Here’s what’s going on…all in one convenient place!
Tonight! Super fun show. I was there last month with DJ dangler when he was in town. Plus look at this line up! A whole lot of funny!
Tomorrow! It’s insane that I’m on this show. Joshy Fadem is bizarre and wonderful. I’m really honored to be part of it.
My buddy Casey Moran let me put together the line up for this show. A bunch of my favorite people all in one place. It’ll be material that’s not on any of my albums or on Youtube.
And then you can find me almost every Sunday at the Comedy Store in the Belly Room with my West Coast comedy family at Candy!
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.
The thing that he and I just pitched was originally written as a live action show. As it developed, it became clear that changing it to an animated show would open up a universe of opportunities.
DJ is a few years younger than I am, and those few years make a big difference. I went through most of teen years without a cartoon aimed for my age group. The Simpsons were just bumpers during the Tracey Ullman Show for most of the time I was in high school. And the Beavis and Butt-Head “Frog Baseball” short didn’t even debut until after I graduated. In order for me to get into an animated show, I really have to get over the fact that it’s animated first. DJ is different. He’s always had cartoons in his life.
Having someone with experiences and strengths different than yours is great to have in a creative partner. DJ’s brain works in ways mine simply doesn’t. We’re both pretty opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m more of a classical story teller, tuned into the mechanics of script writing, while DJ’s brain works without restraint. We pull each other to the center.
I romanticize things and thought that he and I never say “no” to each other and that we always went down paths together until we hit a mutually agreed upon dead end. He pointed out that I’m definitely seeing our relationship through rose tinted glasses and we argue a lot! And he’s right. I can remember a few nights where I was shooting down every idea he had and then we agreed that we got about as much work done that day as we were going to do. Because we lived within walking distance of each other, I’d sometimes walk him half way home and we’d decompress. My memory is that we never ended a writing session angry with one another. Frustrated, definitely.
Writing with a partner is about compromise. I’m stubborn and spoiled. My parents not only gave me everything I ever needed, but they gave me everything I ever wanted. I get crabby if I don’t get my way. I’m a child. When DJ and I would work on a script, it was very hard for me to accept the fact that DJ has his own timeline. That’s my biggest hurdle with writing. I wrote a screenplay with a single mom in Michigan and was constantly grouchy about the fact that she had other responsibilities beyond our story. It’s easy for me to take ownership of my issue while I’m not currently collaborating with anyone.
There are a lot of advantages in writing with someone. Dialogue is going to sound more natural when you have a person to actually speak it to out loud. You’re going to be able to catch spelling and grammatical errors quicker because you’re proof reading one another. With this article, I’m going to have to wait until Kent Tucker texts me. And I’m going to be so mad at myself if I transposed to and too again. You’re going to generate content you couldn’t have come up with on your own. DJ and I wrote a screenplay and in it there’s a joke that DJ wrote. I don’t completely get the joke. I understand it enough from context, but I didn’t know the reference. I like that. It makes the story feel more “real” for me because there’s plenty in the world that I don’t know. Your characters will also have distinctive voices because a lot of times you’ll find you and your partner start taking ownership of certain characters.
My favorite thing about writing with someone is that you have a teammate who can pick you up while you’re down. Living in LA is brutal. Everything is so expensive. Nothing moves quickly enough. The traffic is a great metaphor for show business. Nothing is moving and there’s no explanation why. Once you get to the end of a jam, things go smooth, until they stop again without rhyme or reason. Hollywood is dirty and smells like urine. The soundscape is a constant barrage of sirens, helicopters and car horns. There were so many times where I thought this was all hopeless until DJ would say or do something that made it better. And I hope I did the same for him.
My advice to other writers is try writing with a partner and see how it goes. If you have someone who gives you good feedback on your solo stuff, then maybe that means they like what you do enough to want to team up. Steer clear of people who don’t give you feedback. If they can’t find the time to do that, then they’re probably going to struggle to find the time to write too. Find someone who brings out the best in you, who you like spending time with. You can’t have DJ though. He’s mine!
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.
In 2014 I made a huge leap of faith from my long time home in Michigan to the great unknown in California. It was and continues to be scary.
