Posts Tagged ‘craft’

All Hat, No Cattle

March 20, 2014

Tuesday March 18th, 2014 – Rosemont, IL

The Bat Phone rang at the last minute again yesterday, and I was asked to host the “10 for $10” showcase at Zanies Comedy Club in Rosemont, IL tonight. I never mind getting that call, as it’s an easy gig and I like to observe the next generation of comedians and know what they’re doing.

There are more absolutely horrendous acts these days than ever before, but there are good ones too. It’s always rare in any creative field to see “naturals”, but when it’s easier for anyone to gain access to doing it there are bound to be higher odds. But at the end of the day, true talent shines.

When I started, not that many people were doing standup comedy. Most cities had a core group of comedians, and they knew each other. It was that way in Milwaukee, and I was one of about a dozen at the core of the comedy scene for several years. Some came and went, but for the bulk of that time that same dozen or so were it. It was that way everywhere for the most part back then.

As time has passed, there has been an explosion in the number of wannabe comedians and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Most of them I see are complete idiots quite honestly, and I fail to see their reason for doing it. I was an idiot too, but I knew it and realized I had a long way to go. I respected the craft, and would do whatever was needed to improve. I was a student of the game.

I am still a student of the game, and that’s why I host showcases whenever I can. When I came up, most of us were on roughly the same level. I started out on the bottom but quickly caught up. Today there is a great chasm between generations, and the cockiest ones seem to be the newbies.

The dawn of the internet generation has not done standup comedy any favors. I’m seeing a new breed of newbies that think they know it all before they start, and it’s laughable to listen to all the attitude they bring without having ever done anything. In Texas they call that “all hat, no cattle”.

I’ll preach that standup comedy is the hardest performance art there is to my dying day because it happens to be the truth. I can’t think of any craft that isn’t difficult, but standup comedy is high atop any list. Anyone that has ever truly succeeded knows that, and greatly respects the process.

I know I do, and that’s why I try to be extra nice to those coming up the ladder. There are many rungs on that ladder, and we’re all at different levels at any given time. Very few ever make it to the very top one, but those that do deserve the ultimate respect. Bill Cosby is one I can think of.

He has taken standup comedy about as far as anyone ever has, but he’s still out there working it at age 76 – and the key word is WORKING. His schedule is full, and still works clean fifty years after he started. Is there a coincidence there? Hardly. We can all learn from his success methods.

Any real comedian doesn’t have time to cop any attitude. He or she is out there working on the craft constantly, and not trying to become a star the easy way by avoiding work. This new breed of cocksure rookies needs to dial it back a few notches and study the masters. I know I do, and it tells me how much more work I need to do. Bill Cosby has so much cattle, he doesn’t need a hat.

gene wilder

Bill Cosby is busier than I am at age 76. And he doesn't need the money. All comedians can learn from him.

Bill Cosby is busier than I am at age 76, and he doesn’t need the money. He’s at the top of the ladder. All comedians can learn from him.

Home Cooking Tastes Best

February 15, 2014

Thursday February 13th, 2014 – Rosemont, IL

I’m very fortunate right now to be in a great position in the Chicago standup comedy scene. It took a lifetime to get here, and there’s no guarantee how long it will last. But for the time being, I am one of the main go to acts for three Zanies clubs and it’s keeping me booked a lot locally.

This is exactly what I want, and I’m not taking it for granted. There have been a lot of odds and ends random dates that have come up of late, and I’m on the current call list to fill them. I always say yes when those calls come in, and tonight I received one to headline the club in Rosemont.

I hosted the Tuesday night ‘Ten Comedians For $10’ the week before last, and was delighted to get that call as well. Lucky for me I can fill in effectively at any position on a comedy show, and not everyone can or wants to do that. I can see the reasons why, but with Zanies I have a history.

Many comedians wouldn’t accept an opener or feature spot once they achieve headliner status. It’s a long hard climb to get to that position, and they view anything less as an insult. I see why they think that, as often bookers and club owners just want to fill spots and couldn’t care less.

I have nothing to prove with Zanies, and they know I’m one of their top local headliners and it ends up being a win/win for everyone. They don’t have to worry about whether I can get the job done, and I don’t have to worry about my check bouncing or making long drives. Count me in.

Another thing that is helping is that there are several other comedy clubs in Chicago these days and not enough strong local seasoned acts to go around. Comedy clubs can be very territorial and often don’t allow acts to work for rival clubs. That’s a game that has been played since I started.

