Posts Tagged ‘The Funniest Man In America’

The Funniest Man In America

April 2, 2013

Saturday March 30th, 2013 – Atlanta, GA

   Sometimes words with big meanings get thrown around carelessly, and that ruins the power of those particular words. Two that come to mind immediately are “genius” and “legend”. There are only a scant few who truly qualify as one of those, and far less that qualify as both. Today I got a chance to spend time with someone who is both, and I will be better for it for the rest of my life.

To me, a legend is a person or thing that comes along that completely changes whatever might be the perceived standard. Better yet, if there’s no perceived standard there is one set and kept up by said legend and it becomes used as the measuring stick for everything that comes along after.

Examples I think of immediately are McDonald’s, Michael Jordan and Zig Ziglar. They’ve all established their brand, and been able to maintain it even when competition has come from a lot of sources. They’re still looked upon as the leader in their field, and everyone else chases them.

In standup comedy, there aren’t many who have been able to change the game. Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld have traditionally been recognized as the top two acts of the comedy club era, but a name that never comes up and should is James Gregory aka “The Funniest Man In America.”

James is from Atlanta, and has been performing sold out shows to adoring fans for thirty years. That alone is impressive, but what makes him legendary is the way he markets himself and stays on top of the mountain in a business where backstabbing and throat cutting are par for the course.

I’ve always been a huge fan of James from afar, as I’ve known of him for decades. His name is familiar with anyone who works the road as a comedian, if for no other reason that he’s handled his business so much better than everyone else. He understands the game better than anyone else, but he also executes his plan to perfection. He has a system like McDonald’s does, and it works.

James’ manager is Lenny Sisselman, someone I’ve known for many years. He used to manage the Zanies Comedy Club in Nashville, and I always liked him personally and respected his rock solid integrity. Lenny is as honest and trustworthy as they come, and that’s rare in this business.

I’ve always told Lenny how much I admire James, and always wanted to meet him personally. I got my chance a few years ago when we were both on a comedy TV show taping for Comcast that happened to be shot at Zanies in Nashville. All the comedians went out for dinner after the show, and I got to sit at James’ table as he held court telling great stories that made us all laugh.

James has a larger than life charisma, onstage and off. He’s a true character, and one can’t help but be mesmerized by his magnetic personality. He reminds me of how wrestler Dusty Rhodes is able to grab an audience during interviews. There’s a southern rhythm that hypnotizes listeners.

Dusty is known as a microphone master, and it’s no surprise he and James are personal friends. James loves pro wrestling, and that’s another reason I’m a fan. He understands the way wrestlers create personas to establish their rapport with their audience, and that’s exactly what he’s done.

I happened to be attending the Laughing Skull Festival in Atlanta this week and I received an email from Lenny saying James would like to invite me to visit him at his house while I was in Atlanta “if I had some time.” If I had some time? Let’s cancel the festival and I’ll just hang out with James for a while. That alone would have made my trip worthwhile. Of course I had time.

   We talked on the phone, and James said he was an early riser and I should plan on coming over as soon as I got up. Fine with me. I was a bit nervous in the car because I didn’t want to look like a total goober. Even though we’d met once, we’re not that close. I didn’t want to offend the man.

I arrived at his house, and I immediately knew why James has achieved legendary status. It’s a kind of place a person drives past in stunned awe and asks “I wonder who lives THERE?” It’s an awesome sight, as is the six car garage attached to it. I knew I was in for an amazing experience.   

   James welcomed me like I was an old friend, and led me to his living room to sit down. If ever the Atlanta Falcons need a place to practice in a pinch, there would be plenty of room inside this house. It was immaculately kept, and I was afraid to touch anything but James was a great host.

He made me feel right at home, and then proceeded to tell me some stories of how he started in the business and about his family. He’s incredibly humble, and more than once he apologized for ‘talking about himself’ when in fact that’s exactly why I was there. I wanted to hear all about his life and what he did to be able to stay on top of the game for as long as he has. This was a treat.

He told me about how he’s been working since he was 12 years old, and how his amazing work ethic he learned in sales has transferred over into comedy. He was the first comedian that offered merchandise after his shows – and that includes Leno and Seinfeld. James had cassettes and hats and t-shirts for sale after shows when he was still a feature act, and it’s done him more than well.

