Mike and I take a walk down memory lane and discuss how things were different when we started and how things are currently in the open mic scene in Chicago. I think there’s a lot of really good information here particularly to the newer guys doing comedy. So I hope you enjoy and pick up something useful.
Without any huge credits, Mike Stanley has managed to become an “event” comic. When he comes to town, his loyal fan base often times sells out shows. I’ve been friends with Mike since his start in comedy and one thing he had from the very beginning was a ridiculously strong work ethic. He was always constantly writing and perfecting his craft. Years later, Mike’s work ethic has carried over to the business side of things. He’s a master of self promotion and is still continuously working on new creative endeavors in addition to his rock solid stand up.
Mike and I sat down at the Comedy Castle and talked about his work ethic, the differences between Chicago and Detroit comedy as well as the hardships of the business.
It’s been about nine months since we worked together and a lot has happened for you since then. Your DVD is out now.
Tough Luck Chump is out and available on my website mikestanleycomedy.com and will be in store in the next few months.
It’s not just a live DVD; there are a lot of bonus features. Included is the documentary about you. Tell me about that.
Salty Language, Peppered Morals is a featured length film documentary directed by Chicago filmmaker Andrew Zeiter who followed me to the Boston Comedy Festival. It’s a nice little peak into the window of someone competing in a festival.
You recorded your DVD at the Lakeshore Theater, which is closed now.
Yeah. I guess they’re going to open up a Laugh Factor there now. A lot of the local Chicago comedians are skittish because they’re worried they’re not going to get work there because they’re going to fly in people from LA. The Lakeshore was always one of those places that put up local guys all the time to open for the big names. I lived literally a block away from there. I was opening for Brian Posehn, Nick Thune, Andy Kindler and Stanhope was there. All my friends, we were opening for all these great guys. It was amazing. It was a dream come true. So hopefully they keep using local guys to open for these high profile guys.
Did you do the DVD yourself or did you go through a production company?
That’s such a huge mess and huge story behind that. It took two years to get that to happen. I was going originally to do that on my own, but my friend Danny Bevins from LA wanted to do the Lakeshore. So we locked down the Lakeshore and got a date. I had this film crew who is amazing called Hoffman Media who filmed pick ups for The Dark Knight. They were great. They came in with HD cameras. I was working my ass off to promote the show, but I was going on tour. It was in the middle of the summer. We sold about a third of it. The camera crew was there, but we had no one to do sound whatsoever. There was a broken air conditioner right above the stage where the only mics were.
We got the footage back and it looked beautiful, but sounded awful. The crowd was real tight. It was a shit show. Danny was friends with Dan Schlissel from Stand Up Records who came out. He said he’d put it out. Then we got the footage back and it was just dog shit. None of us were happy with it.
We did another show. I was hanging out with this dude who said, “We’ll get some people from Craigslist who have cameras to shoot the footage.” They came out and filmed it. Dan Schlissel paid that guy for the footage. That guy was supposed to edit it and do all the artwork, but he took the money and ran. He left me with the hard drive. I was stuck with all the footage and no idea how to edit anything. I had a record label waiting for me on the project. So I’m stuck with everything and had no wherewithal on how to edit or do color correction, soundwise, nothing, no idea. Luckily Andrew Zeiter from Salty Language, Peppered Morals stepped up and said, “Hey do you want me to help you with this?” I sat down with him. We edited, color corrected and did sound for the entire thing. It turned out well. It wasn’t HD like the originally footage, which was so fucking beautiful. It was heart breaking, but I got it done and it’s over.
We sent it to Dan Schlissel and he said, “It looks good, I’m happy and it sounds amazing.” The second was even better because it was sold out and the crowd was fucking incredible. It worked out. It was literally two years of straight up anguish and getting dicked over by people. It was a fucking nightmare!
Very early on you became friends with Danny Bevins.
I became friends with him when I came back here and was emceeing at Joey’s. That’s funny to me because I think that’s the only show I emceed at Joey’s. Danny was headlining and we just clicked. I wound up taking him to Bart’s. We became instant friends.
I worked with Danny’s friend John Bizarre there and he and I clicked right away too. He actually introduced me to Scotch! John did Danny’s documentary “Comics On Duty: We Love You Mrs. Bevins”.
I don’t know John personally.
I loved him! Great comic and awesome guy.
I’ve seen his stuff. He’s a super funny guy. He’s really funny in that documentary.
Have you done overseas stuff?
I haven’t done any? Do you count Canada?
How far into Canada?
Bevins and I were supposed to do Edinburgh this year. I don’t know what’s going on with that.
The Fringe Festival?
