Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Funny Beginning

One of the questions comedians are asked the most is "how did you get your start in stand up?"

To many people stand-up comedy seems like one of those impossible jobs which everyone wants, but no one seems to know how to get.  In many ways it's on the same level as rock star, video game tester, or male porn actor.

While the story for each comic may vary, most follow a similar path.  First, friends tell you you're funny.  Then you try an open mic at a club and eventually work your way into the circuit.  Finally somebody gives you a big break, and then you retire a successful famous millionaire.

I myself am waiting for the big break (along with several thousand other comics).  Other than that my story follows mostly the same path.  Still, I'm told, my tale is an interesting one and since it's one of the most common questions I get asked after shows I thought I would put it down in this blog.  You never know.  This may one day be the first chapter in my best seller autobiography (see previous comment about big break).

I was 7-years old when I told my parents that I wanted to be a stand-up comedian.  The idea sparked after I had seen a stand-up comic on TV.  I don't remember the comic's name, but I do remember that he was making some kind of joke about the safety instructions on airplanes.  In hindsight the material was probably pretty hacky (it was the 80's after all), but I remember being hooked on the laughter of the audience and imagining myself on stage getting the laughs.

I had already had a brush with the showbiz bug in kindergarten when I became a big hit on show-and-tell day demonstrating a toy microphone that could change your voice to make you sound like a robot.  Nothing fancy, but it was comedy gold to 5-year-olds.

Two years later the showbiz bug had formed into the goal of a stand-up comedian.  I knew I would be good at it, because I was able to make both my parents laugh when I told them my plan.  Despite their amusement they encouraged my ambition and gave me tapes of some of their favorite child friendly comedians, including Bob Newhart, Rodney Dangerfield, and a lot of Bill Cosby.   It's interesting to me that these three comedians formed the basis for my comedy education.  Each has a very unique style of comedy and my particular style is nothing at all like any of theirs.

Of course as a 7-year living in a remote town in the middle of Alaska, my options for pursuing my comedy career were a bit limited.  So, I had to resolve myself to being the class clown.  In the sixth grade I gave a five minute speech on "how to beat up your younger brother" complete with a torso dummy tied up with duct tape.
I'm sure if a student gave that speech in a classroom today the teacher would call the cops, who would then show up with pepper spray, but thankfully my teacher thought the speech was so funny he gave me full marks and to this day he still brings it up when he runs into my parents at the grocery story. 

As I moved into high school I noticed my attempts at comedy were getting more groans then laughs and I put my dreams of comedy on hold so I could become a moody pessimistic teenager.  I maintained a connection to performance through speech and drama classes eventually focusing my skills on a more realistic career of journalism.

After college I landed a decent job as a television news producer in Boise Idaho.  Despite my success my parents began encouraging me to look into my childhood dream of comedy.  As it would happen there was a local comedy club called the Funny Bone and they had an open mic night.  I first checked out a couple of open mic shows before trying it for myself.  Some of the comics at the shows were pretty good, but most were bad or in some cases just plain awful and if they could do it, I could do it.  I made a few calls and got on the list for the next open mic show.  

Most comics will tell you that the first time they performed on stage that they had a really rough set.  The rest are probably lying.  I remember my set going alright, but not great.  Most of my jokes were about hockey and some are still part of the routine I do to this day.  The club manager happened to be at the show and seemed impressed by my set.  After the show he asked if I would be interested in being the MC for the next open mic night.  I accepted, and after that show I was asked to MC the following week at the club.  It was my first paying gig as a professional comedian!

Within six months I was regularly working at the club and was put in contact with a comedy booker who sent me on my first road gig.  (More on that story in a future blog.)  Within two years I had a part time journalism job and was making most of my money doing comedy.  Four years after my first open mic I was doing comedy full time and beginning to headline at some clubs.

It may seem like a simple path to success in comedy, but the road is not an easy one.  I would estimate only 2 percent of comics who take the stage at an open mic ever make a career out of comedy and even fewer are able to be a big success at it.  Ultimately it takes more than mere talent to be a working comic.  You must also have a solid business mind, and it doesn't hurt to get a big break as well.

