Sam Zee is a writer, performer, and comedian in New York City. In his autobiographical one-man show, Karaoke Boy, he revisits his past life as a New York City karaoke prodigy; he describes the show as “like VH1 Storytellers featuring Weird Al… like Hedwig and the Angry Inch on This American Life… like the Capitol Steps moved to the woods to become a psychedelic sex cult.” Zee will perform Karaoke Boy at the end of the 6:15 p.m. EST show block on Saturday, December 12 at the 2020 Very Normal Festival. In this spotlight interview, Zee talks about his journey from standup to solo performance, his real-life go-to karaoke songs, and why impermanence is a defining part of the New York City experience.
We’re so happy to have you with us this year, Sam! Can you tell us a bit about your show, Karaoke Boy? What can viewers expect?
If you like cabaret, stand-up comedy, or Weird Al Yankovic, this is your show. If you miss karaoke as much as I do, this is your show. I promise sparkles and jokes, stories and song parodies. It’s the result of too much RuPaul’s Drag Race and too much TV as a kid.
This is your second autobiographical one-man show, right? (Your first, Trust Fund Baby, debuted at the PIT in NYC last year.) What draws you to narrative solo work? Does it scratch a different itch than standup, or am I making an artificial distinction here?
I will always love standup, but after doing six years of it in New York, all I had was one really solid joke. What I did have were all of these stories, some of them funny, some of them just weird and interesting, and by stringing them together I had about an hour of material. I was afraid it wouldn’t be funny, but I was surprised that by performing it over and over, I found ways, new ways, to joke. I also gave myself patience to not joke if I didn’t want to.
2019 showed us a lot of crossover standup in the mainstream: Mike Birbiglia on Broadway, Hannah Gadsby on Netflix. 2020 has forced us all to break down all distinctions between genres. Everything is TV now.
What are your real-life go-to karaoke songs? What makes for a good karaoke choice… and what makes for a bad one?
I take karaoke very seriously. I usually start with a crowd-pleaser, like “Dancing in the Dark.” Something to get the blood flowing and establish my good taste. Next, I might put in something to show range, like “Zombie” or “Say It Ain’t So.” I also have a number of risky songs in my repertoire that (depending on the crowd) will totally kill. My tour de force, though … well, you’ll have to see the show to catch that.
We know you from our Brooklyn pop-up space Countdown Theater, where you were (and hopefully will again be) a regular performer. Excluding Countdown, what are — or were, I guess, given that live performance in NYC isn’t really a thing right now — some of your favorite performance spaces in NYC, and why?
It’s terribly sad to admit this, but most of my favorite places are closed. Even before the coronavirus. Living and performing in New York has prepared me for the heartbreak we’re facing now. Nothing is forever. You build a community and it energizes you, and you show up next day and there’s a lock on the door from the fire department.
I should be more positive, I guess. I’m thrilled to know Branded Saloon and Pete’s Candy Store are still around (two places where I workshopped Trust Fund Baby). And of course I want Countdown Theater to come back. One of the things I loved so much about that idea was that it really understands the New York experience. You all built a space that doesn’t last by design. That’s some punk rock realism.
He’s just like his standup: always entertaining, never predictable. We haven’t lived together in a few months (for obvious reasons), but that web series came at exactly the right time. One of my favorite people to work with.
Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal would you say your show is, and why?
I told a Hinge date about this show and she was like, “Wow, that’s pretty innovative,” and we never saw each other again, which feels pretty normal. I’m going for the full 10.