Funnybone Emcee Sean O'Brien And His Incredible Norm Macdonald Story

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Sean O'Brien is, in some ways, the clown ambassador for St. Louis - IMAGE VIA
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  • Sean O'Brien is, in some ways, the clown ambassador for St. Louis
Comic Sean O'Brien is a big, burly, fast-talking loudmouth -- and he must be, for in his post as emcee at The Funnbyone in Westport, he's the cheerleader, clown ambassador and authority figure for the club, and in a sense, for the entire local scene. We caught up with him last week.

Daily RFT: One of your tasks as emcee is to chauffeur around celebrity standups when they come into town.  Got any good stories?

Sean O'Brien: I always tell people this one. I don't know how well you know Norm Macdonald. But whatever protocol is, he goes against that. 

So we're at KTVI Fox 2. It's Friday morning.  There was this bubbly kid - I think it was Tim Ezell. And this was live.

So this kid's like, 'So Norm, how's Los Angeles?'

And Norm goes, 'What? I'm in St. Louis. I don't know.'

And you can see this kid just come unglued.

He says like 'Alright, well, you were a Saturday Night Live news anchor, what was that like?'

And Norm goes, 'Uh, I don't know. I don't do that anymore.'

Norm Macdonald - IMAGE VIA
So the kid goes, 'Allright, well you're going to be at the Funnybone--' and Norm interrupts him: 'Hey. You ever go hitchhiking?'

And the kid, completely caught off guard, says, 'Uh, no.'

And Norm says, 'I went hitchhiking once. It was in the fifties in Iowa. I was at a party and I left. And I walked to the side of the road and stuck my thumb out and a guy pulled over. And you know what we call those type of guys? Secretly gay.'

And then it was like, 'ALLRIGHT we're gonna cut to commercial!' Papers are flying. I'm getting screamed at by some production lady. I'm like, 'Hey I'm just the driver! Don't get in my face!'

And Norm looks over at me, with that smile, and he goes, 'That was good, wasn't it.'

I recently learned that an emcee is low in the comedy hierarchy, but to the audience, the emcee seems like a huge deal.

You're the first face they see. Half of those people have never been to a comedy show. So they don't know what's going on, they don't know when to laugh.  And I just try to grab their attention immediately.

I just try to sell it with excitement -- enthusiastic, but not over the top. You just gotta let people know they made a good purchase decision. You gotta get wound up with them.

And that's just my personality. There are other guys who can write the shit out of a joke better than me, but they just don't have that cadence and presence.

Well you're a big guy, and the way you get up there and dismantle the mic stand and 'own the stage,' as they say -- unlike others before you that particular night, there was no question who was in charge.

The late Greg Giraldo - IMAGE VIA
Well yeah, 'Own the stage' -- the late Greg Giraldo told me those words verbatim. I did a guest spot on one of his shows. He said, 'You gotta go up there and - don't be cocky - but act like you're the most confident person, and they came to see you.'

And I really took that to heart. Even if the material's not that solid, I just go up there like, 'I have this under control, and if this doesn't work, it's on you.'

You're originally from Rochester; how'd you get to St. Louis?

My mom's side is from out here. And I was 26, I went through a bad break-up. (Not that any of them are ever good.) And the thing about Rochester is that no one stays. Everyone at least leaves for three or four years.

So after this break-up, everyone's like, 'Man, you gotta get the hell out.' So I did. I literally just got in my car on January 1, 2006 at 5 p.m. and I drove out to Chesterfield to stay with my uncle. 

Back home I'd sold cars and vacuum cleaners -- 

Wait - you sold cars?

Yeah, for four years. A decent amount of my act is stories from those days, because people have no idea how vicious and how full of shit these guys are. I'm not kidding.

Our job is to give you the perception that you're getting a deal, even though you're not. It was all about gross and money. It was insane. And I actually made $70,000 at 23 years old, but I couldn't sleep at night. Just because you were ruining people's lives.

It was so cut-throat. Especially there in upstate New York, it's a real grisly part of town. Everybody's always a sass-talking smartmouth. You really got to be on your toes.

So how did you start doing comedy in St. Louis? 

I did real-estate for about eight months until the market hit the bricks, around late 2007. Then I also got a job at Cheesecake Factory out in Chesterfield, and after work we would all go to Houlihan's.

St. Louis comic Keith Cissel
  • St. Louis comic Keith Cissel
One night I was just telling a story about how I got screwed in an oil change at Jiffy Lube. And the bartender said, 'I don't know you, but I do comedy at the Funnybone, and that's something I would tell on stage." And that bartender was [St. Louis comedian] Keith Cissel.

So we just hit it off as buddies. So he'd start bringing me to shows and say, 'Sean you gotta try this man,' and I'd say, 'No way,' because I was petrified of speaking in front of people.

Then on May 20, 2008, he said, 'You're going up there ninth.' So I went up there, shaking like a leaf. And I brought friends, you know, it went pretty well.

But the second time I went, I did not bring friends, the audience was not told it was my first time, and I just bombed. To the point I said, 'Fuck this I'm not doing this ever again.'  I didn't back on stage until the end of August, just to get out of my own head. 

Maybe that explains why, when you're running the Funnybone open-mics, you're really gracious with those guys.

One, I really don't see the value in being an asshole to people. Two, I'm just like them in a way. I'm a bit more of an experienced emcee. But I'nm not light-years ahead of them.

I know what it feels like to just want to get on stage. And a lot of these guys are pretty good guys.

Some come in with egos and they're delusional, like 'Oh I went up last week and I killed!' No, you didn't. You got laughs for 30 seconds. You think it sounded like you knocked it out of the Apollo. No, you didn't. Some of them, they're just not realistic.

Most guys are pretty in check, but some of these guys, you have to say, 'Man you're just not ready.' Honestly it's just lack of stage time.

Everyone always says, 'What are the secrets, what are the tricks?'

You just gotta figure it out for yourself, man. There's the microphone, there's the stage: Be funny.

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