This is a place that’s much more open to helping you when you’re a visitor than it is when you’re a resident. When I would visit, I got on the best shows in town because I knew a handful of people and could say, “Hey, I’m going to be in LA the second week in June, can you put me on?” Now that I’m here, there’s no urgency. I’m just another mouse trying to get a piece of the cheese. As far as comedy goes, honestly, I’ve done more here as a visitor than I have as a resident.
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
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. Read the rest of this entry
I mentioned before that Final Draft is the most important tool and screenwriter can use. Another, almost as important, tool is this great book called Writing Movies for Fun and Profit.
I’ve read a lot…a few…books on writing scripts. This one by far is my favorite. It’s written by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon who are most visibly known for Reno 911. What you may not know is that they’ve also written pretty much ever third comedy made since 2000. They don’t write giant award winning masterpieces, but they do write extremely marketable and successful comedies like the Night at the Museum movies and Herbie Fully Loaded. They’ve also done a literal shit ton of punch ups on movies they’re not credited for.
In their book, Ben and Thomas take you through every step of the career as a screenwriter. They go in depth about the different kinds of writing jobs you can get and really dive into the business side of writing. It’s also a really practical writing guide too. They cover everything form pitching your script to dealing with the Hollywood powers that be once it’s in development.
It’s a really quick and light read that’s full of humor and really great information. I can’t recommend this book enough. In fact, if you’re a screen writer and you don’t own this….then you’re probably and asshole.
I’m in LA right now as you’re reading this. Unless of course you’re reading this sometime other than August 2012. Chapter 22 will tell me what I need to know now that I’m here. Okay, I’m not supposed to write in public because everyone will assume I’m a douchebag. Okay, there’s a list of all the In-N-Out Burger locations as well as a guide to their secret menu. I’m going to grab a bite to eat and go write in private.
I get flack sometimes for being friends with the Yoder family, but that’s how it’s been with every job I’ve had. When I managed a Gamestop, I regularly hung out with district managers outside of work. When I worked in a call center, my boss not only became a friend, but he became one of my closest friends and even stood up in my wedding. It’s not that I’m an ass kisser, I’m just a hard worker. I’ve been in situations too where I hung out with employees and became friends. The only way friendships like that can start and last is if the lines are clearly drawn between work and play and no one takes advantage of the other.
My friendship with the Yoders gives me a unique perspective on the business side of comedy. I feel lucky to get that behind the scenes point of view sometimes. I think about this season of Breaking Bad. Last season, Walter White thought it was all about him. As comedians, we tend to do that a lot. Now that Walter is running the show, he’s seeing how much work goes into the business. He was just one piece in the puzzle. Yes, like a comic, you could argue that he’s just about the most important piece, but there are still lots and lots of other pieces.
John Yoder founded Funny Business years and years before many of us ever picked up a microphone. Now he’s taken more of a back seat approach to the family business and turned the reigns over to his three sons Jamison, Eric and Michael. I got a chance to bounce some questions off of the two elder brothers (because Michael’s dashing good looks are too hypnotic) to give you a behind the scenes look at the company that employs so many of us. I hope you enjoy.
I was surprised when I found out how long the Yoder family had been involved in show business booking and the fact that it sort of started with music. Can you tell me about the history of Funny Business?
Eric: Well, to keep it short and simple – my dad, John Yoder, started out in college booking bands for some of the bigger local music venues. Later he also begin running a foreign film arts theater here while continuing booking bands. An opportunity came up for him to break into comedy right before the boom hit and became a major player in the years to come as somewhat of a pioneer in the comedy club world. When club business slowed down a bit, he made the wise decision to diversify into the college and corporate markets and we have continually been building off of all these over the last many years.
A lot of comedians are quick to want to move to New York or LA, but it seems to me like a bulk of the paying work in comedy is in the Midwest. Have you noticed a trend for where some of the cities where comedians are coming from besides New York and LA?
Eric: I would say that it really depends on what you are looking to do, and which direction you want to head in your comedy career. I see some incredible acts coming out of the Minneapolis and Chicago areas over the last couple years. The Detroit scene has been steadily rising as well, and I can see it returning to its former glory as a comedy and arts hotbed.
