“This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” Tom Shillue says of his “12 in 12” project. “Of course,” he adds, “it’s ruining my family.”
Shillue exaggerates about the latter. Not that releasing one album of new material a month from November 2012 to October 2013 is a sane feat, especially when interspersed with a weekly podcast (Funny Story), two 20-city tours with Jim Gaffigan over the past year, and regular NYC shows at both mainstream clubs and alternative outliers like Brooklyn Brewery. Between the time crunch and the sheer breadth of material required, no comic has ever attempted anything like this. “Time is my enemy, but I have to admit it is also my friend,” he acknowledges. “Without the deadlines, I wouldn’t produce.”
Fortunately for fans of confessional storytelling—of which he is widely considered a local progenitor—Shillue thrives under the gun. This week’s release of Trust Your Heart marks the “12 in 12” halfway point. Like its six predecessors, the 30-minute recording delves into the comic’s personal missteps, triumphs and epiphanies with an optimistic undercurrent. Previous topics included family vacations, bullying, and his predilections for Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings and The Six Million Dollar Man. Heart’s two tracks, “Don’t Trust Your Eyes” and “Don’t Trust Your Ears,” coalesce into one long-form tale of lost love, lapsed friendships and the passage of time, framed by the recent Boston Marathon bombing. (Originally from Norwood, Massachusetts, Shillue attended Emerson College.) The carefree summer high jinks of the characters who once comprised Shillue’s entire world—magicians, yoga girls and members of his barbershop quartet—feel particularly bittersweet in light of recent events.
Combining an early love of Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart, Shillue began performing spoken word in junior high, expanding his college repertoire to include theater and singing. Though the 20-year NYC vet spent the mid-’90s slugging it out in the city’s traditional rooms, he later began frequenting more experimental venues like Luna Lounge and Moonwork before “dragging stories kicking and screaming back into the comedy clubs in the 2000s.” Since then, of course, there’s been a narrative uptick, evidenced by the popularity of the Moth, as well as shows like Mortified and RISK!—all of which Shillue has been a part.
Shillue keeps his sets long and loose, “like Phish,” he says, recording each of them. When he feels he has nailed a particular monologue, he moves on to the next. If one doesn’t work out, the production deadlines of “12 in 12” force him to figure out something that does. Shillue groups separate stories to make a larger point and edits them on his Mac into the wee hours before sending them to his distributor. “The beauty is, whether it’s ready or not, it’s gotta go,” he shrugs. “Perfection is overrated.”
The final products will be of interest to comedy nerds precisely because of their imperfection. Louis CK’s annual releases aside, the majority of performers take years to shape material into albumworthy sets, then spend another few painstaking months on editing, art and promotion. The “12 in 12” gambit puts listeners squarely in the moment. Shillue captures not only the raw show experience, but the very essence of being a New York comedian: the distractions, the determination, the mad dashes between shows, the fidgety uncertainty that anything’s ever good enough.
Though he’s got another six months until he can start something new, Shillue is already adamant about making it equally epic in scope. “Big projects [are] the only way to go,” he enthuses. “I’m going to pick something outside of my comfort zone and dare myself to accomplish it.” Whatever it turns out to be, at the very least he’ll get some good stories out of it.
The first six parts of Tom Shillue’s “12 in 12” project are available on iTunes and tomshillue.com. See him at Comedy as a Second Language Thu 23.