Category Archives: More Misadventures!
My misadventures in the world of comedy.
Last night I was part of the Comedy Rumble judging team at Cellarmans. 30 Comedians enter, 1 leaves with the belt…or…half the door actually.
The last time I judged, I knew two of the comedians before the event started. This time I knew about a third of them. Each performer was given two minutes to crush it. A handful of them bailed with thirty or more seconds to spare. The rest, crushed it, with five advancing to the finals. The championship could have gone to any of the five strong contenders. Read the rest of this entry
I am proud to be a comedian from the Metro Detroit area. We’ve always had a strong voice. Michigan is the birthplace of the three person comedy show. Mark Ridley, owner of the Comedy Castle invented that format thirty years ago, and it’s become the structure of comedy clubs worldwide.
Comedy clubs are unfortunately in short supply these days. When I started 15 years ago, in Michigan alone there was Chaplin’s, the Comedy Castle, Joey’s Dearborn, Joey’s Livonia, Cool Jerks, Pesto’s, Split a Gut, Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, Connxtions, Gary Fields, and Dr. Grins. Now? The Castle, the Showcase, Grins, the reopened Cool Jerks and a new room called Punchline are all that’s left.
But Mike, the title article says that Detroit comedy has never been better. How so?
I’ll tell you, Mr. Narrative Device that’s helping me get to the meat of this article. Showcases. There are so many showcase rooms run by comedians now. It’s insane! If alternative comedy is defined as comedy that happens in a space that’s an alternative to a comedy club, this is it. And it’s good. Really good! Most of the bigger name comedians in LA regularly play the clubs there, but the stars of tomorrow are sweating away upstairs in Chinese restaurants or in the back of a juice bar.
On December 19th, 2004 I put together a comedy show that had Jesse Popp, Dave Merheje, Mike Stanley, Dave Landau, Brent Sullivan, Mike Kosta, Vince Averill and more. All of the guys I mentioned have gone on to do incredibly great things. I would put money on the fact that many of the people I hope to highlight will do the same.
Before I moved to LA, my buddy Mike Lebovitz, one of the co-founders of the now coast to coast Comedians You Should Know, came to Michigan and was surprised at how few comedian run rooms we had. Darnell Anderson had something in Ypsilanti and Lauren Uchalik had the Painted Lady in Hamtramck. Both those shows were fun, but the audiences, for the most part, were the other comedians on the bill. Now, these comedian run shows have a following! They’re generating fans! And because the performers aren’t so worried about performing in a club for money, they’re not generating easily digestible material and instead creating something new and unique. And that’s fun to watch.
I’m hoping to highlight some of these artists regularly. I apologize that these first five are just white males. I was initially disappointed when I moved back that the entire scene was just white males, but I’ve been happy to discover there are more than that here. Yeah, it’s not the rich diversity of shows I sought out in LA like the amazing Micky’s in West Hollywood where many times I was the ONLY straight white male on the show, or the variety show circus of Cobra Juice, but it’s diversifying and that makes me happy. So please excuse the fact that these are four bearded and one clean shaved white guy. I will do better next update. I promise.
In no particular order…
Bart Dangus runs a show called Prankis every Monday night at LJ’s Bar downtown next to Slo’s Barbecue. Prankis is a show where heckling isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged. The Chewbacca to Bart’s Han Solo is sound guy Zech. It’s kind of like if Chewbacca looked like Germs-era Pat Smear and Han Solo looked like…well…Chewbacca. Zech has the “god mic” and flavors every set. Bart has a wonderful and stupid (and I mean that as the highest compliment) jazz joke that I love. His material ranges from revealing to cleverly silly. He also hosts the Something O’er the Hill podcast. So check that out too.
