Mike Lebovitz is a Comedian You Should Know
More often than not when a comedian stays in a condo as opposed to a hotel, it can be a nightmare. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve stayed in condos a handful of times and with the exception of one experience, it’s always been a blast.
Most recently I was in Appleton, Wisconsin and staying with Chicago comedian Mike Lebovitz. We found out that we had a mutual connection in my sister-in-law. Mike is fantastic and we’ve stayed friends since that blizzardy week in America’s Dairyland. He’s also a part of the Chicago comedy scene’s super group Comedians You Should Know who had the number one comedy album on iTunes recently.
Mike came to town a couple weeks back to get is foot in the door of some of our clubs and afterward I decided to pick his brain about comedy and specifically his take on the Detroit scene. Enjoy.
First question, do you regret doing this via e-mail and not being able to look into my pretty blue eyes during this interview?
No. You have the piercing eyes of an eagle that see deep into the soul. I will find it much easier to be dishonest in this format. Also, I will have access to thesaurus.com this way, which will allow me to sound much more erudite than I really am. Q: Do you think I availed myself of that resource to come up with the word “erudite”? A: Nope. But I did use it for “availed.” Jkjk. I’m just way smart.
Tell me how the Comedians You Should Know came to be.
Comedians You Should Know started over three years ago as a Wednesday night show at Fizz Bar and Grill in Chicago. The original cast members were Danny Kallas, Marty DeRosa, Mike Sheehan, Michael Sanchez and Junior Stopka. At the time, there were only two really solid, independent, comic-run showcases on the Northside: Chicago Underground Comedy and Lincoln Lodge. Both of those shows had set casts of comedians who performed regularly in addition to guest comedians from the scene that they’d book.
At that time, in 2007/2008, there were two simultaneous shifts happening in the Chicago stand-up scene. (1) there was a major exodus of talent from the city (TJ Miller, Jared Logan, Kumail Nanjiani, Mike Bridenstein, Renee Gauthier, Fay Cannalle, and a little later, Hannibal Burress and Nick Vatterott, to name a few). (2) There was also this new crop of comics coming up in the open mic scene.
A lot of these new micers were grinding really hard, going to two, three, four open mics a night, six or seven nights a week. That’s something that you can still do in Chicago. Most of the mics were absolute dogshit. They made the drunkest, sloppiest night at Club Bart look like a packed Saturday at a hot club. The worst was a place called Silvies. That’s where I learned that there are some rooms where it doesn’t matter what you do–you will not get a laugh. Period. But there was just this mentality of get on stage, get on stage, it doesn’t matter where. Every set makes you that much better. It was this crazy work ethic that I think was a result of a lot of these guys being OCD, but it was absolutely intoxicating, just thrilling to get caught up in. I’m really grateful for it.
Anyway, you had all these guys busting their asses, working harder than you can imagine, and they starting getting sick of not getting booked at ChUC or the Lodge. Club work didn’t really even enter the picture. Bert Haas at Zanies had started doing a showcase night to see some of the local talent, but it just seemed so unattainable for most of us. It really started taking shape when Danny read a blog by Stanhope about doing it yourself. He was really inspired by it, so he gathered together the people who he saw doing well at the open mics and who he was friends with and said let’s start a fuckin’ show!
So they started booking a room. They passed out tens of thousands of fliers by the train stations, at street festivals, where ever there would be lots of foot traffic. Danny used to like open up the free newspaper boxes and slip a flier in each paper. Whatever they could to get these things into people’s fucking hands. The idea was to just book all the funniest comedians, not to do any of this “I’ll put you up at my show if you’ll put me up at yours” bullshit. The idea was that if you came out to the show, you’d be seeing the comedians in Chicago who you really should know, not the comedians in Chicago who happen to be friends with the booker.
It turned into a good room. They started taking on interns, open-micers who maybe weren’t quite ready for a big showcase, but they’d give them five minutes on the show every few weeks in return for help passing out fliers, or running sound, or seating people at the show or whatever. Mostly it was fliers. It was brute force marketing. It was the same mentality as hitting the open mics. We figured for every 100 fliers we would pass out, we’d get one audience member, so we just passed out as many of those fuckers as we could. Each 100 fliers made the show one audience member better.
I wasn’t part of the group at the very beginning. I was just starting out at the open mics back then, but I quickly became friends with all those dudes. Not long after they started, Junior Stopka quit producing the show. Drew Michael, who was one of the interns, took his spot and I was offered Drew’s intern spot. Then the first thing that Drew did as a producer of the show was to fire all the interns. It was pretty hilarious. But they still booked me to host the showcase.
