Posts Tagged ‘Marc Schultz’

It’s All A Game

May 9, 2014

Tuesday May 6th, 2014 – Niles, IL

One concept I wish I would have grasped a lot sooner in show business – and life itself – is that it’s all a game. As wise as my grandfather was and as many lasting lessons as he taught, I don’t recall that one ever being on his list. If he said it I didn’t hear it, and I know I would have remembered.

Truth and fairness are not the determining factors for most of us, even though we’re taught that if we work hard and keep our noses clean spectacular things will happen. After a lot of lost years hoping that was the case, I am rapidly losing faith. I’m sorry, but this world is run by imbeciles.

Every once in a while someone with legitimate talent, morals and a giving heart slips through a crack somewhere and gets a nice run in the sun – but I have to think even that person knows it’s a fluke and against the odds. It just is. I wish this world were run fairly for all, but it never was.

My grandfather was a perfect example. There was not a more straight up spirit that ever walked this planet. Gramps cared about others and fought hard for what he thought was right. He treated people how he wanted to be treated, and worked hard at a job he really wasn’t fond of but it was what he had to do to support his family like he imagined an ideal husband and father would do.

He toiled and slaved at his job for the City of Milwaukee, and it came time to hand out a major promotion from within to supervisor. Gramps was totally qualified to do that job, but he lost out to another guy in his office that was a better ass kisser. I remember it crushed him at the time.

The reason this came up today is that my friend Marc Schultz organized one of his semiannual entertainer lunches. Everyone from magicians to circus acts to musicians to comedians shows up, and they’re always a lot of fun. Marc is a great guy, and I don’t know of anyone that doesn’t like him. He’s very laid back, and again treats entertainers like people and not farm animals. It’s rare.

The big lunch is held in November, but he’s been having a smaller one in spring of late. It’s at a Chinese restaurant with a private room, and we all hang out and tell war stories. This particular installment was well represented by a stellar lineup of Chicago’s finest comedy talent including Larry Reeb, Tim Walkoe, Bill Gorgo, Skip Griparis and me. That’s quite the local all star team.

Other than Bill, the rest of us have worked at Zanies regularly for decades. Skip does musical comedy vignettes, impressions and original songs and is one of the most talented human beings I have ever met. He is world class great at what he does, as are Larry, Tim and Bill at the craft of standup. And I would like to think I’ve got a few marshmallows to bring to the camp fire too.

Between all of us, NOBODY is lighting the world on fire. We’re all getting by at best, but that is as far as it goes. I have huge respect for all those guys, but like Gramps none of them – or me – chose to play the game correctly. We thought just being good at what we do would handle it.

HA! There’s the killer mistake we all made. None of us chose to move to Los Angeles and stay there, and right or wrong that’s where “big time showbiz” happens. Eventually, anybody that hits pay dirt in show business on a big time will have business to do in Los Angeles. That’s how it is.

The fact is, Larry and Tim and Bill and Skip and I happen to like living where we do. It doesn’t appeal to us to play any stupid games, and that’s why we’re where we are. Talent doesn’t matter and rarely does. It’s nice if one has it, but not necessary. All that counts is how to play the game.

This is where it gets dangerous, because unfortunately this is the truth. Nobody wants to hear the truth – especially those in charge. They know everything I just said is on the money, but it’s the 2000 pound elephant in the room. It needs to be ignored, and I have never been good at that.

It’s also easy to get in a mental rut and let bitterness take over. That’s not good either, and it’s easy to do. I have seen quite a few people on a lot of levels rant and rave, and I admit I’ve been known to do it myself. I’m doing it now, but I’m trying to separate bitterness from actual facts.

Here’s an actual fact that needs to be digested by everyone that gets into the entertainment biz on any level: only a precious few ever really “make it” on a big time level, and luck is definitely one of the main ingredients. Hard work is another. Talent does have a place in the mix but there are a lot of talented people so it ends up being a given. Very very rarely is talent that important.

The whole “right place, right time” factor really does exist. It’s huge actually, and very few get themselves in that position either. Bill Gorgo is an example. He is a naturally funny person with an exceptional talent for not only writing jokes but punching up existing ones. He’s also a funny act, and probably could have acted had he chosen that route. He’s very likeable and looks good.

Unfortunately, he didn’t get started in standup comedy until he was 40 years old. He operated a trucking company his father started, and he was the only son so when his father passed it was the thing he felt he had to do. Was he “wrong”? Of course not – in life anyway. But in show business he didn’t play the game. Could he have worked at it part time? That’s hard to say, but I doubt it.

Also, he had a wife and daughter to support and he happens to be Italian and being close to his family is important to him. He helped care for his mother for years, and I respect him greatly for all of that. He did a commendable job in his life choices, but for show business he hurt himself.

He came up the comedy ranks in Chicago at a great time, but had a glass ceiling and was never going to move to L.A. like his and my generation of comedians did. Many of those people are on as solid of footing as there can be in the entertainment jungle. People like Mark Roberts and John Riggi may not be household names, but they have both played the game correctly and won big.

One would think they would automatically reach back and grab all the talented ones they could from their past, but it rarely works that way. Once in a while it may, but it’s not the rule. Chicago might as well be Uranus, and out of sight truly is out of mind. They have their own community.

