Upstate Understandings: Jim Search on his New Comedy Album

If you’ve ever heard of Parlor City Sound before finding this article, chances are you know us as a website devoted to Upstate New York music scenes, particularly but not exclusively in Binghamton, Ithaca, and Syracuse. So it may come as a surprise that the very first person we’ve interviewed isn’t a musician. It’s comedian Jim Search, who recently released his debut comedy album Upstate Understandings.

I really wanted our first-ever interview to showcase someone from Binghamton with remarkable talent, and Jim Search definitely fits that bill. Upstate Understandings is riotously funny from start to finish. It presents an engaging narrative about moving away from Binghamton to live in Brooklyn, and tackles everything from blatant and obvious experiences with racism to encountering human waste in bathrooms where you really shouldn’t find it—an arc that’s almost a metaphor in and of itself. It’s entertaining, thoughtful, and laugh-out-loud hilarious … everything you want from a brilliant comedy album.

Jim Search and I grew up together, which officially makes him the first person I’ve ever interviewed with whom I’ve had epic backyard stick duels as a kid. Today, he’s a genuine rising star in the comedy world, having been a semi-finalist on NBC’s Stand Up for Diversity and having appeared at major comedy festivals all across the country. He’s written and directed a play in New York City, authored a book, and hosts a great podcast as well. So let’s get this interview on the road before his level of celebrity reaches a point where he’s less keen on doing a childhood friend a solid!

Jim Search shares his Upstate Understandings

Your freshman album, Upstate Understandings, is genuinely hilarious, and in my opinion, the narrative of moving away and experiencing life in a new city through the lens of a Binghamtonian really resonates. Did you set out with that direction in mind while writing the material, or was it more of an organic concept that presented itself over time?

I wanted my first album to be a conceptual body of work and also represent where I’m from. So in the writing process, I tapped into my life experience from Binghamton and made it the focus.

Every performer, albeit in comedy or music or some other art form, generally has their own approach to writing their material. What’s your process like? Or is that maybe too personal a question?

Not at all a personal question! I love to talk about the process…mine ebbs and flows. I’ll go a week or two without a new bit, then I’ll see something happen on a walk or going about my day and say “oh shit…there’s something there”, then sit down and write out a couple bits. Or I’ll write down a premise and come back to it in a day or two with a good direction of where I want to go.

Here’s the obligatory question about your influences. Who was it that inspired you to pursue becoming a comic, and who would you say helped shape your voice?

When I started, I really enjoyed doing long-form storytelling and drew inspiration from Patton Oswalt. He’s amazing at it and brings a perspective that is unique to him. I also saw an unflinching confidence and control on stage from the late Patrice Oneal. Those two different lanes help push me to step into my own.

Did you start doing stand-up in Binghamton, or was this a pursuit that started after moving to Brooklyn?

I started doing stand-up after I moved to Brooklyn. Initially, I started off writing blog posts and wanted something more. And found it at an open mic in Crown Heights.

You’ve performed in both Binghamton and Brooklyn. Which audiences are more fun to perform for? Feel free to plead the fifth here.

Oh man, well they are both fun for very different reasons. There’s very specific topics that I want to tackle in front of a Binghamton crowd that I can’t do anywhere else so I really dig that. Nowhere else will understand my dream of throwing out a first pitch at a Rumble Ponies game (still holding out for that). A Brooklyn crowd has such a wide range so you have to work for it in different ways, I love that challenge.

Not to blow smoke here, but your stage presence on Upstate Understandings is something that really deserves a mention. Your whole performance is approachable and relatable, but also commanding in a way too. Is that something that developed quickly for you, or did you have to work at it?

Why thank you, any superlatives are welcome here! Stage presence is something that definitely came with time and effort. I will say, in my life before comedy, I was a teacher so standing in front of groups of people (tall or small) came with the territory. So in one way I was working double time at getting that comfort level.

Some readers may not know that your creative reach goes beyond stand-up. Apart from Upstate Understandings, you’ve also written a book, Grad School: a $70,000 Phone Charger and you’ve written and directed the play Jessie the Catfish: a Comedy. Would you mind telling us about those?

