Ricky Velez’ publicist reached out to me 16 months ago to set up this interview ahead of him taping his HBO comedy special (which drops Saturday on HBO at 10PM) which was “set to shoot post-COVID” back when we thought such a thing was around the corner or even possible. I bring this up to illustrate an obvious point that Velez (who you may remember from King Of Staten Island, which he co-starred in and produced, collaborating with friend Pete Davidson and now frequent collaborator Judd Apatow, who also produced the special) speaks to in our conversation — the world of stand-up comedy got turned upside down by something that kept performers from the audiences that support and validate their professional existence.
How did that time away impact Velez’s work and relationship to a profession that he is confident he’ll do until the day he dies? We spoke about that, his willingness to open up and talk about his life on stage in pursuit of connection, and what he’s learned from observing some of his most frequent collaborators.
How do you stay sharp and get that fill-up kind of feeling from doing comedy during COVID when you’re kind of just stuck doing nothing.
Yeah. I was stuck, and I definitely use stand-up a lot… it’s something that I love to do. And I love being a part of it, but at the time, it was a good time to exercise a new muscle, which was writing. And I worked with Judd [Apatow] and Judah Miller through the whole pandemic. And that kept me sharp. And then we went right back on the road the moment it was safe to. The moment I had two vaccines in me and two weeks passed me, it was time to hit the road, and we hit it as hard as we could.
Beyond just the monetary side of things, I’m sure comedy also fills a specific need in terms of just talking through stuff, processing your life. Without that, where did you turn to kind of get that fix while not being able to do comedy?
You just stay in touch with the guys you know that are funny. That’s what I did. I mean, I have great friends that are really, really, really funny people. And we all helped each other out during that time. And they were there for each other. It was a really tough time for comics, I believe. Because, unlike any other art, you absolutely need an audience to even practice it. So it was a hard time, but we’re through it. And I’m so happy we are.
The special was in the works for a long, long time. How does your idea of what the material’s going to be for this special change over that period?
The world changed, as did I, right? My environment changed, the people I was around, the people I was seeing, the people that I was able to see, let alone the people that I got to. And that was very important when getting back out on the road, to make sure this was the way to do it. I just felt that I knew, going into my special, based on traveling and seeing the world and seeing how other people were taking everything in. [That] was very important.
I know I’d read an interview where you talked about kind of catching fire for some stuff that you had said on Larry Wilmore’s show back in the day. When you’re coming up with material, what is the do not cross point for you?
I think I just try to be funny, not to just one group or another. I try to be funny across the board. And I don’t like to limit myself, so I’ll try anything. But I mean, if I’m hurting somebody or feel like I am, I move away from it.
What role does the challenge of it play? The challenge in terms of, “I’m going to tell this joke, I’m going to walk a really tight rope, and I’m going to find the funny there, and I’m going to get everybody to laugh at this thing.” Is that a part of what drives you as well?
Yes. Yes. I think it is, it definitely is finding a way to go about something, to talk about either topics, or your family, or something that means something to you, and making a whole room understand it in a moment in time. It’s a thrill.
What do you think it is that pisses comics off so much about the idea of quote cancel culture and the notion that if they, while they’re trying to do this comedic alchemy… if they veer too far in one direction, they may not just alienate people, but just actively spoil any notion of people picking them up again?
I don’t know, I don’t. I don’t know. I think that comics don’t like to be told much, so they definitely don’t want to be told how to speak, but I don’t know. I truly don’t know.
But at the end of the day, I mean, that is part of the challenge too. Isn’t it? To be able to say something and essentially make an impact and get away with it.
No, I think, me personally, I don’t go for that as much as I go for I want to make this a fun experience. That’s how I think about it. And this is what I find funny, and this is what me and my friends that I grew up with and that I’m friends with now belly-laugh about. And hopefully, you guys can understand what we’re saying, what I’m doing.
In the special, you talk about your father and your childhood and being beat as a kid. Have you always been willing to open yourself up to talk about certain things you’ve gone through in your life or did that come over time?
I started writing more personal the more I started to realize how much I was connecting with other people and the things I was talking about, I no longer felt alone about it.
Is that something achieved through direct interactions with your audience and people actually telling you about their stories?
Yeah. I remember when I first started talking about anxiety, I was shocked about how many people were coming up to me and telling me their stories. Even when my mother passed away, I had numerous people come out and reach out to me that had been in my everyday life when it comes to comedy and the rest, telling me their stories. And I just had no clue. So I feel like so often you feel alone and there are people just like you right next to you, and you don’t even know.
How does the working relationship with Judd inform your comedy and what have you learned from working with him?
The work’s never done, that’s how I feel until it’s taped. That’s something I learned from Judd. A lot of work is good work. And be open and lose the ego, and you’ll be fine.
What have you learned from just working with and observing the world as it responds to Pete Davidson [in terms of tabloid coverage]?
I think good work always trumps all that noise. And if you continue to do good work, you’ll continue being great. And that’s what I’ve noticed from those guys.
Who’s in your internal focus group? Do you run material by your wife before it even gets to a crowd before it even gets to other comedians, are there people in your life that you kind of run material by, just to see if it’s hitting, if it feels off?
No, I don’t do that. I bring it straight to the stage. I trust the audience, and I put myself in situations that I can play with it and everybody and get honest reactions. The one thing about my wife, though, if you want to make fun of your wife on stage, you have to have it kill when she comes to see it. If you just have a joke that’s poking at her, whatever, just make sure when she sees it, it’s amazing.
What is up next for you?
Writing, more stand-up, and just keeping the projects that I have in motion, in motion, and just allowing myself to be open to opportunities that are around.
Is there ever an endpoint? I guess the question is, do you ever perfect the art of stand-up comedy, or is that something that you feel you’re just going to do it till you die?
Yeah. I think I would probably do stand-up until the day I die. It’s one of those things, it’s a puzzle that’s never done. It’s a lot of fun. And I got to make my job, my hobby and vice versa. And I just feel really lucky to be able to go do my job whenever I want now. And that’s the one thing I’ve taken away from COVID is how grateful I am to have audiences again. But yeah, this isn’t something, just one day you stop doing.
Nate Bargatze has a great joke about how you can never really quit. You can’t just call somebody and be like, “I’m done.” So it would always just linger. It would always just linger in the back of your head, I would believe. But yeah, that’s why you see people do this until the day they die because it’s an addiction. It’s definitely something that fills a void possibly for a lot of people. And I think it’s changed my life, and I don’t know where I’d be without it.
Ricky Velez’ ‘Here’s Everything’ premieres on HBO Saturday at 10PM ET