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!
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.
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.
Nine years ago today I had my graduation show at Joey’s Comedy Club. Since then I’ve done over 1480 shows.
Some comedians argue about the benefits of comedy classes. I like them, but with an asterisk.
I don’t believe you can teach someone to be funny. I think it’s like playing a musical instrument. You either have an ear for music or you don’t. It’s the same way with comedy. Either you have an ear for what a joke sounds like or you don’t. Yeah, like with music, you can teach the mechanics, but some people just are never going to get it. They don’t have that natural ability.
Believe me, I wanted to play bass so badly. Practically all my friends when I was a teenager and in my early twenties were great musicians. A lot of my friends to this day are still great musicians. I just don’t have a natural affinity towards music. I practiced and practiced my bass until I was passable in a punk band where I wrote most of the songs so I knew I didn’t throw anything out there that was beyond my ability. My first passion is music. If I could do that, I would. I hate that I can’t. I took guitar lessons and tried, but at the end of the day someone else with a natural ability was going to have a much easier time and go a lot further.
It’s the same way with comedy classes. Some people take the classes with no ability, but they want to be a comedian so bad. They’ll never really figure it out. Some people have that ability and just need little pushes in the right direction. Some people may be amazing writers and just want to conquer their fear of public speaking. For that matter, some people may have no interest in comedy at all and only want to conquer their fear of public speaking.
I believe comedy classes are a good thing…as long as their being taught by a comedian. There was, for a time, a stand up class being taught by a local actor. I guess that class was for students who wanted to learn how to act like a comedian.
Bill Bushart taught my class. Bill himself is a great comedian, but what makes him an even better teacher is his ability to almost immediately tap into a student’s sensibility and punch up the material in their voice. Bill is a master of tagging jokes and in my opinion the best teacher out there. I don’t know how things would’ve been different for me had he not been my instructor.
I’m glad I took comedy classes and started this pursuit of this craft. I’ve never worked hard for anything in my life before this. Everything I did, I did because it came easy to me. I’ve sacrificed more for comedy than anything else or anyone else in my life. I don’t know that I’ve made the right decisions always. At times I’m almost certain I’ve made the exact wrong decisions. Comedy has given to me and it’s taken from me. I’m so deep in it now that I don’t see a life without it. I love comedy like a junky loves their fix. At moments of lucidity I see comedy as the Symbiote that at first helped Peter Paker and then later tried to destroy him. But when I’m on stage, I’m high and I like it there.
Looking back, if I were to give anyone advice starting out, it would be to set boundaries. Look at the things that make you happy now and never let comedy step on those things or take those things away from you. When you sit down with a note book to write new bits, write yourself reminders about where you are and what’s important. My personal experience is it’s hard to balance the life of a comedian with the real world. I think the people who have are the people whose real world really started once they reached a certain level of success. I don’t know.
All I’ve learned in the past nine years is that I’ve amassed a lot of opinions about things and an ability to spew them without having any real knowledge of anything at all. And that’s what comedy is really…when you break it down. One person in the spotlight spreading their thoughts to a somewhat captive audience.
Well…this return to the website took a weird twist, eh? Welcome back.
I’m fascinated by all branches of performing arts. Stand up comedy and burlesque share a lot of the same roots in show business, both starting back in the vaudeville circuit nearly a century ago. A few years ago I did a Halloween show with my friends the Detroit Rockabilly band Graveside Manner. Also on the bill was the burlesque troupe Detroit Dizzy Dames led by the wonderful Lushes LaMoan. We became Facebook friends and I couldn’t help to notice how incredibly busy she constantly is.
For me, the hardest part about being a performer is figuring out how to juggle so many different schedules. We’re all essentially small business owners trying to sell a product, and that product is ourselves. Somehow Lushes manages to not only juggle the business of Lushes LaMoan, but is additionally teaching burlesque and serving as the Branch Director of the Detroit chapter of Dr. Sketchy which is an “anti-art school” featuring local models and burlesque performers, and she manages to juggle it all very well! She’s one of the hardest working performers in the city and has already made a name with herself with noteworthy accomplishments like being featured on the cover of the 2010 Metro Times Lust issue.
I think I may have figured out how she does it all when I had a chance to catch up with her at a recent Dr. Sketchy event at the Scarab Club downtown. She multi-tasks incredibly well! We talked while she arranged snacks for all the attendees, delegated chairs being set up for the artists, and fielded questions from a long line of people.
