North grad building buzz on comedy scene

SPRINGFIELD — Robert Buscemi readily cops to being unusual.

It would seem that no matter how many other comedians are on a bill, he’s almost always the kookiest.

“I do not have ordinary material. I do not have a traditional stand-up set in my back pocket,” Buscemi confessed recently. “It’s all or nothing. You’re either in or you’re out. I’m a hipster. I’m an alternative comic.

“That has its burdens, and that has its rewards.”

So what is it that gives this Springfield native — a comic who feels he’s on the brink of something big — a persona unlike anybody else?

He’s too understated to be on Benzedrine like the hipster comics of yore; too dorky to take the stage like a man’s man with a glass of scotch.

He’s actually just really well-educated.

With an advanced degree in English lit from Indiana University, the son of a Wittenberg University professor, who once wanted to be a college professor himself, now plays the part of the smartest guy in the room.

Buscemi knows more than you.

He gets more women than you. (He makes it sound that way, anyway.)

He certainly has a bigger vocabulary than you.

But as it turns out, comedy and a master’s degree mix about as well as comedy and cocaine.

It’s an awesome combination — only instead of potentially setting himself on fire like Richard Pryor, Buscemi could go teach at a junior college.

“If anybody here hasn’t seen me before, just hang in there,” he tells a crowd just minutes into “Palpable,” his first comedy album. “I liken watching me for the first time to, remember the first time you ate sushi? Remember how strange and oddly sexual that was? Or the first time you wore a thong.

“You develop a craving.”

Buscemi relocated to Santa Monica, Calif., from Chicago little more than one year ago — right around the time he was named best stand-up comedian of 2009 by the Chicago Reader.

Call him a fast learner.

Then again, you already knew that. He has a master’s.

He’s only been a stand-up since 2002, when he started doing five-minute sets on Mondays at an open-mic night in Chicago alongside the likes of Hannibal Buress, T.J. Miller and Kumail Nanjiani — all now rising stars in comedy.

He showed up every single Monday, regardless of whether he’d bombed the Monday before.

“I counted sets like ticks on a prison-room wall,” Buscemi said. “I knew it was one step closer to where I wanted to go.”

Now he’s in Los Angeles to further his acting career, and just one year after being named Chicago’s best comic, he’s already asking that his age be withheld from stories like this.

“I’m just one more step in any of several directions,” he said.

No Plan B

A 1987 graduate of North High — and unless he flunked kindergarten an unspecified number of times, that should be all you need to figure out his age — Buscemi claims to be “nervous and confused like everyone else” in real life.

“I’m just waiting for the next time I can get on stage,” he said.

There, he’s happiest.

“You could say I’m playing a character,” he explained. “But it’s me. It’s an amalgam of the two. It’s who I really want to be.”

On stage, he plays the role of a pompous dweeb who sees himself as the smartest and coolest guy around in spite of his own awkwardness.

“He’s lost in his own dream,” Buscemi said.

Buscemi gets away with it because this character, this amalgam, is likeable.

Like Barney Fife, you actually kinda feel sorry for him.

“I’ve learned to make fun of myself first,” Buscemi said. “I recognize I’m an inconsequential jackass.”

His all-time favorite comedian remains Steve Martin, and he’s also clearly influenced by the cerebral style of Steven Wright and Bob Newhart.

“If people are talking,” he said, “they’re not going to get it. It’s a whole ride I’m taking them on.”

And when they don’t get it, Buscemi is able to sum it up with a single word.


But released this past spring, his first album leaves a good first impression of a comic who has strangely serious appeal.

“I love the game of chess,” he says on the album. “It hasn’t changed in thousands of years, so theoretically, I could’ve sat across a chess table from Jesus of Nazareth and played him at chess.

“I always like to think I could’ve taken him, ’cause he’d be so preoccupied thinking about how much he hates liberalism and feminism and the homosexual agenda that I’d smokehouse him with a classic Prague phalanx.”

The Chicago Tribune has called him “Andy Kaufmanesque.”

It’s hereditary.

“My mother is very, very unusual and strange as a person,” Buscemi said. “People never quite know how to take her at first. Always very dry and wry. My sense of humor was always like that.”

Not surprisingly, he was a class clown at North.

“I got in my share of trouble,” he said. “I just had a mouth. Not mean-spirited as such. I just had a response to everything.

“It was my identity. That’s the one thing I could do — I could be a smart-ass.”

He got into theater his senior year at Miami University.

“I knew I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t try stand-up,” he said. “I ran out of excuses.”

He said there is no plan B.

“I’ve got enough desperation and toughness to keep at it,” Buscemi said.

And if nothing else, it sometimes pays to be the oddball.

“I have an unusual style,” he said. “I’m very much a cult phenomenon.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0352 or

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