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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.

The Business of Comedy: Funny Business

I get flack sometimes for being friends with the Yoder family, but that’s how it’s been with every job I’ve had.  When I managed a Gamestop, I regularly hung out with district managers outside of work.  When I worked in a call center, my boss not only became a friend, but he became one of my closest friends and even stood up in my wedding.  It’s not that I’m an ass kisser, I’m just a hard worker.  I’ve been in situations too where I hung out with employees and became friends.  The only way friendships like that can start and last is if the lines are clearly drawn between work and play and no one takes advantage of the other.

My friendship with the Yoders gives me a unique perspective on the business side of comedy.  I feel lucky to get that behind the scenes point of view sometimes.   I think about this season of Breaking Bad.  Last season, Walter White thought it was all about him.  As comedians, we tend to do that a lot.  Now that Walter is running the show, he’s seeing how much work goes into the business.  He was just one piece in the puzzle.  Yes, like a comic, you could argue that he’s just about the most important piece, but there are still lots and lots of other pieces.

John Yoder founded Funny Business years and years before many of us ever picked up a microphone.  Now he’s taken more of a back seat approach to the family business and turned the reigns over to his three sons Jamison, Eric and Michael.  I got a chance to bounce some questions off of the two elder brothers (because Michael’s dashing good looks are too hypnotic) to give you a behind the scenes look at the company that employs so many of us.  I hope you enjoy.

I was surprised when I found out how long the Yoder family had been involved in show business booking and the fact that it sort of started with music.  Can you tell me about the history of Funny Business?

Eric: Well, to keep it short and simple – my dad, John Yoder, started out in college booking bands for some of the bigger local music venues.  Later he also begin running a foreign film arts theater here while continuing booking bands. An opportunity came up for him to break into comedy right before the boom hit and became a major player in the years to come as somewhat of a pioneer in the comedy club world.  When club business slowed down a bit, he made the wise decision to diversify into the college and corporate markets and we have continually been building off of all these over the last many years.

A lot of comedians are quick to want to move to New York or LA, but it seems to me like a bulk of the paying work in comedy is in the Midwest.   Have you noticed a trend for where some of the cities where comedians are coming from besides New York and LA?

Eric: I would say that it really depends on what you are looking to do, and which direction you want to head in your comedy career.  I see some incredible acts coming out of the Minneapolis and Chicago areas over the last couple years.  The Detroit scene has been steadily rising as well, and I can see it returning to its former glory as a comedy and arts hotbed.

NYC and LA have always been the cities to be in for TV, Movies and for acts looking at specific careers in comedy.  They both have their ups and downs.  I believe the Midwest has some of the best club crowds for comedy, and for those just breaking into forming longer, full feature and headliner sets, there are more opportunities to do this, and more stages that provide the necessary stage time. In NYC and LA – it’s a lot of places providing 5 or 10 min. sets, which is great for building that short tv set , but not so much building a full 30 or 55 min. set that almost all clubs require.

With the internet and all the opportunities on it, there are so many things you can do to gain exposure and build your “brand” now despite where you are based out of.  But of course a time will always come where you need to decide what you plan to do with your career and if living in a city like LA or NYC is going to provide you with more resources for that goal.

Funny Business has had much more of a presence in a lot of the festivals in North America.  What do you look for when you go to these?

 Eric:  Festivals are a huge part of my role as a club booker, and they are great because you are able to see so much talent over the course of a couple days, that are all already hand-picked acts – thus giving you the opportunity to see some of the top talent all in the same venue(s).  It’s also a chance to have face time with a lot of acts you may deal with regularly but don’t always get to meet face to face.   I look at each act in comparison to the clubs I book, and what markets I seem them being the best fit for.  I look for all the usual things, unique – well written material, confidence, stage presence and experience, etc. and a lot of time it’s a no-brainer who stands out to you as someone you want to get on the books right away.

Very successfully, Funny Business has helped out a lot with Gilda’s Laugh Fest in Grand Rapids.  How did that union begin?

 Jamison: I think they originally got in touch with us through the owner of The Bob. Knowing that we book Dr. Grins here in town as well as several corporate events and our roots here in the community was what got us started. From there it’s been a great marriage with a great organization and group of people we really support and work very well with.

The first two years of Laugh Fest have been humongous!  I know you can’t really say much now, but I know planning for the following year pretty much begins as soon as one year wraps.  What can people expect in 2013?

Jamison: You’re right…Can’t say much.  Suffice to say that people can expect the same caliber and diversity of talent as the past years. Our hope is that each year builds on the next and support and visibility for Gilda’s Club continues to grow along with it.

