I’m in Appleton, Wisconsin right now. Appleton is probably best known as the first American home of Harry Houdini. I went to the Houdini Museum today and it struck me how much I could take from Houdini’s life and apply it to comedy.
Erik Weisz was constantly reinventing himself. His earliest performing was as a trapeze artist. When he moved on to magic, he took the name Harry Houdini. For some comedians it’s easy to find your groove and stay in it. I think sometimes there’s little difference between a groove and a rut. I doubt anyone today would remember Houdini the trapeze artist, or Ehrich The Prince of the Air as he was calling himself at the time. I don’t know how many of us would even remember Houdini the magician. It’s that third reinvention as an escape artist that brought Houdini his fame.
I guess the modern day equivalent of this is Dan Whitney. He was your run of the mill road comic from Nebraska. He didn’t really stand out until he reinvented himself as Larry the Cable Guy. While I don’t think most comics need to be that drastic, I think trying new things is incredibly important. I first envisioned myself as a nerd comic. That’s fine. Lots of people are doing it and it’s popular right now. Maybe that’s the thing that struck me about that. It’s popular right now. How long could I stay relevant doing what could certainly be a fad. I don’t think nerd comedy is a fad though. I think it’s a generational thing. If you look at a lot of the nerdy comics out there, they all seem to be somewhere between 30 and 45. While I don’t identify myself as a nerd comic anymore, there are still nerdy references in my act because that’s how I communicate. If you watch Marc Maron, he explains his point of view in a much more literary means because he’s a well read guy. I watch a lot of nerdy movies. Those are the glasses in which I see the world and the way I communicate it.
Houdini was a great marketer. He had eye catching posters hyping his arrival to a town. If you look at the more successful road comics, they do the same thing. I’ve never seen the Disgruntled Clown perform, but I know who he is from his marketing. At the Funny Stop in Cuyahoga Falls,Ohio, the Disgruntled Clown had life sized posters of himself at the club plugging his upcoming date. And back to my earlier point, while I don’t know the Clown, he’s a great example of reinvention. I know he has another character named Rocker John. Comedy legend has it that sometimes he has Rocker John opening for the Disgruntled Clown giving himself the ability to collect two paychecks per performance. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I like to believe it is. I also like to picture a poor emcee on stage trying to fill time while John puts on his clown make up in the kitchen of a roadhouse in central Indiana somewhere! My friend Mike Stanley may be a person you don’t know yet, but like Houdini, he’s a great ground floor marketer. He makes beautiful tour posters that catch the eye.
Up until he died, Houdini was the President of the American Society of Magicians. He got magician groups from Kansas City to Buffalo to join. It makes me think of this new trend in comedy podcasts. You have these podcast networks like The Nerdist or Earwolf that end up taking on all these podcasts which ends up being beneficial to all parties. It gives these individual podcasts more presence and it makes the networks larger businesses. Chris Hardwick just sold his Nerdist empire to Legendary Entertainment.
On a strictly stand up level, you have Chicago super group Comedians You Should Know. I know that I reference them a lot and that’s because in addition to being great performers, they’re great business people. They’ve created a brand for themselves. I would think the next step would be satellite branches of CYSK. At least that’s what I would do in their shoes. Right now, they’re a huge thing within Chicago, but I could see them growing beyond that.
I imagine Houdini was like a lot of performers and got to be sick of his act. He was constantly inventing new grand escapes. In 1904, he did his Mirror Handcuff Challenge. In 1908, he added the Milk Can Escape to his act. 1912 was like his Louis CK period where it was just a ton of new stuff like his Chinese Water Torture Cell, Suspended Straightjacket Escape and Overboard Cardboard Box Escape. I just imagine him frustrated that he’d been a success for 13 years and getting a huge gush of inspiration to get out of his rut. He was at the top of his game, like Louis CK right now, and just wanted to keep pushing himself further and further.