Alex Bozinovic was a pleasant surprise. I hate to admit, but I judged a book by its cover. I met him briefly at Cellarman’s, a comedy room he co-runs in Hazel Park, and he booked me there. Most of our interaction had been online and I didn’t put it together who he was when we talked the other night at Kelly’s Bar in Hamtramck. When he hit the stage, I was dismissive at first because part of me feels like I’ve gotten the point of view of every young bearded straight white guy I needed. That’s not Alex. Not by a long shot. I was totally and completely wrong. I don’t want to ruin the surprise. I don’t even know if it is a surprise or if it’s just a matter of me being a judgy judge. But I will say, the next day I sent him a message and told him that I thought he wasn’t just doing funny comedy, but he’s also doing important comedy. He does a bit about relationships and video games, that if I try to describe, will sound hacky, but it’s the furthest thing from hack. It’s great! Like it’s the bit that’s going to elevate him closer to being a household name great.
Brett Mercer is fucking delightful. He reminds me on one of my favorite comedians and dearest friends, Jeff Scheen, in that Brett is such and original he’s not even doing premises that other people are touching. Brett’s breakdown of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” hits so many jokes, and so many different kinds of jokes. The word nerd in me loves the fact that he points out that at the end the narrator could have kept the same syllable count and said “at the baseball game”, but they’re so dismissive of the sport that they say “at the old ball game”. It literally breaks down that song syllable by syllable. Mercer is a guy who, even though he’s relatively new at this, takes the stage with the confidence of a seasoned pro. He’s like a non-food obsessed Jim Gaffigan the way he breaks down every topic he touches to a subatomic level. He also cohosts the Big Time Garbage podcast.
Jason Brent is surreal and dark. I was always in awe of my friend Brent Sullivan who could shift the pace of an audience to fit his liking. Jason does the same thing. His act is so deliberate and unforgiving. It’s really fun to watch. I feel like he’s one of those guys that I could really over analyze about why it works so much for me. I won’t. But I will say, don’t dismiss some of his material as just shocking. Look at the delivery. There’s not so much an ambivalence about the shocking nature of it as much as there’s a lack of comprehension. His conversation with the barista is a great example of that. I really like it. Jason’s act is musical in the way that it’s not just about the notes that are being played, it’s how they’re being played. And he plays those comedy notes like a virtuoso.
Kenneth Witzgall is timeless. I seriously can’t think of any other way to describe him. He’s got a great voice, both literally and as in his point of view. I ran into him at a party when I first moved back and thought he had an interesting way of taking a room. I remember then, looking forward to seeing how he took a stage. I saw it earlier this week and really enjoyed it. When I write “timeless” what I mean is that he looks just as in place on stage now as he could have in an era of modern comedy. There’s something both classic and contemporary about him. There’s also something completely Detroit about him. He looks and sounds the same way in person I always imagined Detroit rock DJs like Ken Calvert looked and sounded. The actor in me naturally falls into “Central Casting” mode. Kenneth Witzgall is the kind of guy you cast when you need a scene stealing eccentric neighbor or coworker. He’s an indomitable presence!
The Box would have been way better if Frank Langella wore his Skeletor makeup.
My writing partner and best buddy DJ Dangler and I will be launching a fun little podcast in the next few weeks. While writing, we end up having sometimes silly, sometimes introspective conversations. We decided to record them. In this first one, we talk about our favorite living wrestlers. We hope you like it.
The art is from my friend Joe Apel.
The intro music is from the Mutants.
My friend, screenwriter/improviser Sam Gasch and I have launched a brand new podcast. The trend in movies these days is that just about every big budget feature is a remake of something else. So every other week we will look at an old movie and figure out what’s the ideal way for Hollywood to remake it.
Here’s a link to the preview episode. Please subscribe in your podcasting catcher of choice and write us a review so we know how to improve the show.
Next week will be the first time in about two years that I’ll be back in Michigan. I miss it a lot. I miss my friends. I miss my family.
I’m incredibly grateful Go Comedy is letting me have a show there on Thursday the 8th. Time is incredibly limited this trip because we’re coming back to wedding plan. This show is a good opportunity to get to see a bunch of friends all at once! So, if you’re going to the show, it will be over with by 9:00, we can all go down the street to a bar afterwards and hang out. What’s that? You didn’t know about this show? Well click HERE for more info. And if you still need tickets to the show, just click HERE.