This is just how the game works, and even though a few exceptions slip through once in a blue moon it’s pretty much a standard blueprint. If one wants to truly hit the big time, one has to get connected with those that make the decisions – and that’s traditionally where the trouble starts.

Who’s to really say what’s “good” in entertainment? Sports is easy to judge. If somebody can perform physically, they’re hired – even if they’re a detestable human being. Acting and comedy and music have a lot more grey area, and a lot of it is who gets the push from the source of power.

Another sad reality is that one is either really big or really small – no in between. I think all of us at the lunch today assumed we could be local stars in Chicago and live with that. Even that did not happen, and here we all are not getting any younger and left to fend for ourselves to eke out a living WAY out of the spotlight. We play the game or don’t, and each choice comes with a price. Is it too late to choose again? Maybe, and likely. The trick is to have a plan in place and work it.

Just like Monopoly, show business - and life itself - is a game. There are rules involved, and the winners learn them early.

Just like Monopoly, show business – and life itself – is a game. There are rules involved, and the winners learn to master them early.

A Secret Agent

February 6, 2014

Thursday January 30th, 2014 – Island Lake, IL

My friend Marc Schultz is a second generation talent booker who has been around the business his entire life. His father had an office in downtown Chicago, and Marc has been able to see with his own eyes how the game of live entertainment has evolved since the ‘60s. It’s a new ballgame.

Marc has been able to adapt and change with the times, and is still in business today. He knows what he’s doing, and I have great respect for his lifetime of hands on experience in the field. We have lunches regularly, and I constantly learn from him about the bigger picture of the business.

Marc’s father used to book a lot of circus acts, and Marc still does. If you need an elephant or a high flying trapeze act, Marc is your source. There aren’t many people anywhere that know how to find those acts, and it’s been a successful niche for decades. Marc is a straight up guy and very honest, and everything is above board with him. That’s why he’s been able to stay in it so long.

Part of his evolution has been having to expand into other areas, and that’s where I come in. He gets requests for cabaret type acts on occasion, and I’m on his list for comedians. He books a few magicians, jugglers and other variety acts, and comedy falls into that category. I probably get one or two bookings a year from Marc on average, but they’re always good and they pay pretty well.

The thing that stands out about Marc is that he knows the acts he books inside and out. When a client calls and tells him what kind of entertainment they’re looking for, Marc can offer the right list of people that will do the best job for the best price. He has invested a lifetime in learning it.

That was something he learned from his father, as that’s how the game worked then. A client’s trust was placed with the booker, and it was up to the booker to deliver the goods. They had the responsibility of determining which acts were competent enough to do the job and hiring them.

As with a lot of fields, the internet has changed everything. Clients no longer need to develop a trust with an experienced booker, because every bad act and their grandma’s uncle has a website and there’s no real need for a middle man anymore – or at least that’s what most clients assume.

Marc doesn’t have a website at all, and he’s proud of that fact. He thinks the internet has ruined the entertainment business, and the more I see the direction it’s all going the more I have to agree with him wholeheartedly. It’s now a big unorganized mess, and that penalizes the professionals.

Most people that book live entertainment only do it on rare occasions. They might use it as part of an annual event like a corporate holiday party for example, and they aren’t familiar in the least with what they’re doing. They can – and often do – easily make a stupid mistake based on price.

Booking the lowest priced entertainer sight unseen is about as smart as looking for the surgeon that’s offering the best deal on a quadruple bypass. It’s always better to go with the experienced one and pay a little more, rather than save five bucks and get completely stung. It’s a no brainer.

Unfortunately, most people that book entertainment like that have no brains. They THINK they may know what they’re doing, but they totally don’t. Then prices come down for the good acts.

This has become a real problem, and I talk with Marc about it quite a bit. His clients and he are on the same page, but it has taken a lifetime to get there. He has developed a satisfied client base across North America, and much of his business comes from word of mouth. He’s done the job.

When someone that has no clue takes a stab at booking live entertainment, it’s a total crap shoot with the odds favoring the crap. If all that’s available to consult are the acts themselves, they will of course make lofty promises to “do a good job”. Then they’ll tank it and blow it for all eternity.

I’ve seen this happen in the standup comedy world too many times to count. Somebody is hired for a private show for big money because they knew someone in the company that had the ear of the person in charge of hiring, and then they’re terrible and the company never hires anyone else.

This is one of the main reasons I’m now looking to brand myself as a “business humorist”, but that’s also no guarantee there aren’t leakers in that field as well. I’ve made a point to check out a few of those people, and quite frankly I’m not all that impressed. Not many are able to pull it off.

The ultimate goal for any entertainer is to eventually have name recognition. I do to a very tiny degree, but most of that is with bookers. Marc Schultz knows what I can do, and knows I am one of the most versatile acts he can use. I have vast experience, and won’t embarrass him in a pinch.

Zanies Comedy Clubs in Chicago know it too. I have worked for them so long without an issue and produced consistent results, they know what they’re getting every time. They can send me to any of their clubs or any private event and know they don’t have to worry. That’s good for us all.

Dealing with higher paying private clients isn’t like that. They often go for someone that won’t be the best fit only because they happen to have a flashy website or a five minute video that may catch their eye. Five minutes isn’t a full show, and like a movie trailer often has all the best lines.

