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Danny Bevins Interview

The nice thing about writing for a blog is: you don’t have to have any of that pesky “journalistic integrity”. This means writing for a blog, is just like working for Fox News.

But I digress.

For the sake of fairness, I will state that I love Danny Bevins (Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, HBO’s Comedy Arts Festival). I don’t have to tell you I am biased, but am doing so anyway.

I met Bevins over ten years ago, and even got to travel to Iraq with him in 2004. (Shameless whoring: Bevins is the “Danny” in my book, I Was a White Knight… Once.)

Bevins doesn’t know this, but he helped shape who I am as a comedian. When I was just starting out, I learned early on that my favorite comics were those I felt I learned something about when their set was finished. Instead of gesturing wildly on stage and having no point to their set—“Men and women, different, right?! Am I right?! High five!”—I enjoy comedians that dig beneath the surface and discuss who they are as people, and how they came to think the way they do. That describes Bevins in a nutshell. It has been said that the stage is therapy for a comedian, and you get the sense that Bevins is constantly working out who he is as a person while casually speaking into a microphone. What makes it work is: unlike some performers, Bevins isn’t lashing out at the audience, he’s drawing them in. Listening to Bevins’ new release, Inappropriate (available 6/12), is like listening to a conversation Bevins is having with himself; he’s trying to describe himself, but without lecturing.

The last time I worked with Bevins was years and years ago. He opened his set with the concept, “What is love?” Most comedians try and open big; maybe a shocking masturbation joke, or something with a punch line within 30 seconds. Not Bevins. He has the strength, skill, and confidence to pull the listener in by trusting their intelligence. In a day and age when The Jersey Shore is popular viewing, that’s placing a lot of trust in people that don’t always deserve it.

On Inappropriate, Bevins’ opening draws the listener in with meditations on the meaning of family, and what it is to both love your family, but also maintain a desire for independence. It’s neither fast nor flashy, but it’s honest, and captivating. When he does turn to worldly issues—say race or politics—he does so from the point of looking for laughter. Many comics in the same position either rant, rave, or simply ramble on, because they think having a microphone gives them free liscence to be opinionated and boring. Bevins knows that you are absolutely allowed to have an opinion, but people go to a comedy club to laugh. Thoughts must be wrapped in jokes, because if they aren’t, what’s the difference between a comedian and an Occupy Wall Street protester?

OK, too much babbling.

Without further ado, here’s what Danny had to say:

Nathan Timmel: You open Inappropriate by gently letting the listener know you’re a family man—with a wife and child—and then enter into the “Inappropriate” bit. Was this done with specific intent, to prepare the listener for anything to come? “Look, you already know that I’m a husband and father, and how I feel about passing judgment on ideas, so if you don’t like anything from here on out, it’s on you.”

Basically, do you open soft, so you can hammer an audience later?

Danny Bevins: Yes, but it’s totally by accident. When we were recording it, I had been opening my set with another bit, and I felt the audience wasn’t really coming along with me the way I wanted them to. I mean, they would get there, eventually, but it was taking a while. So, I had this conversation with my wife that morning—my parents were staying with her and my son while I was on the road, and she just needed to vent a little—and when I got on the stage that night, that’s what I felt like talking about: family, and all that goes along with family relations. I just started talking, and it worked. The audience laughed, and it made the transition into other material easier.

NT: Similar question: Your disc has an arc to it; you open by discussing your family, mentioning in passing your new baby boy, and close it discussing the kind of funeral you want. So you open with life, and end with death. Was this arc intentional, or accidental?

DB: Oh, absolutely intentional. To me, and this is just the way I write, if you can’t have a “theme” to your set… and I don’t mean I want it to be to the point where you’re like, “OK, enough with your little motto,” but I do want my set to feel like I’ve told a story. There is a start and finish point; it’s not random.

When I started getting the bits ready for this recording, in Edinburgh, the opening was about my birth, and the fact I was an accident. And then my set went from that to the natural close, my funeral. So that arc was absolutely on purpose. I had the “I was an unwanted child bit” already, and then was at a funeral where everybody was sad, and I knew the departed would absolutely hate that, and would have preferred a celebration of sorts. I mean, you and I are not going to want the standard “funeral package,” with crying and all that sadness. If you’re going to do that, I’d rather just not have one. Do something interesting. Be original.