Here’s what’s going on…all in one convenient place!
I write best with a partner. I’ve tried a few different ones over the years before finding one who I really click with. And I found him completely by accident.
The hardest thing I found about writing with a partner is that one person is always going to be more motivated than the other. Some days you may be the motivated one, while other days it may be them. No relationship is truly 50/50 all the time.
Whenever I write something, I send it out to a bunch of people to get feedback. Very few people actually ever get back to me. DJ Dangler always does. And when he does, he’s thorough. The first thing I remember critiquing was a spec script I wrote for Bob’s Burgers. We went through it line by line picking apart dialogue that didn’t feel true to characters and moments that didn’t feel like the show. It was incredibly helpful.
I’ve been fortunate over the past year to shadow an established television writer as he works on various pitches for his own shows. He works predominately in procedurals and political dramas, while I’m mainly a comedy guy. But I knew the fundamentals I was learning were universal.
He always starts with a brief, but catchy biography about himself and why that makes him the best person to write what he’s pitching. His origin story has become like folklore. He was a Washington DC speech writer, but some of the details change a little bit here and there. Most importantly, the drama amps up in a way that always hooks you right out of the gate.
From there he goes into the teaser for his show. If you don’t know, that’s basically the thing you see before the first commercial that, if done right, keeps you from changing the channel for the next thirty or sixty minutes. My mentor is great a teasers. Political drama and procedurals are pretty much at the bottom of the list of things I like to watch, but more often than not, his teasers grab me.
Then he talks about the pilot episode while giving pertinent information about all of the key characters. He gives you enough of their backstories to get you to really know who they are as people. Sometimes if the teaser doesn’t grab me, his ability to create interesting characters does. His characters are always flawed. They feel real. Most importantly, they’re interesting. We always know what their needs are and why they need it.
After he gives a pretty detailed beat by beat run down of the pilot episode, he goes over story beats for the entire first season of his show up to the cliffhanger ending. He wraps up by touching on the themes of further seasons so that whoever he’s pitching to knows he’s thought through this entire world.
Off the top of my head, I’ve sat through seven very detailed pitches in the past year from him. He’s a work horse. In addition to learning how to pitch, I learned how to manage time and projects. I’ll write more about that in the future.
So that brings me to our pitch.
Along with comedian DJ Dangler and artist Axel Ortiz, I created an animated show. My friend Joe Apel has been working in animation for the past ten years and directed me to someone at a network who might be looking for something maybe along the lines of what we created. I sent an email and a meeting was set up pretty quickly.
DJ spends most of his time on the road making his living off of stand up, while I’m currently choosing to take a little break from the road and focus my attention on California right now. When the meeting was set, DJ decided to fly back to not only be there for the meeting, but to make sure we were prepared.
Axel is just as much of a work horse as the aforementioned television writer. He’s a veteran of the pitch meeting, but pointed out earlier that if we had a star attached to our show, that would give us an advantage. Over the past six months, I’ve been working on getting the biggest name I know attached to it. The week before our pitch, we got him. He looked at what we were going in with and said that he was happy to be part of it and if it lands, we can hammer out the details then.
I researched the person we were pitching to. She was a guest on a comedy podcast and spent an entire hour talking about the pitching process. In that interview, I also found out that she, like DJ, is from Indiana and her wife, like me, is from Michigan. She and I both nerd out over character actors too. So I knew we had a conversation opener and I wasn’t going to have to overly explain things like if I said, “Oh this character is a little bit like Miller from the movie Repo Man, played by Tracey Walter”, she was going to know who Tracey Walter is. For the record, many of the scripts I’ve written have characters that I imagine Tracey Walter playing. I know why Jonathan Demme puts him in every movie, because Tracey Walter is a national treasure! I once told DJ that I would be more excited about meeting Tracey Walter than I would be about meeting George Lucas or Harrison Ford. I think Tracey Walter lives within a mile of me too. And if you think every time my girlfriend and I walk around the neighborhood, I’m not on a constant look out for Tracey Walter watering his plants, then you’re wrong!