People like Marc are a lot more important than clients may think, but they don’t realize it. He’d charge them a fair price for the entire package – even though it may seem like it’s higher than the process of scouring the internet looking at random websites. In the end, it’s worth the final price.

Even worse is dealing with the dreaded “committee”. Every one of my orifices pucker instantly just thinking about that word. This is just the spreading of incompetence to a group rather than an individual idiot that has no clue whatsoever. I’ve lost many a booking to a committee’s brilliance only to find out they booked the wrong act and it was a total disaster. Welcome to show business.

My speaker friend Todd Hunt talks about dealing with committees all the time. He often sends me emails of rejection he gets on an almost daily basis, and they’re beyond ridiculous. But that’s how the game is played, and if I’m going to get in it and win I need to be aware of all the aspects so I can play it correctly. The focus needs to be on marketing, and that’s what I am working on.

I’ve been compiling testimonials of late, and I’ve never done that before. In the comedy world that wasn’t an issue. Now it is. I’ve got a proven track record for decades, but people hiring have no idea about any of it unless I tell them and provide people they can call to verify. I am going to do what it takes to succeed at this game. I’ve come too far to get clumped in with everyone else.

If you ever need to book a circus, my friend Marc Schultz can get you any act you need - including an elephant.

If you ever need to book a circus, my friend Marc Schultz can get you any act you need – including an elephant.

Not sure where to find this guy, but I hope he doesn't put his wallet in his back pocket.

Not sure where to find this guy, but I hope he doesn’t put his wallet in his back pocket.

My speaker friend Todd Hunt has to deal with idiots all day that are too cheap to use an agent with experience. Despite the look on his face in this picture, Todd is very good at what he does. www.toddhuntspeaker.com.

My speaker friend Todd Hunt has to deal with idiots all day that are too cheap to use an agent with experience. Despite the look on his face in this picture, Todd is very good at what he does. http://www.toddhuntspeaker.com.

Weather Worries

December 21, 2013

Friday December 20th, 2013 – Island Lake, IL

Hear that sound? That’s my bung hole slamming shut. There’s supposed to be nasty weather on the way, and it’s really scaring me. I know it goes with the territory this time of year living in the place I do, but I happen to have a lot of places I have to be in the next few days and I’m worried.

There are buckets of money in those places, and if I don’t get there live and in the flesh to pick them up I don’t get paid. They’re not huge buckets and they’re not filled with money, but there is enough at stake to make me risk driving through a blizzard to get it. I do hope that’s not the case.

Tomorrow I have to be in LaGrange, IL at 1:30pm to do an afternoon Christmas party show for Marc Schultz. I performed for this group before several years ago, and they were very nice. They hire a comedian every year, and they wanted me back. That’s very flattering, but LaGrange is far from where I’m living and if there’s ugly weather it could be a nightmare getting there on time.

After that I have to be in Milwaukee for two more performances of “Schlitz Happened!” at the Northern Lights Theater in Potawatomi Casino. On paper in ideal conditions there shouldn’t be a problem and I will make it with plenty of time to spare. Life isn’t lived on paper. I’m concerned.

On Sunday I have a booking at The Island Casino in Harris, MI which is near Escanaba. That’s in the Upper Peninsula, and that’s never an easy trip even in the summer. It’s a two lane highway north of Green Bay, and last time I did it it was winter and it was white knuckles the whole way.

The people at Island Casino are very nice to the comedians, and I enjoy working there. I enjoy working at Potawatomi too. They treat us about as well as anywhere I work, and the last thing I’d ever want to do would be to give them less than my very best show. I want to get there on time so I can relax and do what I was hired to do. Right now, I have no idea how the weather will play out.

Allegedly, the nasty weather is supposed to hit Wisconsin in the early evening and last through the night into Sunday morning. The Chicago area’s weather reports say if anything it will be later on Saturday as well. I’m going to be leaving the Chicago area in the afternoon, so I hope I’m ok.

But nothing says the snow can’t show up earlier, later, or even not at all. Usually they can get it halfway accurate that we’re going to have some kind of snowfall, and that’s what’s making me a nervous wreck. I need all of this money very badly, and I don’t want to miss any of these shows.

The biggest risk looks like on the way to Harris, but then I have to get back and start my drive to Tucson, AZ where I’ve got shows on Friday, Saturday and then New Year’s Eve. I have a few days of a cushion to get there, but not a lot. Who knows what kind of horrors await on the roads?

I wasn’t able to get a cheap enough flight to make it worth my while, and ones I did find were in and out of Phoenix so I’d have to rent a car anyway. I decided to rent a car and make the drive across country so I could spend Christmas by myself and not have to bother anyone. Again, that sounded great on paper but there’s not a lot of paper between Chicago and Tucson. There’s road, and about 1800 miles of it each way. I’m hoping I’ll be able to make it by Friday, but there’s not any guarantee. I’ll do my best, but Mother Nature has the final say. I’ll earn every penny I make.

Hopefully this won't be me in the next three days as I have to get to some shows with nasty weather in the forecast.

Hopefully this won’t be me in the next three days as I have to get to some shows with nasty weather in the forecast.

I'm fine with a White Christmas, but this is a little too white for my tastes.

I’m all for a White Christmas, but this is a little too white for my tastes.