NT: “Inappropriate” is a concept, because personal choice dictates what is or is not inappropriate to any single individual; why do you think moral crusaders feel the need to shove their personal brand of taste down the throats of others?

BV: Oh, that’s easy: because it makes them feel good. It makes them feel superior. If I don’t tell you how “good” I am, then how are you going to know? To me, that’s the whole point to the whole “inappropriate” theme; if you’re talking, it doesn’t mean anything, it should all be based on what we do, not how we champion ourselves. If you want to be a good person, you should be a good person because you want to be a good person, not because you think you’re going to get some candy or other reward. So they want to let you know all the things you do that are wrong, or “inappropriate,” because then they feel righteous. What they don’t understand is: when they say these things to me, I don’t think they’re good, I just think they’re a twat.

NT: Related question: even after discussing the cathedral of the comedy club being the one place humor shouldn’t be questioned, do you still get people lecturing you after shows?

DB: Not so much anymore; I think that bit helped a lot; I think it cut down about 80-90% of those kind of moments. I think there are still people that want to tell me what they didn’t like, but luckily there are usually people around me after a show telling me how much they enjoyed the act. That makes it harder for anyone that wants to come up and bitch about what they didn’t like. But, every once in a while, there’ll be somebody that just has to tell me what they thought. These days it’s more… I get people saying they didn’t like a certain idea I had. It’s not about language or something I said, but just the fact I talked about abortion, or people lecture me about my “Date Rape Joke.” That’s what they call it, “The Date Rape Joke.” To me, it’s “The Grandfather Joke,” because it’s about my grandpa. I had a woman tell me, “You can’t joke about rape.” But the joke isn’t about rape, it’s about my grandfather. If rape is the way you see it, if you take that catchword out of the theme of the joke and focus on it and not what I’m saying, then I’m probably not going to get through to you anyway.

NT: Changing gears: you discuss ethnicity in Scotland—homogonous—but not comedy; did you find cultural differences at all hindering to your sets, or as you are very personal, did you escape that? Did you notice any comics who tend to be too generic having problems translating?

DB: Overall it went really well. There were a couple things that I didn’t expect, like, they didn’t understand “mulligan…”

NT: [Interrupting; incredulous] The country that invented golf didn’t know what a mulligan was?

DB: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It took me by surprise. It was in a review of my show, “Bevins doesn’t explain what a mulligan is,” so there are little things you’ll discover about your act. In America, people will laugh at one part, and in Europe they’ll laugh somewhere completely different. They’ll still laugh, but they find the humor in different places, and I love that. I find that in Europe they want a point to whatever you’re saying, and I think they really enjoy storytelling over just “setup/punch line” comedy.

NT: Your last disc contained material with you poking fun at the Republican party while performing in a red state. Given that we’re in an election year, how political will you be this summer?

DB: Eh, some stuff, but for me… I’m just too beat up by the whole process these days. I mean, overall, I just feel sorry for all of us. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, we all suffer in the end because of the idea of taking sides. I know I’ll be in Washington D.C., and I’ll pull politics out then… I mean, you and I could sit down and debate shit one-on-one, but we know each other and it’s OK.

I do, like you pointed out, like going in front of a group of people, and if I know how they stand on a certain issue, making fun of it. It’s a good to see people challenge themselves; can you let go of your position for a second and see that what I just said is a funny joke, or are you just going to get mad and pout?

NT: How much of your writing takes place on the stage? How much do you write, say, using a notebook, and how much of it is… while not exactly “free form,” is you going on stage with an idea or concept, and working it out with people listening?

DB: I basically go up with a concept, and an outline. I have an idea of what I should say, and where the bit should go, but the stage will determine where it ends up. The audience lets you know what’s funny.

I have a bit right now that I’m working on, and when it started it was about suicide, but over the past few shows it’s drifted into being about a toll bridge, the location of the suicide more than suicide itself. It takes me a little time on stage to really figure a bit out, and where I’m going to take it.

My wife really helps a lot in that process; she is a great barometer.

NT: My mom used to be that way for me; if I said something and she made a lemon face and went “tisk-tisk,” I knew it was a great bit.

