How do you become the godfather of punk rock comedy? Ask the man himself, JT Habersaat, and you’ll find it’s got everything to do with punk rock values. Connecting with your audience comes before cash. Inclusiveness and honesty are key. Conformity is meaningless. Build your platform to the specifications of your own unique vision. Work tirelessly for as long as it takes.
Turns out, punk rock ethics look a lot like comedy ethics. As the first to see that nexus, JT has built a life of unique milestones.
He began his career in New York as a marketer and then as a D.J. While in New York, he and his wife Donna founded Altercation Magazine. The magazine’s archives, later published as a book, contain his interviews with alt-rock royalty including Henry Rollins, Joan Jett, Sleater-Kinney, Weird Al Yankovic, Billy Idol and The Flaming Lips.
Later the couple moved to Austin, Texas where they currently live. JT began his stand-up career there performing in punk rock venues from basements to theaters. His following grew and in 2008, he created the Altercation Punk Comedy Tour which just celebrated its ninth successful year.
He is a regular accompanying act for punk rock festivals and bands and even rarer, he has shared the stage with Henry Rollins at the request of the Black Flag front man himself. He has also appeared with Doug Stanhope, Janeane Garofalo, Brian Posehn, Andy Dick, Joe Sib and Kyle Kinane.
His new album Misanthrope was released this summer on the Stand Up! Records label and shot to the number two spot on iTunes. His comedy continues to reflect the uncompromising honesty of punk rock. He connects with his audience with punk rock and pop references, but you don’t need to know any of them to feel a kinship.
Mainly, in the best traditions of punk rock and comedy, he calls out inanity and convention. He’s that friend who phrases what’s ailing you in a way that’s cathartic and refreshing and hilarious. In sincerely thanking the audience for being there, he adds “I hate the fucking ‘give yourself a round of applause.’” Yeah, so do I!
In one of many memorable stories on Misanthrope, he recounts the time he had skin cancer and was forced to endure for “five to seven business days” before learning his fate. To cheer himself up he devised a plan which, had the news been bad, would have been the most therapeutic exit from this earth in the history of humankind. Fortunately for comedy fans, the news was good, but we still get to experience it with him as his material and delivery bring you right into every moment he’s describing.
JT will be at the WIP Theater on February 2, 2017. In the meantime, we’ve got Misanthrope which has the laughs you’ll need to get through these next cold months.
JT kindly spoke with me by phone (as he headed off for shows in Anchorage!) about founding the punk rock comedy movement, defining your own expectations and hanging with Henry Rollins.
Teme: What does JT stand for?
JT: No one’s ever asked me that! It’s kind of a weird story. My first name is Justin. My brother and I have middle initials, not middle names. When I was young, my dad would occasionally call me JT, so he was the first to call me that. Then in college I started doing radio and putting on punk shows and I went by “JT” on the air.
Some of my closest friends to this day know me as JT. There are some people I’ve known for 20 years who don’t know my name is actually Justin.
When I started doing stand-up, I thought, people know me as JT already and the other part was I liked the concept of having a moniker on stage, kind of like an Iggy Pop thing. But when I’m home and around my family, I’m definitely Justin.
Teme: How did you go from DJ’ing to creating Altercation Magazine to comedy?
JT: I grew up in upstate New York in the woods, so we didn’t have much TV, but we went down to the Jersey Shore for vacation when I was ten and the hotel we stayed in had HBO. It happened to be the night of a George Carlin special. He blew me away with what stand-up could be.
When I was sixteen I did stand-up in New York … well, I did not do stand-up, I got on stage in New York City when I was sixteen at a comedy club. Like a five-minute thing. In college I had a “Kids In The Hall”-style sketch group. We did zany sketches and I would occasionally do super quick stand-up to open the shows, but after that I didn’t do comedy again until I was thirty-three.
In between, I was doing radio, promoting a lot of shows, and my wife and I were running Altercation Magazine. We decided we wanted a change of pace, so we decided to move to Austin, Texas. Suddenly, I found myself in a city where I knew no one, with no responsibilities or job and it was kind of like a clean slate.