I now have worked in more than 30 states and three countries.  My career has taken me to some of the most luxurious resort and to some of the shadiest small towns that you could possibly imagine.  I've been on television, made a brief appearance in a movie, and I've even done some acting in commercials.  I've made a lot of progress, but still haven't gotten my major break.  Hopefully someday you will be able to say I've been a fan of Ryan Wingfield when he was still an unknown.  And I have the blog to prove it!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Comedy Competitions: A Necessary Evil

This week I'm taking part in the Rocky Mountain Laugh Off.  It's a comedy competition based in Salt Lake City, which includes shows in surrounding areas.  I was added to the competition as a last minute replacement.  In total there are 23 of us comics performing 5 minute sets 6 nights in a row, all for the chance of winning $1,000 and some bragging rights.  Only the top 5 comics will earn any money.  The rest of us will go home with empty wallets and bruised egos.

A a general rule comedians HATE comedy competitions.  It's taking something we love to do and then turns it into a graded competition that makes us face off among our friends.  On top of that competitions are often a major financial burden for us.  Typically you spend a lot of money and time traveling to a distant location to give a sample of your material among countless other comics and then head home with nothing to show for it. 

You may ask, If that is the case than why do you do it?  The answer is we often have no choice.  When you are an unknown comic, with no major TV credits in a market with literally thousand of others just like you, the only way you can stand out is to win, or at least place, in a comedy competition.  In many cases the only way you can get into a major comedy competition, such as the San Francisco or Boston competitions, is to win smaller ones and earn a spot.  It's kind of like prize fighting.  First you have to beat a bunch of bums before you get a shot at a title fight.

I myself have been in only a handful of competitions in my career.  The first one I was in I took second place to a 9-year-old boy whose closing joke involved stripping off his shirt and flexing in front of the crowd.  Since then the competitions have all gone downhill.  Either I choke on stage and spend months kicking myself for my bad set, or I get huge laughs and then spend months wondering how I lost to the seemingly talentless hack who beat me. 

This brings me back to Salt Lake and the Rocky Mountain Laugh Off.  The contest has been held semi regularly for the past 15 or so years.  Many of the winners have gone on to successful careers, but if I told you their names odds are you wouldn't recognize them. 

There are many talented comics at this year's event, but it is hard to say for certain given that I only get to see them on stage for 5 minutes at a time.  Those 5 minutes can give you a good judge of a comedians skills, but they can also be very deceptive. 

The first thing a comic does when he gets into stand-up is put together a solid 5 minutes of material.  Some comics only work on their 5 minutes of material, making it as good as possible.  With those 5 minutes they can they do well in competitions, but when they have to perform a normal set (30-60 minutes) they fall very short. 

Probably the best example of this is Dat Phan, the winner of the first season of NBC's "Last Comic Standing."  Dat Phan had only been performing comedy for several months when he entered the competition, but he had a solid enough set to win despite facing off against many seasoned veterans.  After the national win he soon found himself headlining top clubs around the country, but he lacked sufficient material to keep audiences laughing and ended up becoming an industry joke (no pun intended).   

The limited time during competitions can also hurt some comedians who are really funny, but who have a slow style of delivery such as story telling, or audience interaction.  Many great comedians have never won any competitions, because they were never able to transform their material into a compact 5 minute spot.  When comics do this they often have to trim out many secondary punchlines which leaves their sets very flat.

Another big hurdle for comedy competition is the judging.  Every comedy competition has judges, and for some reason they are almost always terrible.  At least that's what we comics who lose like to say.

There are several type of people who are often picked as judges for comedy competitions.  One of the most common are local radio personalities.  On the surface this seems like it would be a good idea.  These people are in the entertainment industry.  It's there job to know what people want and they've seen enough to know what's good and what's bad.  Unfortunately many radio DJ's think of themselves as comedians and hate anyone who is funnier then they are.  Many have a particular taste for comedy and think their show and their style of comedy is the only thing that is funny and any comedian who is different must not be that good.  This is also the case with some celebrity comics who are judges.  They can be among the best judges, but some will be overly critical of competitors who have jokes similar to theirs, or deliver them better.  Others can be biased if they personally know one or more comics in the competition. 

Many competitions also use random audience members as judges.  The problem with this is competitions are often supposed to be judged in part on originality and the casual comedy viewer hasn't seen enough to know what's an original joke and what is hacky. 

In the end most judges will leave the scoring system aside and base their decisions almost entirely on how loud the audience responds to each comic.  That means the comedian with the most friends in the audience will likely win.  In one competition I was in, the winner had only been doing comedy for only a month, but brought dozens of friends to the show.  Despite being the weakest comedian by far, he still managed to dominate the competition because his friends cheered so loud.  It was the comedic equivalent of buying an election. 