DB: [Laughs] No, I don’t mean like that… my wife actually really helps… keep me honest, is the best way of putting it. When I bounce ideas off her, and then she hears me working through them, she’ll remind me, “That’s not where this started,” or “I thought you really wanted to make this the focus of what you were talking about.” If I stray too much, and… I don’t want to say pander, but if I start just going for the easy laughs, my wife will challenge me to go deeper.

Inappropriate will be available tomorrow, June 12 on iTunes, Amazon, and the Rooftop Comedy shop. Be sure to keep up with Danny on Twitter @MySmartAss

Nato Green Interview

In 1991, Tom Morello, Zack de la Rocha, Brad Wilk, and Tim Commerford came together to form Rage Against the Machine. The focus was inspirational, educational music; music with a purpose. Encouraged by the idea art didn’t have to be mindless, in 2008 Nato Green joined forces with comedians W. Kamau Bell and Janine Brito to form Laughter Against the Machine, a comedy troupe with the implicit design to challenge audiences to “laugh and think at the same time.” Nato will continue collaborating with Bell as a writer for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, a new Chris Rock-produced series coming to FX in August.

Nato Green has been a staple of the San Francisco comedy scene for years, and Rooftop Comedy is proud to be releasing his CD The Nato Green Party on Tuesday, June 5.

Rooftop sent interviewer Nathan Timmel to talk to Nato about his new disc, intellectual comedy, and parenting.

NT: Easy questions first:  Where was the CD recorded? Tell me a little about the venue.

NG: The shows are taped at the New Parish in Oakland. My group Laughter Against the Machine has been doing runs there twice a year for the last couple of years. It’s mostly a music venue, although more comics are checking it out now. Moshe Kasher taped his tv special there in January. One night after a Laughter Against the Machine show, after the audience had left, we were walking out as Too Short was coming in. Some of the most explosive comedy shows I’ve ever done have been there, so it was a natural for me to go back there to tape the cd. Also, as San Francisco gets intolerably expensive to live, both the diversity and the arts community are being pushed out to Oakland.

NT: What is the CD called, and where does the title come from?

NG: The title is The Nato Green Party. There’s not a lost of mystery to that title, is there?

NT: You open your new CD with a play on your name, followed by an examination of your religion, Judaism.  How important is your self-identity to your comedy? Is it your specific intention that audiences get to know you as a person through your comedy, as opposed to talking about traffic, or another “topical” subject: “Airline peanuts, who’s with me?”

NG: Hugely important, for two reasons. First, the comedy that inspires me the most is the comedy that carries an honest and personal point of view, that uses humor to search for personal truth. Second, I get called a “political comic” a lot, but a lot of political comedy is comedians writing jokes about things they see on the news. As someone who grew up on the left and was a labor activist for most of my adult life, I talk about politics because that’s my experience. It’s important to me to talk about political and social issues not only as an observer but as a person who is implicated in them.

The discipline that we spent the last four years cultivating in Laughter Against the Machine is only talking about things we sincerely care about. So occasionally, I think of observational premises, but they don’t really fit in my act because I don’t have strong feelings about them. “Why do we call people who take care of things caretakers, but people who take care of people caregivers?” They get shelved, or tweeted, until I can figure out a reason to talk about it onstage.

NT: How important is it to you to have an educated audience when it comes to political humor?

NG: It’s a different thing. When I’m in front of a very educated audience, I can go farther, cut out the exposition in the jokes, trust that people will catch all the references and understand what I mean by them. On the other hand, the best thing is a diverse audience. More diversity keeps everybody honest. It’s very satisfying to figure out how to make a nightclub audience laugh about thorny political issues, after they’ve been hearing dick jokes all night. (Not that there’s anything wrong with dick jokes per se.)

NT: Do you craft your political jokes in a way that allows people who do not follow the news to keep up?

NG: I try to write ripped from the zeitgeist more than ripped from the headlines. If I’m writing about something in the news, if I need more than one sentence to explain it to someone who doesn’t know about it already, it usually doesn’t make it into the act.

NT: Topics such as slavery and abortion make their way into your show, and are handled with confidence.  Do you ever run into audiences that just aren’t willing to go down such paths with you?