I’ve been on the wrong side of that game more times than I can count, but for once I’m the one in the cherry spot. Zanies has three full time clubs, and nobody else in town can give me as much work as they can. I’m in the spot everyone else in town wants, and I know how fortunate I am.

When I lived in Milwaukee, I would never get the last minute calls to fill in. I saw the ones that did, and wondered if they appreciated it. They often didn’t act like it, but try as I might I couldn’t ever crack the rotation. Twenty years later I’m the golden boy, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

I have what is supposed to be a tremendous gig at a country club in Rockford, IL tomorrow for a Valentine’s Day party, and I had tonight off. Zanies only needed me tonight, so it was a perfect fit. I was able to pick up some much needed extra cash, and Zanies got a need filled with ease.

The audience tonight was a bit stiff at first, but I reached back and brought all I had. I was able to get them eventually, and there’s a deep satisfaction that goes with that much like being able to solve a difficult crossword puzzle. I had to work a lot harder than usual, but that’s fine with me.

What tonight was was a paid practice session. I had a chance to work on my act, and that’s why I got into the business in the first place. I know I should be working on marketing myself for this year – and I am – but for tonight I was able to get in the gym and work on my craft. That doesn’t happen that often anymore, and I really enjoyed it. Those people got a solid show, and I got paid.

Zanies Comedy Club in Rosemont is one of the most beautiful comedy facilities I've ever seen. I was there tonight, and will be back again in April. www.zanies.com.

Zanies Comedy Club in Rosemont is one of the most beautiful comedy facilities I’ve ever seen. I was the headliner there tonight, and will be back April 4-5. http://www.zanies.com.

Practing The Craft

December 6, 2013

Wednesday December 4th, 2013 – Rosemont, IL

I had a fantastic opportunity to practice my craft tonight, and I took full advantage of it. I enjoy working whenever I can, but it’s a special treat to be able to have the freedom to experiment a bit and stretch my boundaries. That’s the only way a performer grows, and I never want that to stop.

Once I stop growing, I’m ripe. After that it starts to rot. I could have easily phoned it in tonight but that’s exactly what I was determined not to do. I was the headliner at Zanies in Rosemont, IL and that’s always a fun place to work. It’s one of the nicest comedy club venues in the country.

I was just there last night as the host of their ‘Ten Comics for $10’ show, which is going to be a regular weekly feature apparently. I’ll be getting some opportunities to host many of those I’m sure, and that’s never a bad thing. Any time a comedian can earn money on a Tuesday is a plus.

I’ll take work whenever and however I can get it, and to me that’s what being a professional is all about. I love the process of being a comedian, and quality stage time is the life blood of what we do. The politics and the travel can be cruel and inhuman, but that time on stage is our heroin.

It’s the whole reason we put up with the bad parts, and I’m not about to turn down a helping of it when it comes my way. Zanies gives me a lot of work, and I’m grateful for every bit of it. We are able to help each other, and that’s how I always thought life should work. This time, it does.

When I host shows, I always try to give every act a tremendous introduction and get the crowd ready to laugh and focused on the stage. I calm them down after a good act, and get them back in focus after a weak one. It’s never the same twice in a row, so being a good host requires focus at all times to make sure the show is the best it can possibly be. That’s what keeps me coming back.

Closing a show comes with a completely different dynamic. It’s not just a matter of doing more time and going on last. A true headliner has to take the show up a notch, and that’s not easy to do especially at first. The most difficult leap to make in comedy is from the feature slot to headliner.

The average ‘feature’ or ‘middle’ in a comedy club typically does about 25-30 minutes. That’s a daunting task in itself, and it takes years of hard work to put that much time together. Closing a show is a whole other level, and not everyone can do it. They may think they can, but they can’t.

A headliner has to be able to work around situations like having to follow a feature act that has similar premises. It happens on occasion, and it takes away from the punch if those subjects have already been touched on. It happens to me all the time, but I can work around it. It’s no big deal.

Another pitfall a headliner deals with in comedy clubs is that the cocktails kick in and having to deal with drunks becomes a much tougher issue. This has always been torture at any level of my development, but I’ve learned to deal with it with the best of them. I can defend myself handily.

Still another part of headlining is crafting a show that peaks at the right spot and is a complete performance rather than just 45 minutes of random clutter haphazardly thrown together without a plan. I had a plan tonight, and worked on several facets of my game. It was wise use of my time.

