Q&A: Mark Cohen
Comedian Mark Cohen keeps the show rolling at the Comedy Cellar at the Rio. As the current primary emcee at the Vegas version of the legendary New York club, Cohen effortless maintains the atmosphere between acts that have included Dave Attell, Michael Che, Judah Friedlander, Colin Quinn and Michelle Wolf. Cohen told Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about the early days of the club, and the Comedy Cellar alumni who occasionally stop in for a visit.
Let’s start out with your previous career as a folksinger. Your earliest album available is from 1977 …
(laughs) Are you joking now or no?
I’m not really joking but I know that’s not you. If you go to Apple Music, which I just switched to from Spotify, the couple of few albums listed are by an obscure singer-songwriter who recorded for Smithsonian Folkways.
Ohhh, oh, oh, oh. I actually thought you were talking about Marc Cohn, the “Walking in Memphis” guy.
Nooo, that would be a terrible joke.
(laughs) Yes, it’s that better of a joke. Yeah, I don’t know who that guy is, but he got a bump in the sales from it.
I think when you’re on Smithsonian Folkways that usually means your dead and they took your stuff for free.
When I first started out I had only been in the business for a couple of months and I got a call from MTV, and they were like, “Hey, can you do a 10,000-seat theater?” And I was like, “Sure, I’ll do a 10,000-seat theater.” And then they called back a couple of minutes later, and they must have realized it was a mistake. The were like “Can you bring your guitar?” And I was like “Sure, I can bring my guitar.” Then they called back again, and they thought I was the singer Marc Cohn.
For a second I thought, “This guy must have started out as a singer,” but I saw 1977 and figured you couldn’t be that old.
Yeah, I was a kid still.
You’d be as old as Colin Quinn.
Hey, now … yeah, we’re pretty close.
Colin would have been 17.
He’s a good guy. I’m the same age as him, roughly. I think I started before him. I always thought he was younger than me but probably not.
I connected the dots because, you know, all folksingers want to be comedians and all comedians want to be folk singers.
This whole article can be about the folk singer. He’s gonna get more sales now. … I did warm-up on Remote Control, Colin’s first TV show on MTV then.
The Comedy Cellar launched the careers of some pretty well known comedians. Can you tell me about this Mark Cohen non-folksinger comedian guy?
Well, he’s gorgeous …
You had a mullet back in the day, and it was gorgeous.
The waitresses loved it. That’s all I cared about back then.
Was the Comedy Cellar where you started out?
It was the place you wanted to start out, but yeah I started out at other clubs first. It was definitely one of my first clubs. They needed somebody at the last minute so they called The Improvisation, and I happened to be there. They said, “Hey, we’ve got this new kid. We’ll send him there.” They send me down there and I ended up working there. The cool thing is I really cut my teeth there as an emcee. That’s how I learned to deal with small crowds and big crowds. Back then it wasn’t the success that is it now. There was only a few people in the audience. We still had to do our show.
How did you end up being an emcee?
Back in the day they used to use a better act, or a stronger act, to emcee. They didn’t have as many great comedians, so if someone didn’t do well they had to continue the show. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore because the quality of the show has gone up, but when I was emcee there was only one show, and or would go from 9 or 8 until 2 in the morning. You would get an incredible amount of stage time for a young comedian, so that’s why I enjoyed emceeing. And it paid the bills, you know?
Did you have to try out first?
I had to do spots first. I would set my alarm for 1:15 a.m., wake up and go to a set at the Cellar.
I’ve seen Jon Stewart, Colin Quinn and Judy Gold linked to the Comedy Cellar for the early part of their careers. Is there anyone else who belongs on that short list?
Louis, obviously. (Stand-up scenes from FX series Louie were shot at the Comedy Cellar.) Louis C.K., Dave Attell, Kevin Brennan, Quinn … I’m trying to think. Greg Giraldo. People who aren’t around anymore. Caroline Rhea I remember from back in the day. Judah Friedlander. Some of these people who have gone on to be very successful started out as late-night comics. I would be emceeing, they would show up at 1:30 in the morning to try and get five or 10 minutes, like Gaffigan and Judah. But mostly it was Stewart and Attell, Jeff Ross, Kevin Brennan, Quinn.
I didn’t know Judah Friedlander had been around that long. I wasn’t cognizant of him before 30 Rock, but I really enjoyed his crowd work when he was at the Vegas Comedy Cellar a few months ago. That’s something that you specialize in as well.
It’s funny because that what I used to do back in the day at the Cellar but I hadn’t been doing it that much recently. It took me a little while to even get that back on my feet again here, doing the crowd work. Now, the show’s here are so successful that the same people are coming back. Sometimes we get people twice in a week to see the show. That’s why I rely on more crowd work and stuff like that too, so they don’t have to get bored (between comedians’ sets).
