Wisecracker: Cy Amundson looks for laughs in Tuesday 'Conan' appearance
WORTHINGTON -- It's a good thing Cy Amundson's relatives are good sports. His family members are occasionally fodder for his comedy routines, like a bit he did about introducing his family and their exaggerated foibles on the TV game show "Family...
WORTHINGTON -- It's a good thing Cy Amundson's relatives are good sports. His family members are occasionally fodder for his comedy routines, like a bit he did about introducing his family and their exaggerated foibles on the TV game show "Family Feud."
All of Cy's family members -- including his parents, Bruce and Joann Amundson, grandmother Dolores Amundson and great-aunt Dorothy Nord, all of Worthington -- along with extended family and friends will be glued to cable station TBS at 10 p.m. Tuesday night for Cy's national television debut on "Conan," the late-night talk show hosted by comedian Conan O'Brien. Cy promises that his material won't divulge any embarrassing family secrets.
An appearance on a national talk show is something Cy has worked toward for a long time. A 2002 graduate of Worthington High School, he earned an associate's degree from Minnesota West Community and Technical College and a bachelor's degree in public park and recreation studies from the University of Minnesota, but those diplomas were his back-up plan if a career in show business didn't pan out.
"I knew from a young age that I had a public-speaking ability, a storytelling ability. I wasn't the class clown or anything like that; I reserved that for outside of school. From a really young age -- we weren't allowed to watch MTV at our house -- I was all about 'Nick at Nite,'" said Cy, referring to programming of classic sitcoms on the Nickelodeon cable channel. "I watched 'I Love Lucy,' 'Green Acres,' Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore. So at a real young age, I had an idea I wanted to be on television. But when you grow up in a small town in Minnesota, you can't conceptualize that very well. I wasn't in plays in high school -- it was just a background, a dream."
Cy's first onstage standup experience came while he was a student at the U of M.
"When I lived in the Cities, I lived with my sister, Janene, and her family, and my brother-in-law, Jon, told me about this comedy club and this contest they do and pretty much forced me to do it," recalled Cy. "I didn't win, but my set went pretty well, and I was hooked."
Through what he calls "a series of fortunate events," Cy was hired at Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis, a club that has the reputation of being one of the best in the country. He credits Acme owner Louis Lee with opening many doors for him in the comedy world.
"Minneapolis has one of the best comedic communities in the country. To learn in the wonderful environment we have up there is pretty rare and pretty special. ... My career has just continued to build from there," said Cy. "I've gotten to do a lot of cool things so far."
One of those cool things was vying for the title of CMT's Next Big Comic in 2011. After several rounds of online voting based on comedy clips, Cy emerged as the winner.
"I know a lot of people voted for that. It was kind of a humbling thing," Cy said.
Another highlight of Cy's career has been performing at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, which is considered one of the most prestigious comedy showcases in the world. He's been a guest on radio's "Bob and Tom Show" and has performed in the Aspen Comedy Festival and Seattle International Comedy Competition, and the Great American Comedy Festival in Johnny Carson's hometown of Norfolk, Neb.
Some gigs go better than others, he acknowledged.
"Three years ago, I was in this comedy contest in Seattle, and it was an industry night with CBS executives, a festival booker and the head of a record label there, and I got dead last out of 16 contestants," recalled Cy. "They had to give one of the judges his scorecard back and tell him that he couldn't give me a negative score. It was a learning experience. When you get 16th out of 16 in front of industry people, it really makes you question, 'Am I doing the right thing?' In terms of morale, it was a low point. But I got the scorecard and I framed it. That's just the guy I am."
Other performing experiences encouraged Cy to keep honing his comedic craft.
"When I got to do the Great American Comedy Festival in Johnny Carson's hometown, I made it to the finals," he said. "The set couldn't have gone any better. There were probably about a thousand people there, and it was one of the most open and welcoming festivals. You feel like you're really part of something. Everything about that festival was wonderful.
"And last summer, when I got to do Montreal, for my first set, the whole who's who of industry people was there, and to have a great set there was rewarding. It was more nerve wracking, but to have it go so well in front of those people was a good feeling," he continued. "Comedy is one of those careers where you have to stay calm and go with the ebb and flow. It's easy to get too big or get too low on yourself."
Coming up with viable comedy material is a process that combines observation and imagination.
"I think it's almost a certain way of thinking. You have to view things a little comedically," explained Cy. "I tend to notice things, think of things throughout the day, and I usually have a notepad in my pocket. When I get a chance, I sit down and go over those and really try to break them down and work on them. Then, it's to the stage. Most of them don't work, and you keeping working on it until something does work."
Bits about his family do occasionally creep into the act, although Cy stresses that comedy is based in exaggeration.
"I think my comedy is a nice combination of my family life and my observations on life in general, with a bit of asburdism, surrealism," he said. "I have the best family. It's big -- there were however many of us, eight brothers and sisters -- so there's a lot of room for humor. At the same time, they're all so wonderful. It's hard not to write about stuff when you've got 35 family members you think are hilarious.
"Comedy is based on truth, but it's not always 100 percent truth," he added. "It's based on truth and exaggerated. ... I'm not the darkest of comedians, but I'm not the lightest either. But it's all in good fun."
For the "Conan" show, Cy has been in negotiations about the material for many months.
"It's such a long process. You have to go back and forth about the material and which jokes they like and which jokes they don't like," Cy explained. "This has probably been in the works since September. All the material finally got approved and they got me on."
Now living in Los Angeles, Cy is exploring other outlets for his talents.
"I did (TV) pilot season, so I've been kind of focusing on auditioning for the last couple of months. I think to get into the acting world in the roles that I like would be as good as it could get for me," said Cy, who envisions starring in a sitcom or getting a movie role. "That was the end-all game when I started. I just happened to fall in love with standup along the way. Just like everything else, it's a job, and it takes building relationships and experience and failing in order to get there. You have to go and fail at a whole bunch of stuff."
Between auditions, Cy works on his own material and projects.
"One of the best things that happened, and I'm not saying that anything will come out of it, but I'm working on a project with Joel Hoekstra, my best friend," said Cy, referring to another WHS alumnus. "Creating a project with your best friend is about as good as it gets. He is an incredibly talented comedic writer, and the two of us work incredibly together. ... I've been doing standup for six years, and I've tried to do a lot of different things with a lot of different people, but they've never meshed right. When Joel and I started working, it couldn't have come any easier."
Cy is reluctant to share details of the Amundson-Hoekstra collaboration, but he has hopes it will evolve into an opportunity that will take him beyond standup. But he's also happy with the progress that he's made in his show business career thus far, with the "Conan" appearance among the high points.
"I've got a number of things coming up," he said. "I'm in Seattle this weekend, and then a run of shows at the end of April -- Salt Lake City, Appleton Wis., then I'm in the Cities for a week. I get to headline my home club May 8-9 in Minneapolis. I couldn't be more excited. I've been headlining across the country, and I'm almost as excited to headline as to appear on 'Conan.'
"It's been a full-time thing for the past couple of years. Not always a very lucrative full-time thing, but I can survive. I made a deal with myself: If I didn't see it having real career possibilities by 27, I would hang it up. Now I'm 27, and it's going in the right direction."
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Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327