Comedy is the new punk rock, they say, but in the case of Hutch Harris, punks are the new comics. In recent weeks, the Thermals' singer-guitarist has gone from Portland comedy-scene booster to onstage fixture at local open mics—which, for followers of the Thermals' Twitter account, shouldn't be a startling development. We asked him about transitioning from frontman to funnyman, and somehow ended up talking about his love of man boobs.
WW: What inspired you give standup a try?
Hutch Harris: Over the years, the Thermals have done a ton of shows with comedians. We got signed to Sub Pop the same time David Cross did, so we did shows with him, Todd Barry, Eugene Mirman, Demetri Martin. Over the last couple years, I started paying more attention to the Portland comedy scene, because there are so many awesome comedians and so many shows every night. And at first, I was like, "I really want to do standup, but I'm never fucking going to do it" because I was fucking really scared. I went back and forth between "I'm going to do it" and "I'm just going to keep watching." I seriously started talking myself out it.
Slowly, people started asking me to do their shows. Amy Miller, who's one of my favorites, asked me to do Midnight Mass, and I was like, "What do you want me to do?" She's like, "You can do standup." I was like, "How can you talk about it like it's so easy?" So I said I'll do a song. I came and played a song I wrote a couple years ago that was kind of funny, but then I was like, "I don't want to be that guy". If I'm going to get up to do comedy shows, I don't want to get up with a guitar. I get up with a guitar every day with the Thermals. Andie Main, who's like my comedy guardian angel, asked me to do Picture This, then I did Alex Falcone's show with Bri Pruett.
Finally, I was like, "I'm doing all these things that are close enough, I lurked the scene for a couple years, slowly worming my way in by doing these comedy shows but not doing standup. Andie Main was like, "There's this open mic at this Moose Lodge in deep Southeast," which is where I live. She's like, "It's a shit show. It's like the hipster comics you know from Portland, but a bunch of Moose Lodge members come out specifically for the open mic." So there's an audience of these couples in their 40s and 50s who are just regular, beer-drinking Moose Lodge members. I was like, "That sounds perfect." Over the years, I've written stuff but never performed it. She told me four hours before the show, and I was like, "If I don't think about it, if I don't look at any of my notes, if I just get up there I'll be able to do it. But if I go home and try to write and prepare, I'm going to get too nervous to do it." So I didn't think about it. I went there and did it, and it felt so good.
And people were receptive?
Considering it was my first time, yes, people were very receptive. Then I went out and did three [open mics] the next day, and I did two the day after that. I used to go to a lot of open mics and be like, "How are these poor motherfuckers doing this every night?" Because only watching open mics is fucked up. To do it is way better. It's very addicting.
The Thermals aren't necessarily the funniest band in the world. What did people see in you that made them suggest trying comedy?
It's all my Twitter, I think. We use it like any social media, to hype our records and shows and shit. But other than that, I'm just putting jokes on it. There are days if I'm on tour, if I'm flying or driving all day, I'm on Twitter all day, just wasting my life. A lot of people started telling me the Twitter was really funny, and it was getting this personality that was totally separate from the band. We don't do funny songs, and there's nothing funny about the band. But as people, like a lot of bands, we have a sense of humor, and the Thermals' Twitter started taking on an identity that had way less to with the Thermals and started to be about my life and what I thought was funny.
How did you come up with an actual act?
Like anyone, things come into my head that are funny. I don't sit down and go, "OK, what's funny?" Before I had done it, I was thinking I'd really like to be a storytelling comedian. As soon as I got into it, all I want to do is write really quick, setup-punch-line jokes. Most of the jokes I'm doing every night is just stuff I wrote early that night or the day before, and I'm going to try it again. Overall, I have a darker, sicker sense of humor, so a lot of shit that's really terrible is really funny to me.
What about in terms of stage presence? How did that translate from playing music to doing standup?
I've tried to just be as mellow as possible. When the Thermals play, it's all about being fast and loud and shouting, so I'm trying not to do that. I'm trying to speak slowly and take my time, and be really mellow. I don't want to have a shtick. It's not like I'm talking about my life, but I want it to sound like how I am in real life.
Has there been any blowback from comics about crossing into their lane?
Not yet, but I'm sure there are people who feel that way. And the thing is, that's a lot of what made me insecure to get up at first. I know some people will feel that way. Steven Wilber's so funny, he was like, "If this doesn't work out for you, you can find success in another creative field." But seriously, I just wanted to be part of the Portland scene. I'd been super supportive of it for a long time before I was doing standup, and I just wanted to be down with it. I'm sure there are people who wouldn't like me doing it, like, "OK, stick to music." But when the Thermals got signed to Sub Pop, there were a lot of people who hated us right away, just because we were on Sub Pop. So it doesn't bother me. I don't like it, but what are you going to do?
Have you found yourself mining your music career for material?
I'm going to try and stay away from it as long as I can. Shane Torres has a friend in the Riverboat Gamblers who gets up and tells crazy stories about tour, but I have no crazy stories about tour. And I don't want to be, "Hey, it's the guy from the Thermals doing comedy!" It's on me to be funny. If I'm not funny, no one's going to be like, "Let's go see Hutch from the Thermals suck at an open mic."
So what do you want this to be? Is it just a hobby, or something bigger?
I'll do this as long as it's fun. I know how hard it is, in anything in entertainment, to have real success. It's never something that happens casually, and it never happens accidentally. There's no famous comedian who's just like, "Oh, I just ended up here." They worked every day for years and years. You have to really want it, and you have to be ambitious. So now, I just feel like doing mics all the time, because it's super-fun, and also the Thermals aren't super-busy. There'll be a time when we get busy again, and I'll have to go back doing that, but I don't expect to accidentally get some fucking awesome standup career. But I love just going to a show and not loading any gear. And I hadn't done stuff alone in a long time, too, and that's really nice.
You like performing by yourself?
Yeah, I love it. I don't know shit about doing standup. I'm learning shit all the time. But one of the first things I learned is how weird and different it feels. You know in a movie when a character goes underwater, like in The Graduate or something, and the sound will be really muted? That's how it feels to me. If there's a second of silence between jokes, I get that feel, which is cool, because it's really weird and I never get that feeling playing music onstage. You're so fucking naked. It's just you and a room full of people not laughing.
Do you subscribe to the idea that standup is the new punk rock?
It kind of is. Kill Rock Stars gave me the Cameron Esposito record last night, and I put it on and I was like, "Fuck, this girl is so edgy and queer and cool. This is the most Kill Rock Stars record to come out on Kill Rock Stars in forever." I don't say "it's the new punk rock," but it's cool in Portland how queer the scene is and how many girls there are. There are so many female comics in Portland right now who are killing it. I feel like most of the best comedians in Portland are women. Someone else can compare it to riot grrrl in the '90s, but I don't want to be the one to say it because it's cheesy. If someone else wants to say it, though, go ahead.
What's a joke you've written that you're really proud of?
I don't know if I'm proud of any of it, but I was at the gym, and I found myself staring at a pair of tits. It was on a guy in the men's locker room. I was like, "God, those are the nicest tits I've ever seen. Am I gay, or do I just love tits so much that I don't care what they're on?" And the punch line I was kind of using was, I realize I am gay, as long as the guy has really nice tits.