In recent months, Lucas Zelnick MBA ’22 has made waves across TikTok, drawing millions of viewers with humorous clips on topics ranging from his Jewish identity to cultural issues. Zelnick is a stand-up comedian who posts short videos on the popular social media platform from his stand-up shows at SESH Comedy, a comedy club in New York City. With more than 22,000 followers, a million likes and millions of views across his videos, Zelnick is showing no signs of slowing down.
The Stanford Daily sat down with Zelnick to discuss his viral TikTok growth and his future plans.
The Stanford Daily [TSD]: For those not familiar with your comedy, how would you describe your work and online presence?
Lucas Zelnick [LZ]: My comedy bio describes me as an NYC-raised comedian who challenges his cushy upbringing with punchline-heavy material — and while the punchline-heavy part is aspirational, that’s probably an accurate summary. My online presence consists of 30 second to one minute clips from my sets that are edited to be either controversial or interesting enough to go viral — oftentimes they’re improvised interactions with the crowd.
TSD: What are the roots of your comedic ability and passion? Did it stem from your childhood, an idol or an individual you looked up to? Did it come naturally?
LZ: I always found myself funny, and I think my family raised me to have a good — if not dry, and sometimes a little mean — sense of humor. There was also a lot to laugh at growing up in NYC, and reflecting on that now is how I do a bunch of my writing. Once I decided to do stand up, I started to look up to other comedians and study comedy more intensely. A comedian named Jamie Wolf helped mentor me on how to go from being funny in conversation to getting laughs onstage.
TSD: What is the purpose of your comedy and what do you hope to achieve with it?
LZ: Money. That’s partially a joke, but I do want to be a full-time stand up comedian. So getting paid a liveable (or, ideally, gratuitous) salary to do some combination of stand-up and screenwriting is the dream. The purpose of my comedy is really just to tell people stories and make them laugh — there’s no better feeling in the world.
TSD: What were your initial thoughts when you started to get traction and attention on TikTok?
LZ: My first video that got over 500K views on TikTok happened when I was on a plane, and when I landed I just had a bunch of followers and messages on TikTok and Instagram. And then there was some initial shock and adrenaline stemming from how many people were seeing my comedy. But in the longer term I’ve realized that the only thing helpful to my career is when people are willing to pay to see me perform (that’s how touring stand-ups make money without Netflix specials), and TikTok does (slowly) help achieve that goal.
TSD: How have you managed to balance being a student at Stanford and your comedy shows?
LZ: This year, I perform every night. It’s fun and exhausting. Comedy lends itself to working with job and school schedules because it’s an evening thing. But I didn’t perform during my first MBA year due to COVID, and I don’t think I could have done comedy and really felt a part of the Stanford community at the time. Too many school requirements and social activities in the first year of the MBA. So in that sense, the time off was a blessing despite putting a pause on my career goals.
TSD: How do you manage the line between cruelty and comedy — for instance, making a joke about a sensitive topic?
LZ: My biggest focus in comedy is honesty. Just sharing my honest reaction — because usually that’s funny (and clear dishonesty is unfunny and off-putting). But sometimes my honest reaction is mean and or pisses people off. The line for live comedy is easy — I only write things I’m willing to say on stage, and the jokes that stay in my act are the ones the audience laughs at. So in that way the audience kind of tells me where the line is because if they stop laughing I’ll stop doing the joke.
TSD: Do you think comedy can still be viable as talks of cancel culture and online hate fill public discourse?
LZ: Online is trickier, because people get to sit with content and analyze it in a way they wouldn’t have time to during a live performance. There’s a huge subset of TikTok comments where people find counterpoints to my joke premises, which is pretty funny in and of itself. As a live audience member, you just wouldn’t think that way. My reaction to cancel culture is that I think there is plenty of room to be funny and inoffensive — and I try to discuss true things that have happened to me. So if I talk about religion, it’s from a place of being raised Jewish. If I talk about race, it’s from a place of watching white people in my family interact with people of color. People may get offended, but they can’t really tell me I’m lying about my own experiences. To actually get canceled in our culture, I’d have to be successful — so come back to me if that happens.
TSD: When experiencing an awkward or unexpected crowd interaction, like you demonstrate in many of your TikToks, how do you turn it into something beneficial to the show?
LZ: I think this goes back to the honesty point. My goal on stage with those interactions is to react the same way I — or anyone — would react offstage. When I succeed at that, the interactions usually become fun. And comedy shows are an unnatural environment, so audience members often share more personal things than they would in a conversation. I try to make fun of that unusual dynamic.
For example: if an audience member says “I lost my job last month,” I might say “Jesus, you really just opened up to me right away.” Because that’s what anyone would be thinking if a stranger struck up a conversation and said that unprompted. Then it’s a game of trying to be funny without being mean or humiliating anyone — and if I cross the line, I can usually tell by the audience reaction, and I’ll do my best to address it or chastise myself in front of them to bring us all back onto even ground.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.