He was supposed to do Fringe and then there was a club that was giving him three weeks and he picked three different guys to open for him. I haven’t talked to him in awhile about that. I’m glad you brought that up.
You accomplished a lot in the short time you’ve been a comedian.
I feel like that’s the thing you have to do. Sometimes you feel like you’re spinning your wheels and like this isn’t going anywhere. But every now and again and then you do have to go back and look at the things you have done. And you’ll go okay, this is working. I am getting progressively better. I’m making steps. It’s brick by brick.
You have such a strong work ethic when you’re at a show to where you don’t believe the work shift starts when you hit the stage and ends when you get off the stage. When you’re in town, you treat it like that’s the whole Mike Stanley experience. You’ll hang out with the audience after the shows so they’ll get excited that they’ve connected with you and then they’re excited next time you come to town.
Well, there are two parts to that. One of them is kind of skeevy! (Laughs) That’s just a way for me to get free drinks! But secondly, you do end up meeting some pretty good people. It is a good way to connect with people because people want to feel like they’re part of something. You can meet some really great people on the road. It brings them back and it brings their friends back because they hear about you. Then more and more people show up. You can build a presence in a town. The unfortunate thing about what we do is bookers only bring you back once a year and if you miss the boat on that, then you’re not getting there until two years later. Then hopefully they still remember you and bring their friends.
I kind of like that. Your background is like mine with the band thing too, right?
With a band, if you’re playing in town once or twice a month then the novelty wears off and your friends don’t want to come out as much, versus coming back once a year and then it’s an event.
A band can play a town and people will come back because they want to hear those same four songs that they love again. But with us, they don’t want to hear the same shit over and over again. You have to come back and have new material because they’re like, “I already heard this, what’s next? I know the punch line, I know what’s coming.” When I come back to Michigan to do shows that I put on, which do really well, I’ve got to make sure I have at least ten minutes of new material otherwise people will go, “I was at this show five months ago and this was the same one.” It pushes you to write more and have new material and ideas to bring to people. An audience doesn’t want to hear the same shit over and over again.
You ended up moving to Chicago a couple years into starting comedy. What are the differences between comedy in Detroit and Chicago?
There’s a huge difference. I come back here and like, tonight I’d like to hit a couple open mics, but that’s not going to happen. There’s nothing going on. It’s a Friday night and nobody is putting on shows or showcases. If you’re not at a comedy club doing a paid gig, that’s it. There are no showcases. I’m not trying to knock it, but I really want that here. I wish there were showcases. I wish there were guys who were collectives and putting on shows of their own and bringing in guys who they think are funny and putting on really great shows. I don’t really know a lot of the new comics in Detroit. It’s changed since I’ve been here.
That is a difference from when we started here and there were multiple opportunities on a few different nights. There used to be open mic opportunities seven nights a week. Now the closest thing that’s left is Club Bart on a Thursday night and sometimes comedians at the Castle will head over there and do a set. Now the newer guys are doing off night shows for when they can’t get on at the clubs, but there aren’t any shows that I know of on the weekends.
I feel like in Detroit people are afraid to start an open mic on a night where there’s already an open mic. My thing is, if Bart’s is on Thursday, why not start an open mic someplace else on Thursday in Ferndale where there are a ton of bars? Let’s face it. Detroit is spread out. There are so many places we’re all going to go. Wouldn’t you love to go into Ferndale and do the Crabshack or whatever at 8:00, scoot down to Bart’s and do another set, then scoot down Snickers or whatever and do another set? That’s how it is in Chicago. You can do three or four shows a night. There’s no animosity between the producers of those shows because even the producers will duck out and have somebody else MC the show while they’re out doing another set somewhere else.
There are plenty of open mics in Chicago, but there are also a lot of people creating showcases. It’s five or six local comics of guys doing ten minutes. It’s a paying show. It’s five bucks. They produce is well. They promote the shit out of it. And that’s one thing that doesn’t really happen here. There are guys in Chicago literally out of the street handing out flyers, talking to people, and creating a buzz. And those guys will book good local guys, guys like me who are out on the road. Newer guys get a shot to do ten minutes in front of a real crowd who paid. Everybody gets paid. It’s only fifteen or twenty bucks, but it’s a Tuesday night.
Do you think it’s an age thing? You and I, in our thirties, are from an era where we’re pre-internet and social networking.
I think it’s a lazy thing. Age has nothing to do with it.
But, now people just create an event on Facebook and they’re surprised that no one shows up. Well, you have to do more than that!
Yeah, you have to go out and talk to people. Make posters and put them around. Plaster flyers. Talk to people and tell them what you’re doing. Get the energy going and create an awareness.