NYC and LA have always been the cities to be in for TV, Movies and for acts looking at specific careers in comedy. They both have their ups and downs. I believe the Midwest has some of the best club crowds for comedy, and for those just breaking into forming longer, full feature and headliner sets, there are more opportunities to do this, and more stages that provide the necessary stage time. In NYC and LA – it’s a lot of places providing 5 or 10 min. sets, which is great for building that short tv set , but not so much building a full 30 or 55 min. set that almost all clubs require.
With the internet and all the opportunities on it, there are so many things you can do to gain exposure and build your “brand” now despite where you are based out of. But of course a time will always come where you need to decide what you plan to do with your career and if living in a city like LA or NYC is going to provide you with more resources for that goal.
Funny Business has had much more of a presence in a lot of the festivals in North America. What do you look for when you go to these?
Eric: Festivals are a huge part of my role as a club booker, and they are great because you are able to see so much talent over the course of a couple days, that are all already hand-picked acts – thus giving you the opportunity to see some of the top talent all in the same venue(s). It’s also a chance to have face time with a lot of acts you may deal with regularly but don’t always get to meet face to face. I look at each act in comparison to the clubs I book, and what markets I seem them being the best fit for. I look for all the usual things, unique – well written material, confidence, stage presence and experience, etc. and a lot of time it’s a no-brainer who stands out to you as someone you want to get on the books right away.
Very successfully, Funny Business has helped out a lot with Gilda’s Laugh Fest in Grand Rapids. How did that union begin?
Jamison: I think they originally got in touch with us through the owner of The Bob. Knowing that we book Dr. Grins here in town as well as several corporate events and our roots here in the community was what got us started. From there it’s been a great marriage with a great organization and group of people we really support and work very well with.
The first two years of Laugh Fest have been humongous! I know you can’t really say much now, but I know planning for the following year pretty much begins as soon as one year wraps. What can people expect in 2013?
Jamison: You’re right…Can’t say much. Suffice to say that people can expect the same caliber and diversity of talent as the past years. Our hope is that each year builds on the next and support and visibility for Gilda’s Club continues to grow along with it.
So we’re getting ready to go back into the busy season of comedy when you’ll be booking emcees again. For people looking at transitioning from open mic to emceeing, what’s the best way to get noticed by you?
Eric: Performing at open mics in clubs we book and asking the club owners for referrals are a quick way to get on my radar. We speak with them frequently and they always mention the acts they see consistently improving and who they would like to see given a chance to host a weekend – sometimes we don’t always agree, but it definitely will put them at the top of the pile for review. Having quality tape, with minimum 10 mins of CLEAN material, suitable for an emcee set is important and almost ALL bookers require this.
Another important thing is being prepared. Have all necessary items before emailing bookers. Know what they will want/expect from you. Come across as a professional, it is essentially a job interview when applying to work at a professional level. Check your references, I’ve had guys use references, probably assuming we won’t check – then those references have no idea who the act is that used their name. That automatically puts a bad taste in my mouth, personally. Their also a handful of acts that work regularly for us that have consistently introduced us to high quality acts, so names they bring us we tend to take notice of quickly.
What do you and the clubs look for in a good emcee?
Eric: Clean material, confidence and good energy. An act open to feedback and willing to be taught. They need to recognize their role as an emcee. You are NOT the star of the show. Your job is to warm up the audience, promote the venue and the acts on the bill – not yourself. Being humble and recognizing your position on the bill is important. Hosting is not an open mic – and not the time to try out new material. The audience paid for this show, and deserves your top performance.
Eric was surprised when I told him I thought it was easier for me to go from middle to headliner than it was to go from emcee to middle. The reason was that I felt I didn’t have to ask for it. The clubs where I started closing the shows at first were the ones that requested me to do so. Generally speaking, how do you decide to move people up to the next spot?
Eric: Typically at the time you are prepared to move up to the next level, we are already hearing that you should be. Sometimes mentioning or making your case to be moved up is what needs to be done, but at that point most of the time we’ve already begun to get that type of feedback. We closely check progress, and monitor feedback and new clips, performances, etc. The biggest mistake some comedians make is pushing to move up before they are ready. It’s important to be honest with yourself about where you are at. Asking for honest feedback from club owners and comedians you work with is important.
The business side of comedy is so incredibly important. Is there one thing you think all performers, in general, could do in order to be better business people?