Parallel parking is hard enough. Perpendicular parking is out of the question.

Parallel parking is hard enough. Perpendicular parking is out of the question.

These are the only blizzards I want to see for the rest of 2013.

These are the only blizzards I want to see for the rest of 2013.

Pleasure Over Business

June 29, 2013

Thursday June 27th, 2013 – Milwaukee, WI

   In a perfect world, I would have spent the entire day hard at work. I would have gotten up early and hit the ground running. I would have gotten a little bit done on a lot or projects or maybe put a big dent in just one. I have a lot of things that need a lot of work. Today was ideal to get to it.

   But alas, I totally didn’t. I didn’t lift one single finger to do anything I intended to, and it made today a total zilch as far as professional productivity goes. I guess I can’t complain that I am not getting anything done as it was me who chose to blow it off, so I have to live with my decision.

  What happened was, my friend Rick Wey was in town from Nashville and he invited me to go to a Milwaukee Brewers game with his company. It’s a trucking freight company, and they have terminals all over the country. Rick comes up about once a year to do what he does and that has usually been in the summer. It’s become a tradition he goes to a ball game, and has invited me.

   The people who work at the Milwaukee terminal couldn’t be any nicer, and they have taken me in as one of their own. It doesn’t hurt that I am from there, but they’ve totally treated me like one of their family. I feel like an employee, without having to do that annoying thing called ‘work’.

   There’s a super nice lady named Joyce Brainard who puts out a pre game spread of food fit for royalty, and today was no exception. There were Usinger’s brats, which are the very top as far as sausages go, along with all the trimmings any tailgate party could want. It was an amazing meal, and everyone who came to the party was friendly and laid back. I felt completely at home there.

   Rick also brought his dad along from Nashville. He came up a couple of years ago, and he’s an extremely interesting fellow. I don’t know how old he is, but Rick is a couple of years older than me and I ain’t no teeny bopper. His dad is a sharp fun guy, and I can tell he was a great father by the way Rick is when he’s around him. I can feel the love and respect, and it’s a beautiful thing.

   The Brewers ended up getting stomped by the Cubs of all teams, but nobody cared. That’s not what this was about. It was about hanging out with nice people and not only enjoying a baseball game, but life itself. Yes things are hectic all over, but for one afternoon everything was perfect.

   We had delicious food and plenty of it, and perfect weather to enjoy a game. There were some of the sweetest people I can think of to enjoy it with, and we had unbelievable seats right behind third base that I know cost a lot. They didn’t have to include me, but they did. That’s why I went.

   Did I have work to do? Yes, but missing one more day wasn’t going to turn my life around. It’s days like today I’ll look at in the end and smile, so this was the right choice for today. Rick Wey is also a comedian and a very funny one, but he chose to keep a stable career for his family and I couldn’t respect him any more. I’ll take solid friends like him over showbiz B.S. every last time.

   Tonight I had an invitation from Marc Schultz to go to his house and watch the NBA College Draft. We’ve come to make a tradition of watching sports drafts, and it’s another fun evening to hang with a good friend. His wife Audrey always makes another great spread of food and we can hang out and talk sports all night. Again, was it productive? Probably not in the big scheme of it all, but it sure was fun for tonight. It was baseball all day and basketball all night, but it was a lot more than just that. The real highlights were being able to spend time with some absolutely super people who were nice enough to invite me to join them. That’s a high honor, and I appreciate it.

Nashville funnyman Rick Wey - a class act onstage and off.

Nashville funnyman Rick Wey – a class act onstage and off.

The Peak Of Ripeness

June 22, 2013

Friday June 21st, 2013 – Niles, IL

   It’s the first day of summer, and once again I find another year slipping away. After today days start to get shorter again, so this is it – the prime day of the year. I’m not booked tonight, and I’m not thrilled about it in the least. I want to be out working as much as I can, and that’s every week.

   Nothing else makes me even close to happy. I’ve resigned myself to the icy fact that I’m never going to have that solid family relationship I have always wanted, but if I can’t have that the only other thing I’d ever want is a chance to be on stage entertaining people who are there to see me.

   I’ve been chasing that tricky rabbit longer than I think I should have, and I don’t feel any closer now than when I started. I have come untold light years as a performer, but nobody knows who I am so what good is it? I know I can go on stage and light up a room, but nobody powerful cares.

   Rodney Dangerfield had a great joke that said he quit show business and when he quit – he was the only one who KNEW he quit. That’s funny to anyone who isn’t living it. I feel like I’m there now myself, and I’m not laughing. I’m not even smiling. I’m panicking, and that’s never good.

   There are too many choices to make, and I have no idea which ones are correct. I’ve made a lot of stupid ones through the years, but even so I still paid my dues and developed my natural talent to the point it’s ripe and ready to pick. I’m at my peak just like today is the peak of the summer.

    I don’t want to waste any more time, as that peak ripeness won’t last forever. It will eventually get soft and rot, and the last thing I want is to be a rotten piece of fruit that fell off the tree. I have come way too far for that, so I decided to do something about it. I am not satisfied with this fate.

   In a perfect world, I’d be working six to seven nights a week in nice venues for audiences filled with my fans. I’d super serve those people, and give them my very best each night. I’d sign every autograph and pose for every picture after the show, and live the rest of my days brightening the days of as many others as humanly possible. I’ve got the ability, now I just need the opportunity.

