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Lessons Learned: Comedy Club on State

Last week I was at one of my favorite clubs, The Comedy Club on State in Madison, Wisconsin.  I absolutely love this place.  Gus and Mary who own it are two of the nicest people I’ve ever had the good fortune of meeting.  Their daughters Eve and Anna are beautiful inside and out.  Joe, the room manager runs are super tight ship and is an hell of a guy too.  The waitstaff is stunning.  The bartenders all handsome.  Both on the surface and beneath it, everything about this place is fantastic.

Originally I was supposed to be doing this week as a split week where I would headline Thursday and then Eddie Brill who used to book Letterman would come in on Friday and Saturday.  Eddie got into a little trouble earlier this year for being misquoted or having his words taken out of context about female comics.  So he canceled the gig.  Instead I was working with Ian Edwards.

I Googled Ian months ago and saw that he was a staple at the Laugh Factory in LA.  Part of me had a feeling that I was going to  wish I could time travel because we’d be friends months after I got back from LA myself.    Still though, appearance wise, Ian reminded me of the intense Erik King who played the ill fated Sgt. Doakes on Dexter.  Maybe it would be a nightmare.   Couldn’t have been more wrong.  Ian is hilarious and brilliant both onstage and off.  He’s that thoughtful kind of comedian who I love listening to talk about the craft and psychology of comedy.   If you look at his IMDB page you’ll see too that he’s written for some very high profile shows and that’s evident in his word choice on stage.  It’s preposterous how deliberate he is!  It also made me giggle a little every time he’d say “preposterous” on stage.  That’s a word I associate with my dad and comedian Don Reese.  Ian is about as far opposite on the other end of that spectrum as you could be….then again, maybe not.  I’m building to something.  Trust me.

At the risk of being one of those comedians who says the stereotypical, “normally I headline”, I have to say, normally I headline.  Funny Business has been fantastic to me.  Eric Yoder knows what I do and I trust him with booking me accordingly.  Sometimes it’s nice to test the water so I go into clubs in the middle spot.  The Comedy Club on State and Dr. Grin’s are the exceptions.  I prefer to middle at both of those places because they have the budget and taste to bring in the bigger name people I’d like to work with.  Last year at those two clubs respectfully, I opened for Marc Maron and Carl LaBove.

I always have a blast when I’m at both clubs.  This time was no exception.  In addition to having Ian on one side of me I had my old friend Saurin Choksi on the other.  I’ve known Choksi since he started comedy in Detroit.  I’ve known him since he was just the one named Choksi, sort of like the Cher of comedy!  I was a fan of his even back in his open mic days.  He’s instantly likable and spoke with the same reference for pop culture that I have.   He’s since moved to Chicago and has gotten even better than he was before.   I let him crash in my hotel room and had a great time catching up.  I really hope I’m presented with an opportunity to bring him along on a gig again soon.  He’s silly and dark and what we do works well together.

Okay, let’s get to the lessons learned part of this.

I was sick most of the week with either this cold or flu that’s going around.  I was taking Dayquil during the day and Nyquil at night.  I didn’t feel 100% on stage any of the shows.  Thursday and Friday felt like 70% at best.  Saturday I maybe got up into the high 80s.   Still though, people were entertained.  They said so afterwards.  They’d buy a CD or pick up a sticker and tell me something they enjoyed.  Without fail, I apologized and told them I wasn’t feeling my best.

Saturday night, walking back to the hotel the final time Ian mentioned this.  He pointed out that when people quote something specific that you did that they enjoyed, that means their sincere and not just people polite as they walk past.  To apologize in response demeans their take on the show.  I need to learn to be more gracious and take compliments better.

That’s something I thought about for days after.  This is what I equate it to.  I love Star Wars.  Anyone who knows me knows that.  I love Han Solo.  Harrison Ford always criticizes that role saying it wasn’t that strongly written of a character.  It bugs me.  It bugs me like fingers down a chalk board.  Aside from the iconic Harrison Ford roles I grew up with, I think subconsciously it’s made me not want to really support other things that he’s done because I think deep down when he knocks Han Solo I feel like he’s knocking me and my taste.   Jeremy Bulloch on the other hand who played Boba Fett has totally embraced the role and the fact that people love it.  Obviously that part is much, much, much smaller than Han Solo.  Maybe it’s Bulloch’s promotion that’s helped make that small role something loved by so many.  I need to be less Han Solo and more Boba Fett in the future.

I’ve been putting off this last part until the end because I didn’t really know how I wanted to approach it.  Being in Madison was hard on a personal level.  It’s a city where I shared a lot of memories with someone who’s not part of my life any more.  Most of those memories were great.  I felt, and feel while writing about it, pangs of sadness when I’d walk past her favorite store or restaurants where we ate.  Madison this time was a city filled with ghosts.  It was the corner where we fought when I was so positive I was right and now a year and a half later I realize I wasn’t.  She wasn’t able to always go on the road with me.  Near the end, there were only a couple places she liked to go.  Madison was one of them.  I took traveling for granted.  I was quick to judge and criticize.   I’m glad I had this trip alone with my memories.  It let me purge some of them.  Hopefully next time I can start to build new ones.

With all of that being said, Gus and Mary who own the club felt the heaviness that I felt.  Physically and emotionally I changed.  Last time I was there I was about 80 pounds lighter.  The depression of this past year still weighs on me literally.  In the green room I opened up to Gus a little early in the week.  Before he left on Saturday he came in to tell me this.  He said that it takes rough waters to make a great captain.

It takes rough waters to make a great captain.  

I’ve been thinking about that a lot.  At first I felt like I wasn’t a great captain when the waters first got rough.  While that may be true, a great captain can’t look back at the water behind him.  He needs to look forward.  I don’t know that I’ve ever been a great captain.  I’m going to try to be now though.  I’ve gone back to the gym.  I’ve stopped the comfort eating.  I’m going to get through this storm that I’ve been circling the ship in for months and months.  My crew has stood by me and it would be unfair to them and to me to not change course.

Thank you Madison, Wisconsin.  I’ll see you next time.

Way to go, Clubs!

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!


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