It's a funny sort of time to sell a comedy album. The temporary shuttering of standup venues in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may have sent demand surging for local talents' material in the form of everything from Zoom sessions to recordings. So it seems the release of Steven Wilber's debut comedy album is perfectly timed for the era we're in—the only problem is, there's no way to hold a live show to mark the occasion.
Just three years after first grabbing an open mic, the Spokane emigrant was anointed one of WW's Funniest Five in 2014, and the following year, he was also listed among the Fresh New Faces annually selected by the world's largest humor festival, Just for Laughs. Given all of that, it's a little hard to believe he hasn't made an album until now. Helium Comedy Records helped make that possible by offering to capture his 2018 set at Helium's Southeast Portland club, resulting in a collection of playfully digressive flights of fancy, jazz radio patter and pull-out couches with sordid pasts now available for purchase under the title 16 Bits.
WW: Seems like the perfect time for a comedy record?
Steven Wilber: I would hope so. Didn't really plan it this way. I thought an album release show would've been really cool, but that's obviously not going to pan out.
And you're not going on the road…
As of recently, my touring schedule's pretty light. [Laughter] Honestly, I've been so bogged down with the day job that I haven't really had the opportunity for traditional comedy tours. I'll spend a week at different clubs in L.A. or Austin, but my material's a little…off compared to what people in flyover states might want. I may not be best suited for that type of place.
What is the day job?
An office position at a moving company, but, well, I actually just resigned a couple of days ago. They started wanting people to come back, and I did not feel comfortable with that.
You're a full-time comedian!
I guess? Technically? In reality, I'm just an unemployed comedian.
What's the difference?
Very little. Remote jobs are tricky to manage, but they're perfect for comedians. We don't need daytime to do comedy. We do that at night. If we can work from home or the hotel room on the road somewhere, that's the ideal gig.
You're trained in social distancing.
Oh, yeah, from an early age. I knew avoiding people was going to come in handy one day.
Any pandemic jokes?
Oh, too soon.
Isn't laughter the best medicine?
Antibiotics are pretty good.
What's the immediate future of standup?
Ooof. Right now? Shaky. People are trying their best to keep that energy going Zooming live shows over the internet. Some of them are pretty funny, but the vibe is different. The audience isn't there. They're all in separate rooms. And, rarely does a person laugh watching TV by themselves. You've got to have that group environment for contagious laughter to build.
No matter what?
My sets aren't very dependent upon asking people where they're from or what they do for a living. I could do what I do in front of one person, although there would probably be an energy shift because I was bummed only one person showed up.
Audiences of one might be the answer, though?
I think that some people are going to try to do that. It's going to be weird, but, you know, more power to 'em.
Did you listen to comedy albums growing up?
No. That was definitely something I was not into. Gramma would play some Cosby albums, but we don't talk about it. I was actually never a big standup person until my early 20s, when a girl I liked made me watch a bunch of Mitch Hedberg and Jim Gaffigan.
Are there advantages to making an album as opposed to a video?
The [former] form has a background quality, you know? You can ingest [an album] like a podcast—meaning, you know, during your commute or at work. Live your life around comedy the whole time! With video, you need to use your eyes as well. That's a 100 percent increase in sensing.
Ever think about returning to sketch comedy?
If I came up with an idea for a video people might watch, something that would really make them laugh, I'll pursue that whatever the medium. As long as I'm achieving that goal, it's going to be fine.
So what was your purpose for this album?
After almost seven years of standup, I wanted a record, like, these are the things I worked on all the time. I want a time to prove to people I did this.
And, one day, you'll play this album for your own grandkids?
Nah. I hope they play it at my funeral.