I'm sure my opinion of comedy competitions will change if I ever win one.  Should that day ever happen I'm sure there will be comics who will whisper to their friends that I didn't deserve it and I only won because I knew the judges or used some hacky material that pandered to the audience.  It happens in every competition I've ever been in.  Something about the competition turns us comedians into a that group of bitchy girls from high school

I am having a great time at the Rocky Mountain Laugh Off, but I have no illusions about winning.  The first round of the competition went so bad for me I ended up taking LAST PLACE!  Things have gotten better, but so far the highest I've ranked is 4th.  Stay tuned to this blog for an update on how it all wraps up. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Unusually Common

To many people it seems I have a very interesting life.  I grew up in Alaska, have worked on television and radio, and now travel the country (and sometimes the world) performing stand-up comedy for crowds of hundreds.  Not many people can say they live that kind of life, but compared to my fellow comedians I am more boring than wonder bread with mayonaise. 
This was recently pointed out to me by a fellow comic who I was traveling with on the road.  She is a lesbian who has lived with numerous partners in recent years and comes from a family filled largely with very conservative republicans who don't think highly of her lifestyle.  She lives paycheck to paycheck and is involved with numerous theater and television projects as a modern day artisan.  Her story is considered very typical in the comedy industry. 
As a general rule comedians aren't stable people.  Most of us have experienced great trauma in our lives which we have been able to channel into productivity from comedy.  One of the greatest examples of this is Christopher Titus.  His act centers around his highly dysfunctional family and includes topics such as custody battles, mental illness, family suicides, heart attacks, domestic abuse, and his dead judgmental father.  Watching Titus on stage is almost like watching someone vent to a psychologist (the psychologist being the audience).  Amazingly Titus does it in such a humorous way you almost don't notice that he's using the stage as his own version of therapy. 
Almost every comic does this in some way on stage.  One of the best reasons for doing it is that it makes your material original and nearly impossible for another comic to steal your material.  After all it would be really hard for me to jokes about being an overweight lesbian with a smokers cough.
The problem with this is when a comic ONLY talks about their personal issues.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen a fat comic do nothing but fat jokes, or a gay comic talk only about being gay, or a black comic who talks about nothing but his Puerto Rican girlfriend.  Sure it's really funny for the first 15 minutes, but very hard to maintain for a full show. 
This is why I find it hard to talk about myself and my family on stage.  When you're a straight white athletic male from a functional middle upper class christian family there's not a lot that people care about.  On top of that I also don't drink excessively, nor do I smoke, do drugs, or cheat on my wife.  In other words Wonder bread with mayonnaise.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why I Do the Driving

I have a joke in my stand-up routine where I talk about traveling with an Asian comic friend and during the trip I insist on doing all the driving.  The secondary punch line to the joke is that the real reason I don't trust my friend to drive is because she is a woman.  The joke is intended to be a light-hearted jab at stereotypes, but underneath the surface is a subtle truth:  I don't trust other people to drive.

It's not that I think other people are worse drivers than I am.  In fact when I was sixteen I drove the family minivan off the road and rolled it once.  I am by no means a perfect driver, but it seems most of the comics I travel with are even worse.  Because of this I insist on doing most if not all of the driving when I'm traveling with another comic.  There are of course times when another comic must take the wheel and recently that only served to reenforce the sterotypes that I joke about.
I was doing an aggressive week of traveling to various one-nighters:  11 hours of traveling the first day, 10 hours the second day, 7 hours the following day, and 13 hours of traveling to get back home.  In total over 2500 miles.  A day and a half of driving, most of it on side roads.  During the week I was working with another comic from Portland whom I picked up and dropped off at the end of the week. 

After two days of driving the other comic offered to take over some of the driving and I accepted so that I could take a nap.  Less than 20 minutes into my nap I was awakened to the sound of the car driving on gravel, having drifted onto the shoulder of the road.  I looked up to see the other comic setting her coffee cup down in a cup holder and telling me not to worry and get some more sleep.  Like that was going to happen.

Instead of insisting on taking over the driving I chose to let the other comic keep driving and 15 minutes later she again drifted off the side of the road.  This time pushed over by a gust of wind.  The comic in me wanted to make a joke about woman drivers, but the gentleman in me just asked if she would like me to take over the driving.  She declined and said she could handle it until we got to snowy conditions.  5 minutes later snowy conditions arrived.