Standup comedy is a LOT harder than most people think. It's not just a matter of getting on stage and acting goofy. It's a craft, and takes a lifetime of dedication to become a solid headliner.

Standup comedy is MUCH harder than most people think. It’s not just a matter of getting on stage and acting goofy. It’s a craft, and it takes a lifetime of dedication to develop into a legitimate headliner.

A Wonderful Workout

April 13, 2013

Thursday April 11th, 2013 – Rosemont, IL

   People who aren’t comedians have no idea what is actually involved in the performing process, even though most think they do. I’m sure it’s like being in a rock band or playing pro sports – it’s a commonly shared dream of millions, but a ridiculously low amount ever get to do it as a career.

   Everyone may think they know what goes into not only getting there but maintaining a level of professionalism, but until one physically does it there’s no way to predict all that it involves. The craft requires extremely hard work, lots of it and the process never stops – or at least it shouldn’t.

   I’m to the point now when I really don’t need to work on my act anymore, although I still do at every opportunity. I can’t name the actual percentage of comedians at my level that haven’t done a single thing to improve their acts in years, but I’d have to believe it’s rather high. It’s common, and I see why. There are so many other things to deal with, many times the act itself is left alone.

   Technically, nobody makes us work on our on stage show. We don’t get more money if we’ve got ‘new material’, and that’s a widely misunderstood term as it is. The average public thinks we can just crank out new and polished jokes and bits and routines at will, when in fact it’s not true.

   Sometimes adding even one line or a single word to a bit can take months to do correctly. It’s a delicate process, and requires discipline to work on it over time in front of different audiences in different situations. Sometimes a way a word is inflected can make a difference. It’s an art form.

   I’ve always been aware of this, and have used my stage time wisely. That’s the only time when I’m in control, so I take it very seriously. I may look like I’m just goofing off up there, but I’m at work and am paying attention to everything that’s going on. As I get older, I’m even more into it.

   Tonight was a magnificent opportunity to practice, and that’s exactly what I did. The situation I am in at Zanies is rare, so I took full advantage of it. They love me there, and I’ve proven myself as a solid headliner. If there’s such a thing as comedy job security, I have it there. I don’t want to ever abuse that status, but if there’s ever a place for me to experiment with something it’s there.

   There was about a two thirds full house at Zanies in Rosemont tonight, and they were in a good mood. I could tell by watching the opening acts it would be a good audience, and I could’ve gone up and done my regular show and been done with it. It’s a weeknight, and my pay wouldn’t raise no matter what I did. Nobody was expecting anything other than what I do, but it wasn’t enough.

   Not for me, anyway. I knew I had a chance to improve, so I jumped at it. I decided before I got on stage I was going to dramatically slow my usually manic pace for the entire show and deliver my material in a completely different way than I normally do. It’s like a basketball team deciding to switch from playing a fast break style to a slow down offense. A different skill set is required.

   Not only that, I threw myself off even more by opening with material I rarely if ever use in that spot and throwing my big closer in about fifteen minutes in to see if I could follow it. I did, and it was a hot show start to finish. I was on my toes the whole time, but it was a wonderful workout.

   These are the kinds of things a craftsman does, and it keeps me fine tuned and in the game. The audience was great, but they would have loved most anything I did. I could have phoned it in but that wouldn’t have made me any better. I worked on my craft tonight, and it’s deeply satisfying.

Wilde About Larry

January 27, 2010

Wednesday January 27th, 2010 – St. Charles, IL

Most people, including many comedians, don’t realize how much devotion it requires to keep improving the onstage part of our business. There’s so much to do off stage it’s hard to keep growing as a performer, and that’s exactly why it’s so important to keep doing it.

The ‘act’ is the product we sell. Part of that includes jokes, but it’s also a mixture of all kinds of other intangibles from confidence to experience to presentation. It’s a developed persona wrapped up in a total package, and if it’s done correctly it should always evolve.

George Carlin is a perfect example. He had a 40 year career but was constantly evolving to the point of where it even changed his physical appearance. He started out with the suit and tie look and short hair, and evolved into the counterculture hippie wearing jeans and a t-shirt with long hair and a beard. His comedy evolved along with him. He kept growing.