Like many of the performers of today, Houdini ended up doing movies too. Brian Regan said recently that he wanted people come to see him because he was a comic, not because he was playing something on a TV show or was the voice of something in a cartoon. But in that interview, he also admitted to wanting to start looking into those kinds of opportunities. Being in a movie or on a television show is a good way to gain an audience. I’m sure Houdini knew that in his time too.
The last modern day comedy comparison I’ll make is to Gallagher. If you’re not a comedy nerd, you might not know that Gallagher let his brother take his act on the road as Gallagher Too. I believe the story goes that the original Gallagher would take half the US and his brother would take the other half. In Houdini’s time there was another performer, by the name of Theodore Hardeen, doing a lot of Houdini’s tricks and escapes. Hardeen, Houdini, the sound similar. Theodore Hardeen was born Frenecz Weisz, and was Harry Houdini’s little brother. In fact, early on they performed as The Brothers Houdini. The Weisz brothers didn’t have the animosity of the Gallagher brothers though!
Regardless of what you’re pursuing in life, a lot can be learned from Houdini. You have to keep working hard and find new things that interest you. Don’t be afraid to try new things because chances are that new thing is a lot less scary than behind bound upside down while submerged in water!
I’m returning to the Skyline Comedy Cafe this weekend. This is such an amazing club!
In the past nine and a half years I’ve performed in a lot of clubs and a bunch of them stand out for one reason or another because they do something so incredibly right. I just wanted to point a few of them out and apologize preemptively for any of the ones I forgot. When I write these, I type as I think and don’t even really go back to proof them unless a word gets underline in red! These are my thoughts as I have them. I guess what I’m saying is please book me again even if you slipped my mind this morning. Please…
The Skyline in Appleton, Wisconsin doesn’t do a check drop. If you’re not a comedian you might not know what that means. If you are a comedian you haven’t closed a show yet, you might not even know what this is a big deal. The check drop is when the waitstaff drops the bills off at the tables. In a restaurant it’s not a big deal because everyone comes and goes at different times. Being a wait person at a comedy club seems like one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Every single person is arriving at almost the same time and every single person is leaving at the exact same time! When you’re on stage, you go from being the focus of everyone in the room to losing everyone in the room at the exact same moment. At each table someone is fiddling for money. It can be very distracting. A lot of clubs do it really well. The club that does is the best is The Skyline because they don’t do it at all. I’m not exactly sure what they do, but it has something to do with table numbers. When the audience leaves, they tell the cashier on the way out which table they were at and then the settle their bill then. It’s fast and efficient. While they have their money in their hands and are in spending mode, they next walk past the comedians selling their merchandise.
During slow times a lot of clubs will “paper the room”. What that means is they give out free passes to get butts in seats. Clubs make most of their money off of drink sales, so it’s not usually a huge deal. Sometimes it sucks for the performer because if people haven’t invested anything financially into a show, they sometimes forget to invest their attention. The two clubs that stand out for me with papering are Lansing Connxtions and Dr. Grin’s. Lansing runs silly contests on their Facebook page. A lot of times the contests will coincide with the comedians that are there. The week I was headlining, the theme for the contests was nerdy movie trivia. This is great for a couple reasons. First is I’m getting to perform in front of people who share my interests. That’s going to make for a better experience both for me and them. My first show that week there was a woman front and center with a Futurama t-shirt on. I couldn’t have been happier! She’s going to have friends who she’s going to tell about the show and next time I’m there, maybe she’s back with an even larger group. I win and so does the club! The second reason is because people still feel like they “earned” a show even if they didn’t invest money in it. I think it makes the audience more engaged.
When I started, Dr. Grin’s in Grand Rapids had a house emcee who used the moniker Dr. Billy Grin. Billy kept a stack of free passes with him everywhere he went and he passed them out to beautiful women all around town. When people asked where all the hot chicks in Grand Rapids hung out, people would tell them, “Dr. Grin’s.” They were packed almost all the time! And Grin’s is the perfect experience for this because it’s in The B.O.B. with a bunch of other bars. It was one stop mating game…or whatever the kids call it.
