they don’t speak English so well. And sometimes there are just these awful human beings.
When was your last bad show?
A few weeks ago there were a few women from Suffolk, Long Island, sitting up front. If your readers are from Queens, they know exactly what I’m talking about. Right away it started with a woman looking at her cell phone and I called her out on it because they were sitting right up front. And she was like, “I’m looking at pictures of my niece,” and then it was like they just declared war on me.
What did you say to her?
I remember she was drunk and she was a redhead, and I remember I really tried to make nice at first. I made some remark like, “I actually date a lot of redheads,” but then she replied, “What are they like?” I said, “Actually a lot of them are loud-mouthed drunks,” and the rest of the audience just roared because I guess they’d already had enough of these women. Then her mom went at it. She looked like a half-empty leather bag. And then I made a point of being super nice to everyone sitting around them.
So at that point, do you feel like you had control of the audience?
With that, I could say there’s a bad segment of the audience, and the rest of the audience hates them too, so if I’m just nice to everybody else around them, then I can turn the entire audience on them.
Have you ever set up a mob to fight another part of the audience?
No, I don’t like to set up situations like that. The ideal is to have a good audience that’s laughing and enjoying themselves. I don’t ever go to a comedy club where I think it’s going to be a bad scene or I’m going to make someone leave or go home crying.
Is Queens funny?
I think Queens is a very funny borough. I think that you almost can’t come out of Queens without developing a sense of humor, and there seems to be a very specific, cynical sense of humor that a lot of people have in Queens, mostly because it is very much a working-class borough.
There’s a lot of cynicism about the powers that be, because it’s not like Brooklyn where there is a lot of new money now. As a result, a lot of the comedy that goes over in Brooklyn is more cerebral, something that maybe kids in college more appreciate, whereas in Queens you get a lot more of an earthy sensibility.
Can you explain the difference in the types of jokes you have to tell to a Queens audience versus Brooklyn?
There’s a great comedy club in Queens called the Laughing Devil in LIC, and they get a lot of Queens residents. With that kind of audience from Queens, its actually a lot like audiences like I’ve found in Europe, where in Brooklyn you’ll get more time to set up a joke and to follow a premise and to follow an idea.
In Queens, especially, you really have to just cut the fat out of your act and just go punch line, punch line, punch line. You have to be able to talk to the audience. They don’t want to see you experimenting or trying something out. They want to know that you have worked on this and that you are working as hard as they do at their job.
What would you do for a living if you weren’t doing comedy?
I’m actually at the age now, 36, at the same age as when my mom went back to law school. So, I think about that sometimes, and that I could always take the LSAT's, but I would be miserable and I wouldn’t be doing what I want to do.
Do you see yourself doing this forever?
Yeah. Not standup. You can’t make money in standup. You’d be eating dog food at 75 if you stick with standup.
So, what's the next move?
I was hoping to be producing movies and that’s not out of the question. I’m in the running for a producing job right now, but I don’t think I got it. And then there’s writing. Writing is where the money is.
What do you want to be doing when you’re 46?
I would love to have the Louis C.K. thing, where you have a TV show that pays your bills, but gives you a lot of creative freedom and also touring as a headliner.
Do you think comedy is a forgiving field?
Absolutely. Comedy is a weird field and it’s very easy to break with when you’re young because showbiz loves anything that’s young and shiny. Lena Dunham is the new big thing because she’s young and shiny, but Louis C.K. is also the new big thing. In comedy, when you’re young, you can break and do well. But also if you take your time and develop and get good, then you can break really big and do really well. I hope.
Catch Liam at Union Hall, 702 Union Street in Brooklyn, for the taping of his debut album on June 5 with Rob Paravonian and Janeane Garofalo, and on June 6 with Rob Paravonian and Jim Gaffigan. On both nights the doors open at 7:30 p.m., show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8.