You’re good at it. You naturally keep the spirit up and the flow going. Continuity.
Thanks, I appreciate that. Sometimes I’ll even say onstage “Hey, I’ve got my fake energy going,” because sometimes it’s hard to do. That audiences here at the Cellar, and I’ve worked in Vegas for years, seem more educated comedically. They know what to do.
That’s because pot is legal here now.
(laughs) Maybe. We’re on the same level now. … Have you been to the Comedy Cellar in New York?
No, we moved away from New York when I was 9. I only know of it by reputation as a pre-eminent comedy club.
I did the Rat Pack show at the Sahara for years, the one that David Cassidy produced. I also did it at the Rio, and I didn’t know how it would work, the Comedy Cellar here, and I was really amazed by how much power it had, or draw. I started out there. To me it’s like home. Friends from then that are famous now, they’re not famous to me and the club is just another club to me because it’s my home. But it’s really amazing to me that audiences do know the club and respect it.
I think you essential being a resident emcee rather than a scheduled (like a comedian) emcee probably contributes to the success of it working.
Thank you. I hope the tape recorder’s still going. (laughs) Also, I think the structure of the show makes a difference because if you go to the other clubs, and they’re fine clubs, but if you don’t like the last guy that’s doing 45 minutes, you’re stuck with somebody for 45 minutes, you know? Here’s if they’re doing 45 minutes and you don’t like one guy, you’re probably going to like the next guy.
How did you get involved with the Vegas Cellar?
Dan Naturman, who’s a great comedian here this week, he mentioned early on that they were opening up. He knew I had a daughter here and had roots here, and he told me they were thinking of opening one. So I called up (Comedy Cellar owner) Noam Dworman and said, “If you’re looking for someone here who can keep track of things and emcee until you get started. …” He said, “Oh, great.” So that’s basically how it worked out. Luckily it’s what I did for them back in the day too, for his father when his father owned it. And I’m not a New Yorker but I do think I have that New York comedy quality. Maybe it’s my Jewishness or the quickness of my act, but I think that brings a New Yorkness to Vegas.
What East Coast area were you born in?
Oh, ok. New York, Boston. Same thing, little different accent.
It’s funny though, I never really went to Boston and I started doing stand-up in New York. I went to Boston afterwards. Actually, one of my first gigs in Boston was with Jon Stewart and Sarah.
The dad in The Sarah Silverman Show was one of your bigger roles.
Yeah, I would say that’s true. I just did warm-up for her show a week or so ago.
Was she here?
No, she does a Hulu show (I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman). I did it a lot last year but I couldn’t do it this year because of the schedule. I did take a couple of nights off from The Cellar to do warm-up for her.
Did you have to learn to crochet for that part?
No! (laughs) They added that because I do like crochet. I actually made some shorts with Larry Bird’s name on it.
In one of the episodes I’m stalking Larry Bird or something like that, so I crocheted shorts that said “Larry Bird” on them.
Sarah Silverman said you “crochet like a mofo.”
Yeah, because I really do so they put it into the show.
So you are, legit, “the crocheting comedian.”
Yes, actually when I was doing the Rat Pack show at the Sahara they put me up in a suite on the top floor and I was going crazy, so I started doing it then.
Who did you play in The Rat Pack?
I played Sammy.
Oh, ok. Really? How’d that work?
(laughs) No, I didn’t. I played Joey Bishop. That’s a little closer to home.
Before Sarah Silverman there was Funny People and Punching the Clown. You had a cameo in Funny People, right?
Yeah, it’s funny because they picked like four or five of us comedians to come down and do stand up in the club and they didn’t use any of it from anybody, but I had one line with Seth (Rogan). I say, “Hey Seth, you’ve got five minutes.” So it’s just one line, but I knew I was going to make it in because I was the only one with a line.
Why should people watch Punching the Clown?
Oh, that’s a good movie. People don’t know it but it really is a great movie. I had a small, little part in it, but it’s just a well-documented comedy about being on the road and stuff like that. Funny songs.
Is it a mockumentary or a straight-up documentary?
It’s a movie, but it’s a fake movie. It’s a mockumentary. It’s based on this guy Henry Phillips. Do you know Henry?
No, I don’t. I saw Sarah, you and him in a video from 1999 singing a song called “Walk in the Woods.” Was that about trying to make the most vulgar song possible?
Yeah, pretty much. There was a movie called Totally Baked, and me and Henry wrote the theme to that. They recorded us doing stand up and put it in the movie, so Henry and I recorded it ourselves. I wouldn’t say they ripped us off, but they ripped us off.