Chatting with Landau
I spent a good chunk of the past couple of years traveling around as far south as Florida and as far west as Oregon with my friend and fellow comedian Dave Landau. Dave has been one of those bright stars in the Detroit comedy scene who started shining a light on the rest of us when he gained national exposure on Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham and two seasons of NBC’s Last Comic Standing.
Dave and I sat down together in a hotel in Brookfield, Wisconsin during a week that started with the audience taking an intermission to smoke crystal meth in the parking lot and ended later ended with us not being able to get into our hotel rooms because the owner of the comedy club either forgot or assumed we would just be driving eight hours home after having performed three shows all day long for him.
I’ve traveled with a lot of comedians, but Dave has consistently been my favorite. We share the same incredibly dark sense of humor and through working with him so much and wanting to see if I could make him laugh, I started bringing more and more of that to the stage. We’ve battled personal demons together. We’ve changed more than a couple flat tires…all on my car unfortunately. I feel like we did a tour of duty together and when our discussions weren’t horrifically dark and not fit for human ears, they were informative about our chosen trade. I wanted to make sure I got the chance to share some of Dave’s words with the rest of you.
Mike: Did you start out as an improv performer in college?
Dave: Yeah. I started when I was 19 actually, which was right out of high school, because I went to high school for five years! I wasn’t really serious about it and I kind of dropped out after level A. Then I ended up going to Lansing Community College to study theatre. And that’s where I took acting classes and that kind of thing. I started back at Second City when I was 20 doing improv.
What made you jump from improv into stand up?
I read a book called “Live From New York” and even though it was basically based on sketch and that kind of thing, I noticed how many of the writers for SNL were stand up comics. And at the same time I saw a biography on the History Channel about Tim Allen which they had interviewed Mark Ridley. And I realized that Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle was right by my house so I decided to try it out there. I never really grew the balls to try it out until Martin Butler convinced me I should. He was in my writing class at Second City and he got me on stage at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase.
You were juggling both for awhile, but now you do exclusively stand up. Is that by design?
I don’t have time to do the improv like I used to. And it doesn’t pay. And it’s hard to move up in especially when the Second City was in Detroit. Because the main stage stayed the same thing for the longest time, they helped teach you, but they never helped groom talent to become a success at it.
I only did Second City briefly, but it seems in improv you really have to depend on someone else to move up, where in stand up, if you’re good and do well, you can move up on your own.
I think that’s accurate. I think with stand up it entirely relies on you because people see the talent in you and they want to work you because it’s run like a business.
I think there are less politics in stand up than improv.
Absolutely, you’re right. Improv is all politics, especially in Detroit. It was who hung out at Planet Ant. Who was friends with whoever was on main stage. Stand up is a business of yourself. Dave Landau as a stand up was easier for me to do and a lot more fun for me to do than becoming Dave Landau, product of Second City.
Is improv and art form or is it a tool towards creating art?
I think being trained in improv helped me deal with hecklers, how do deal with hard situations, how think on my feet. Even with writing it helps because if you’re so used to having to write bits it’s a lot easier to find the funny when you’ve been trained to instantly find the funny for such a long period of time. I don’t know if improv is an art form, but it’s a tool for acting if anything else. It’s a tool to get up on your feet and do something, and write a sketch about what you saw and polish that sketch and make it something good. It’s definitely a tool to create a quality product at the end, but I don’t consider it the main thing you can do. It does take a skill and a talent. There’s no doubt about that.
It seems like as soon as you started comedy Mark Ridley took an interest in you. You were headlining really quickly. How was that joining a new community in that way? Did you feel resentment from your peers?
It’s tough to know what people say about you behind your back. I remember in ’04, I had won a comedy competition in Lansing and I ended up getting a whole bunch of club work out of it. It was the first time I had any success and it was as something as small as winning a competition. I went to the Heidelberg (an old open mic show in Ann Arbor) and people were just treating me like shit. “Oh you’re going to come in here and act like you’re better than everyone else?” And they were just saying this shit to my face. It wasn’t people like Mike Kosta and Brent Sullivan and Vince Averil. They weren’t the people. They were completely supportive actually. It was everybody who actually isn’t around anymore. I think if you look at, for example, Brent Sullivan and Vince Averill were on (Live at) Gotham, Mike Kosta’s Comedy Central Presents airs tomorrow.