They were posters I made. Nobody is going to do it for you in this business. The days are gone when someone is going to walk in and say, “You’re a star. I’m going to produce you. I’m going to get you this. And I’m going to make you that. Let’s make you shirts and stickers!” Those days are fucking gone. You’ve got to do this shit yourself. You’ve got to hustle and that’s the bottom line.
How have things turned out for you versus how you thought things were going to be?
I never was delusional about thinking I was going to blow up and end up on television a year after I started. There are some things I’d really like to do at this point. I feel like I was capable of doing “Live at Gotham” while it was on. Again, it was one of those things where I didn’t hustle enough to get out to LA or New York and talk to the right people. It was by my own volition that it didn’t happen.
It seems like a lot of Chicago guys make the jump to LA.
A lot of them do and they do really well.
Do you think that’s because they’re used to the showcase shows in Chicago where they end up developing a really strong ten minute set versus what I think is one of the draw backs to Detroit, which is –
They’re playing the long game wanting thirty minutes or 45 minutes to do the headlining set because that’s where the money is. If you look at Chicago, there are guys who can do a ten minute set and blow me out of the water and they’ve only been doing it two years. But that’s all they do is ten minute sets. I can’t touch that. That’s their craft. I’m more of a long winded guy now. I’m going out on the road
and doing an hour long show or an hour and twenty minutes. I can do ten minutes, but it’s going to be choppy. When I headline a showcase in Chicago, it’s fifteen minutes. I have to put together a good fifteen minute set and that’s good for me because it’s outside my comfort zone. So I have that and I have the long game. Now, one’s good for television and the other is good for pitching to Showtime and go, “Hey, I can do an hour and ten minutes, here’s a good set. You can take this and if you want to buy it, you can buy it and we’ll move forward from there.”
Is it hard for you to switch gears?
It’s hard for me to do a feature set here tonight! I’m like, fuck, what am I going to do? I kind of like that pressure though. If there’s no pressure then it gets stale and boring. It’s a good tool to have in the shed being able to do a 25 minute set or a 10 minute set or an 8 minute set or a 4 minute set. When I went to Boston, it was a 4 minute set. Four minutes? What the fuck do you do in a 4 minute set?
Yeah. You write longer pieces, so what do you do in that situation?
I can’t even do the more long winded pieces in a feature set, because I don’t want to lose everybody. You hope there are enough punch lines there to keep people going. It’s just one of those things where it’s good to have those sections where you can say this is a good 4 minutes, this is a good 8 minutes, this is a good 25 minutes, this is my hour and half. That’s what I want. I want to be able to do an hour and a half and have people with me the entire time.
You’re working on a bunch of different projects like the web series.
Infrequency is the web series. Yeah, I haven’t really talked about that because I just wanted to keep it under my hat until it was done.
Then maybe we won’t talk about that.
No, we can talk about that, because it’ll be out in the next week.
(Mike showed me a sneak peek and it’s really well produced. There’s a musical moment in there that’s stuck in my head a week later! I just did a google search to include a link within this interview, but it’s not up yet. Keep an eye out for it. I’ll post it on here too once it’s up.)
So let’s talk about it in broad terms. A lot of Chicago stuff came into my radar when you moved there. One thing I noticed is a lot of the Chicagoguys create stuff just for the sake of creating stuff. Like you created those PBR commercials.
There are a lot of collectives in Chicago. There’s a group called Comedians You Should Know. It’s almost like an ensemble or a cast. So when they’re not performing stuff they want to do things to promote their rooms. So how do you do that other than going out and flyering? Why don’t you put on some sketches with the guys and put out a promo piece for it? It’s just a better way to promote the show other than just putting up a poster. There’s the Comedians You Should Know and the Chicago there’sChicago Underground Comedy which I’m a part of. For the most part everyone out there went out there for a reason. A lot of them have TV and film background. A lot of them want to be actors as well. So if you have all these people who have all this creative insight, put that into place.
Why doesn’t that happen here?
Things here seem so divided. I think it really has to do with how spread out metro Detroit is. In Chicago, everyone is ten minutes away from one another, but here some people like in Hazel Park, Ferndale, Royal Oak, Livonia, Westland, Ann Arbor and downtown. Didn’t Matt McClowry, Pete Weiss and Adam Sokol do some sort of Motor City Collective for a little while that petered out?
Yeah, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with my television show Deadpan. I wanted to showcase as many Detroit guys as I can. Maybe this is a grass is greener thing, but Chicago doesn’t seem to be as cliquish as Detroit.
When I first moved there is was super cliquey. I felt like an outsider. There were a lot of guys who were super pompous because they were the top guys in Chicago. I got called a club comic a lot when I first moved out there. It was really annoying.