NG: All the time. I don’t know a lot of other white comics who talk as directly about whiteness and white privilege as I do, and talk about race in that context. I have ended up writing material that is continually digging me in and out of holes with the audience. Walking people through why they reacted negatively to the jokes. Sometimes I feel like I’m facilitating a discussion more than performing. People don’t so much heckle me as participate in the conversation.

NT: Regardless of what you are saying, do you feel certain audiences just hear the topic and have a knee-jerk reaction?

NG: My audiences tend to react negatively to things, or want to quibble with things, but it’s not always what you’d expect. Someone came up to me after the CD taping show and said, “I love the show, but you shouldn’t drink bottled water onstage.” Someone else emailed me after the show to say that they loved the show but felt I “uncritically accepted the concept of Jewish whiteness” rather than placing it its historical context.

Sometimes it’s the audience and sometimes it’s me. Audiences always get very tense if I talk about Israel and Palestine, regardless of how carefully I tread. On the other hand, I tend to be pretty dark in my perspective on things, and want to talk onstage about whatever I’m upset about. Sometimes it’s too raw and I haven’t figured out a way to make it funny enough. I check my set list to make sure there’s not too much death and suffering clumped together. I have ideas all the time that I think are interesting and funny, but I need to let marinate until I get enough perspective to make it work for the audience without just rubbing their faces in anguish.

NT: While you are unabashedly left-leaning regarding politics, you do skewer your own political leanings as much as, if not more so, than you attack the right. Does this ever confuse audiences? Do people ever tell you they felt insulted by anything you said because it conflicted with their personal beliefs?

NG: Years ago [National Public Radio’s] Fresh Air ran an interview with this Israeli who organized a Jewish anti-semitic cartoon contest. You’ll remember that a Danish newspaper ran a cartoon of Mohammad, and in a non sequitur retaliation an Iranian newspaper called an anti-semitic cartoon contest. This Israeli guy said, “Anyone can make fun of the other guy. It takes real confidence to make fun of yourself.” That really inspired me.

I spent years as an organizer, and still stay close to the progressive/radical social movement activist world. While it’s plenty fun to mock the stupidity of the right, I am firmly convinced that my side’s biggest enemy is ourselves. We love to smirk about how stupid and hypocritical and paranoid the Tea Party is or whatever. Meanwhile, we manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory every chance we get.

Certainly, there are people on the left who come to my shows who realize they didn’t actually want to see a comedy show–they just wanted to hear things they agree with. I’m not for them. Mostly I get away with making fun of my own side because the other people on my side can recognize the motivation, even if they don’t agree with the particular conclusions.

NT: You are a father—twin daughters—does that hinder, help, or have no effect on your touring schedule as a comedian?

NG: There are a lot of things I could do that comics do to build my career if I didn’t have a family. Instead, I have to be focused and disciplined. I hear other comics say, “I spent the day watching all of Battlestar Gallactica” or something. That’s not an option for me. My family is making sacrifices so I can pursue this dream so I want to have scraps of progress to show for it every single day.

NT: Did becoming a father re-calibrate your focus as an entertainer?

NG: Being a parent raises the stakes on every choice you make, because every choice affects another person. Every choice–from how many nights I’m away from home to how long I sit on the toilet. At the same time, my daughters are the greatest joy in my life. As much as I go onstage and talk about painful, confusing, scary, controversial topics, I’m basically hopeful. I’m happier now than before I had kids, because I no longer waste as much time on nonsense.

NT: I have an advance copy of your CD, and by that I mean “un-edited.” It contains some visual cues; will those remain on the full release? How much of your overall act is cerebral, and how much is physical?

NG: Mostly they will. If the joke has an act-out, it stays. Let the listening audience have a reason to come see me live.

NT: What’s next for you; what are your comedic goals? Touring, acting, writing…

NG: My most immediate next step is that I’m going to New York to work on the writing staff of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, the new Chris Rock-produced late night show premiering on FX August 9. Beyond that, I want to blast this CD out widely to a non-comedy audience. The folks who might like The Daily Show but would never go see live stand-up. I plan to finish and find a distributor for the Laughter Against the Machine documentary I did with Kamau and Janine, and then tour behind it in the fall. After we get through out first 6 episodes of Totally Biased, release the LATM doc, and promote the CD, I’ll evaluate where I’m standing then. And I want to keep logging my Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours to become a great stand-up comedian.