That's when she turned to me and said "maybe you should take over driving."  Apparently that was just the moment fate decided to put an icy patch in the middle of the road and sent us crashing into a snow bank.  The good news is no one was hurt.  The bad news is we were 60 miles from nowhere which as it turns out is really far for a tow truck to travel.  And really really expensive.  3 hours and $200 later we were back on road with only a screwed up alignment and missing side mirror for our troubles. 

To her credit the other comic was the first to point out that it was she "a female driver"  who crashed the car.  She also joked that she should have been able to counter that disability because she was a lesbian. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Comedic Road Rage

One of the biggest downsides to working as a stand-up comic is the travel.  Especially when you are poor like me and don't make enough money to afford a plane ticket.  Typically I will drive more than 50 thousand miles each year, which I'm sure is the leading reason why my blood pressure is so high.  It amazes me how many bad drivers there are on the roads.  So much so that I often have to send texts to my friends mid commute to warn them about all of the idiots I keep spotting behind the wheel.
Of course I'm not such an idiot.  No one is if you ask them.  It doesn't matter if a person is legally blind, they will swear on a stack of nuns that they are a good driver.  Its just that everyone else on the road is a maniac who can't be trusted with a Nerf football, let alone be allowed behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle.  Apparently these "maniacs" must spend their entire lives continually circulating the nations highways in their cars, because they never seem to be around to defend themselves when a group of us "sane" drivers are complaining about them.  It seems the only way we can complain to those idiot drivers directly is by honking our horn, or an obscene hand gesture, or my personal favorite, a McDonald's milkshake thrown from the drivers side window. 
Personally I've always felt the horn was a bit of an impersonal way of voicing a complaint.  After all it can only make one noise, and you have to use that noise to voice an entire range of emotions, from "Heads up moron the light has turned green." to "You @#*ing idiot!  You almost got me killed and if I had a gun right now I would use my second amendment right to riddle your car with lead, just like the founding fathers would have wanted!"
I really think cars should be equipped with at least five horns of various sounds and loudness levels.  That way you could use them for the various situations that come up.  In addition the front grills could come with electronic message boards which could display prerecorded messages like "move to the right lane if you are going to drive so slow" and "Did you know your truck is flashing me it's nuts?"  My favorite idea is floodlights on the back side of your car.  That way the next time someone flashes their brights in my rear view mirror I could return the favor and hopefully blind them off the road.
Police, unfortunately, look down on such behavior which they like to call road rage.  According to a study I made up for the purpose of this rant, America has twice as many cases of road rage as any other country in the world.  Of course in our defense we have twice as many miles of road, and twice as many drivers.  I'm sure this is one of the reasons why we also have the highest gun crime rate of any other country.
I am fortunate to live in Boise Idaho where rush hour traffic means two of the four lanes are occupied.  Here the only type of road rage you experience is when you are on a windy mountain roads and you get stuck behind an old person who thinks they know how to drive an RV.  The problem with these drivers is they never just drive an RV.  They have to have an RV that is pulling a boat, which in turn is pulling another car.  So not only is it impossible to pass them, but even if you could it would be illegal because technically that would be passing three vehicles at once.  These same senior drivers seem to think it would be pointless to pull over to the side of the road and let people pass, I think it's because they assume the trail of 15 cars behind them is a convoy who enjoys driving in their cars slower than people can pedal a bicycle. The odd thing about road rage is it only happens on the road.  You would never start swearing at an old lady who is moving slow in the check out line of a grocery store.  That would be rude.  The socially acceptable thing to do is to stare at them with your arms crossed while you ramble off a few choice words in my head and then complain about her to your wife when you get home.  You know... what civilized people do. 
Perhaps the reason why it's different in a car is because no one can hear you.  The cocoon of silence prevents people from hearing when you shout swear words or sing to the top of your lungs to Lady Gaga.  Just remember that even though they can't hear you sing they can see you singing at a stop light and laugh in your face.  That's why I always carry a gun in my glove box so I can put them back in their place.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Zanie look at comedy

Recently I had the privilege of performing at Zanies Comedy club in Chicago as part of their Rising Star Showcase.  Zanies is one of the oldest and most respected comedy chains in the country.  In the past three decades it has hosted every major name in the comedy industry from Rodney Dangerfield to Jerry Seinfeld.  Today the club continues to thrive with sold out shows headlined by the biggest stars of the club circuit and featuring some of the most promising new talent.