One day in 2007, some friends came across some old sets of mine that I recorded in college just for fun. They listened and said, “These are really good!” I’m like, “No, they’re not!” But they were encouraging enough that I thought, “Maybe I’ll try stand-up for real this time.” It had probably been ten years since I had actually attempted it.
It spiraled up pretty quick once I really started trying to be a comic and focusing on the writing and the performance end of things.
In 2008 I put together the first Altercation Comedy Tour and started touring with a bunch of comics I liked. The tour went from a Ramones’ mentality of wanting a group of four or five to me going solo. It got to the point where people booking were saying, “Well, bring whoever you’re bringing, but we want to make sure you’re there.” I’m like, “Well, yeah, I’m going to be there!” It evolved into what it is today, which is me and usually I bring a comic I like as a feature.
When I first started it was a tougher sell performing comedy at rock venues. We were performing in clubs and at small burlesque shows. The concept of going to a rock venue for comedy instead of a comedy club was a weird idea. Now punk and indie fans will come to a comedy club to see me and I’m also more inclined to perform in more traditional settings as long as there’s not some weird stipulation as far as topics I can hit.
Teme: What should people know about the connection between punk rock and comedy? It seems both have a commitment to truth-telling and a refusal to pander.
JT: Yeah, I think you pretty much nailed it. The honesty and definitely the work ethic. I’ve been averaging 120 to 130 shows a year for the last two years and that’s straight from the book of Black Flag. I just finished putting on a three-day comedy festival and it averaged out to eight dollars per day if you bought the festival pass. I never want to put a profit thing, a money grab, over a quality show. The material, the work and the experience for everybody involved is way more important than how much money I’m going to make. Not that money doesn’t matter because it matters to everybody, but it’s not my main motivator.
Teme: How would you describe your main motivator?
JT: My main motivator is building something. It’s building an organic fan base. It’s taken up until about a year and a half ago for things to really start popping and to seeing people coming out again and again and in larger numbers. It’s still not where I want it to be, but it’s getting there.
I get a lot of younger comics coming up to me, saying, “How do I get to what you’re doing, because you have such a cool audience?” I say, “Yeah, you’ve got to grind it out for 8 years.” That’s the truth of it.
A few other things I say, like “be nice.” I see a lot of comics hide in the green room and don’t want to talk to people. I understand a lot of comics are in their own head and I can be as well, but it’s part of the job to go out. To be at the merch booth immediately after the show to say “hi” to people, or to watch the opening acts and not be hidden in the green room. All those things really matter. They’re easy to overlook, you know? Also, having a good time but not turning into the drunken buffoon guy who acts like it’s their first green room!
Teme: Was there a moment when you knew that the music and the comedy were a good match?
JT: There were a few moments. There have also been moments where I’ve equally felt, “Jesus, this doesn’t work.”
I love music and comedy equally, but sometimes you just want to rock out and sometimes you want to go and laugh. When you’re there for both, those different head spaces sometimes knock into each other.
I did a tour with Riverboat Gamblers and Off With Their Heads and Dead To Me where I was the only comic. That was one of the best ‘with bands’ experiences I’ve ever done. It was great every night. I think it worked because the comedy was like a sprinkling, kind of a neat stand-out bonus.
That was the view, as opposed to what happened with another band, which was, “Oh, God, I’m just here for the band. Why is this guy talking?”
Then there was opening for Henry Rollins. That was amazing to me. I had met Henry several times before that. We had done interviews [for Altercation], but not many comics get to work with him. It was at a big Van’s Warped Tour party. To have both the music industry and Henry himself both give the nod was a big milestone for me. But there are still times where it can be an odd mix. People are in one head space and not the other.
Teme: What was it like to be on stage with Henry?
