UC Santa Cruz alumnus has comedy down to a science
Nathan Habib claims he is a comedian first and an economist second. But talking to the 22-year-old UC Santa Cruz graduate, it is clear that the economist inside is constantly at work—even when he is behind the microphone telling jokes.
Habib is not a day trader or a Paul Krugman type. He loathes math and isn’t preoccupied with global markets or politics. He is an economist in the classical sense. The young comedian concerns himself with actions of people and the peculiar forces behind those actions. Habib spends his days thinking about what makes people cry, scowl, smirk and (most importantly) laugh.
And like any true social scientist, he keeps a record of his observations.
“I’m the type of guy that likes to write things down,” Habib says, explaining the methodical approach he applies to his comedy—a craft he has pursued with increasing resolve since his freshman year in high school.
For example, he makes lists—like the checklist he created recently of all the things he needs to accomplish if he expects to succeed in the world of standup now that he has graduated; or the lists (in his head and on paper) of venues in Santa Cruz, San Francisco and everywhere in between, where he can “go up,” as he calls it, in front of a crowd and tell some jokes.
He records most of his sets and listens to them afterward, noting which jokes were well received, which ones bombed, and paying close attention to how his timing or improvisations may have helped or hurt the performance. “You never know when you’ll say something off the cuff and it’s gold.”
Habib graduated this month with a double major in film/digital media and (what else?) economics. His degree is almost the perfect metaphor for his character. He is an artist and a nerd—obsessed with absurdity as well as order. It is a trait he likely owes, at least in part, to his hometown, Palo Alto.
Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley, Habib was immersed in a culture that valued creativity and scientific method equally. His high school, Henry M. Gunn, is in one of the best-performing school districts in the state, and boasts a highly diverse student body.
Habib is himself a multicultural amalgam—a Belgian-born American of Jewish, Latvian and Italian heritage. As a poly-ethnic teen with a diverse set of friends, the young Habib is able to talk about almost anything without worrying about offending. “It really allowed me to really say whatever I wanted,” he recalls. And that helped him hone his craft through trial and error.
He got his first taste of comedy at age 14, when he performed at an open mic show at his school. He didn’t really know all that much about standup at the time other than what he’d seen on Comedy Central and late night talk shows. “I thought it would be cool,” he says. So he sat down with his drama teacher and the two of them put together a five-minute routine. When it was his turn to take the stage, Habib remembers thinking, “I’m a freshman in high school, so if no one laughs it’s no big deal—freshmen are kind of losers anyway.”
But they did laugh. “It was like heaven,” he says. “They laughed and I was hooked. It was like, ‘There is no way I can stop doing this.'”
By his junior and senior year of high school, Habib was performing in clubs, and once he got to UCSC, he would do shows at least once a week.
“Now that I’m done with college I can finally go at it 100 percent,” he says.
His standup material revolves around the irrationality of relationships and human interaction. For instance, in one of his many videotaped performances on YouTube, Habib discusses the unwritten laws of the dance floor in a packed club where some women simply walk away from him if they aren’t interested and others react more violently:
“Excuse me!” he says, aping a rather flustered young woman. “Sir! Sir! Do you even know who I am tonight?! No! You don’t! So back away, sir. I’m gonna mace you up! I got mace in my purse!”
That Habib is able to so deftly illuminate the lack of logic behind many social mores is evidence of his way with words as well as his understanding of what is rational and what clearly isn’t. And while he may be drawn to hyperbole and farce onstage, he is quite the opposite once he steps back behind the curtain.
Although he feels he has a good shot at making a living as a comic, he knows there is stiff competition—especially right now in what he calls the “second comedy boom,” the first being in the ’80s.
“There is a lot of room for error in this business,” he says, adding that there are many people throughout the Bay Area who are currently hoping to make it as a professional funnyman or woman. “You’ve got to be smart about it. You’ve got to be efficient.”
When Habib says the word “efficient,” he is betraying his inner scientist—the side of him that took on the second economics major as a “backup,” a “just in case.” His efficiency is not unlike the efficiency illustrated by the pin factory allegory in Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” By taking notes, recording his shows for subsequent analysis, and otherwise getting his ducks in a row, Habib is dividing up all the little tasks he believes he needs to do and taking them on one by one.
He knows he needs to stand out and be different. “There are so many comedians and so many of those comedians can expose themselves to the world,” he explains. Though Habib is not breaking any comedy ground, the analyst inside tells him he can do things to increase his chances of success. Being well-rounded and not trying to be Lenny Bruce or Louis C.K. is a start (if he is too niched or too dirty, it will limit the venues he can play).
“I just talk about things like I would talk about it at someone’s party,” he shrugs. “I want people to feel like we’re having a conversation.”
Being relatable—being that guy at the party who can make people laugh and feel good—seems to be working for Habib. Talking to the budding comedian, you get the sense that he really isn’t too worried about things, perhaps because he has the funny formula down.
“It’s really just a simple process of writing, testing it out, writing again and making it better,” he says.
Nathan Habib will perform at The 2nd (sorta Annual) Color of Funny comedy show at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 22 at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20, and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com/event/248645.