Eric: Ask for advice, take the time to learn and soak up knowledge about how the other side works. I see all the time that the acts that are consistently working on writing, building content, contacting venues/bookers and actually putting in full days of work to build their career tend to genuinely reap what they sow. The comedy business isn’t just writing and performing, it’s learning, promoting, building and growing your own business – and you are your own business as a comedian. Balancing working on your act and learning the business side of comedy is incredibly important.
If a bar or a club are looking to either start comedy or have someone help them with booking, how do they get in touch with you?
Eric: They can check us out online at www.funny-business.com for more info and to request quotes – and we are also always available to discuss further via phone at (888) 593-7387.
I’m in Vegas right now. Even though I’m writing this on Sunday, the 12th, I can assure you I’m not having a good time. I’ve only had a good time once in Vegas and that was when I was trying not to cry in the hotel room of a man I met earlier that month.
During the day I work part-time doing marketing for an entertainment company. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say, so I’ll leave it at that. Every year we have our conference in Vegas. I don’t generally enjoy it. Yeah, the conference itself is fine. It does what it’s supposed to. It gets you pumped up for the coming busy season. It’s also great to see in person the people who also work for the company across the country. There are a handful that I have a lot in common with so it’s nice to see them outside of Facebook. I don’t gamble, so Vegas holds no appeal for me there. I generally don’t party either. Although last year a ton of little things piled on top of each other and just caused me so much stress and anger that I ended up drinking way too much Scotch, much to the dismay of the guy with whom I was sharing a room. I coated the bathroom from both ends.
I’ve been to Vegas to perform at Trooperfest, the first Star Wars convention specifically for the 501st. I got to hang out with all sorts of nice and wonderful people. Every time something cool happened, I felt like I was verbally and emotionally punched in the face when I wanted to share that with the person I was closest to at the time. It was years ago, but my overall memory that festival wasn’t a happy one.
Last year I was in Vegas for the World Series of Comedy. Again, trouble in my personal life kept me from enjoying this potentially awesome networking opportunity. My head wasn’t in the game and I was out in the first round. I remember getting ready to go out on stage and just deciding to wing it and riff with the crowd even though everyone in that situation should know that the last thing a judge wants to see is how well you do crowd work. Yeah? Well, my crowd work is right up there with the masters like Pardo and Iott. Mike…you idiot! I got off stage and Eric Yoder from Funny Business just gave me a look like, “What the hell was that?” Technically, I was doing my Bear Calendar joke, which isn’t really crowd work. It’s my magic trick. It’s a slight of hand. It looks like crowd work, but it’s mostly scripted….or at the very least flow charted.
So, I was in Vegas after having crapped out in the first round of The World Series of Comedy and I still had a couple nights left until my return flight. Earlier that month I worked with Carl LaBove in Grand Rapids at Dr. Grin’s. Words can not explain how great I think Carl is. He’s like Yoda and the Dude from Big Lebowski rolled up into one. He’s wise and care free. He’s a master story teller…and what’s great about his stories is that after you’ve enjoyed them and you’ve had time to reflect, you see that his story that he picked to tell you at that moment was serving a point.
Early the second morning of the World Series of Comedy, I was sitting in the hotel lobby trying to decide if I wanted to walk to the casino where Carl and I were to meet for lunch or if I wanted to take a cab. I was trying to use Google map on my phone, but Vegas is deceptively large. Comedian Brad Tassell stopped in and we started talking. We worked together years and years ago and his comedy group Hoosier Daddy was kind of the inspiration for me forming the Desperate Houseguys. Brad had a rental car and offered to drive me to the Riviera for my lunch appointment.
I called Carl when I got there to let him know I was downstairs. Minutes later he burst out of the elevator as upbeat and cheerful as ever. We took off for lunch, and without giving any details in where or how he did it, Carl managed to scam both of us free meals.
If you’re not a huge comedy nerd, then you may not know that along with Sam Kinison, was one of the founding members of the Outlaws of Comedy. Carl was Sam’s best friend and they worked together through Sam’s entire, albeit short lived, career. Carl has seen it all. He was there in Los Angeles during the comedy boom. This morning, the wild man who partied with rock stars and porn legends was working a grift to get us breaded fish and mac & cheese! For dessert, stolen ice cream!
During lunch I brought Carl up to speed on where I was personally. It always seems like when things are going well professionally, they’re hurting personally. When they’re going well personally, professionally they’re suffering. This was one of those times where both personally and professionally things weren’t going well at all. I was down and I needed my happy sage to pick me up.