The first I remember meeting you was that Halloween show a few years back.
Yes. I started managing the Detroit Dizzy Dames when SPAG went on hiatus. It started with myself and a few of the girls not wanting to stop doing burlesque. We carried on what we do and did it a little differently. So we started the Detroit Dizzy Dames and that show was the Halloween Hootenanny and that was actually our very first gig.
Ben Konstantin has been my peer from the very start of my time in comedy. Like I said previously regarding my friendship with Bob Phillips and Steve Lind, Ben is a guy who I don’t see me interacting with in any other world outside of comedy. We’re just two very different people. Honestly, he rubbed me the wrong way until I started to get to know him. What I viewed as off putting, was really just focus and determination. I’m glad I managed to overcome my preconceived biases and got to become friends with Ben before he moved to New York. I’m a fan of the guy and I was curious to see how the Big Apple was going to treat him. A handful of Detroit guys have made the jump to New York, but I wasn’t as close with any of them as I am Ben. So now that he’s a couple months into his new residence, I picked his brain.
How is comedy treating you so far out there?
It’s been tough and great at the same time. Recently I had a week where I was on stage seven times in five days and mostly good shows.
It’s a podcast seventeen (going on eighteen)! And this episode is with the amazing Jeff Dwoskin. We talk about old awesome tv shows, writing strategies for longer sets, and he says the things my wife wishes I would say, which is why she is forbidden to ever hear this. Check out more great content at JeffreyConolly.com or email feedback to email@example.com
I feel lucky that I’m in a position where I get to scout new talent for the Funny Business talent agency. Here are 11 tips and tricks of the trade.
When I started in comedy, if you lived in Michigan and you wanted to work for Funny Business there were two ways in. You could either hope for a recommendation from the go to person at that point in time or you could trek out to Grand Rapids and hope to dazzle Funny Business owner John Yoder in the three minutes of stage time you’d get on the open mic show at Dr. Grin’s.
This interview has been reformatted and can be seen in its entirety here. Enjoy!
Mike and I take a walk down memory lane and discuss how things were different when we started and how things are currently in the open mic scene in Chicago. I think there’s a lot of really good information here particularly to the newer guys doing comedy. So I hope you enjoy and pick up something useful.
Without any huge credits, Mike Stanley has managed to become an “event” comic. When he comes to town, his loyal fan base often times sells out shows. I’ve been friends with Mike since his start in comedy and one thing he had from the very beginning was a ridiculously strong work ethic. He was always constantly writing and perfecting his craft. Years later, Mike’s work ethic has carried over to the business side of things. He’s a master of self promotion and is still continuously working on new creative endeavors in addition to his rock solid stand up.
Mike and I sat down at the Comedy Castle and talked about his work ethic, the differences between Chicago and Detroit comedy as well as the hardships of the business.
I’ve been friends with filmmaker John Anton since I was in high school. Back then he wasn’t the movie guy, he was the owner of the legendary punk rock/heavy metal club Blondies. I’ve stayed friends with John for over twenty years and one thing has always been consistent, he’s a class act. Over the past ten or so years he’s been working hard on the ambitious film Guns, Drugs and Dirty Money. It’s a movie that features a cast of well over 100 parts and action sequence after action sequence that rivals the stuff you see in big blockbuster movies like Stallone’s Expendables.
I had a chance to sit down with John in his office at the Token Lounge while we were filming my television show Deadpan. Always the generous friend, John was letting us film a large chunk of our show in his club without asking for anything in return. He’s a guy I’m proud to call my friend. I’m equally proud of him because Guns, Drugs and Dirty Money has finally come out and has already generated a lot of buzz.
After twenty five years of business, Chaplin’s Comedy Club closed its doors for good. Chaplin’s is allegedly the place where Jeff Foxworthy riffed on stage and discovered his entire “you might be a redneck” routine. It’s been bothering me that I’m the last person to headline Chaplin’s Comedy Club.
In the year leading up to becoming a comedian I experienced live comedy three times. The entire main stage cast at Second City Detroit horribly embarrassed me by improvising a musical number about how horrible it would be to be on a date with me. Maybe that’s why I have a love/hate relationship with improve to this day! At that moment of sitting in the front row, I vowed that if I were ever on stage I would never humiliate someone like I was humiliated. Well…so much for that!