Ah yes, I’ve worn a few hats creatively. Grad School is a collection of short stories of my experiences in the world of higher education. I saw a lot of crazy shit and needed an outlet for it. The fact I wrote a book to try and pay for it is not lost on me! Jessie was based on a Tinder match from years ago that tried to Catfish me…which I turned the tables on. I then took the text messages and made that the script. It wrote itself in every sense of the word.

Have you considered bringing Jessie to the Binghamton area and maybe putting it on at a venue like the Firehouse Stage or KNOW Theatre? What sorts of obstacles would be there?

Honestly, I haven’t thought about it…if the stars aligned for it I would be open to it. The original cast has since moved on to different endeavors, but if the streets are calling for it who am I to deny them?

Binghamton has changed a lot in the past decade or so. Downtown has this entirely different vibe from what it had when we were younger. Do you get that sense when you go back to visit now? Does it feel like the city’s momentum has been shifting in a positive way?

I feel a shift happening, albeit gradual. I’m seeing different businesses and events opening up that I don’t think would have been there in the past. I get an overall vibe that people are looking for different kinds of things to do that don’t involve being blackout drunk. To each their own, but I definitely feel there is an energy for something new.

Some people attribute Binghamton’s downtown growth to gentrification, a subject you spend some time with on the album in relation to Brooklyn. 

Oh yes, Brooklyn was doing gentrification “before it was cool.” As I’ve moved through the city I have most certainly seen blocks of brand new houses and thought “who got displaced on this one?” If that’s happening, then yeah, we got a case of gentrification on our hands.

You and I grew up a few blocks apart, so of course I love the cover you chose for Upstate Understandings. That neighborhood will always feel like home. Did you see that corner sign and just know you wanted to use that? Were there any other finalists you considered?

We most certainly did, neighbor. Once I had the album title “Upstate Understandings” in place. I knew that picture had to be the vinyl cover. I had a couple of other ideas, but those went for the CD and cassette. The CD is a picture of an old Shortline bus ticket and the cassette is of the house I grew up in. My friend Adam Russell is a brilliant graphic designer who brought all of these to life. Hire him!

Upstate Understandings is funny, and it’s also produced extremely well and has a great blend of audience participation in the mix. What was the process of recording it like? Were you involved at all in the post-production work?

We recorded it at the Fulton Grand in Brooklyn. I ran a comedy show, Muddy Waters, for years there in the back room. That room is like a comedy second home to me. We did two shows, a 7 PM and a 9 PM to make sure we got it right. It was a blisteringly hot July night so we had to turn the AC off, everyone there was a trooper for it. I had my hand in the post production of what I wanted to include, but the lion share of work was done by Rob Adler, he’s incredible…hire him! The intro/outro music was from the mind of Regal Monk…hire him too!

Okay, last Binghamton-related question for you. Parlor City Sound is a website focused on music, so I should ask one music question, right? So here it goes: Are there any Upstate music acts, in or out of Binghamton, that you’d like to throw a shout-out to? 

Oh man…there are so many acts people should check out. The Supreme Soup is a dope MC out of Binghamton, I saw him perform at Garage Taco Bar, he’s great. B.a Badd out of Syracuse is dope. So is Stove God Cooks, another Syracuse cat. And of course, Griselda Records, they have made huge noise for Buffalo.

What’s next for you? Do you see yourself putting out another comedy album? A new book? Or maybe applying your unique comedy voice to some other creative endeavor?

I definitely see another comedy album down the line. I got more shit to say. I’m in the works of putting together my first special by the end of the year. I really want to push more of my independent content, whatever that may look like.

Okay, last question. I’m hoping to angle a decently big chunk of the content on Parlor City Sound toward new talent and helping them get started, so I think I’m probably going to be asking this question of nearly everyone I interview. If someone reading this has aspirations to become a comic, what advice would you give them?

Make sure your parents are rich…that was my huge mistake. I would say, this is a marathon and it’s going to take a long time. And don’t compromise your act, you can produce your own work. Also, be funny…that helps a lot.