JT: It was amazing. It was a Warped Tour party at Emo’s here in Austin, and it was Rollins, myself, and the band The Gallows from the UK who are awesome as well. I thought, “Henry will be in his trailer.” But he was right there watching me from the side of the stage the entire set. I was like, “Holy shit!” I was just super happy to be there because it was him and Carlin who were two of my earliest and biggest influences. He was like, “That was really cool!” We hung out and we even had the same heckler. It was wild.
There was this guy off his meds who was just screaming things out, and I had to address him and Rollins actually had to stop the show at one point and yell at him, so we were talking about that. Then he gave me a really nice quote for my press kit. He was just great overall.
Teme: That’s awesome.
JT: It was definitely trippy. I’ve had many moments like that where I was like, “Wow, 15-year-old me would be flipping out right now!” The first album I put out on Stand Up Records, [renowned album artist] Raymond Pettibon did the artwork. We’ve gotten to be kind of friends, which is insane to me! A lot of little moments like that had me looking around going, “This is real? Alright!”
Teme: I spent a lot of time in life trying to conform and not succeeding and not knowing there’s a better way. How did you know? I’m always interested in people who knew early on.
JT: What I do is definitely not for everyone and it’s a weird path. I totally get the security of having a job, especially when you like what you do. I don’t think there was ever a light bulb moment where I was like, “Well, I’m not going to be like that.” Ever since I was a teenager I was against the grain. I was never a big “middle-finger-in-the-air fuck-the-man” type guy, either, I was more, “I’m going this way. You guys can do whatever you want. That’s cool, but I’m going to go over here.”
I don’t think there was ever a specific point where I made a conscious decision. It’s just been trying to forge my own path by trusting my instincts.
Teme: That’s a great thing, to trust your instincts and have self-awareness about what works best.
JT: Yes, but it can be terrifying. The job I left was the most money I ever made in my adult life. But I was bored to death. I thought, I’m not getting any younger, and if I don’t try it then I’ll never know. The thought of not trying was scarier to me than trying and failing.
But I’d be lying if I said I thought, “Oh yeah, fuck this, I’m just going.” It was a lot of adult consideration, as far as responsibility and talking it over with my wife. I certainly wouldn’t cast any sort of judgement against people who say, “I’m just going to stick with this job and play on the weekends.”
Teme: How would you describe your new album for people who haven’t yet heard it, and what was your writing process?
JT: The title Misanthrope sums it up. The thread going through it is, as one of the early reviews said, “He’s taken the earlier punk angst and transformed it into a middle-aged viewing, as that age group, angst.”
I have a weird writing process. I get bursts of a concept or even a phrase or a topic usually when I’m driving around or trying to go to sleep and I can’t turn my brain off. I’ve learned to always keep a notebook by the bed and I’ll write those thoughts down and it will slowly work itself out into material.
I’ll bring new bits on the road with me and work them out on stage with proven material as opposed to going to an open mic and trying them. “I’m just doing 5 minutes of new stuff!” I don’t do that because I find when I’m in front of an actual paying crowd it forces me to sell the stuff I’m working on a little more.
We recorded and filmed Misanthrope at the end of last summer and it came out this summer. I was hammering it out over the 120 shows I did over the year. But any comic who says they’re 100% satisfied with their newest special is lying because there are bits in there that two weeks later I wrote a new tag to and it’s such a better bit now in my head. If you want to stay fluid with it, nothing’s ever going to be the pinnacle of what you want, but overall I’m happy with it.
Teme: How would you say time influences your comedy and view of life?
JT: I’m one of those weirdos who enjoyed their thirties more than their twenties. I was more comfortable in my skin. I was less angsty. I was never a hothead, but I was kind of a simmering, brooding kid. In your twenties you’re still figuring out what you want to do and who you are, so there’s a lot more internal strife. I just turned forty so I’m trying to wrap my head around what that means, but I’m still doing what I want to do so I’m okay with it.
I feel my comedy is better now than it was when I started because my perspective is broader. When I started, my comedy was aimed at a specific demographic. Now you have people my parents’ age or people down the block who have never heard of The Misfits go into a show and they’ll enjoy it almost as much, if not equally to somebody with a Mohawk. The cool thing about comedy is it’s one of the few art forms where it’s a bonus the more seasoned and older you get.