Axel went in to pitch on another show three weeks prior to our meeting and told us what the executive asked from them. DJ and I wanted to make sure we were over prepared. We had a pilot script. We had ideas for story beats for our first season and I knew what I wanted to happen in the final episode of the entire series. But DJ and I detailed out episode by episode the entire first season of our show. We knew the story beats and what themes each episode would explore. A friend of mine who works in printing made us a really nice pitch packet too.
The idea of writing stories with an overall point of view or theme is something that I would accidentally sometimes hit, but other times missed completely. DJ and I have a mutual friend in comedian turned television writer Nick Anthony who really hammered into us the idea that we sometimes missed that. So when DJ and I started the conversation about each episode of our show, we started with what was the theme for that episode. It really helped us figure out where the other characters were going to be in their individual arcs.
The night before our pitch, DJ and I walked home around five miles from West Hollywood to the far eastern side of Hollywood really exploring every character we created. We knew their strengths, their weaknesses, their desires, their backgrounds, and their secrets.
So going into our pitch I knew we created something cool, timely, we have a big name attached and we were prepared.
The meeting was great. I told her that I enjoyed the podcast she was on and we found out her dad and sister both went to Purdue, same as DJ. Her wife and my girlfriend are from the same small suburb of Detroit. She asked how DJ, Axel and I knew each other. DJ and I have a fun origin story where we both showed up early at Nick Anthony’s home to go do a show in San Diego. Nick wasn’t there yet. I was parked on the street waiting. A guy pulled up on the other side of the street, got out of his car, put a large pizza on the roof and just ate the entire thing in front of me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. He was so full of unadulterated and gluttonous joy. From that moment I wish I could be that guy’s friend. That guy turned out to be DJ. We hit it off that night and have been friends ever since. Axel and I met at San Diego Comic Con last year and our origin story gave me a chance to really talk about how much I love his work and why he was the perfect person to design our show.
Then she wanted to know about our characters. DJ and I were able to speak passionately and deeply about each of them. I like writing female characters. This show features two really strong female characters. The main character is, in some ways, man boy with arrested development not completely unlike DJ or myself. One of the women in the show is his daughter, the other is basically his boss. Both are strong. Neither of them are bitchy. Both of them are just as cool and quick as he is. They’re strong women, but they’re perfect. They’re deep and rich characters. I can see how it would be an easy trap for a guy writing a woman to over compensate by trying to make her too perfect. Ours aren’t at all. They both have real human foibles. Also, I’m hoping I just used the word “foibles” correctly.
At the end of our meeting she asked us what our roles would be if the show were picked up. I explained that when Garth Ennis created the comic book Preacher he gave artist Steve Dillon co-creator credit because he felt the look of it was just as important as the story. I believe in that. When I asked Axel to draw the characters, I told him very little. And aside from changing the hair color on one of them, I didn’t have any changed. I love his art. DJ and I are great at writing jokes and character, but we still struggle with story and conflict. An analogy a script reader gave us of a screenplay that we wrote was that there’s “a lot of icing, but not much cake”. That’s fair. So I said DJ and I care a lot about our characters, but if the show were picked up, it would probably be best if we were teamed with a producer who was better at breaking stories. So I think that showed that we were flexible and going to be easy to work with.
There’s another show, which I can’t name, where the creators were fired because they were way too difficult and had very unrealistic expectations of what they were entitled to. Hollywood is a city built on collaborative art. Nothing here is a single vision. You have to be willing to trust others to help you create the best product possible.
According to the podcast our executive was on, because she sees so many people, her pitch meetings rarely go more than thirty minutes. Ours went 45. She laughed a lot and seemed engaged. There’s nothing I would have done differently about our meeting. We gave her our book with the character art and descriptions as well as additional information about the show. We’ll know more in a couple weeks.
Yes, at this stage a hundred things would have to happen for this to be a show any of us would ever get to see. We’re going to move forward and continue pitching to other places too. But on the flipside of this meeting, I thought it would be nice to share some of the tips that I learned.
