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."