   How the hell is that going to happen? I wish I knew. I read an interview with Lewis Black and he said he had resigned himself to the fact he’d never make it – and then he made it. I’m right at that point myself, and I don’t like it one bit. There’s no guarantee I’ll hit anything, and that rots.

   I can rattle off a dozen names of absolutely fantastic standup comedians that the public has no idea whatsoever who any of them are. Look these people up in no particular order and tell me if you don’t think they’re hilarious. I know they are, because they’ve paid their dues just like me.

   Here’s a list off the top of my head: Tim Cavanagh, Tim Walkoe, Tim Northern, Dwight York, Don Reese, Jim McHugh, James Wesley Jackson, Beth Donahue, John McClellan, Danny Storts, Ross Bennett, Keith Stubbs, Todd Johnson, Auggie Smith, Bill Gorgo, Rick D’Elia, Wally Wang and now I’m going to get in trouble because I’ll leave someone out unintentionally. Suffice to say not everyone makes it.

   I’ve said it before, and I wish it weren’t true – talent does NOT assure anyone of career success in the entertainment business. In sports it may be different, but this isn’t sports. This is a business based on subjective opinions of many that have never once attempted to do themselves what they are allegedly experts at choosing. This has always been frightening and extremely disturbing, but I don’t see it ending any time soon. There are hoops that are to be jumped through, like it or not.

   I don’t like it and never have, but if I intend to change my current status I need to suck it up for at least a little while and get back out there. There are so many places other than comedy clubs to approach, and that’s where it gets tricky. Where do I go and who do I talk to? I haven’t been able to figure it out until now, so what leads me to believe I’ll do it now? I can’t, so I need some help.

   I had lunch with Marc Schultz today, and in his world he’s in a similar situation. Marc books a variety of entertainment acts and has for years. He inherited an agency from his father, and even though he’s not a comedy booker per se I have gotten a decent amount of work over the years.

   Marc and I are friends, and there aren’t many bookers I’d call a friend first. I genuinely like the guy, and even if he never booked me again I’d still hang out with him. That’s all fine, but we put our heads together today to see what we could come up with. His business isn’t what it was, but what business these days is? We can both use a little freshening up, so we came up with a plan.

   Most of Marc’s clients are corporate types. Most of them would never hire a standup comic but he’s going to approach the ones that might. He’s always been good about trying to include me on any sampler videos he sends, and I totally appreciate it. But I can do the job, and he realizes that.

   We also agreed that Marc is going to go after club work that I haven’t gone after, for a fee. I’m delighted to pay anybody to get me work I don’t have, so this is a no brainer. If he can land some decent work, I’m all over it. I don’t want to work the toilet circuit anymore, so these will be good clubs that will pay decent money. He’s not familiar with the club market, but he’s willing to try.

   This is not a long term fix, but in the short run it could be great for both of us. I won’t be stuck doing what I’ve never liked, and it’s always good to have a third party selling me rather than me stumbling and stammering and asking for work like a vagrant asks for change. I’ve never liked it.

   Steady work is what’s it’s about in any facet of show business. Period. I’d rather work steadily and make livable wage than be a big star one minute and a has been bum the next. I’m all about a steady career with regular income. I’ve come close many times, but I’ve never been able to make it last. There’s always been a radio job to come along and shake things up in a destructive way.

   I’m not foreseeing any radio in my immediate future. That ship has sailed – or sunk. What I am going to do is cross every T and dot every I and go after all the quality standup comedy work I’m able to get. It could be comedy clubs, cruise ships, colleges or corporate. I can handle just about anything at this point, but what I can’t handle is not working at all. That’s totally unacceptable.

   I look at comics from my generation of performers like Louis CK and Jim Gaffigan, and I want to be doing what they’re doing. How did they get it? I don’t know. I’m sure it was a lot of things. Talent is a part, but so is persistence, connections, luck and who knows what else? It’s complex.

   If I don’t get myself in front of someone, I’ll never have any chance to do anything. That’s not what I want to have as my final legacy, so at least Marc is going to be out there trying to mention my name to people who can book me in decent venues. Why haven’t we done this before now?

   Neither one of us has an answer. Marc was doing his thing, and I was doing mine. Now we’ve both run out of ‘things’, and this is a logical fit – at least for now. I’m going to dive into booking myself in as many quality places as I can. No more toilets. If I succeed, my life will change soon. It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s just that where I’m doing it hasn’t gotten me seen.

A Tall Order

June 12, 2013

Tuesday June 11th, 2013 – Milwaukee, WI

   I got a call from my friend Dennis DeBondt a few days ago asking if I felt like riding along to a show he had in Milwaukee this afternoon. Dennis is a talented comedy magician, and I happened to have today free so I said yes for a number of reasons. One, I enjoy his company. Two, he has a very good act. Three, he’s an outstanding businessman and I always learn something from him.

   I met Dennis through our mutual booking agent friend Marc Schultz a few years ago. Hooking up with Marc has also been an education in that it taught me there are all kinds of people who are professional entertainers and aren’t on any ‘circuit’ per se. They make their own work, and that’s even harder than what I’ve done all these years. I didn’t think that was possible, but it totally is.

