by Michael Primavera
Brett Hamil is a comedian based in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. He performs standup comedy all over the U.S. and Canada, writes a regular humor column for City Arts magazine, does a monthly video commentary on city politics for the Emerald, and hosts his own talk show focused on local politics, The Seattle Process. Brett was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss his career in comedy.
What horrible thing happened in your youth to make you want to pursue a career in comedy?
Nothing horrible, which is nice to think about. Nothing really traumatic. Well, my father was a preacher, so that kind of puts you in some weird positions as a kid because everyone in the church looks up to your father as the representative of God on Earth, and you’re just some kid who can’t possibly live up to that. I think that gave me sort of a subversive streak. You’ll hear that about a lot of preachers’ kids. I think that’s what set me on the path to being sort of a leftist, anti-authoritarian person.
You write, you perform live, and you make videos. Which do you prefer?
That’s tough… I think writing is just brutal, and not fun. The end result is great, but it’s like they say, “Everyone wants to have written, but no one wants to write.” That’s pretty accurate. I do it because I HAVE to, and I have a deadline or something. Performing is the best because you just go up there and you get to be you and try new things out and there’s no technical limitations.
But I also like doing videos. I like sitting there and editing, and making all of those thousands of creative choices that go into making the final project. That’s just like work. You’re going to be sitting there for a long time, and to the outside world it’s going to look really boring, but you’re actually making fun creative choices the whole time. So I’d say the two are in a tie, but standup is a little easier.
You recently released your first standup comedy album, Grower. Do you plan on releasing more albums in the future, or will you be focusing more on your other projects?
I would definitely like to do a follow up album, but I think that’s in the span of years because it took me a long time to gather all of the material that I had on this first album. After I recorded I’ve been trying to do all new material and turn over a new 45 minutes, so when that comes along I’ll definitely do a new album. Although next time I’d like it to be a little bit more of a concept album. I’d like to add some sketches and stuff in there.
I’m probably about halfway to a new album’s worth of stuff. When you make an album you’re actually burying that material, because you feel stupid if people come to see you and you’re doing the same jokes they’ve already heard.
What advice would you give a young person thinking about pursuing a career in comedy?
I was just thinking about this the other day. I would say if I had to do it over again, I would have tried to be weirder and more experimental, and just tried more things starting out. Because a lot of those things aren’t going to end up being your act, but I think if you start out swinging for the fences, trying to do something original and different that no one’s ever seen before, you’re more likely to be on the right path than if you just try to replicate your idea of what good standup is. Because then you pick up little tics of other people. You pick up the “alt comedy” cadence.
I would say figure out what’s unique about you and really hammer that, because that’s not reproducible. That’s something that only you can bring to the table. Also, always respect the audience. You see a lot of younger comics saying “this crowd is dumb” or “they don’t get my smart jokes.” Your job is to make them laugh, so I find a disdain for the audience distasteful. It’s always your fault in comedy. I don’t care if they’re drunk out of their minds and rowdy, you still had a chance to get them on board and win them over.
You also have a politically charged talk show called The Seattle Process. Have you always had an interest in politics?
I’ve always followed politics, in my adult life at least. For the last 10 or 15 years I’ve followed politics fairly closely, but I didn’t start following local politics until the past few years. And the number one reason why is that Kshama Sawant is in the equation. The way local politics are set up, it’s there to bore you and obfuscate to the point where you’re just like “You know what I don’t know what’s going on so this sucks.”
The establishment class of Seattle politicians thrive on people being disinterested and apathetic. That’s how they build their political careers. All the dirt they do is in committee meetings. You never see a vote like: “Should we kill all puppies?” It’s always like, “Let’s craft an amendment to have a study, that will take 3 years, to determine if…” and people just get lost in the minutia of how exactly it works. But when Kshama came along she started making bold moves, and it was inspiring seeing someone reflecting my values and not buying into the system, but still being successful. That’s the crazy thing. If she was just some outlying socialist on the council who didn’t get anything done, it would still be awesome, but it wouldn’t be as energizing. So I always credit her as the reason I got more into local politics.
Seattle is obviously growing at an accelerated rate. What are some things we can do to keep from ending up like San Francisco?
I mean, I hate to think that anything we could’ve done was decided 5 years ago, and we’re just now seeing the results. That’s how it always is. All the real decisions about what’s to be built were decided 5 years ago in some committee meeting that none of us were privy to. But the obvious things we can do are just tax the heck out of the rich, and the developers. We need more revenue to be able to house the homeless. We’ve got the most regressive tax code in the nation here in Washington, and here in Seattle they only have the authority to tax so much. It becomes a very big messy question.
We have to get the legislature back from the Republicans, who are hell-bent on gutting and destroying the state. So how do you do that? I don’t know if I have the answers, and really I don’t think the politicians do either. I think basically taxing the heck out of the rich is about as solid an answer as there is. We’re the 4th wealthiest city in the US and we have the 4th highest homeless population. And that’s not a quirk, that’s by design.
It’s a mess. Really it comes down to resistance in shutting things down, and being implacable. Every one of these little compromises even the most liberal council members make add up to these bigger compromises and it gets ugly. Developers run this town, and our politicians know it. So turning that around, I guess would be a good first step.
As a resident yourself, what are some positive changes you see happening in the South Seattle area?
The light rail is huge. You get on that thing and you can take it south, you can take it downtown, and pretty soon you can take it to Capitol Hill. Every time I walk into one of those stations I feel like I’m in a real city. We’re not a 3rd tier city anymore. I’m never more proud to be in Seattle than when I’m riding the light rail, so that’s got to be number one.
In terms of the South End, since I’ve moved here I’ve tried to keep things as funky and hyper-local as I can. Like going to the mom-and-pop coffee shop, or when I make my videos I try to use South End artists for my background music. And that’s what I love about the Emerald, it’s very South End-centric, and it shines a light on this huge cultural scene down here that I never saw when I was living on Capitol Hill. There’s so much here, I really have no need to go north of the International District. This feels like a whole different city from that perspective.
Brett’s album Grower is out today, February 12.
You can also find more info about him and what he has going on at his website: bretthamil.com, or you can follow him at @BrettHamil on Twitter. The next episode of his talk show The Seattle Process will be at the Northwest Film Forum on February 25.
Featured Image by Amani Taylor