Jensen Karp followed an unusual path to success in comedy. In the late 90s he was a battle rapper known as Hot Karl who was the all-time champion freestyle champion on radio station Power 106; at 19, he scored a million-dollar deal with Interscope Records and went on to open for Snoop Dogg and work with, among others Fabolous and DJ Clue. When his hip-hop career didn’t pan out, he wrote jokes for wrestlers, opened Gallery 1988, a pop culture-oriented art gallery in Los Angeles, and developed marketing campaigns for such shows as "Lost" and "Breaking Bad".
Today, Karp’s one of today's most soughtafter comedy writers, penning rap battles for "The Late Late Show with James Corden" and jokes for the ESPY awards. His memoir, "Kanye West Owes Me $300", which chronicles his wild ride in the music industry, was released earlier this month — although dedicated “How I Sleep” readers may recognize it from Paul Scheer’s bedside table.
In his own words, here’s a champion battle rapper turned comedian on cactus dreams, writing jokes in his sleep and which musicians would make good comedians.
I’m kind of a weird person. In college, I was your typical college student — if I had a morning class I’d go back and sleep ‘til noon or whatever. Being a professional rapper never had me on an actual schedule. Even when I opened the gallery, it opens at 11 o’clock and I can get up at 10 or whatever. But nowadays I have so many things going on and the one thing my body has adapted to is that I really only need five hours of sleep. Tops. Which I guess is a nice superhuman power for someone who has a lot of shit going on.
It was probably within the last year the last two I’ve realized my body doesn’t tell the difference between five hours and nine. Anything past nine is a wasted day for me, physically, because then I’m just tired.
This feels like something that's gonna catch up to me. I don’t know when its gonna catch up, but there is something that feels thats very odd about it. Like rap battling. When I was a rap battler, for a year and a half no one could beat me. I studied it — literally there was no one in the world that could beat me for a year and a half, and if there was I would avoid them. So anyone I battled, I knew I had. But I knew that if I did an interview where I was “no one can beat me,” then someone was gonna beat me. So in this case it’s kind of like, I know I can get by on five hours, but saying it out loud feels like a jinx.
All the stuff I do professionally is with me at the helm, so I’m always on. I’m always having to look at email, if a call comes in late I have to take it. But I try to clear up the hour before bed to let my brain float. I’ll check articles online, read, catch up on TV. In the morning, I try to give myself fifteen, twenty minutes of just sort of meditating in bed, I’ll check emails. Then I’ll do 30 minutes to an hour of just sort of being creative — that’s when my brain is smartest, when I can think of the most stuff.
I absolutely wake up with jokes in my bed. Especially with this James Corden stuff I’ve been doing — I’ve been writing these “Drop the Mic” rap battles between a celebrity and James Corden, and I’ve been waking up with a lot of those. Like, “this rhymes with this!”
I went to USC, where if you don’t have a ton going on on Fridays, you’d stay up all night playing dumb video games with your friends. Like, “Oh my god, I just stayed up 37 hours, what am I doing!” And then I feel like I can’t go outside afterward because everything’s gonna be a video game. But now with this book tour I’m working 20-hour days sometimes and I feel terrible, just insane.
But I’ve never done any real sleep-deprivation stuff. My friend Gil Ozeri, who’s a tremendous comedian, stays up for days and days watching dumb sitcoms and it’s like, man, if I ever had a reason to do it, I would do it. But I’ve never done anything like he’s done.
You don’t hear a ton about comedians who are very good at music, though I know a ton of them try. Recently I did a show with Greg Behrendt, who’s a great musician and a great comedian, and he had Bill Burr on the show. We all had to do musical acts. I obviously rapped, but Burr drummed and he was really good. He had a nice aggressive drum style.
John Mayer could work in comedy. He’s tremendously funny. And then Mark Hoppus, who I’m really close with, is really funny. Both those guys, if they wanted, could write in rooms. John could probably punch up shit better than I can.
I don’t really remember dreams a ton. As a kid I had a recurring dream where I would hear noise coming from my parents room and run up from my bedroom. It would either be something about my mother being attacked, or something weird from across the street. And by the time I’d get to the hallway to get to their bedroom, a cactus would pop up and I’d hit it. I’d wake up when I hit the cactus. That happened my whole childhood, my dumb cactus dream, but I haven’t had it in years. If I woke up at 36 from a cactus dream, I’d probably call it a day and enter a psych ward.
My bedside table: Not much! I have a cat, Bill, and that cat will knock over anything I put on my bedside table. In a perfect world I’d have my kindle there, but that’s been knocked over. In a perfect world I’d have a glass of water, but that would be a total nightmare. So because I’ve got a cat, nothing.