After a while, they expanded to two nights, which was a mistake, it spread the audience too thin. That room at Fizz is a barn. Finally they closed the show. The whole thing was on ice for about a year. Then the group reformed in late 2009 with myself, Danny Kallas, Drew Michael, Michael Sanchez, Marty DeRosa and Joe Kilgallon as members/producers. Our show in downtown Chicago at Timothy O’Toole’s opened in January 2010 and runs at 9:00pm every Wednesday night. We still pass out flyers on Michigan Avenue but our marketing has gotten a bit more sophisticated. Word-of-mouth is the main thing. We’ve been lucky enough over the past year-plus develop a loyal following. We sell out most of the time. The room only holds about 80 people, but when it’s full, it’s fucking great.
We released our live CD in February of this year, and we’ve been setting up mini tours around the Midwest since then. The whole thing has grown and we we’ve all gotten a lot better, but the philosophy is still basically the same: put on a showcase of the best comics around. We still have newer comics intern for us, but we don’t put them up unless they’re ready. It’s important to stay engaged with the newer people who are coming up. There are like graduating classes who come up in Chicago, get good and then move. This year we’re losing Beth Stelling, Cameron Esposito, Brendan McGowan, Ricky Carmona, and maybe some other folks. So we’re always on the lookout for who’s coming up to fill that void.
What are the advantages in grouping like minded comedians together? That’s not a thing we do too often here in Detroit.
We all help each other. There’s a certain amount of work that needs to be done and by banding together, we can divide it up. It’s nice to put our heads together because we all have different strengths. Also, being part of a group helps generate a buzz for everyone in it. Being on the CD together helps too. Mary might do a show and some one there loves him, so they buy a CD from him. If they listen to it, they may decide that they really love Joe too. Now they both got a new fan out of it. To some people, being part of Comedians You Should Know means something. We’ve worked hard to put on a really good show, so the name carries a certain amount of cache with people who know about it.
Are there any disadvantages to being part of the group?
Sure. These are my best friends in comedy, but they’re all fucking insane, just impossible to deal with. Sanchez is okay except that I always feel like he’s trying to sleep with me.
Since Chicago is known predominately or at least historically as an improv city, do you think that’s why comedy groups sort of formed?
I’m not sure that has much to do with stand-up shows here having “casts.” I think it’s more just that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to properly promote and produce a stand-up showcase and it’s more manageable when you have a group of people doing it. I do think the improv legacy here informs the nature of the stand-up artistically. There’s a kind of experimentalism here that I think exists elsewhere but is particularly pronounced in Chicago. There aren’t a lot of hacks coming up through the scene here, which I think is due in part to the improv legacy and in part to the fact that there is very little club work available. The audiences at the independent rooms here are pretty savvy. They keep you honest.
But in general, there is less interaction between the improv and stand-up worlds than you would expect, and I think that’s a shame. I stared as an improv dude back in 2002 at Improv Olympic, but when I started doing stand up in 2007, I made a clean break with that world. There were few stand-ups who I had known from my improv days like TJ Miller and Nick Vatterott, but I had no idea that they even did stand-up until I started doing it myself. Basically, I started running with a whole new crowd.
You’ve gotten a lot of support from the Red Bar and their podcast. How did that relationship start?
Mike David has been hosting the Red Bar Internet Radio Program for a long time now, like seven or eight years. He was doing it before “podcast” was even a word people used. Over the years he’s developed a loyal following, something like 40,000 listeners all over the world. He does a really great job with it. It’s broadcast live every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and he’s very funny. He’s always had local comics co-host the show with him so we all know him that way. At the beginning of 2010, he and Kyle Lane opened the Red Bar Comedy club downtown and he uses a lot of local guys. He got into producing CDs, starting with James Fritz’s CD, “Deflated” last year. He does an amazing job with all aspects of production, especially design, and he has his radio audience to market to, so when we decided to record a CD, it was a natural fit. The Red Bar Club has been a real boon to the scene, adding a mainstream room to the mix, something that has been sorely lacking. You have to really be solid to do well on that stage. It takes you past some of the insidery pitfalls inherent in any scene. It’s been a big help to me. Every time I do his podcast, I get like five new Facebook friends. That’s how we measure our success in this business, right?
Now that you’ve spent a weekend performing in Detroit, what surprised you about the Detroit scene?
I was impressed by how many good comics there are in Detroit. People seem really polished, but not derivative. I was lucky enough to do four shows while I was in town. Lauren Uchalik’s new room at the Painted Lady, Club Bart, Ridley’s and The Ann Arbor Showcase. The clubs were both awesome in different ways, and the Painted Lady was great too. Bart was a drunken shit-show, but that happens to be my specialty, so I had a blast there as well. It’s crazy how spread out everything is in Metro Detroit. The auto companies sure had their way with your town. Actively recruit black factory workers from the South while building freeways, intentionally causing white flight, leaving a decimated urban core and huge, sprawling suburban area where you have to buy one of their products to get anywhere. Crazy. But that’s a little off topic, comedy-wise I was very impressed. You guys are lucky to have three really good clubs in the area. I was staying with my friend, your sister-in-law, Angel Busque. She’s a huge comedy fan, and she says she can feel something exciting starting to happen in the Detroit scene. I think she’s got to be right, there’s a really good energy to it.