We went back up to his hotel room before his show and he opened his iTunes. He started playing me song after song and telling me the story of how he found the song and what it meant to him. Those songs spoke to me at that moment and speak to me now as the best memory of have of Las Vegas. Here are a couple of them.
I sat there listening to the lyrics of about a half a dozen songs and felt like they were written just for me. I knew I was experiencing a profound and beautiful moment that would last with me for the rest of my life and I had the foresight to know and appreciate that. It was a perfect moment. I tried to fight back the tears. Carl took a break from getting ready for his show and sat down next to me smiling and seemingly pleased that this moment he orchestrated didn’t fall on deaf ears.
We jumped on Youtube and he showed me a couple things he was working on. We talked about great guitar players and shared our love of music. He shared with me some of his guitar playing. This is a song he wrote about his life. I love it a lot. I hope he records it…or someone helps me lift the audio from this so I can put it on my iPod. Even through the turbulent moments of this song, I feel a peaceful and soothing rhythm. The song has momentum and makes me feel like things are going to move forward no matter what you do about it. Check out Carl’s playing.
I’m in Vegas now. I’m not having any profound moments, but things are moving forward no matter what I do about it. And that’s okay.
The first few things I wrote years ago were done with a regular old word processor. It was a pain in the ass. Every time I went to do a new draft, I’d have to manual go in and change the “continued” and all that stuff. Setting the tabs was awful. Making sure everything was formatted correctly caused me so much panic.
I was never able to full jump into just the creative part of screenwriting because the mechanics were always in the back of my mind. Well, truthfully, they were front and center.
A year or so ago I got Final Draft. It’s the industry standard for screenwriting and I totally see why. It’s basically a word processor program specifically designed to write scripts. I don’t have to think about anything other than the story when I use it. When you hit Enter to go on to a next section, it asks you if you want this to start with a character, dialogue, scene header, whatever. With a click, you can be back on track. It becomes second nature and it makes the whole process so much quicker and easier.
Here’s something else I just found out about Final Draft. Okay, I mentioned before that Lesley and I are going to start on a spec script to show that we can write television as well. I Googled Modern Family scripts and found a link to a template that plugs right into Final Draft! There are plug ins for pretty much every popular show out there. And if you’re writing a spec script, the best idea is to do it for a popular show. As much as I loved The Middleman, writing a script for that would make little to no sense!
Yes, the software is a little expensive, but if you’re serious about writing, I can not recommend it enough. Here’s a link if you want more information.
In our last episode, after a few attempts at screenwriting, I found a great writing partner in Lesley Braden.
Lesley’s idea (and the script is already registered with the WGA so just try and steal it, buster) was about a woman in her mid to late 30s who was tired of people either harassing her or taking advantage of her time because she was single. She creates a fake guy on Facebook and puts herself in a relationship with said guy. It’s Bridesmaids meets The Social Network. Both movies just came out. Both movies were successful. Kristen Wiig changed Hollywood overnight and showed the women can open a comedy and make a ton of money. Lesley’s idea was original, fun and hugely marketable. I was hooked!
Initially we started writing it with the two of us in mind to play the lead character and her slacker roommate. I have friends who have production companies in Michigan, so it seemed like something we could potentially try to raise money and make. As it went on, we realized how this script would be a really great calling card for us if we wanted to try to get writing jobs. So we stopped limiting ourselves with set pieces that we could possibly pull off if we were to raise enough money through a Kickstarter campaign of whatever and we decided to shoot for the stars.
When we cracked the story, we didn’t do a traditional outline. We knew key comedy moments that we wanted to happen and then from there we figured out how to get there. Using a basic three act structure, we knew too when certain beats had to happen. As we fleshed out the secondary characters more, our secondary story lines and conflicts started to become clearer too. We were both on the same page that we didn’t want this to necessarily be a joke based comedy. We wanted the humor to come from the characters. We both do comedy though, so naturally the jokes found their way into it.
The crazy thing was that every idea either of us had, the other either found a way to build on it or tweak it into something different. We never pitched a story element to have the other one say, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard”. I think that’s the key to a strong writing partnership. You can’t shoot down someone else’s idea without anything of your own to add. I’m sure it helps that from the beginning we were both really on the same page.
