by Pat Barker
Over the last year, nobody has made the jump from “complete unknown” to “main eventer” more quickly than Dan Nolan. Nolan burst out of the gates with thorough decimations of Rasheed Stephens, Dan Lewis-Fawcett, and Eric Carter before making the main event jump towards the end of 2015. In the short time since then, Nolan has already headlined four events. Tomorrow he will add to his rapidly growing resume when he clashes with Pat Barker (currently ranked #3 overall). Before he goes to war, Nolan sat down with verbalviolence.tv to take a deeply introspective look at what battling means to him, how he prepares for a battle, and why he ultimately wants to get in the ring with his mentor Tony Hinchcliffe.
Why do you battle?
I came to L.A. to start doing standup fresh out of rehab after spending years in and out of hospitals, jails, and even a psych ward, suffering through the pains of heroin addiction. I’d thrown away a good career in film and television, so there was very little left for me to lose. Doing standup, for me, has been about confronting self-doubt, and challenging what little fear of failure I have left. When I got challenged to my first Roast Battle two months into standup, I had only heard of the show, but I accepted immediately. I knew how popular it was, and it sounded like a great opportunity not only to showcase my joke writing but also to take ownership of all my shortcomings and imperfections. It’s incredibly empowering to just lay everything on the line and have faith in yourself that you’re strong enough to overcome whatever insecurities you have with just humor and wit.
What’s your favorite battle that you’ve ever been a part of and why?
I don’t think I’ve topped my first battle yet, at least not in terms of how it made me feel. I’d still only just started coming around the Store, so hardly anyone knew me. I was up against Rasheed Stephens, who’d just won a battle the week before. I was still wearing the creepy rapist-glasses I was issued in jail, the one pair of shredded up jeans I had to my name at the time and the shirt from a post office employee uniform I had bought at a thrift store a few days before. I had just moved from sharing a bunk bed in a room with 4 other dudes at a sober living house down by Florence and Normandie into a sketchy short-stay motel down by Pico and La Brea. I’d just started a minimum wage restaurant job, but I was still surviving financially by selling what was left of some software I’d stolen before I ended up going to rehab from the hospital and shoplifting my lunch from the Pavilions on Santa Monica and San Vicente.
When I got on stage, no one knew all that much about me. Moses brought me up as “a three-month comedy… Um… Veteran?” and to the audience, I probably seemed destined for total catastrophic failure. Mike Lawrence and Ralphie May laid into me with jokes about my ripped up jeans and the fact I was dating a black girl at the time. I wasn’t quick enough or bold enough to say anything back, so I just kept my mouth shut and took it. I’d never been in front of an audience that size, let alone one with the insane, intense energy of the Belly Room on a Tuesday late night.
Jeremiah Watkins introduced himself to me after the show. He told me he could see the fear in my eyes right up until I got my first joke out: “Rasheed’s a shitty comic with a Muslim name. The only agents who give him a second look work for the TSA”. He said he saw my expression change as soon as it landed. I just kinda relaxed and cracked a smile.
Every joke after that landed harder than the one before it. The audience came along with me and the energy just built and built. By the end, it was about as big a victory as you can get in an undercard. Moses didn’t even say my name, he just sighed deeply and put his hand over my head while the audience went crazy.
Describe your process of preparing for battle.
I write out my angles on a person and just list keywords. Sometimes sentences. Sometimes weird shit like "Tom Goss is a sweaty cartoon bear.” I also write out keywords for angles the opponent has on me: lazy eye, bad teeth, creepy looking, drug addict, ex-convict, etcetera. Then I see if they overlap and build jokes mostly off of wordplay.
I’ll listen to their standup or podcasts they’ve done, to learn as much as I can on my own so they don’t know exactly what to expect. But we also sit down and take notes on each other. That’s an important element that some people don’t understand when they come into the show. You have to be completely willing to put everything out there about yourself because the magic of the show happens when you take your weaknesses and turn them around on your opponent with a killer comeback.
I always run my jokes at mics and bring a picture of the person for the crowd to see because it’s rarely the case where the whole crowd knows your opponent. I record audio of each run and rank jokes on a scale of one to five by how they hit, then break them up by subject. Then I decide how to structure my battle to keep an even flow throughout, and try not to do too many of one kind of joke in each round. Though sometimes, when the low hanging fruit is also the juiciest, that’s impossible.
What is the greatest joke anyone has used against you?
“Dan looks like the world’s youngest Vietnam vet.”
What is the most underappreciated joke you’ve ever told? One that didn’t work nearly as well as you expected.
“Alex [Duong] spends a lot of time on his hair. He’s so vain, I wanna put a needle in him.”
I knew it wouldn’t land like I wanted it to. I just wanted to do it for me.
You decide to retire, but not before doing three more battles. Who are the opponents?
1) Alex Hooper because he’s the reigning champ and just an incredible writer and performer.
2) Tony Hinchcliffe because he’s someone I’ve looked up to and respected since I started at the Store. He’s an all-around talent who knows how to be mean and clever at the same time. At times he’s too quick on his feet for anyone to keep up with. I’ve been on his Kill Tony podcast a few times and always had a great experience. Tony’s like an absentee mentor to me. Once in a while, he gives me great advice and encouragement and then a few weeks go by and he stops making eye contact altogether.
3) Omid Singh. Omid would almost definitely demolish me. He’s terrifyingly hard to go against because his jokes are so abstract and goofy. There’s no writing comebacks to his jokes. They come too far out of left field. But some day I’d love to hear what he’d have for me.
Should anything be off-limits in the Roast Battle?