If you lived here, what would you bring to town from your Chicago roots that you think has worked well there, but we’re not doing here?
More of these independent rooms, like what Lauren is doing with Painted Lady. There are so many neighborhood bars that have stages that no one is using during the week. I’d start my own room. It’s awesome to run your own room, to build and train an audience. It makes you a better comic, it makes the scene better and it’s really fun. Each new room really does make the scene that much better, it’s just like hitting open mics, or passing out fliers. The clubs in the area are great, but there’s no reason why people should be at their mercy in terms of getting stage time and developing their act. There’s an energy about a really well produced independent room that even the best club can’t match. A tiny little room is more intimate and demands a higher degree of honesty and authenticity from the performer. The audience can tell the difference. There’s more than enough untapped audience for it too. Every night of the week, there ought to be one kick-ass local showcase and two shitty open mics. That’s how it was here for a while, thought recently we’ve lost a couple of the good rooms, which is a shame. It goes in cycles, hopefully someone will pick up the pieces and start something new. There’s something really magical about a fun, neighborhood showcase. The audience feels like they’re in on something special. Some of them get really into it, like your show is their little secret, like you’re a new band that only they and a select few know about. They get excited to share it with their friends.
At times during the weekend, you seemed almost embarrassed by how strongly your catch phrase caught on. Is that because you think maybe people aren’t getting the joke in that you’re intentionally being absurd? Or I guess a better way to form that question, is why were you embarrassed for being memorable and catchy?
You’re talking about “…with my dick!” Yeah, I tried to come up with the dumbest catch-phrase I could possibly think of and I think I hit the jackpot. It’s very funny to me, but do I really want to be remembered that way? I guess so, but I think there’s more to my act than that and it’s always weird to be reduced to a few words. I run into people on the streets in the Chicago sometimes who go, “hey, you’re the dick guy!” But is that really who I am? Am I the dick guy? It’s great to be remembered and I really do love it when people appreciate “my dick.” Not every audience does. So when people like it, I think they really get it. If I’m embarrassed, that’s my own issue. Probably related to not being able to take a compliment. Who knows.
It seems like a lot of Chicago guys don’t worry as much about getting paid by doing road work as much as they worry about getting good by doing underground shows they produce themselves. Do you think those two things are mutually exclusive of each other? Can someone be a road dog, but still be what the underground scene would consider good? And that question comes from the fact that Mike Stanley said he felt like an outsider for a long time when he moved to Chicago because he felt a lot of people just dismissed him as a road comic.
I think if you just do the road, you can fall into pandering, and if you just stay in whatever scene you’re in, you can fall into a false sense that you’re actually doing something. I think it’s possible to do both. I have to think that, because that’s what I’m trying to do. For the most part, I develop my act in town and tweak and refine it on the road. I don’t know though. There aren’t a ton of people who do both, but there are definitely some. Stanley is great example. I wasn’t around when he started out here, so I don’t know what it was like then. I think the scene had a different, more exclusive feel to it back then, that’s the impression I get. But everyone here loves Mike these days. There are other guys who’ve done really well, but still do all the independent rooms when they’re in town, people like TJ and Hannibal.
I think there is a way to do both, to both stay true to yourself and do well on the road. I think it’s about remembering that the audience is boss. Always respect your audience, wherever you are. So if you’re doing a hipster room, and your club set is bombing, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that they’re a lousy audience, or that they’re uptight or whatever. They can just see through your bullshit. And similarly, if you’re in front of a club audience and and they’re not buying your “alt act” or whatever, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that they’re dumb. They’re not dumb. But they got a babysitter, it’s a special night out for them and they expect you to be a fucking professional. So the one type of room helps you stay honest and the other encourages you to be tight. I think that if you can do both, you’re in pretty good shape. Just so long as your not lulled by your experiences into thinking that the audience is there to laugh at you, to validate you. They are not. The onus is yours. You are there to make them laugh. You work for them. Where ever you are. But what do I know, I’m trying to figure it out myself.
You’re married and you have a kid. How is that affecting your long term goals in comedy?
Maybe there’s a little more pressure to make money. But I’m 30, I ought to be making money anyway. I think that being a family man makes me take my self a little more seriously than I might otherwise. In a good way. Seriously, if it weren’t for them, I’d probably be dead in a ditch somewhere. I’m so grateful that I have them to go home to every night. So many of my comic friends are the loneliest sacks of shit in the world. I’m not. I’m pretty happy. I’m very lucky. And so is my dick.