   At least in the comedy club world, there are gigs that can be rebooked indefinitely. I’ve worked for Zanies in Chicago every year for the past twenty plus years. They’ve opened and closed clubs along the way, but whatever work they have I’ve gotten usually several times a year and it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. I’ve honed my skills there, and they have a reliable solid act.

   Guys like Dennis get work where they can. He’s billed as a comedy magician, but he’s really a comedian who does magic. He’s truly a funny guy with a likeable razor sharp wit, and at 6’7” he casts a tall shadow on stage. He’s a very good magician too, but the comedy is his strong point.

   He works corporate events and private parties, and after 26 years in the business most referrals are from word of mouth from satisfied customers. Bookers like Marc use him regularly when the need for a magician comes up, but rarely does he get booked more than once. It’s got nothing to do with his talent, it’s just that that’s the nature of that end of the business. I’m not used to that.

   I’ve gotten some shows like that in my time, but the majority of my work for decades has been in comedy clubs. It’s time to branch out, and Dennis has been very helpful in throwing out ideas. He markets himself very well, and his website is www.veryfunnymagic.com. If you ever need to hire a magician for any reason, Dennis is your man. He’s funny, and can adapt to any situation.

   I’ve always been very adaptable myself, and as an entertainer in the trenches that serves as the most valuable tool of all. Having the lightning fast presence of mind to be able to adjust to most any scenario without having a full blown panic attack is a skill not everyone possesses. We do.

   Today’s assignment for Dennis was a magic show for 90 fifth graders at Donges Bay School in Mequon, WI. That’s a tall order to say the least, but Dennis is a tall guy and he pulled it off with flair and panache. He did almost a full hour, and I can’t think of many entertainers that could pull that off but also entertain their parents just as well. He has a gift, and I enjoyed the whole show.

   I’m pretty good with kids myself, but standup comedy is not the right outlet. I can tell stories to keep them entertained and there can be funny parts in them, but standup itself is generally not the right fit. Magic tricks are a perfect fit, and Dennis had them from his first ten seconds on stage.

   I respect the hell out of guys like Dennis who are not only fantastic entertainers, they also have rock solid business skills to go with it. How does a person get booked at a school to perform for fifth graders? Dennis performed for the parents of one of the mothers, and they in turn told her to book Dennis for the kids show. That’s how it’s supposed to work. I closed my mouth and opened my ears all day today, and I was treated to an entertaining show and some lessons to go with it.

Try entertaining kids for a solid hour. NOT easy.

Try entertaining kids for a solid hour. NOT easy.

My friend Dennis DeBondt entertains EVERYBODY! Hire him.

My friend Dennis DeBondt entertains EVERYBODY! Hire him.

Five Guys Fever

June 6, 2010

Saturday June 5th, 2010 – Valparaiso, IN

In my never ending fascination with marketing breakthroughs, a hamburger chain called ‘Five Guys’ has tiptoed quietly on to my radar. I’d never heard of them before until about a month ago when my friend Shelley asked if I wanted to go with her on a ‘mystery shop’.

I really didn’t on that particular day, but she asked me nicely so I said yes. They opened a new location in Libertyville, IL and when we got there the joint had lines out the door of high school kids and we had to wait way too long for our food. My patience for waiting in lines has always been low, but this particular day set me off. It was a bad first impression.

Then, just last week Marc Schultz said he wanted to ‘try out a new hamburger place’ for lunch he’d heard about. We got there, and it was a different Five Guys location. Again we had to wait in line, but this time not as long. Their joints are jumping, I’ll give them that.

It seems like these places are sprouting up everywhere out of nowhere. I noticed one up in Milwaukee a few days ago in the Bay Shore Mall, and today I had a last minute fall out gig in Indiana and saw one on the way south side of Chicago in Orland Park. I stopped for a quick burger, just because I wanted to learn a little more about the history of the place.

Apparently, the first location was opened in 1986 in Virginia. They’ve spread all around since then and there are all kinds of articles on the walls from places like Indianapolis and Atlanta with reviews of their product. This is no small operation, and it’s far from ‘new’.

It’s amazing how much work can go into something for so long and still be an unknown quantity to millions of people. I’ve traveled America my entire life and I’d never heard of this place until a month ago. Now, I can’t stop hearing about it. They’ve broken through.

So far, I’ve not heard or seen any ads, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them. I bet they do, and I’m sure I’ll come across them soon if they’re opening up so many locations in the area. They seem to really have it together as far as marketing goes, and that’s what successful entities do. They also have a system of how they cook and get the food served.

Is the product that much better than anyone else? I have to say not really. It’s only a few items, done well, and their gimmick is they have free peanuts to eat while people wait for their order to be cooked. It’s simple, but effective. Is it new? No, but there is a plan there.

Judging by the enthusiastic response of the people I saw packed into the three locations I’ve visited, they’re doing something right. I’m trying to figure out what. Are people into it because it’s new, at least in this area? It doesn’t hurt that they have high calorie comfort foods fried in grease either. Around these parts, that’s pretty much a guaranteed seller.

Still, it’s only burgers, hotdogs and fries. It’s fascinating to me how they can come into an area and make such impact. They must know what works after many years of trial and error, and they’re doing it. This is no Mickey Mouse operation. There’s big money here.