Some clubs have staffs that honestly seem like they hate comedy. The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase is just the opposite. They love comedy there! This is great for both Roger who runs the place and the comedians. Roger has a fleet of people recommending people for him to bring in. It’s great for us too because if you can make that staff laugh, particularly Jay behind the bar, then you know you’re doing something right. It’s a great way to test material on something other than your cats…who will never laugh because that’s physically impossible for cats to do. If you look at the line up at any time on the calendar at that club you’re going to see people who are on the verge of breaking big or are currently the secret gem that only people in the know know about. Roger was booking Lynne Koplitz way before she was doing television with Joan Rivers. Roger was booking Jackie Kashian years before everyone in LA had a podcast and found a way to mention that Jackie is one of the best out there. You can see the best of the best at Ann Arbor and be like the cool kid who can say the comedy equivalent of, “I saw Green Day at St. Andrews.” By the way, I did see Green Day at St. Andrews.
Reach out to the community. Joey’s Comedy Club is open more days a week than most comedy clubs in the world. That’s largely due to the fact that Bill Bushart who runs the place does Comedy For A Cause better than anyone I’ve ever met. Being a comedian himself, Bill knows how much better it is to perform for a full house. Since I’ve known him he’s been working at Joey’s doing promotions. Probably a week doesn’t go by where there isn’t some sort of fundraiser going on at Joey’s. Those fundraisers fill the place. It’s great too because then it becomes someone else’s job to fill the seats and not the clubs. If there’s a group that wants to do a fundraiser first show Saturday, then the club is now freed up to focus on second show Saturday. Both shows benefit! When the fundraisers go well, there’s invariably someone in the audience that thinks, “damn, this was a fun way to raise money. I should do one of these too.” They get in touch with Bill and another one is booked. Comedy For a Cause is so successful at Joey’s that many times they end up having to do a third show on Saturdays! I’ve been to clubs where they’ve had to cancel a second show on a Saturday because of lack of audience. Joey’s is open six days a week and has at least eight shows every week.
Posters, posters, posters. The Comedy Club on State in Madison, Wisconsin has a great graphic artist who makes posters for every show. The posters are beautiful and are hung prominently on the street in a great location. The Comedy Castle in Royal Oak has great posters inside as well that are also works of art. I was just at Laugh Comedy Club in Bloomington. It’s a smaller club on a limited budget. Adam that runs the place is hyper aware of how much of a difference a good poster can make. The person that was designing them used a text heavy design. Adam told him that he really wanted logos of the credits each comedian had. Now you get great posters there that really stand out. Bloomington, like Madison has a lot of foot traffic and those posters hang right on the street where people passing by can see them. They jump out at you too and generate buzz. A good poster can make a huge difference.
A nice green room is heaven! The Ice House in Pasadena has nice comfortable seating in there. We had a tray of cheese and crackers. If my memory is correct, there were beverages too. The Comedy Castle has a little fridge that always has water for the comedians. The lighting in there is perfect. There’s a television in both clubs where you can watch the show. The Castle even has it where you can tape yourself right from the green room via a ceiling mounted camera pointed at the stage!
And finally, say, “Thank You”. I absolutely love The Comedy Club on State in Madison, Wisconsin and always will because my last memory of the place every time I leave is an amazing one. When they pay you, they pay you in an envelope with a Thank You card. I still have my cards from every time I’ve been there. They write you a note and the management staff all signs it. It’s a small gesture, but it’s one that makes me happy every time I think about it. When a club makes an effort like that to show that they appreciate you, it makes you want to do everything you can to let them know you appreciate them as well. Whenever I’m on stage I want to do my best, but when I’m on stage in Madison I want to do better than my best.
So thank you to these, and all the clubs that have been keeping me steadily employed all these years!