TAKING IT ALL IN STRIDE: Shane Mauss may be keeping his cool, but the past few weeks have taught him something about the cultural buzz of anthropology.
A month ago, Boston comedian Shane Mauss could barely get local comedy clubs to return his calls. Just three weeks ago, he was headlining at an Elks lodge in Connecticut. But last Wednesday, the 26-year-old was performing for millions on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where he had the host and fellow guest Neil Patrick Harris howling over his girlfriend’s dismal view of the bedroom. “The vagina’s always half-empty,” he deadpanned.
Despite legend and the fervent dreams of multitudes, overnight sensations are rare in show business. But Shane Mauss seems to have pulled it off, through the usual combination of luck and pluck, as well as sharp joke-writing skill and a magnetic (some might call it hypnotic) stage presence.
Comedian Paul Provenza, who directed the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, singled out Mauss on Penn Jillette’s radio show earlier this year, calling Mauss one of a new breed of stand-ups who, judging by appearances, “don’t really know what they’re doing,” but clearly have “so much skill and craft. Very smart stuff.”
Trying out his act
Over the past six months, Mauss, who’d been doing stand-up for only three years, has been raising his game at comedy competitions both here in Boston and across the country. Provenza had crossed paths with him in January at the Las Vegas Comedy Festival. And his performances during the Boston Comedy Festival stand-up contest last September, where he placed seventh, grabbed the attention of his fellow comedians, including Steven Wright (who introduced the Boston comedy scene to a national audience 25 years ago with his debut on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, prompting talent scouts to launch the careers of “undiscovered” comics Bobcat Goldthwait, Denis Leary, Lenny Clarke, Paula Poundstone, Kevin Meaney, and many others — think of what Nirvana did for Seattle music, only a decade earlier and much less tragic). Soon, an HBO scout invited Mauss to audition for its annual US Comedy Arts Festival, held each February in Aspen, Colorado. “He was one of the last people booked,” HBO talent executive Kathi Khoury said. “I had to fight for Shane,” who didn’t have an agent.
It was a huge break: Aspen is to comedy what Austin is to music and Sundance is to movies — a place where show-business executives gather to suss out the Next Big Thing. And on March 3, before all those heavyweights, Mauss’s seven-minute set won best stand-up honors. “I got a bowling trophy once,” he said that night. “Bowled a 235 in eighth grade. This (award) is going right next to that!”
Just a couple of days earlier, Mauss had been perhaps the least known person — even among Bostonians — on the Aspen program, which included celebrations for Stephen Colbert, George Carlin, Don Rickles, and the cast and creators of Entourage, as well as one-man shows by Steven Wright and Katt Williams.
Hanging out with him that week was like taking a class in the cultural anthropology of buzz. You could see it in the way Aspen’s well-to-do quoted his jokes about pussy and anal beads. He couldn’t sit down to eat a meal without customers, waiters, and executives approaching his table — respectfully, somewhat gingerly — to offer their congratulations.
“It was pretty amazing,” says Mauss. “At one point I was in a fancy restaurant having a meeting with Mosaic, who represent Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, and Sacha Baron Cohen — and they’re interested in me?”
After Mauss won his festival award, TV producer Dan Pasternack and executives from Super Deluxe — the new online comedy site from Turner Broadcasting — treated Mauss to a celebratory dinner. “He has the material and the timing of a seasoned pro, as well as that rarest of all attributes . . . a unique and distinctive comedic voice,” Pasternack said. “I love what he’s doing and I think he has a big future in comedy.”
For someone who seems so, well, off-balance and vaguely inebriated both on and off stage, Mauss exhibits a keen sense of focus on what it takes to make a joke funny, as well as what it’ll take to ensure that his career doesn’t peak with Conan. His slurring, ambling speech (with more than a hint of Midwestern flatness) stands out, and suggests a 180-degree departure from the slick, observational stand-ups who followed the Jerry Seinfeld mold. Instead of noticing the humor in others, Mauss pokes fun at himself, his sex life, and his drunken adventures. It appealed to one of Conan’s booking agents, who called on Mauss, a week after Aspen, when a band had to pull out of the March 21 show. He auditioned over the phone. Five minutes later, he had the gig.