I wonder what the other burger places do to fight something like this? Five Guys has the smaller menu with a higher price, but they seem to specialize in a certain thing. I wonder who their average customer is? There’s no dollar menu, and there’s not a lot of choices.

The more upscale hamburger places like a Fuddrucker’s could be affected, but they do a great job in my opinion. Is it a location thing? There seem to be a lot more Five Guys than Fuddruckers around, or at least from my perception. This is all interesting, at least for me.

Sub sandwich restaurants present another recently crowded field, or do they? I grew up in Milwaukee, where there was Cousins and Suburpia. Both were local chains, and people in southeast Wisconsin know and love them both. Cousins is bigger, but still not national.

Jimmy John’s seems to be making a huge run for everyone’s money, and I learned that a Chicago area guy around my age started it up in 1983. It totally reminds me of Five Guys in that it’s got a very basic menu, but it’s done well. Sub sandwiches, chips, sodas. Maybe a cookie for dessert. I think that’s it. Do they have soups? Not that I know of. It’s basic.

I have to admit, I think they’re delicious. If a Cousins or Suburpia were directly next to a Jimmy John’s, I can’t guarantee which one I’d choose. I guess it would depend on how I felt that particular day. Jimmy John’s came along much later in the game, but did it right. They might not always get my business, but they have become one of the final choices.

All this very much applies to comedy in that it doesn’t really matter who came first. It’s  a matter of the system and how it’s executed. When I started doing comedy in Milwaukee there were people who were doing it longer than me, but I studied the game and was able to pass them by in a relatively short period of time. I saw the bigger picture more clearly.

That was twenty five years ago, but now I’m running the same risk of having it done to me all these years later. I’ve been doing it how I’ve done it since then, and still there are a majority of people who’ve never sampled my product. What can I do to get them to try it, so I’m at least on their final choices list? I need to infiltrate new places and set up shop.

Five Guys must have had a plan to expand, and there was a lot of work involved for that to become reality. They had to scout locations, sign leases, build out stores, hire staffs, all with no guarantees of success. They took a calculated risk based on their market research.

I won’t have as much work to do as that, but I do think my market research indicates I’ll be a player in other areas if I set up shop there. “Other areas” could include a lot of things from new towns, new venues, new target audiences in old towns. This is about business.

I realize that more every day, and I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It just is. I used to do comedy strictly for the fun and adventure of it all, and it was both. I mistakenly thought it would lead to riches automatically, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Now I’m seeing it from a much different perspective. I know what I’m doing, now I need to package it up and become the Five Guys or Jimmy John’s of comedy. I want to be the ‘new’ sensation.

Daily Due Diligence

June 5, 2010

Thursday June 3rd, 2010 – Chicago, IL

Day three of ‘Operation World Change’ and the cracks are already showing. It’s just not possible to change around an entire life in a week. Or a month. Or even a year. The Queen Mary couldn’t do U-turns either. Major changes have to be planned for very carefully and then executed gradually over time. I need to condition myself and develop positive habits.

Physical exercise is a good one. I did get out and walk today but it wasn’t at the mall. It takes time to drive there and back and I woke up a little later than I wanted to today so the cracks started there. I could have blown it off altogether, but I didn’t want to do that only three days into it. I need to develop continuity, and one way or another I intended to do it.

There’s a nice little city park a block from where I live and it has a walking trail around it with a tennis court and small pond next to it. There were some geese with babies in it as I walked past, and as I took laps the parents would hiss at me and try to shoo me from the babies. There was also randomly scattered goose poop for me to dodge as an obstacle.

I broke a sweat and was sore when I got back, so it was definitely a workout. The act of taking a planned walk of at least 30 minutes a day has to be part of my daily regimen, but I can see where it will be a challenge to get it in. I was late for an appointment but forced myself to make time. That’s fine for three days, but can I do this for the rest of my life?

We’ll see. The fact is I’m probably going to miss a day in the near future and I can’t let that take the whole program out. I need to get right back out there and do it again and not let it beat me. These first few days are important, so I’m glad I was able to keep it rolling. This life thing is a lot more difficult than they let on in the brochure. This is hard work.

I also kept my booking improvement quest rolling by having a lunch with Marc Schultz where we actually talked about bookings. Our mutual friend Chuck Field came with us to add his input, as he’s the one who hooked Marc and I up several years ago. Chuck is one of the best network builders I’ve ever seen, and I wanted to learn from him and get better.

Both Chuck and Marc offered some very good suggestions, and said I’m already ahead of the pack of most comedians just because I’m coming at it with an enthusiastic attitude. I agree that most performers hate the booking side of it, and I need to be better than that.

It’s like special teams in football. Nobody really wants to be on those teams, everybody wants to be a starter. But, it’s a part of the game and an important one and if it’s mastered correctly it can help win the big one. Special teams stresses fundamentals and can be very dangerous if one doesn’t watch extra closely during the game. Bookings are very similar.

All this keeps me very humble. I’m sure Elvis or Michael Jackson didn’t have to worry about sitting down and making booking calls every week, but they had other problems to keep them busy. This is long overdue, and I’m doing the right thing. I also need to keep a watchful eye on my onstage growth too. That also needs attention. It’s always something.