Because it was used as a derogatory term.
Yeah. They had established a scene in Chicago and I wasn’t a part of it yet. I was the working the road. So they were like, “Oh, he’s just a club comic.” Fuck you, funny is funny. I should be able to do what I do anywhere. So, I’m not an alternative comic.
The big guys who moved from Chicago when you moved to Chicago like Kyle Kinane, TJ Miller and Kumail Nanjiani do clubs, but would be considered alternative comics.
It was a validating thing for me. I felt like they didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about when I was being called a club comic. I felt like I was working with guys who could do clubs too, but they weren’t doing it. They were staying in Chicago in their own backyard and inside their comfort zone. I was being called a club comic in Chicago, but I’d go on the road and they’d say I was alternative. Nobody knew what they were talking about. Do you think I’m funny or do you not think I’m funny? Any other title you want to throw on me, well, that’s on you. I’m not going to typecast myself. I’m just going to write what I write
Do you think maybe now that the general public’s taste has matured maybe what was considered alternative comedy is actually the mainstream club comedy.
Now, money wise it’s an awful time to be a comic. When you hear about how great things were in the 80s versus the money we make now. I feel like there’s a lot of comedy out there now. Especially with Comedy Central Presents. And Last Comic Standing, like it or not, it’s shining a light on comedy. People are looking at it and wanting to go to a club and watch live comedy.
With so many clubs closing down, what do you think the future of live comedy is?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. You guy to a city like Chicago or New York and these comics starting their own rooms because they can’t rely on clubs. Clubs are sinking ships. I just got an e-mail yesterday that the club I was supposed to be at in two weeks just closed down.
Start your own room. I didn’t get booked at Joey’s for two years, so I just opened my own room and selling it out every time I went.
Do you think the future might be the theme show? It started with the Blue Collar Tour or the Axis of Evil or the Kings of Comedy, now withComedians of Comedy and even with this Sully’s Traveling Road Show we’re doing together and stuff like that, the theme just seems to be “good comedy”.
I know that formula works really well in Chicago. Like with Comedians You Should Know, and I keep talking about them because they’re my friends.
Their album is coming out.
Their album came out and went to #1 on iTunes. Here are five guys who are fucking hilarious and maybe aren’t getting a lot of club work, but are putting on amazing shows in Chicago, not with just them, but they were bringing in guys like me and guys who don’t work Zanies. They were throwing these great shows. They were busting their asses, promoting and doing it right and taking it serious because they wanted something to call their own to perform what they wanted to perform and not necessarily what a club owner wanted.
How many clubs do you walk into and the people who work there you wonder, “Why do you do this? You clearly don’t like this. You don’t like comedians and you don’t like comedy. You’re just punching a clock. You create a shitty awful vibe for people.”
That’s one thing I really love about the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase.
Roger is great.
Yeah and I went to see Marc Maron in Pontiac and Jay and Helen from the Showcase were there. I asked them why they were at a comedy show on their off night and they said asked, “Why do you think we work in a comedy club? We love comedy! We do you think we all work there?” That’s why the Showcase is so great because you can feel that.
Madison is the same way. A lot of the guys who work there are open micers. I just did a showcase in Chicago and three of the guys who work there showed up and two of them did sets. We hung out. That’s awesome.
It just creates that vibe. It’s not even on the radar of some of these people who work in clubs. They just punch a clock and it’s a business to them. I understand that yeah it’s a business, but go work in bank and crunch numbers. You can really tell the difference between a club where they actually genuinely like comedy and where they just don’t give a shit.
I just did an interview for Jeff Conolly’s Nerd Comic Rising podcast where Jeff is chronicling his journey in comedy and interviewing some of the people who have been at it for awhile. One of the things that surprised me is that he said I have a reputation for being a good go to guy for the newer guys. And for me, that’s just the way Bill Bushart guided me and always gave me advice that I knew I could count on. I still appreciate that and I just like to return the favor. Now you’re a master of your craft. What advice would you give to Jeff and other new guys?
Get out and get as much stage time as you can. Don’t worry about failing. You’re going to fail. It’s trial and error. You have to suck at it in order to get good at it. Don’t be afraid to suck. As long as you’re saying what you want to say and you’re honest and writing what you think is funny. Everything should work out for you. There’s no reason to have an ego or be a dick to anybody. None of that is going to get you anywhere.