- Know as much about the person you’re pitching as you can. As they say, “knowledge is power”.
- Be prepared to explain why what you’re pitching is important to you personally and why you’re the best person to write it.
- Television is a medium based on characters. Make sure you have interesting ones and you can talk about them.
- As with any speech writing, pepper in a joke or two if it suits the mood. I don’t think I’d try to make anyone laugh if I were pitching Schindler’s List: The Series.
- Keep it pithy, punk. Metallica songs are like three hours long and feel like they include every idea that everyone in the band had. In the time it takes to listen to two Metallica songs, you could listen to seventeen Ramones songs. Be a Ramone. Leave them wanting more.
- Don’t just talk. Listen. We were prepared to talk nonstop for 15-20 minutes, but were totally able to let our exec lead the pitch in a much more conversational and informal manner.
- Television is a flexible art. We didn’t get any notes in this first meeting, but my mentor has. He digests them all and if he has complaints, he does it later to his manager, not in the room.
- Know what you’re talking about inside and out. DJ and I know every in and out of our show where it stands right now. And if you had a question for us that we didn’t know the answer to, we’d make something up. We have an alien character who is the last of his kind. What planet is he from? Zaphodbrock. He’s a Zaphoid from the planet Zaphodbrock. I just made that up. It’s one part Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and one part late singer of Gwar. If you wanted me to talk about Zaphodbrock, I could. And DJ could jump in and we’d piggy back on each other’s ideas. Executives want to feel safe. The words, “I don’t know”, has never instilled security in anyone.
- If you can’t come up with ten items, don’t just make stuff up to fill time or space. See #5.
So there you go. I’m far from an expert, but I know a week or two ago I’d love to have this information compiled in one place. I hope this helps or at least makes for some interesting reading.
Inspired by an article on Hip in Detroit about how to be a good music fan, I decided to write about what it takes to be a good comedy audience.
1. Research the comedian you’re going to see. There are a crazy number of a varieties of comedy. It’s like ice cream. Baskin Robbins sells 31 flavors because not everybody likes chocolate or vanilla. Some people love Superman…and if you’re one of those people, you’re wrong! Comedy is the same way. Maybe you like the nimble wordplay of a Myq Kaplan or the introspection of a Marc Maron or maybe you just like an angry hippy to smash a watermelon on stage. Those are just three examples of the many, many kinds of comedy out there. All are valid. Comedy clubs generally only serve one kind of ice cream each week. I love Moose Tracks. I’d hate to go to a comedy club expecting Moose Tracks and find out that week they were only serving Raspberry Sherbet. I hate Rasperries! So research your entertainment options. Most comedy clubs have a website where they list the performers. And most performers have clips of their act available online. I wouldn’t walk into a movie house and just plan on seeing “movie”. No, I’d know exactly what movie I wanted to see because I researched the product first. I should have stuck with the ice cream analogy. I’m hungry. Read the rest of this entry
Maybe it’s nerves or the adrenaline rush of doing what we’ve waited all day long to do, but many comedians tend to talk a bit too fast on stage. Comedian and owner of the Komedy Korner, Leo DuFour once suggested when I got off stage that I slow down and enjoy my time like I would a delicious meal. Maybe that was a health tip and I’m forgetting that I was scarfing down a Poutine platter at the time….it was Canada after all. Let me find another example.
One of my best friends asked me after a show why I don’t speak on stage like I speak normally off stage. He was right. I didn’t believe in my material at the time so on stage I would yell and ram my jokes down the throats of the audience as quickly as I could.
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. Read the rest of this entry
This past weekend I was at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase with my friend Nate Fridson. I’ve only seen Nate once since he moved to New York about a year or so ago. He churned out a ton of new material. It was really nice watching him. I was nervous going into the weekend since it had been a good month since I did more than 15 minutes of time in one set. Maybe stand up is like riding a bike. I haven’t ridden a bike in years and I’m worried how my first attempt would be.