Teme: What is the most memorable thing that’s happened to you as a comedian?
JT: I did an Altercation showcase during South By Southwest and it was total bedlam. Hecklers started fighting and it spilled over onto the stage. I had to get on stage and stop this near full crowd-on-crowd fight which rolled over into the parking lot. It turned out that the owner of Stand Up! Records was in the crowd that night. He saw how I dealt with that level of insane shit and it peaked his interest, and that’s what ultimately got me a record deal. That was definitely a milestone.
Another was getting a phone call from Raymond Pettibon while driving through the desert and hearing him say, “I really like your comedy. Use whatever you want of my artwork for free.” Also, opening up for Doug Stanhope, and having him say, “You just fucking destroyed and made me nervous!” Stuff like that, you just kind of look around and go, “Huh!”
Also, getting on the cover of the Austin Chronicle which is like the Texas version of The Village Voice. That was historic to me. Not from an ego standpoint of “I’m the shit!” But I did a triple take and thought, “Whoa!”
Last week, I put on the Altercation Comedy Festival, which is a new three-day event. It was a big gamble financially and every way else, and the crowd showed up. People knew about it and trusted that it would be good, and that was super gratifying as the payoff for forging your own way.
Teme: What would you advise someone looking to do the same?
JT: It’s so individual. Do the best you can within the parameters of what works for you. I don’t think everybody should quit their job and do comedy or the band thing because it can eat you up if you’re not ready. But you’ve got to make it happen. If your passion is writing a book, write the fucking book! You’ve got to. That doesn’t mean quit your job and focus full time on the “Great American Novel,” but it means sometimes sacrificing sleep or weekend fun to chain yourself to the computer and hammer it out.
If you want something bad enough, you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice the other cool stuff, and it’s sometimes lifestyle affecting. Sometimes that doesn’t translate into things other people view as bonuses.
Your book may come out and fifty people buy it and that’s the end of that, but you can still say, “I wrote this book.” I had a lot more disposable income when I was doing marketing, but I’m way happier now.
Teme: You mentioned being ready. How do you know?
JT: If something is nagging you and you’re saying, “This is a good opportunity, but I’m scared to do it because I’ll have to leave my job” or whatever it is, I would say go for that opportunity. Don’t put safety over opportunity.
Even in times where it didn’t pan out — I’ve had things like pilots that were filmed for big TV channels that didn’t work out for whatever reason. A lot of times the reason is way outside of my control. But I never once was like, “Well, that was a waste of time.” I thought, “Well, that’s just another notch in the belt and a lesson, and off you go.”
Teme: My last question is: is there a question that you wish people would ask, but don’t?
JT: The question I wish they wouldn’t ask is, “So what’s so punk about your tour?” That question got to the point where I actually made it into a bit because I heard it so often.
One that I don’t get very often, although I don’t know if it’s something I wish people would ask me, but I’m curious why it’s not asked more, is can you teach ‘funny’? The short answer is that you can teach stage mechanics and sharpen writing, but funny is something you have or you don’t. It’s no different than somebody who can sing or play the drums or who’s a great actor. You can see the nugget in people as far as, “Oh, they’ve got the thing!”
Maybe they’re not there yet. They need a lot of skills and maybe these classes will help them hone those skills, but they’ve got the thing. Then you see other people that have been in the game grinding it out for a dozen years and you’re like, “Man, I’m not going to say anything, but you just don’t got the thing.”
It doesn’t make them a bad comic. They can be very functional and funny. They can have an act, but they’ve been doing the same forty minutes for fifteen years and it’s just, ugh. Creative death! Again though, whatever works for them. If they’re happy doing that, right on. I’ve learned to just keep my head down and concentrate on what I’m trying to do. “High five and good luck” is what I say to everybody and “I wish you well.”
Listen to JT’s podcast The Road here.
Visit http://jtcomedy.com/ for more about JT.
You can buy a copy of The Altercation Archives or read it on Kindle on Amazon.