And was on the Tonight Show.
And was on the Tonight Show. I think those guys who aren’t shit talking you or getting angry at your success are the ones who seem to succeed because they’re more concerned with themselves and doing well than shit talking everyone else.
Jealousy is a human emotion. I certainly feel it. How do you deal with our peers, for example, Mike Kosta getting the things we want?
It motivates me. I can’t say that I’m horribly far behind him. It is hard to say that I don’t see people I started with and go, “Oh he got a Presents and I didn’t this year again.” In a way you do get hurt by it, but it’s not jealousy. It’s just because, is my hard work paying off? Were the people I was in front of, who liked me so much, when I did Gotham paying attention? I can’t begrudge anybody’s success and I don’t, because that’s not going to help me get better. All I have to do is continue to write and work hard. Jealousy is a human emotion. You’re going to want what other people have. It doesn’t matter if you work in an office, are a stand-up comedian or a garbage man. It exists in every form of life.
Mark Ridley recently became sole owner of the Comedy Castle and dropped just about everyone he was managing. How have things changed for you from having a manager pretty much from the beginning to being on your own now?
It hasn’t changed much at all. Mark still helps me. He’s not my manager; but we still work together; probably as much as we ever did even when I was officially signed to a contract. I guess the thing that’s changed the most is to find new management I’ve had people who’ve strung me along for six or seven months now say,” just give me more and we’ll figure it out.” I realize it’s because I live in Detroit and not New York or LA necessarily. I’m a club comic and I love my family and I love being home in the city where I grew up in. I don’t want to force myself into necessarily doing that and finding a manager who may not necessarily do anything. What’s the point? Let’s say I sign to a big agency and now I’m on the back burner behind the big celebrity they actually care about. The only person who’s really going to help you in this business is you.
One thing you and I both learned on the road from Larry Reeb actually was that he was surprised that you and I were both from Detroit, because Detroit has a reputation for putting out shitty comedy. Why do you think that is?
Because we have. I hate to say it and I’m sure people will not be happy. I think there is a crop of great comics though. There’s me, you, Marty Butler, Mike Kosta, Vince Averill, Brent Sullivan, Nate Fridson, Bill Bushart, even like Rob Little. The list goes on and on, but there was a huge period of time and you still see those guys around, but with the exception of Mike Green and Steve Iott, I don’t know who came out of that crop of people who are actually howlingly funny.
So you’re saying it’s not good to pull a joke book out on stage?
People who pull a joke book out on stage. There are comics who have come out of Detroit who I can’t even believe their audacity to even call themselves a comedian when they haven’t written a joke since the 80s. They don’t care about their craft. They’re just in it for a paycheck and they’re just in the way. And the worst part about it is those people are so delusional that they actually think they’re good.
What advice would you give to a newer comic starting off?
Honestly, don’t take a class. Be you. Go up on stage. Watch other comics, how they work and why they’re successful. Figure out a voice, but don’t emulate a comic. Figure out who you are. I think it’s hard to go on stage when you start to not emulate a comic and that goes for most people, but don’t do it. Work hard and stay away from the bullshit. Don’t sit in the back of the room and worry about who you think is hacky to impress your friends. Don’t go out and party. Don’t get drunk. That’s a lesson I wish I had learned for after shows. Don’t go up on stage with a beer. It’s classless.
That’s one of Mark Ridley’s pet peeves too.
Fortunately I never got bombed on stage, but many comics do. Nobody is paying you to do that. Do you want to be a dancing bear that people throw food at or do you want to be a comedian? Just figure out what you want to be and make it funny. Maybe you’re not cut out for it and you should stop. That’s what a lot of comics should do, especially these ten year long open micers who are just in the way of talent coming up and wanting to get seven minutes of stage times. It’s not for everybody. Be honest with yourself.