The shows ended up going pretty well. With the exception of about four or five minutes on being an uncle, I’m not doing any material from my CD that I released just about a year ago. I have a pretty good track record at the Showcase so I took advantage of that trust to try out some new pieces. Most of them worked.
This week marks the start of two months of road work. The boredom I feel from doing the same jokes over and over again tends to go away when I’m in new cities. I know everything will be brand new to them. This week I’ll be at the Skyline Comedy Cafe in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s a great club and I’m really looking forward to it.
Earlier in the week I did a live episode of WTF with Marc Maron. That was pretty awesome. I know Marc has his reputation, but he’s been super cool to me. I was nervous for the interview, but it went fairly well. We dug a little more into my personal life than I would have wanted, but that’s the nature of the show. After that I went over to the UCB Theatre and did a set on Comedy Bang Bang. Zach Galifianakis closed that show. Backstage he seemed like a genuinely good guy. That made me happy. Eric Andre was there too. He was just super nice and charming. It really does seem like the only dicks you encounter in this business are the people at the bottom who are bitter being stuck there. The higher up you go, the nicer people seem to be.
I closed out my LA trip with a set on The Meltdown and Meltdown Comics. That show was simply amazing. It’s a small room, packed full of comedy super fans. The line up is always great. I was so honored that my Jonah Ray let me be part of it. Through my years I’ve met a lot of people who I don’t get to see nearly as much as I’d like. Jonah is one of those guys. He’s another guy who in addition to being a really good comedian, is also a hell of a nice person.
Sean Patton from New Orleans closed the Meltdown show and was simply amazing. I worked with Sean here in Michigan and thought he was great. Earlier this week though, that greatness was on a whole new level. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, another super awesome person too. Hopefully Sean and I will be able to do some shows together in 2013. He’s going to be on Maron’s television show for IFC next year. I have a feeling that’s about the time that he’s going to blow up and become a household name at least with comedy nerds.
From start to finish, last week was a blast! Enjoy some clips from Nate, Jonah and Sean.
When Lesley and I initially started writing our script, we were writing it with the intent to find a local production company to shoot it for us with us in the leads. Once we changed our minds on that, we dream cast it so that we’d both be writing towards the same vision.
I know a lot of writers say they don’t do this, but it helped me a lot. Like with writing jokes, most of it happens for me while I’m lying in bed at night unable to sleep. I’ll just lay there with ideas racing through my head until I have to jump up and find a notebook. Sometimes ideas hit me first thing in the morning, which honestly, beating the alarm to jump out of bed with some creative inspiration is a great way to start the day!
Writing with someone in mind helped me find the character’s voice fairly easily. Final Draft has a profile on Facebook where every day they have some sort of writing tip or question. Recently they posed a question asking if you were to block out the names of the characters in your script, would you still be able to tell who they are?
Once we hammered out our first draft, we assigned each other characters and we went through the script focusing on each piece of those lines trying to make sure there was a flow. One thing that came from this that I liked was I had one of the characters often times refer to another by a nickname. I think this was a nice little touch to show that they had some sort of history. The unfortunately short lived television show The Middle Man did this too. The lead was named Wendy Watson. Her partner called her Dub Dub. A little touch like that was nice because it not only showed a little bit of familiarity, but it was so out of character for the straight laced Middle Man to use a nickname that it really humanized him. It gave his character a little more depth.
Another thing Lesley and I did that helped was we had our friends over to read through the script assigning them different roles. Some lines didn’t flow as smoothly out of other mouths, so as we did the readthru I took notes on how the actor initially wanted to read a line.
I tend to flip sentences. Not like Yoda, but a little bit like that. Right now, I’m totally blanking on an example. Hmm. I guess that was an example in itself. Where a lot of people may have said “I’m totally blanking on an example right now.” I lead with the “right now”. I think I’m better at that now. A long time ago a friend asked me where I originally hail from because he found my sentence structure so foreign.
So there you go. That’s a little insight in our process in trying to give our characters unique voices. Does anyone else have any tips?