The Nato Green Party will be available June 5 on iTunes, Amazon, and the Rooftop Comedy shop. The album will also be available to stream through Pandora, Spotify, and Last.fm.

Be sure to follow Nato on Twitter at @NatoGreen. Learn all about Nato at his website: http://www.natogreen.com/

ANDY HENDRICKSON INTERVIEW

Andy Hendrickson is a burgeoning powerhouse in the comedy world. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably heard him on either the Bob & Tom Show, or on Sirius/XM Radio. Not only is he a showcase winner at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Andy has performed at TBS’ The Comedy Festival in Las Vegas and was a finalist at the Great American Comedy Festival.

He’s calling his newest release, Underacheiver, his first “real” CD. Underacheiver will be released March 13 wherever fine comedy is sold and streamed.

Rooftop had Nathan Timmel dial Andy up and chat about the disc, comedy classes, and finding your comedic voice.

Nathan Timmel: Easy question first: where did you come up with the title Underachiever?

Andy Hendrickson: A friend suggested it, actually, because I have a chunk of material about my family, and how every one of them is an overachiever. My oldest brother is exceptional; he went to the Naval Academy, became a Navy Seal, and went to Harvard.

NT: So you are the Black Sheep of the family then; you are the underachiever.

AH: Yes, I would be the slacker of the family.

NT: Where was your album recorded, and over how many shows?

AH: I recorded it up in Ottawa, Canada. There’s a great club up there called Absolute Comedy. I had two shows on a Friday night to record the material, and luckily I got it all on the early slot because the late crowd was a little drunk and rowdy, so I didn’t use any of the audio from that take.

NT: What kind of set up did you use?

AH: I hired a local sound engineer who works with bands and theaters. He used a simple three-microphone setup: he wired the stage mic, and then a left and right mic to capture the audience.

NT: How many years in the making was the material for Underachiever? Is this your first CD? 

AH: [Laughs.] Well…there’s a CD that exists from three-years into my career, when I was desperate for money, that if I could buy back every copy and burn it? I would.

NT: [Laughs.] We all have one of those – a “starter” CD. Every comic gets way too excited early in their career and records something, then pushes because they’re so proud of themselves: “I’ve got a CD! I’m a real comic!” Then years down the road you give a listen and you shake your head and say, “Holy shit, what was I thinking?”

AH: Exactly. At the time, it made sense. I had just started doing comedy full-time, and was only featuring, and needed money desperately. So I put out a 25-minute disc and tried to keep my head above water by selling it. So that one doesn’t count.

I put out one in 2005 or 2006 called It’s Ready, and I have a little 25-minute sampler on my website that I give away… so to me, this is my first real CD—it’s the first one I’m truly proud of. It has all my best material, and I have my voice now… I’m really excited about this one. Which is weird, because as a comedian you generally beat yourself up over everything, but I’m really proud of how this turned out.

NT: Talk about your voice: how far into your comedy career are you, and how long did it take you to figure out who you wanted to be on stage?

AH: I went through many stages; imagine your teenage years. You’re trying to fit in, and you don’t know if you’re going to be a skateboarder, or a heavy metal guy, or a jock. The same thing applies to trying to figure out who you’re going to be on stage. I used to… [laughs] I used to do a “dumb stoner guy” character when I first started out. Then I was really silly, acting out on stage a lot.

I’ve been doing it about 13 years now, and I think it took 11 years to just be me on stage, which is a dry, sarcastic guy. And that’s who I am, it’s what I am off stage. I just had to go through all the trying-on of personas just to be myself at the end of it all. Some guys are lucky, and they find it early, but it took me a while to figure out.

NT: Did you go through that phase where you’d work with someone, really like what they were doing, and accidentally adopt their quirks?

AH: Oh, absolutely. I was middling for Daniel Tosh years ago in Cleveland, and I really enjoyed his stand-up. I was watching every show, and on the last night found myself delivering my jokes with the same kind of tempo Tosh had. I remember catching myself and thinking, “What the hell are you doing?” It was still my material, my jokes, but his delivery had rubbed off on me.