So we’re getting ready to go back into the busy season of comedy when you’ll be booking emcees again.  For people looking at transitioning from open mic to emceeing, what’s the best way to get noticed by you?

Eric: Performing at open mics in clubs we book and asking the club owners for referrals are a quick way to get on my radar.  We speak with them frequently and they always mention the acts they see consistently improving and who they would like to see given a chance to host a weekend – sometimes we don’t always agree, but it definitely will put them at the top of the pile for review.  Having quality tape, with minimum 10 mins of CLEAN material, suitable for an emcee set is important and almost ALL bookers require this.

Another important thing is being prepared.  Have all necessary items before emailing bookers.  Know what they will want/expect from you.  Come across as a professional, it is essentially a job interview when applying to work at a professional level.  Check your references, I’ve had guys use references, probably assuming we won’t check – then those references have no idea who the act is that used their name.  That automatically puts a bad taste in my mouth, personally.  Their also a handful of acts that work regularly for us that have consistently introduced us to high quality acts, so names they bring us we tend to take notice of quickly.

 What do you and the clubs look for in a good emcee?

 Eric: Clean material, confidence and good energy.  An act open to feedback and willing to be taught.  They need to recognize their role as an emcee.  You are NOT the star of the show.  Your job is to warm up the audience, promote the venue and the acts on the bill – not yourself.   Being humble and recognizing your position on the bill is important.  Hosting is not an open mic – and not the time to try out new material.  The audience paid for this show, and deserves your top performance.

Eric was surprised when I told him I thought it was easier for me to go from middle to headliner than it was to go from emcee to middle. The reason was that I felt I didn’t have to ask for it.  The clubs where I started closing the shows at first were the ones that requested me to do so.  Generally speaking, how do you decide to move people up to the next spot?

 Eric:  Typically at the time you are prepared to move up to the next level, we are already hearing that you should be.  Sometimes mentioning or making your case to be moved up is what needs to be done, but at that point most of the time we’ve already begun to get that type of feedback.  We closely check progress, and monitor feedback and new clips, performances, etc.   The biggest mistake some comedians make is pushing to move up before they are ready.  It’s important to be honest with yourself about where you are at.  Asking for honest feedback from club owners and comedians you work with is important.

The business side of comedy is so incredibly important.  Is there one thing you think all performers, in general, could do in order to be better business people?

 Eric: Ask for advice, take the time to learn and soak up knowledge about how the other side works.  I see all the time that the acts that are consistently working on writing, building content, contacting venues/bookers and actually putting in full days of work to build their career tend to genuinely reap what they sow.  The comedy business isn’t just writing and performing, it’s learning, promoting, building and growing your own business – and you are your own business as a comedian.  Balancing working on your act and learning the business side of comedy is incredibly important.

If a bar or a club are looking to either start comedy or have someone help them with booking, how do they get in touch with you?

 Eric: They can check us out online at www.funny-business.com for more info and to request quotes – and we are also always available to discuss further via phone at (888) 593-7387.

Thanks guys!

Week in Review: The Capitol (Conscientious Version)

Okay.  Earlier in the week I wrote a whole recap of my week in Lansing where I focused too much on one thing.  Ever since posting that I felt like I had two little angels on my shoulder.  One looked like Jamison Yoder and it kept telling me, “Really? Is that person ever going to take work from you?”  The other looked like Mike Green and it was laughing and saying sarcastic things like, “Way to take down a giant like blah blah blah!”

Here’s the important things to take away from the weekend.  I love Lansing Connxtions.  Tina does an amazing job of running that room.  You can feel it in the air that every employee there is having fun…but still doing a good job at the same time.

Jeremy Greenberg is one of the hardest working people in comedy and has a bunch of great books for sale on his website.  I’m always flattered that Zak Engeland volunteers to come out and MC for me because I think he’s fantastic like a younger Marc Maron.  Allyson Hood is one of my favorite newer comedians who’s inspired me a lot.  She did sets and I always enjoy watching her work.  She’s found her voice so quickly!  Matt Clark emceed the rest of the week and he’s a good kid.  Hosting is the toughest spot.

The word “oriental” when used to describe people still bothers me.

How to be a good MC

I feel lucky that I’m in a position where I get to scout new talent for the Funny Business talent agency.  Here are 11 tips and tricks of the trade.

When I started in comedy, if you lived in Michigan and you wanted to work for Funny Business there were two ways in.  You could either hope for a recommendation from the go to person at that point in time or you could trek out to Grand Rapids and hope to dazzle Funny Business owner John Yoder in the three minutes of stage time you’d get on the open mic show at Dr. Grin’s.

Read the rest of this entry

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