Dylan Carlino doesn't know what kind of comic he wants to be anymore.
Up to this point, he's spent his career as a comedian divulging family secrets to audiences at rapid-fire speed. Carlino eschews the current trend of narrative jokes—he's much more interested in knocking down audiences with one punchline after another.
During a recent headlining spot at Mississippi Pizza Pub, he covered everything from trying to convince straight men that Grindr is an app where they can track their fitness by posting shirtless pictures of themselves to adopting a dog he believed was the reincarnation of his sister Sarah, who passed away 10 years ago from a neurological condition.
"Unfortunately, I had to take her back to the shelter," he says at the end of the bit, as if chatting over mimosas at brunch, "but it was so good to see her."
"My whole personality onstage really is like, 'I've got secrets to tell you and a limited amount of time,'" says Carlino, sipping a tallboy at Black Water Bar, where he co-hosts the comedy showcase the Gay Agenda. "'So buckle up, listen up and don't interrupt.'"
When he competed in the semifinals of Helium's Funniest Person competition two years ago, Carlino found himself yelling at the audience to stop laughing so he could move on to the next joke. That might sound counterproductive, but that's how Carlino's craft works—you don't have time to think about it, you only have time to react. Whether he's referring to lower ab muscles as "cum gutters" or admitting he'd rather be attractive than funny, it's almost like the joke hits you twice—first from the shock, then again when you realize what you're actually laughing at.
But now, Carlino's beginning to worry if he's run out of things to say. He's been living in the same place for three years. He's no longer single, and he's already aired a life's worth of deeply personal information in front of strangers.
"I feel like I'm at my funniest when I'm angry onstage, but now I'm like, I don't know, I'm in a pretty decent mood," he says. "I'm trying to figure out what I want to talk about right now."
That's quite a change from the beginning of his career. Fueled by Long Island iced teas, Carlino would get onstage and monologue for an hour, doling out mostly improvised jokes about his life.
Carlino grew up in the Berkshires, a rural region of Massachusetts. There were no comedy clubs, and even if there had been, standup wasn't really on his radar.
"Comedy's never really been for gay people. The jokes were always about us, not for us," he says. "Kathy Griffin was the only standup I watched until I was 18 years old, and I didn't know it was standup. I thought she was just Kathy Griffin."
But when he saw Sarah Silverman's Jesus Is Magic in 2012, he was hooked. He drove an hour to his first open mic, where he delivered a 20-minute, stream-of-consciousness set. He was offered his first gig on the spot, and eventually landed a regular set at a local restaurant, where he was required to perform an hour's worth of new material every week.
For most comedians, locking down a "tight five" is a major benchmark. Carlino cut his teeth on loose 60s. Before each show, he'd put together a list of dozens of talking points and riff on each one for a minute or so.
"I would call my mom and be like, 'What is something traumatic that happened to me growing up?' I'll call my siblings and be like, 'How did you feel about Sarah dying?'" Carlino says. "They'll be like, 'I don't want to talk about it,' and I'll be like, 'I know but I'm trying to write bits.'"
Carlino moved to Portland in 2016, partly for the comedy scene and partly because it was about as far away from his hometown as he could get. He started going to open mics almost every night of the week. Going from performing in tiny towns to a city with a well-oiled comedy scene, he hit the ground running. Still, there was somewhat of a learning curve.
"I think in my hometown, they're much more ready to laugh at the darkest things, where in Portland, you kind of have to sneak in the dark jokes," he says. "They're like stray cats: You have to trick them into the house."
Sure, cracking jokes about a dead sibling might seem a little callous, but Carlino's material is hardly coldhearted. There's nothing from his own life that he won't work into a bit—even the time his mom told him his babysitter took "weird naked pictures of him" when he was a kid. But he draws the line at poking fun at anyone else's trauma. And maybe it's the subversive joy of watching the straight men in the audience wiggle in discomfort—like when Carlino declares he's in a room full of men who don't know they're bisexual yet—but there's something gleeful about the chaos of Carlino's sets.
As his craft matures, though, Carlino has worked to slow down his pace, rather than "just trying to cram jokes in everyone's face." He's still trying to find what interests him in his newfound contentment, other than Season 16 of Grey's Anatomy, which isn't exactly a great topic for fresh, edgy material.
"I'm in a really transitional period with my standup," says Carlino. "I don't know what's coming next, which is like super scary."
He at least knows what kind of comic he's not going to become.
"I'm never going to have a bit on toothpaste," he says. "My bits are like, 'Was I molested?'"