NT: I’ve heard a lot of people do that after working with Attell; his voice is so distinct, his delivery so unique, that after a week with him you’ve picked up his cadence.

AH: I guess it’s similar to spending a couple months in the South, and after a while you just start slipping little colloquialisms they use into your own speech patterns.

NT: Let’s talk about you’re becoming a comedian: was there a light bulb moment in your childhood where you said, “I want to be a comedian,” or is it something you discovered later?

AH: I was exposed to stand up at a really early age. I used to live in Hawaii, and there was a comedian named Poi Dog my family would listen to. He did a lot of jokes about Hawaiian culture… I would have been around eight. I didn’t really know that’s what I wanted to do at the time, but I guess I was always a cut-up. I eventually moved to Atlanta—after college—took a comedy class, got my first taste of the stage and getting laughs, and loved it.

NT: Every comic out there seems to have a passionate opinion about comedy classes; would you say they helped you, or that you wouldn’t recommend them?

AH: To be honest, I thought it was very helpful. It all depends on your personality, and I was petrified by the idea of getting on stage. So to invest my money in a six-week class, and knowing at the end of it I had to get on stage, which is something I was very frightened by, the class was very helpful. I mean, I had financially locked myself into it; it was like skydiving. Once you’re up in the plane, you gotta jump. Taking a class also gave me a sense of structure as well. Some guys, like me—underachiever—need that push. Other’s don’t. I also knew that at the end of it I’d have that 5-minute set I could take with me to open microphones.

Andy currently resides in New York City. You can follow Andy @AndyHendrickson.

Underachiever comes out March 13 and will be available on iTunes, Amazon, and the Rooftop Comedy Shop. You can also stream Underachiever through Pandora and Grooveshark.

I Was a White Knight… Once

In 2011, I took some time away from my duties as a Rooftop blogger/interviewer because I was finishing up a project;  I wanted to devote my time to its final touches.

That project was my first book, titled I Was a White Knight… Once. It is a memoir that discusses my upbringing: ten cities, ten schools, and ten sets of friends within the first decade of my life, and parents whose volatile marriage sparked more than one horrific memory (including my mother’s ride on the hood of the family car to keep her estranged husband from taking the kids). It moves across the country and around the world, telling tales of performing for American soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One life-story takes place in the mid-1990s, when a female stalker entered my life. We discovered one another via an email list of a mutual friend, Pete. Remember, the 1990s were a time before Facebook, MySpace, or any other form of social networking. Email was the hippest thing being online had to offer, so when you met someone new, it was pretty nifty. The fact you were chatting up someone of the opposite gender made it all the more enticing, as this was a time of Internet ignorance; long before Chris Hansen showed us that the thirteen-year-old girl a pervert thought he was talking to was actually a cop, people naturally assumed the person you were interacting with was exactly who they said they were.

In retrospect, we were indeed very naïve.

The following passage is about my time being stalked, and it takes place within Chapter Eight: An Attraction to the Idea of Me

The segment has been edited for length, and picks up as I begin to understand just exactly what I have gotten myself into regarding the mysterious woman from the Internet…

*  *  *

Two weeks later I received a female condom in the mail. If you’ve never seen a female condom, it’s akin to a windsock at an airport; like a Magnum condom times twenty. This makes it very big, and therefore very intimidating… until you realize you do not wear the condom. No, it goes inside her, meaning every thrust you perform will involve rubbing against plastic. Basically, you’re going to be making love to a Hefty bag, which is neither enticing nor romantic.

I thought it was an odd gift, as our interactions had never been anything more than friendly. We got along easily, but never discussed any sort of sexual attraction and had never even exchanged photos. A note was attached to the condom; it read, “Save this, I’m coming to visit.” In my imagination, should this woman happen to look like, say, Jennifer Aniston, I would be in heaven. No being dummy, I did not believe fortune would smile upon me so and became cautious. I asked Pete if I should be afraid. His single word reply was, “Yes.”

[Note: in the mid-1990s Jennifer Aniston was exceedingly desirable; she had yet to wear the stench of John Mayer.]