Okay, I’m going to jump ahead in time to the present day. We’re going to start working on a spec script for a television show. It’s an idea that I had rattling in my brain for awhile. I bounced it off of Lesley the other night and instead of shooting down my idea, she said, “That’s great, we could do that or maybe make it this slightly different thing too.” Okay, that’s not technically a quote, but you know what I mean. While her idea was slightly different than mine, it also opened itself up for a neat spin on the ideas I already had. I think the most exciting part of writing a story is not knowing what’s going to happen next. Changing a small detail, or even a large one, can definitely do that! I’m looking forward to cracking another story with her.
I’m at a pivotal point in the screenwriting process. I thought for my own piece of mind I’d share the journey it took to get here. I don’t know where this story will end. I certainly hope it has a happy ending. Let’s start from the beginning.
I’ve written a lot of screenplays. Most of them were through my twenties. I burned all my bridges in radio and television, moved back to Michigan and had the first “real” job of my life working in a Toys R Us. Over the next few years I went through my Kevin Smith phase. I first wrote my “Clerks” about a guy who was working in a big box toy store cleverly called We B Toys.
Next when I was in an unhappy relationship and feeling like I was hundreds of miles from where I wanted to be, I wrote my “Dogma” about a couple in an unhappy relationship who die and get stuck in Purgatory…which happens to be a small town in the middle of nowhere.
After that, the unhappy relationship ended so I wrote my “Chasing Amy” about a guy who ends his unhappy relationship and starts a non-romantic relationship. I guess it was also my “When Harry Met Sally”. The main character in that one was a struggling stand up comedian. At the time, I hadn’t stepped foot on the comedy stage yet, so it was just a way for me to get out the material I wrote without having to actually perform it. Coincidentally, the arc of that character kind of mirrored what I ended up doing creatively in real life years later.
So, after those first few attempts at screenwriting I started doing stand up and seemed to have a knack for it. Most of my creative juices flowed into that outlet. Friends asked me if I wanted to partner up with them on scripts, but for one reason or another it never really worked out.
Last year a fellow performer named Lesley Braden and I met with some other performers about starting a sketch comedy group. That didn’t work out, but Lesley and I found that we worked really well together. She pitched me her idea for the story we ended up writing and I loved it. It’s like what they say about love. You find it when you’re not looking for it. I wasn’t looking for the perfect screenwriting partner, I just happened upon her!
Next time, I’ll talk about the story.
There’s an old saying about how the reason BUSINESS is eight letter and SHOW is only four is because two third of SHOW BUSINESS is BUSINESS. I recently signed up for a thing called Connected Comedy. A few times a week I get emails from Josh Spector giving comedians tips on the business side of comedy. It’s hugely helpful to me since that’s an area I’ve always been lacking. I save those e-mails as new and when I have a little bit of free time I look at some of the tips to see what I can incorporate into what I’m already doing. It’s an incredibly valuable resource that I urge all comedians to sign up for. I wanted to know more about how it began, so I shot Josh some questions. Here’s what he had to say. I hope you enjoy.
What made you decide to start Connected Comedy?
Besides being passionate about comedy, marketing, business, and technology, there’s really two main reasons why I started Connected Comedy.
First, I felt like I had accumulated a good amount of knowledge about the comedy business and in particular how to promote comedy content and grow a fanbase using digital tools. I looked around and while I saw tons of resources for comedians to learn how to perform stand up, sketch, or improv, I didn’t really see any that were teach comedians how to build a fanbase and grow their career. I thought that was something I could do.
The second reason I started Connected Comedy was because I saw it as an opportunity to try out much of what I thought I had learned and see if I could implement these same strategies to grow my own fanbase and launch a business. While I’m not (and never have been) a comedian, I think that most of what you do to attract an audience and then eventually monetize that audience by providing value is the same no matter what specifically you’re trying to pursue. Connected Comedy has given me (and continues to give me) a great opportunity to learn hands-on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to using social media to build a business.
Have there been tips from other artists that made you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
There’s been lots of little things I’ve seen people do that I recognize as good ideas, but the truly big stuff that has influenced me typically has come more from marketing and business experts. Specifically, author Seth Godin has been a huge influence on me and in particular his book “Tribes,” which I recommend every comedian read at some point.