Marketing has always fascinated me, and I listened intently as James explained how he worked his way up from being an opening act sleeping on a couch to one of the biggest comedy club acts that ever stepped on a stage in the modern era. He didn’t start until he was in his 30s, and most of the rest of us start in our late teens or early twenties. James made up for lost time and then some.

What I got for my effort was basically a one day one on one seminar from one of the friendliest comics I’ve ever met. I really feel like we hit it off, and I couldn’t get enough of his stories of the way he built his business and career. He’s known as a ‘southern act’, but he really isn’t. Yes he’s from Georgia, but he doesn’t do any typical North/South stuff or anything like that. He’s careful not to go in that direction, and his act is hilarious and clean. That’s why he’s able to sell tickets.

James also has a fantastic hook. He’s billed as “The funniest man in America”, something he’d had written about him by a newspaper reporter years ago. His website is www.funniestman.com, and you can judge for yourself. What a treat it was to spend the day with someone I’ve been such a fan of for so long, only to find out he’s a truly nice person to go along with his legendary status he’s earned in the business. I can’t wait to start implementing the things I’ve learned this week.

Off Stage Overhaul

March 31, 2013

Friday March 29th, 2013 – Atlanta, GA

   Well, it’s a good thing I’m in such a good mindset because I won’t be winning the contest here at Laughing Skull Festival. While it would have been nice to advance, I’m not upset. There were seven Chicago comedians in the contest that had over sixty entrants, and not one of us made it to the second round. Coincidence? Conspiracy? It doesn’t matter even if it was. We didn’t make it.

Some of the other comics were rather miffed, but I’ve been around long enough to know that a contest of any kind that involves subjective judging of artistic talent is about as easy to predict as which rapper will get shot next. It could be anyone at any time for any reason. There’s no logic.

I came here to showcase myself in a five minute set, and that’s exactly what I did. I thought my set was very representative of what I do on stage, and it was in front of about fifty people off the streets of Atlanta who had never seen me before. I was mixed in with eleven other acts and all of us were trying to get the attention of three judges who like what they like. It’s not complicated.

On this night in this crowd in front of these judges, I was not one of the four finalists the judges liked based on their set of parameters – whatever that may include. I’m not bitter, angry or upset at anyone and I wish the comics who won all the best. There are a lot of really nice people with a lot of talent in this festival and my fingers are crossed that the best person wins and gets noticed.

Just because I didn’t win the contest doesn’t mean this was a wasted trip. On the contrary, there were a pair of useful info packed seminars this afternoon that made it worth coming. I was blown away by the presentation Steve Hofstetter made about the business of comedy. Steve is in charge of the festival, and I’m rapidly becoming a fanatical fan. This guy is on the ball and then some.

Tom Sobel in Louisville is a booker I’ve always liked and respected, and he told me how much respect he had for Steve Hofstetter. He told me I’d be impressed with both Steve’s comedy chops and his business acumen, and he wasn’t kidding. I haven’t seen his act yet, but if it’s half as good as his offstage methods he’s going to be a superstar. I shut my mouth and soaked in what he said.

I’m not sure how many of the other comics attending appreciated it, but I surely did. He threw out some fantastic ideas, and I need to implement a whole lot of them in my own presentation if I ever intend to move ahead in the business. I’ve got work to do, but that’s ok. That’s why I came.

Tonight I did two sets at two very different venues. One was at an alternative rock stage called ‘529’ and the other was at the Atlanta Improv. Both sets were solid, and I enjoyed watching a lot of other acts I hadn’t seen before. The vibe was very supportive, and we all got along all night.

I know my business is severely lacking compared to where my show is, and although it’s never pleasant to admit a fault I freely do so I can find a way to improve. I’m going to implement a lot of what I’ve learned here as soon as I get back and I know I’ll show major improvement within a short time. Tomorrow I have a huge treat. I get to meet with master marketer James Gregory, aka ‘The Funniest Man In America’. James has kindly offered his expertise and I’ll gratefully listen.