Jean manned up first and asked for a picture of me. Playing off Pete’s chillingly brief warning, I sent a photo of me skydiving. My head was bowed and the protective, centimeter-thin helmet—a helmet obviously designed to protect my skull if my chute didn’t open and I fell 8,000 feet to the ground— this helmet hid my face in the picture. I gave no indication of my looks and did so half as a joke, half for identity protection. Jean emailed me that she loved the picture and that she had hung it in the middle of the living room she shared with four roommates. They told her I was “something special,” which scared me more than Pete’s warning. Not only did I have no idea how I was being described to deserve such a compliment, but I hadn’t really told anyone about her. There was nothing to tell. I was exchanging emails with a random woman, big whoop. To me, she was a neat correspondence with a hint of “could-be” fantasy and nothing more. But I was common knowledge to her friends? Creepy.

The condom was followed by a string of erotic messages left in my email account, each more graphic than the one before. They began to detail what she wanted to do to me and how her visit was going to be “the best night of my life.” Though several weeks had passed since I sent my picture, the favor had not yet been returned, a definite cause for alarm.

I immediately cut the number of messages I responded to in half. Where to this point I had always dropped a decent reply every time she contacted me, I now began sending short notes to roughly every third one. A detailed account of actions she was going to perform on my body would receive, “Just got home from work, got your letter, am too tired to write” in response. She used my shying away as a sign to double her efforts, and began sending two or three emails a day. Some would be violently angry, complaining about her life or job or boss, then mid-paragraph she would make the most bizarre switch into how I would rescue her from her mundane existence.

“I hate my job! Everyone I work with is stupid! I need a vacation. Can you perform oral sex for several hours in a row?” is a direct quote.

I was told my picture was masturbation material and I received a second package in my physical mailbox. Nothing sexual this time, thankfully, but instead several small, peculiar, gifts. According to the accompanying note, she thought of me when she saw each item and decided to buy and send them. One trinket was a bizarre looking plastic mug shaped like a cartoon vampire, another was a Frankenstein refrigerator magnet. As I didn’t have a particular affection for old horror movies and had never hinted to her I might, why these reminded her of me I do not know.

I decided I needed to stop being a pussy and just get everything out on the table. Where was she going with all of this, what did she look like, and what did she think we had going on?

Her reply was hesitatingly honest, and I felt somewhat ashamed.

“I am a little self-conscious because I am surrounded by women who eat red meat all the time and never exercise,” she wrote. “It wears off on me and makes me lazy.”

At the end of the note, she dropped a mini-bomb; “By the way, I’ll be visiting friends in Wisconsin in two weeks, and on December 28th we’re going to road-trip to Milwaukee to meet you. You better be home, or else…”

The “or else” was probably meant playfully, but my reaction was immediately the opposite; I felt a little threatened and told her I was going to be out of town. At the time, it was a true statement. There was a photography exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art by Andres Serrano, and several friends and I had plans to spend several days visiting the Windy City.

Jean was furious. “ASSHOLE MOTHERFUCKER BASTARD SHITBAG ASSHOLE MOTHERFUCKER” was left in my inbox the very next day. “I AM COMING TO MEET YOU WHETHER OR NOT YOU WANT ME TO, SO YOU BETTER FIND TIME FOR ME TO DO SO BEFORE I LEAVE ON SUNDAY!”

Her “How to Win Friends and Influence People” response sealed the deal. I told her my schedule was full and that there was nothing I could do about it. Because of that, I received another thrashing. I also received an oddly timed surprise. On the same day her second email of anger and spite found its way into my inbox, my actual mailbox received an envelope from her, something obviously mailed before I told her I wouldn’t be around for her visit. Gathering up great courage, Jean had finally sent her picture. The note with it read, “Just wanted to send something so you’d know who was knocking at your door when I get there.”

The picture was only her face, which was enough. As cruel as it sounds, it was a face that created the phrase, “Only a mother could love.” As much as I knew I was dealing with an easily wounded ego, I was also concerned with the tone of her emails and entirely sure I didn’t want to end up in a room alone with her.

Two weeks passed quickly, with Jean continuing to insist she was going to meet me no matter what. Unfortunately, my plans to visit Chicago fell apart, and I couldn’t think of any way to get out of town for the weekend. I picked up a couple bartending shifts at work and figured that in the least I just wouldn’t answer my door on the 28th.