What’s the one thing you notice comedians not doing that they really should be doing?
I think there’s two things that comedians should be doing more of. First, the vast majority of comedians still don’t seem to understand that the future of their career is really now in their own hands. I see way too much waiting around for a break, to get discovered, or for somebody else to give them permission to have a career.
Comedians obsession with bookers, clubs, agents/managers, and festivals are all ways to avoid facing the fact that you can now create your own opportunities. Not enough comedians realize that.
The second thing I don’t see enough comedians doing is really pouring a lot of time and effort into creating content online. Whether that’s videos, a podcast, a blog, or something else, comedians now have the opportunity to reach the entire world at virtually no cost yet most of them can’t even get it together to build a respectable website (which doesn’t even have to cost any money!). Comics will obsess over getting more stage time in front of 20 people, yet will ignore the millions they could be reaching online. I don’t get it.
Patton Oswalt spoke at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal about how we, as artists, don’t necessarily need “gate keepers” anymore to open doors for ourselves because we have the technology to reach everyone. How do you see the future of comedy and the arts?
I agree with everything Patton said and it’s been really interesting in just the past couple years since I started Connected Comedy to see how big name comics are starting to capitalize on the opportunities I’ve been trying to preach since I started. I’m certainly not taking credit for it, but hopefully as more people like Patton and Louis CK are out there talking about how the business has changed and showing younger comics what is possible, the message will start to be better understood.
I don’t think that Hollywood is going away any time soon and there will always be clubs, festivals, and a comedy “industry.” However, the balance of power is about to shift dramatically to the individual comedians and away from the gatekeepers. And the comedians who understand how to work in that new world order are the ones that will succeed.
Just look at the music industry – the same thing has happened there as the labels don’t have anywhere near the power they once had and the only new artists that can succeed are the ones that understand how to build their own fanbase.
Thank you so much for Josh for taking the time to answer those. Please check out Connected Comedy where you can sign up for the newsletter, read a ton of helpful articles, listen to the podcast and even sign up for classes.
In the past nine and a half years I’ve performed in a lot of clubs and a bunch of them stand out for one reason or another because they do something so incredibly right. I just wanted to point a few of them out and apologize preemptively for any of the ones I forgot. When I write these, I type as I think and don’t even really go back to proof them unless a word gets underline in red! These are my thoughts as I have them. I guess what I’m saying is please book me again even if you slipped my mind this morning. Please…
The Skyline in Appleton, Wisconsin doesn’t do a check drop. If you’re not a comedian you might not know what that means. If you are a comedian you haven’t closed a show yet, you might not even know what this is a big deal. The check drop is when the waitstaff drops the bills off at the tables. In a restaurant it’s not a big deal because everyone comes and goes at different times. Being a wait person at a comedy club seems like one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Every single person is arriving at almost the same time and every single person is leaving at the exact same time! When you’re on stage, you go from being the focus of everyone in the room to losing everyone in the room at the exact same moment. At each table someone is fiddling for money. It can be very distracting. A lot of clubs do it really well. The club that does is the best is The Skyline because they don’t do it at all. I’m not exactly sure what they do, but it has something to do with table numbers. When the audience leaves, they tell the cashier on the way out which table they were at and then the settle their bill then. It’s fast and efficient. While they have their money in their hands and are in spending mode, they next walk past the comedians selling their merchandise.
During slow times a lot of clubs will “paper the room”. What that means is they give out free passes to get butts in seats. Clubs make most of their money off of drink sales, so it’s not usually a huge deal. Sometimes it sucks for the performer because if people haven’t invested anything financially into a show, they sometimes forget to invest their attention. The two clubs that stand out for me with papering are Lansing Connxtions and Dr. Grin’s. Lansing runs silly contests on their Facebook page. A lot of times the contests will coincide with the comedians that are there. The week I was headlining, the theme for the contests was nerdy movie trivia. This is great for a couple reasons. First is I’m getting to perform in front of people who share my interests. That’s going to make for a better experience both for me and them. My first show that week there was a woman front and center with a Futurama t-shirt on. I couldn’t have been happier! She’s going to have friends who she’s going to tell about the show and next time I’m there, maybe she’s back with an even larger group. I win and so does the club! The second reason is because people still feel like they “earned” a show even if they didn’t invest money in it. I think it makes the audience more engaged.
