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.
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.
Two weeks ago I was at Skyline in Appleton, Wisconsin. I absolutely love this club. Todd Glass talks a lot about what makes a club good is when they pay attention to the details. Cliff at the Skyline is so hyper aware of the details. It was a really fun week.
Lewis Black loves the club so much that while he was in town for a theatre show, he stopped by the club and made a video introduction for the show telling the audience, in his Lewis Black way, to be quiet and respectful of the show. It works. Those audiences are amazing. They’re smart, quiet and buy a lot of merch! I completely sold out of all the CDs I brought with me.
This past week I had one of the most fun experiences a comedian can have. I hit the road with one of my closest friends. My buddy Steve Lind and I went to Rochester, Minnesota together to perform at Goonie’s. Again, another great club! Mark that runs it maintains that fine balance of being laid back, but also running a super tight ship at the same time. He’s a great guy. The audiences were smart, quiet….but didn’t buy as much merch….step it up, Rochester!
Here’s the greatest part of performing with a friend….getting to riff back and forth both off stage and on. Steve would foreshadow my jokes and I’d call back to his and I think the audience knew they were getting to watch two friends having fun. They seemed to enjoy being part of that. And we enjoyed them too!
We also went to the Spam Museum together. Just me and Steve…the audience wasn’t invited….although that would’ve been fun if we invited everyone to meet us there! Were I alone on the road, I would’ve gone out to maybe go to the movies, but chances are I would’ve stayed in the hotel the entire time. Having a friend there means taking adventures. Adventures mean better opportunities to riff on the city with the audience. Hm, maybe I’ll see if I can write an article comparing Spam and Comedy like I did last week with Houdini and Comedy.
What I’m saying in a long winded way is that I had a blast! This weekend I’m working with Scott Gillespie at Wisecrackers in Merrilville, Indiana. I did a bit of research on him. Maybe “a bit of research” sounds bigger or more ominous than it should. I Googled Scott and I think this is going to be a fun time. He seems to be following the same path that I am in being a midwest guy who is trying to spend as much time in LA as possible while maintaining roots here. We seem to like a lot of the same guys too. I think this is going to be another great weekend. If you’re in the area, swing by. And thanks to everyone from the past two weeks!
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!