Ricky Velez: From Late-Night Troublemaker to ‘Undeniable’ Stand-Up Star
Comedian Ricky Velez tells The Last Laugh podcast about coming up with Pete Davidson, beefing with Bill Nye the Science Guy, and his new HBO special “Here’s Everything.”
For the last several years of his career, comedian Ricky Velez has been best known as Pete Davidson’s best friend, both in real life and on-screen in The King of Staten Island. Now, he is grabbing the spotlight for himself in his new hour-long HBO special Here’s Everything. It’s his first time ever performing stand-up on TV and, as the title suggests, he holds nothing back.
In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Velez talks about how growing up half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican in Queens made racism a foreign concept, how his gig as a contributor on Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show led to beef with Bill Nye the Science Guy, and what he’s learned about fame and unwanted attention from SNL’s Davidson.
The best piece of career advice Velez ever received was from comedian Mike DeStefano, a former heroin addict who died at just 44 years old from a heart attack in 2011. “Become undeniable,” DeStefano told him. “Once you become that, they can’t tell you no.”
After more than a decade of being told “No,” he’s finally getting used to hearing “Yes.”
“I’ve been doing stand-up since I was 19,” Velez, who turned 32 earlier this year, tells me. “I’ve been touring consistently for six, seven years, and I’ve never had any stand-up on television. None.”
It’s not that the opportunities didn’t come his way. “I’ve said no to late-night shows,” he adds, explaining that because his “material is a little bit on the edge” he’s had “problems” with talent bookers who have tried to tell him what he can and can’t say on their shows.
“I just think it’s weird when bookers get involved in the creative, but I understand that’s their job,” he says now. “And that was the best part about this special—all the creative is mine.”
Several of Velez’s premises in the new special, which premieres this Saturday, Oct. 23, on HBO, seem almost intended to challenge the political orthodoxy of his mostly left-leaning audience. He has one bit about Joe Biden being “too old to be president” that hinges on the fact that he was born before the song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” was written. Or another in which he says he doesn’t want to “defund the police.” Or even a simple statement like “I love America” that could be taken the wrong way these days.
“I do love America!” Velez tells me. “Listen, I come from a town of blue-collar people. My parents worked their asses off, as did all my friends, and some of them are still there doing the same stuff. And I speak for those people. I think that’s why this special is so different. You’re really hearing a voice that hasn’t been told at this point.”
Growing up in the most diverse neighborhoods on Earth, Velez says he never “understood” racism. “My next-door neighbors were Filipino, to my other side I had a Pakistani guy, and then across the street I had two Italians,” he recalls. “It was so mixed that it never really made sense when I was growing up. We didn’t see it often. If you hated somebody, you hated that person for being that person.”
That diversity extended to Velez’s own mixed-race family. “On both sides, I have people that were just out of control,” he says. “I have a cousin that went to Yale. But at the same time, I also had an uncle that used to have to check into jail on the weekend.”
While this weekend will be his big TV stand-up debut, Velez did spend about a year and a half as a regular contributor on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. It was Velez’s job to be a bomb-thrower of sorts in the panel discussions that would close out every episode. And he was never shy about sharing his strong opinions.
“Some of them got me in trouble. And people got mad at me,” he says, which was strange in retrospect because he was essentially unknown at the time. The one that still sticks with him is from September 2015. Velez and fellow stand-up comedian Michelle Buteau ended up going at it with Bill Nye the Science Guy about the discovery of water on Mars.
“Why would I be excited about Mars?! I’m barely excited about Earth!” Velez shouted at Nye in that episode. “Trump is first in the polls right now. I don’t care about Mars! Let’s defeat ISIS, how about that?!”
The clip ended up on the front page of Reddit, where Velez was labeled a “science denier” and angry commenters doxxed his parents, who then received death threats. “It was wild. But at the same time, it was a great lesson to learn right off the top,” he says. “And I think a lot of the time on that show, that’s what I was there to do, was take shots and disagree. It was fun for the most part, but when things like that happened—my parents didn’t sign up for this, I signed up for this.”
It was a taste of the kind of unwanted attention that has been thrust onto his friend Pete Davidson in recent years and Velez didn’t like it. “That’s not why I’m in this business,” he says. “So when it started happening to me and I was getting torn up, I was just like, this isn’t what I want.”
Still, none of that has made him run away from the inevitable celebrity that will accompany continued success in the comedy world. Velez is currently writing a semi-autobiographical feature with Judd Apatow, who directed The King of Staten Island and produced his new special. Separately, he and Davidson have been developing a broader comedy film in the vein of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. “We were really obsessed with Adam Sandler,” he says. “And I think that’s the way we’re looking to go in our next one that me and Pete are working on. I feel like those movies have gone missing and we need them.”
“If I can tell jokes and make my child’s life better, I’m going to take that to every level I can take it to,” he says of a career that is on the verge of blowing up. “That’s all I really pride myself on anymore. I have no problem with the idea of people not liking things I say on stage. I have a problem with people changing the wording to meet their agenda.”
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.