Standing out as a stand-up
Michael Kaplan ’00 got his start in comedy while at Brandeis
An earlier version of this article stated that America's Got Talent had a $40 million prize. America's Got Talent has, in fact, a one-million-dollar prize.
Brandeis alumnus Michael Kaplan ’00 considers himself “Small, Dork and Handsome.” Or, at least, the title of his most recent comedy album does. His album, following two previous ones, “Vegan Mind Meld” (2010) and “Meat Robot” (2013), has been dubbed by Mstarz as “undoubtedly his strongest yet.” This past summer, Kaplan put his comedic abilities to the test, as a stand-up performer on America’s Got Talent.
Kaplan, who goes by Myq, pronounced “Mike,” is a stand-up comedian currently based in New York City. He has appeared on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, The Late Show with David Letterman and Comedy Central Presents. In 2010 he was a Last Comic Standing finalist on NBC.
In an interview with the Justice, Kaplan explains that he did not know that comedy was a “thing” until he began pursuing his interest in music. “My dream was sort of born as a teenager, but at Brandeis I would say is where it gestated … and I was able to [do that] by performing on campus, [and by] finding out that there were places outside of campus to perform. It’s where it sort of activated the spark that was there with the idea that I could actually do it,” Kaplan said.
On campus, Kaplan was involved in the Chamber Choir Club and the a cappella group VoiceMale. He explains that in his senior year he decided to leave VoiceMale in order to focus that time commitment on pursuing his own individual goal. Kaplan then began to put his time into performing music at The Comedy Studio in Harvard Square.
Kaplan’s first performances at The Comedy Studio began in his senior year at Brandeis and continued up until 2002.
“Certainly for all that time, I was always going on stage with a guitar. I would play a song, I would riff a little [and] I’d play another song…in the beginning I didn’t call it riffing, I called it ‘talking in between songs until they stopped laughing and [then] playing another song,’” Kaplan explained. He defined the term “riffing” as similar to ad-libbing. “I knew my songs were at least structurally funny enough to have a punch line at the end and make people laugh at them. But making people laugh with just words and no music, whether it was pre-written or via ‘riffing’ was this new exciting challenge.”
It was throughout his time at the Comedy Studio that Kaplan realized his passion for stand-up comedy and shifted his dream of pursuing a singer/songwriting career to pursuing comedy. “I found out there were just open mic nights all over the city [Boston] and I started going to them,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan’s persistence in pursuing comedy proved fruitful when he performed as a contestant on Last Comic Standing in 2010 on NBC and placed in fifth.
“It was basically the thing that exposed me to the most people suddenly. Up until that point, and still in general, comedy is a gradual, you don’t become an overnight success really in one moment. It’s over the course of years and years of building things that people are like ‘Wow, where did this guy come from?’ This guy came from years of hard work, but because you’ve just found about him now, or her, or them, then it seems sudden. People all the time are still finding me online and being like, ‘Wow, I just watched the thing of you online; I’ve never heard of you but you were great.’ And they’re like, ‘Where have you been?’ And I’m like, ‘I’ve been here doing stuff, where have you been?’” Kaplan jokes.
Kaplan also appeared as a contestant on America’s Got Talent this past summer. “It was a pretty super opportunity,” Kaplan said. “It’s not a show that obviously features stand-up, so getting to do 90 seconds or two minutes of comedy at a time, for anything—any performer; I’m sure a singer can’t even sing really a full song, [in 90 seconds] so it’s sort of not necessarily the most holistic version of what you do.”
Kaplan’s previous experience on competition shows like Last Comic Standing helped him adjust to the nature of performing on America’s Got Talent. Although he did not win the one-million-dollar prize, he was grateful for the opportunity to be in front of millions of potential new fans.
“To this day still when I go perform almost anywhere—‘We saw you for the first time on the Last Comic Standing.’ It’s all sort of symptoms of the same thing. I was becoming a better comedian, and now that was being rewarded with opportunities of doing more comedy,” Kaplan explains.
Although actively pursuing comedy, Kaplan continues to reflect on his time at Brandeis. He graduated from Brandeis with a double major in Philosophy and Psychology and a double minor in Linguistics and Mathematics.
“A lot of the classes that I took are things that I still think about ‘till this day,” Kaplan said. Semantics and Philosophy of Law were two of his favorite classes from his undergraduate career. He recalls discussing the meanings of words and concepts in his Linguistic courses and being very drawn to them—so much so that he decided to go to graduate school at Boston University for a Masters in Linguistics.
Interestingly, his fascination for linguistics has factored into his career. Kaplan currently has a podcast called “Words of the Years” on the Howl network with fellow Brandeis classmate and comedian Zach Sherwin ’02.
“That’s another thing that Brandeis did for me… it introduced me to a couple other great friends that started at Brandeis,” Kaplan explains. On the podcast “Words of the Years” Kaplan and Sherwin examine different words that have been deemed the words of a year.
“We talk about the words, the world, ourselves, our lives, our friendships. So we like working together on that, so what’s next might be working on more fun projects together,” Kaplan said.
While thinking about the challenges of being a comedian, Kaplan notes that “some people say, ‘Isn’t it hard to not have a secure regular job with an IRA or a 401K or job security’ that kind of thing, and in this day and age, I feel like almost nobody has 100 percent job security. So [I’m] not trying to ask everybody else, ‘Hey how do you do your job?’—knowing that you might not have it in a year, but basically, nobody knows the future. Everything is potentially uncertain, so why not try to do the thing that you most want to do, that you most enjoy and are most good at hopefully?”