The man in charge of finding that talent is Bert Haas.  He is the Executive Vice President of Zanies and is responsible for booking comedians for the club.  Haas personally oversees the Rising Star showcase.  The showcase allows new talent like myself to show him what what we can do, but the showcase spots are in high demand and Haas doesn't waste time with comics who don't take it seriously.

I was one of 8 comics who were offered a spot on the showcase.  The show was scheduled to start at 8:30, but we were all told to be at the club by 7:30.  One comic showed up at 7:32 and was politely told that he was too late and wouldn't be able to perform that night.  Those of us who did show up on time had the privileged of listening to Haas who spent a half hour discussing what he expected out of us as comedians as well as his advice on what young comics need to do to become a success in the industry.

I recorded the conversation and have included parts of it below with Haas's permission.  It includes great advice for any comic who is starting out, and an interesting insight into the industry.

Bert Haas
Zanies Comedy Clubs Inc.

Stick to your time

"Out of respect for the club, out of respect to me, out of respect to your fellow performers do your time.  It's part of the art of showcasing to know what you're going to do and to get it in the time frame that you need to do it in.  When you guys do your first Tonight Show set they will ask you to do 4 1/2 minutes.  They mean 4 1/2 minutes.  They're not going to hold a commercial so that you can get your last bit in.  Get in the habit of knowing your time and doing it."


"The best advice I can give you for performing in general and showcasing in particular:  Exit gracefully.  "Thank you and goodnight."  If you get an applause break at 5 1/2 say "Thank you and goodnight".  It's not going to get any better.  If at 5 1/2, you haven't had any laughs...  It happens.  I've seen the best comedians have off sets... If at 5 1/2 you haven't had any laughs say thank you and goodnight.  If you didn't get them in the first 5 1/2 you're not going to get them in the last 30 seconds."

The Roles in Comedy

"Lets understand what our roles are.  My role is not to be your friend.  My role is not to be your mentor.  My role is to make money for Zanies comedy clubs.  As long as Zanies makes money I have a job, I get my annual bonus.  Your job is not to be the next great comedian.  It's great to keep that in mind, but your goal right now is to make money.  And if that means you have to make compromises, then make those compromises.  It's great to be a starving artist when you're in your 20's.  It's noble.  It's not noble to be a starving artist when you have a wife and kids.  You want to make money always keep that in mind."

Working Clean

"I think at this stage of your career you should all be working clean.... I suggest you work clean because there's more money to be made working clean.  I know you're going to say "Oh yeah, but we've seen those Comedy Central specials and everybody is dirty.  Louie C. K works dirty and Sarah Silverman is dirty and they're all dirty.  Maybe their dirty now because that's their character, but that doesn't mean they started that way.  They started out by crafting jokes and then they found their voice.  Lewis Black:  of course you expect Lewis Black to swear.  That's his character.  Jake Johannsen doesn't have to work dirty.  Brian Regan has never worked dirty and they're also successful.  You don't have to work dirty to be successful.
Think about where the money is.  Cruise ships absolutely insist you work clean.  Corporates insist you work clean.  Most national TV shows, they're going to make you work clean.  Certainly when you first audition for them.  You might as well just get in the habit of doing it." 


"No matter what happens keep showcasing.  If you don't like to showcase, if it offends you, if it upsets you, get out of the business right now.  You're going to showcase the rest of your lives.  You're going to audition for plays.  You're going to read for movie parts.  You're going to showcase for other comedy clubs.  You'll be showcasing for the rest of your lives.  You might as well just get used to it." 


"Don't ever judge your career against another comedians.  Because if you do you're just going to end up killing yourself.  There will always be someone who gets on the Tonight Show before you do, or earns more money than you, or gets that movie that you though you were perfect for.  Its always going to happen.... Bo Burnham earned more last year then all of us in this room combined.  He's 20.  It would be really easy to say I'm a failure because I'm not Bo Burnham.  Don't.  Different people's careers go at different speeds.

Pick a date one day of the year.  Sit down and write down your goals for the next 12 months.  And then every three or six months you go back to make sure you're on track.  At the end of 12 months you look at your goals from the previous year.  Am I doing better now than I was 12 months ago?  Am I performing more sets every week.  Do I have more material?  Am I making more money?  Do I know more bookers?  Did I finish that screen play I started?  If you answer yes to 3 of those you're making progress.  You're doing better.  And then you make goals for the next year and you go through the same thing every year."