I’m very much at that point myself, and I relish the challenge. I have more material than most comedians already, only because I made a point to keep working on it over the years while everything else in my life exploded around me. Focusing on comedy kept the bullet out of my mouth in some ways, but it also gave me something to do that I really enjoyed.

Comedy is FUN to me. It always has been. I can’t stand dealing with the club owners or the bookers or the brutal travel schedule or the sleazy motels, but the time onstage is what I live for. It makes up for all the other stuff, and if I’m going to sacrifice a ’normal’ life to get it I’m going to go about it correctly. Comedy is a craft, and it needs to be developed.

There are many aspects to that craft, onstage and off. Both are difficult. I’ve spent years which grew into decades learning the ropes onstage, and it didn’t come easy. Many nights I’d wonder if I made the right choice as I stood on the stage of some honky-tonk hell hole hundreds of miles from home hoping to hypnotize a handful of hooched up hillbillies.

Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but I did learn from it and now I’ve attained a level of expertise as a performer very few ever achieve. Why? Because I stayed with it a lot longer than most others would. Part of that is because of my love of the craft, the other is probably part stupidity. By all accounts I probably should have given this up years ago.

That being said, this is exactly why I need to keep growing. It would be easy to phone in my shows and focus on other things like I’ve seen a lot of other comics do. Unfortunately, some of those things they focused on were bitterness, booze or something else on the ugly list and it ended up destroying the act it took so many years of hard work to put in place.

I don’t think it has to be that way, and I’m going to do something about it. I never drank or did drugs, so that’s a huge minefield I avoided right there. Bitterness on the other hand has been a problem. It’s hard not to be bitter about things that are unfair in life, but who’s going to change that? The only thing any of us can do is become the best US, and let what happens after that happen. That’s where I’m sitting right now. I still can improve greatly.

A major part of that will be reworking my entire onstage act from top to bottom. Every single aspect of everything I do is up for review. It’s like totally remodeling a house that’s been lived in for 25 years. Over that time things wear out or break down and there’s a list of things to fix or improve to bring it back up to speed again. Plus, it’s good to refresh.

My act can use a total rework, and that’s not going to be easy. It’s a matter of busting up a lot of things that have been there for years, but also keeping some of the pillars in place to start rebuilding with a strong foundation. There has to be a well planned blueprint first.

My first 25 years in comedy were very unorganized. I didn’t have much of a battle plan at all other than to just get better on stage and stick it in the ass of everyone who bothered me. That was pretty stupid, especially the last part. Now, I’m not worried about what any other people think. I know where I want to go, and I hope I’m not too late to get there.

The first smart thing I’ve done is knowing what I want to do. I’ve never had that before. The second one will be doing my homework before I start. I’m going to go back in history and study guys before me and see what they did, both right and wrong. I’ve always been a student of the game, but now it’s time to dig even deeper and see what I can find to use.

Larry Wilde is a guy who published over fifty books about comedy from joke books to a classic called “Great Comedians Talk About Comedy”, which interviews a bunch of the biggest names of the 20th century from Bob Hope to Woody Allen to Johnny Carson and a lot more. Larry asks pointed questions and gets some amazing insights from the masters.

There are recordings of his interviews sold on a website called http://www.laugh.com. I have all of them and enjoyed every one. It’s fascinating for me to hear what the guys before me have to say about the craft, and it’s amazing to hear how much of it is timeless, even now.

Larry has his own website at http://www.larrywilde.com and years ago we came into contact, even though I don’t remember exactly how. He’s always been very friendly and I do hear from him on occasion asking me about something comedy related. He’s what I consider a super student of the game, and that’s what I aspire to as well. He’s on top of his business.

He’s also a great entrepreneur, something I really need to learn. I contacted Larry about buying some of the recordings he made with more obscure but equally brilliantly talented comedians like Dick Gregory, Ed Wynn, George Jessel and Joey Bishop. I told him I was interested in buying out all he had and they came in the mail today. I can’t wait to listen.

The complete list besides the people I mentioned are Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Shelley Berman, Jimmy Durante, Danny Thomas, Maurice Chevalier, Jack Benny, George Burns and Jerry Seinfeld. Those are some heavy hitters and I’m sure I’ll learn from every one.

This is the kind of stuff most performers won’t do. One, it was an investment of money. Larry cut me a deal, but it still will cost a chunk of change not to mention the time it takes to listen, make notes and implement what I learned. But, it’s worth it. I‘ll really improve.