Networking Is Necessary

May 21, 2010

Wednesday May 19th, 2010 – Chicago, IL/St. Charles, IL

It’s only now that I’m really starting to grasp just how important building a network can be in terms of working in the entertainment business. People really do talk, and when I’ve been able to keep my name in front of someone who can do something for me, it’s usually paid off at least one time or another. The question is, how can I do it the most efficiently?

There’s a fine line between updating someone regularly and being a flat out pest. We’re all bombarded with emails and texts and most of those aren’t important so how can I keep my name and availabilities in someone’s head without bothering them? I wish I could say I knew, but I don’t. Nobody does. Everyone has different ways they digest information.

I’ve built up enough of a reputation with enough bookers around the country that I have people calling me for work. I do a solid job and can handle myself in most situations from a stage standpoint because I’m so experienced. I’ve seen it all and nothing rattles me, so a booker knows I’ll do the job more often than not even if there’s a flood or a wild heckler.

I don’t know how proud of that fact I am, but it’s true. I get calls from bookers all over who are ‘trying something out’ and use me as the guinea pig. It could be anything from a deaf mute biker rally to a gay lumberjack bake sale, or both. In the same weekend. Across the country. In a blizzard. And I have to be squeaky clean. With PowerPoint. In Yiddish.

Somehow, over the years I’ve been able to pull most of those kinds of shows off. That’s probably why I get so many calls for work today, but I’m still painfully lax on keeping the people who could possibly hire me informed I’m even alive. If I did, I bet I’d easily triple the amount of work coming in, and get paid more too because I could afford to be choosy.

Today Marc Schultz held a networking lunch with some of the clients he books through the year. Those are always fun, so I went hoping to meet some new people. Marc is one of the nicest bookers I’ve ever met, and everyone who knows him loves him. He invited Tim Walkoe and me, but we were the only comedians. The rest ran the entire gamut of variety.

There were magicians and jugglers and a ventriloquist and even a couple of other ladies who book entertainment that Tim and I have both worked for in the past. It was a fun time socially, but also a nice chance to network with people from another branch of a business that traditionally hires by word of mouth. This was a good opportunity for each one of us.

Occasionally people ask if I might know any number of different kinds of acts, so if I’m able to recommend someone and get them work I’m more than happy to do it. That’s how networking pays off, and I’ve had it come back to me in the past from other entertainers.

Tonight I went to Pheasant Run in St. Charles to meet in person with a small group that has been interested in a comedy class, but not enough to make an actual class. I met with them personally and answered questions they had, and I could tell they were impressed by my willingness to do so. No problem, that’s networking too. To do it is smart business.

Respect For Strugglers

April 21, 2010

Tuesday April 20th, 2010 – Lake Villa, IL

As my hectic schedule constantly evolves, Tuesdays and/or Wednesdays are turning out to be my day(s) off. That could change at any time, but for now that’s how it is. I tried my best to relax and enjoy myself, but before I knew it I was running around and now my day is history. I didn’t accomplish a damn thing, plus I’m behind on this new week’s tasks.

Marc Schultz called and invited me to lunch with him and Tim Walkoe. That’s hard for me to pass up, only because I like both of those guys very much. Tim is struggling to stay afloat like most of the rest of us in comedy and with his talent I think that’s a major sin.

That guy is FUNNY. Period. Marc books all kinds of acts, but Tim and I are his favorite comedians by far. He said we are the two he can count on to deliver in any situation and if he gets calls for comedians, we get the nod. I’m flattered beyond belief to be thought of in the same breath as Tim. I recommend you check out his website at http://www.timwalkoe.com.

Tim is one of many people I know personally who are extremely talented and should be big stars in my opinion, but for whatever reason they’re not. That’s not an insult at all, it’s just fact. I think all kinds of comedians, actors, singers and radio people should be bigger.

Phil Cianciola in Milwaukee is another one that pops to mind. I used to listen to him all the time on WTMJ’s ‘Green House’ afternoon program and enjoyed him very much. He’s a skilled news person, but he’s also sharp and funny and really adds to any show he’s part of. One day I turned on the show and he wasn’t there, and nobody explained his absence.

That’s very typical of radio and I’ve been the victim of that myself. One day you’re on a major drive time program, the next you’re fired and vaporized from the station website as if you never existed. I’m sure Phil had the same experience and I think it’s totally stupid.

Phil is bouncing back with a pod cast which can be heard at http://www.thephilcast.com. I’ve not met Phil personally yet, but I did write to tell him how much of a fan I was of his role on WTMJ and I meant it. I also sent him a copy of my CD and he said he mentioned it on his cast and played a cut. That’s very nice of him and I hope to meet him in person soon.

Dan O’Brien is another name that pops into my head. He’s a former radio guy who took my comedy class years ago. He’s very talented, but decided to take a ‘steady’ job because he couldn’t afford to keep getting fired in radio. I totally get that, but I think it’s a crock.

He and Phil should be on the air if they choose to be. They’ve paid their dues and had to lose their jobs for no good reason to appease some visionless halfwit who probably hasn’t ever had to crack a live microphone but still knows what radio needs. My aching pelvis.

Tim and Phil and Dan are three examples of many more people I respect who are out in the trenches trying to survive. They’re brave and have my full respect and support, for any bit of good that may be worth. I’m out there with them, and it’s not easy. Back to work.