Just write. Write your ass off. Write down everything down you find intriguing or funny or even mildly interesting. My room looks like, you know how when you’re watching, a TV show and they’re trying to solve a murder and they got the board with the sticky tags everywhere and lines with this goes there. It’s like the movieMemento. There are notes and sticky tabs and tape recorders filled with tags and jokes that didn’t work last year. There’s shit all over the place. I know this will work somewhere down the line. Save everything! Have a good time and don’t be a dick. It’s not that hard to be a decent human being. Hang out with comics and creative types and bounce ideas off of one another.
Bill got me my first paid gig.
Do you have anyone you write with?
No. I don’t necessarily have anyone I write with, but Bevins and I are really good about working together. We both have a really similar work ethic. Where I can say, “Oh I’ve got this idea and I want to work it out and tag it with something like this”, and maybe he’ll reword it and we’ll do the same back and forth. Dave Landau and I were doing that too when he came out to Chicago. I haven’t seen him in forever.
Dave is one of those guys and Marty Butler as well. We’d bounce shit off one another and then you can go out and do shows with them and you do the joke that night and after you can say, “Hey we worked on that and it’s funny as fuck.” It’s just fun to bounce ideas off of people.
I remember giving jokes to people because they wouldn’t work for me, but I’d say, “This sounds like you. Give it a shot. It’s more up your alley. If you like the idea, keep it, write a tag or do whatever you want with it.” Or if you watch someone on stage and say, “Oh you know what would be a good tag for that?” Guys in Chicago do that all the time when we get off stage, someone will hand you a note and say, “You know that bit? What about taking it in this direction?” And you go, “Oh fuck, I didn’t even think about that!” Because when you’re on stage, you’re so busy performing, you don’t let your head work as a comedian and you miss out on an opportunity or an avenue.
And it’s rewarding when you offer someone a piece, they try it out and it works.
I need to download the Comedians You Should Know album because when I worked with Mike Lebovitz at the Skyline, I offered him a different way to go with one of his jokes and now I want to see if he used it and if it works.
It’s fun to do. Guys in Chicago do it a lot. I’ve got a couple long winded bits where the crowd is with you or they’re not and then someone writes you a tag that’ll cap the bit.
I have a longer bit about Spider-Man that I wrote with Steve Lind and Bob Phillips. It initially started as a joke for Steve, but it wasn’t working for him and it makes more sense for my voice. I love telling it because there are parts that are so distinctively Steve and Bob. It makes me think of them every time I tell it. I wrote the end, and while it doesn’t end strong, it’s a fun joke for me to tell.
Have you read the book Sataristas?
Paul Provenza wrote it. It’s a big coffee table book with gorgeous photography and Paul interviews a series of comedians and satirists. One of the biggest lessons I learned in it is from Billy Connolly where he talks about how he doesn’t hold himself to the convention of having a punch line at the end of a joke; maybe it’s in the middle. I’ve tried to get braver about that.
I love Billy Connolly. Maybe there’s something kind of comforting in that too from an audience stand point. It’s not like your typical set up, punch line twist. Maybe it’s one of those things where they feel like, “Oh this guy is just talking to us and he happens to be really funny.” I always like guys like Stanhope or Jim Jefferies or Glenn Wool who are just hilarious and are just dudes talking to you. It’s not like here’s the joke, here’s the part where you laugh. They’re just telling you stories that are hilarious. Sometimes the hardest laugh is in the middle of the bit just because thematically, that’s how that event took place.
The bit that you’re closing on this weekend is one of those. There are big laughs throughout, but I think the biggest joke is somewhere in the middle.
It’s a true story. It wasn’t going to be my closer, it’s just one of those stories I was telling on stage and after you pop a Certs in a clam, where do you go?
If there’s a winner and a loser in comedy, often times you’re the winner in your jokes. Is it a conscious move on your part to end your act on a joke where ultimately the other person wins?
No. I never even thought of that actually. When I lose, I think I lose bigger than anybody else. Definitely the jail thing and all that stuff, I’m clearly losing and I’m losing big! Those aren’t just small “woopsie daisies”! I fucked up and I’m an idiot and it’s clear I’m kind of humble about it. I hope it comes off that I’m humble about it because I’ve made some awful decisions in life. I’m very aware of who I am and how far I can take certain things.
I just did an interview the other day. Somebody was asking me about comedy and what it means to me. To me, I really like taking people out of their comfort zones, but delivering a punch line that’s clever enough and funny enough to make them go, “Okay, I can laugh at that. I didn’t want to go there, but he took it to a place that was funny enough, well written and he delivered it well.” You’d be surprised what you can get away with when you’re funny enough. You can get away with shit, but that’s the trick though, that balance. Any bit that I ever had that didn’t work was too heavy on one end or the other. Either I didn’t go far enough and it came off as flat, or it was just way too heavy on one side. That’s the trick, trying to balance those too.