Adam Newman's foray into comedy was a happy accident. A University of Georgia student in the early aughts, the slim, affable guitarist was best known around Athens for playing in the jokey '90s cover band Just These Dudes (as well as the marginally less jokey post-hardcore outfit Coulier). His passion, ostensibly, was music. Though he had been a fan of stand-up since his youth and had always dreamed of doing it himself, Newman viewed the form as something that happened in stuffy comedy clubs and red-curtained theaters.
A chance performance changed his life. "I saw Mitch Hedberg at the 40 Watt," Newman says, referring to the late, absurdist one-liner specialist. "That was the first live comedy I saw. And I saw it at a music venue. That changed a lot for me, because I saw a comedian perform at the place that I performed at. So, that opened my eyes a little bit, 'Oh, this is something that maybe I could do'."
Shortly after he graduated from college, Newman packed up and moved to New York City, determined to try stand-up. "I was googling 'open mic comedy,' and finding all these open mics in New York," he recalls. "I just thought, if I wanted to do it, I had to move to New York. Now, obviously, there's a lot more comedy in Atlanta, and even some in Athens. But that wasn't really there when I lived there."
Newman recalls his experience transitioning from music to comedy. "For me, it eliminated stage fright off the bat, to some degree, where I was used to being on stage… [But] being a stand-up, you don't have the support of your bandmates. If you do badly, you don't have that safety net to get you through it. At the same time, if you have a great set, you can't share it with your bandmates. So, it's a little bit of a lonelier experience."
Regardless, Newman wasted no time making a name for himself in the city, diving into the world of stand-up, crafting dozens of videos for popular comedy site CollegeHumor, co-hosting a podcast called "Butt Talk" and popping up in strange places, like a 2006 episode of "The Tyra Banks Show," where he was sent on a date with a self-proclaimed virgin (the sweater-wearing comedian's faux-concerned declaration that he was "a very sexual person" briefly set the web ablaze).
In 2011, Rooftop Comedy released Newman's debut album, Not For Horses. Last summer, he appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman." Like his hero Hedberg, the matured Newman's set was slow-burning, straight-faced and often subtle, though sharpness triumphed over stoned-ness. (Sample joke: Halfway through, Newman proclaims, "I think now is a good time to tell you that I have been a Jew the whole time.")
Although the appearance was an obvious career milestone, the road ahead remains daunting. "You get your ass kicked every other day in New York," Newman says. "You literally go from, 'I've done Letterman, I've booked a half-hour special', to 'I bombed yesterday'. You can feel like you're on top of the world, and then the next show, you're like, 'I'm not funny. I don't know why anybody's letting me onstage. I don't know what I'm gonna do next with my life, because I suck at this'."
Self-effacement aside, Newman's star continues to rise. Most notably, he is the subject of an upcoming Comedy Central special, set to air sometime later this year. "I felt awesome," Newman says of the performance. "Most shows I do, I'm usually pretty aware of how individual jokes went. This one was a blur. I cannot remember doing any specific jokes. I just remember a general feeling of, 'This feels good'."
Newman will return to Athens Monday, Apr. 21 for an appearance at the Caledonia presented by local comedy collective HACKS, prior to which he will headline a four-day series at Atlanta's Laughing Skull Lounge. The latter location was host to a particularly memorable set in November 2012, when Newman jokingly decided to rifle though a jacket's pockets while its heckler owner was in the bathroom, only to discover something highly illegal hiding inside.
Though some commenters (the YouTube clip is titled "Comedian Finds Cocaine in Heckler's Coat" and has been viewed over 3 million times) claimed the bit was a stunt, Newman insists it was the real deal. His expression in the video, he says, is one of "pure, genuine fear. If that video was fake, I would have made myself look a lot better. I would have written an awesome comeback line. I would have dressed a lot cooler.
"It was me on a late show at a comedy club, very casual, kind of like a work-on-jokes kind of set," he continues. "And then a crazy thing happened. I was terrified. I've never done cocaine. I've never touched cocaine. I was thinking, 'That guy might have a gun. He might be a drug dealer. He's gonna murder me. That guy might be on cocaine, and be very mad that I have his cocaine'."
Luckily, Newman lived to see another day, the experience just another "notch in the belt," he says, a strange sequence of events in a second career full of them. In comedy, he reiterates, "you're constantly taking three steps forward and two steps back… at the same time. You just hope the moving forward moves quicker than the setting back."
WHO: HACKS Presents Adam Newman, Luke Fields, Cherith Fuller, Jake Brannon
WHERE: Caledonia Lounge
WHEN: Monday, Apr. 21, 9 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $5 (21+), $7 (18–20)