When I started, Dr. Grin’s in Grand Rapids had a house emcee who used the moniker Dr. Billy Grin. Billy kept a stack of free passes with him everywhere he went and he passed them out to beautiful women all around town. When people asked where all the hot chicks in Grand Rapids hung out, people would tell them, “Dr. Grin’s.” They were packed almost all the time! And Grin’s is the perfect experience for this because it’s in The B.O.B. with a bunch of other bars. It was one stop mating game…or whatever the kids call it.
Some clubs have staffs that honestly seem like they hate comedy. The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase is just the opposite. They love comedy there! This is great for both Roger who runs the place and the comedians. Roger has a fleet of people recommending people for him to bring in. It’s great for us too because if you can make that staff laugh, particularly Jay behind the bar, then you know you’re doing something right. It’s a great way to test material on something other than your cats…who will never laugh because that’s physically impossible for cats to do. If you look at the line up at any time on the calendar at that club you’re going to see people who are on the verge of breaking big or are currently the secret gem that only people in the know know about. Roger was booking Lynne Koplitz way before she was doing television with Joan Rivers. Roger was booking Jackie Kashian years before everyone in LA had a podcast and found a way to mention that Jackie is one of the best out there. You can see the best of the best at Ann Arbor and be like the cool kid who can say the comedy equivalent of, “I saw Green Day at St. Andrews.” By the way, I did see Green Day at St. Andrews.
Reach out to the community. Joey’s Comedy Club is open more days a week than most comedy clubs in the world. That’s largely due to the fact that Bill Bushart who runs the place does Comedy For A Cause better than anyone I’ve ever met. Being a comedian himself, Bill knows how much better it is to perform for a full house. Since I’ve known him he’s been working at Joey’s doing promotions. Probably a week doesn’t go by where there isn’t some sort of fundraiser going on at Joey’s. Those fundraisers fill the place. It’s great too because then it becomes someone else’s job to fill the seats and not the clubs. If there’s a group that wants to do a fundraiser first show Saturday, then the club is now freed up to focus on second show Saturday. Both shows benefit! When the fundraisers go well, there’s invariably someone in the audience that thinks, “damn, this was a fun way to raise money. I should do one of these too.” They get in touch with Bill and another one is booked. Comedy For a Cause is so successful at Joey’s that many times they end up having to do a third show on Saturdays! I’ve been to clubs where they’ve had to cancel a second show on a Saturday because of lack of audience. Joey’s is open six days a week and has at least eight shows every week.
Posters, posters, posters. The Comedy Club on State in Madison, Wisconsin has a great graphic artist who makes posters for every show. The posters are beautiful and are hung prominently on the street in a great location. The Comedy Castle in Royal Oak has great posters inside as well that are also works of art. I was just at Laugh Comedy Club in Bloomington. It’s a smaller club on a limited budget. Adam that runs the place is hyper aware of how much of a difference a good poster can make. The person that was designing them used a text heavy design. Adam told him that he really wanted logos of the credits each comedian had. Now you get great posters there that really stand out. Bloomington, like Madison has a lot of foot traffic and those posters hang right on the street where people passing by can see them. They jump out at you too and generate buzz. A good poster can make a huge difference.
A nice green room is heaven! The Ice House in Pasadena has nice comfortable seating in there. We had a tray of cheese and crackers. If my memory is correct, there were beverages too. The Comedy Castle has a little fridge that always has water for the comedians. The lighting in there is perfect. There’s a television in both clubs where you can watch the show. The Castle even has it where you can tape yourself right from the green room via a ceiling mounted camera pointed at the stage!
And finally, say, “Thank You”. I absolutely love The Comedy Club on State in Madison, Wisconsin and always will because my last memory of the place every time I leave is an amazing one. When they pay you, they pay you in an envelope with a Thank You card. I still have my cards from every time I’ve been there. They write you a note and the management staff all signs it. It’s a small gesture, but it’s one that makes me happy every time I think about it. When a club makes an effort like that to show that they appreciate you, it makes you want to do everything you can to let them know you appreciate them as well. Whenever I’m on stage I want to do my best, but when I’m on stage in Madison I want to do better than my best.
So thank you to these, and all the clubs that have been keeping me steadily employed all these years!