As if on cue, at one o’clock that very afternoon, I was home alone, sitting in my room reading when the door buzzer went off. Someone was in the lobby. I closed my book and frowned; no one ever visited my apartment.

The door buzzed again, and as I got up cautiously the door buzzed a third time. I decided against answering, and instead walked into the living room and sat down behind a plant next to the window. From this vantage point I could see the front porch; my apartment was on the first floor, and when the person left I would know who it was. If a friend, I would knock on the window, bid them back and explain my childish behavior. If not…

The door buzzed. Two minutes had passed since the first time, meaning this person was persistent. I remained seated. Two more minutes passed filled with intermittent buzzing. I became irritated. When calling someone, how many rings do you wait before deciding no one is home? Twenty? Fifty? This was absurd. What was running through this person’s mind? “Hey, maybe someone’s home, but they’re in the shower. If I keep ringing, they’ll get out and come to the door!” I have no idea the person in the lobby was thinking.

After six minutes, the front door to the building opened. My mystery woman from South Dakota stepped out, shook her head, and walked away. As cruel as this is to say, her description of being “lazy” told only half the story. She was roughly 5’4″ and topped 250 pounds easily. I could see where the self-esteem problem came from, but the aggression that went with it is what had me on edge.

I went back to my bedroom, and moments later the door buzzer went off and was held for ten seconds. While not a long time in most cases, when listening to a door buzzer it is an eternity. I wondered if she had somehow seen me step away from the living room window?

Three short bursts filled the air, followed by silence. I began reading again and after several hours took a peek out the window. I didn’t see her waiting for me, so I made my way to my car went to work undisturbed.

After my shift, I went out with co-workers and finally returned home and went to bed around 6:00 a.m. At 9:00 a.m. my alarm went off; I was driving North for the day to visit a friend. I got up from my three-hour nap and called him, checking to make sure he was awake when the door buzzer went off. I excused myself from the phone and hung up.

Something didn’t feel right.

I took my hidden seat by the window, and waited. The door buzzer sounded repeatedly over three minutes, then paused. Moments later, I heard my neighbor’s door open; the lobby security door soon followed suit. Two seconds later the other apartment door closed and a knock came upon mine. This was not a knock used to wake a person sleeping in on New Year’s morning, but a cautious one, almost too quiet to be effective. Tapping, if you will.

It was repeated several times over the minute it took me to gently tiptoe across my creaky living room floor in order to reach the door. Once I arrived, I looked through the peephole. As sunlight was pouring in behind the figure, all I could see was a dark silhouette. It was very large, and though I couldn’t be 100% positive, who else could it be?

I stood bent over, watching every move, listening to every knock resound a mere inch from my head.

My breathing was light. The figure leaned over. It looked into the peephole from the outside and we were now watching each other separated only by two inches of wood. I had to fight back laughter over the absurdity of the situation, and I stood frozen, so no movement could be seen as she peered inside.

And then, the doorknob turned.

I looked down as it twisted…

Slowly.

Quietly.

Methodically.

This wasn’t a person casually entering a room. Someone was testing waters here, easing their big toe in to check for warmth. The knob reached its crescent and paused. Gentle pressure was applied, and the door creaked in my ear. Someone wanted in. The door moved a millimeter, was halted by the lock, held in place a moment, then relaxed. I returned to the peephole.

The figure stood with slumped shoulders, a defeated pose. Its head looked up and to the side, as if in thought. It retreated into the light and was exposed; though there had been little doubt, it was indeed Jean, and I watched as she looked out the lobby door, back at my apartment, and ultimately left.

I got dressed in twenty seconds and left out the back, un-showered and unconcerned by that stinky fact.

*   *   *

Interested in reading more?

I Was a White Knight… Once is available on the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, as a Paperback, and in iBooks.

www.nathantimmel.org

HAL SPARKS INTERVIEW

Rooftop Comedy Productions is proud to announce the release of Hal Sparks’ Escape from Halcatraz. Recorded at the legendary Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco, Halcatraz showcases Hal’s knack for hilarious voice work and takes you on a whirlwind tour from Ozzy Osbourne’s stint on American Idol to the very non-sexy appeal of a man with a Kentucky accent. Rooftop pal Nathan Timmel interviewed Hal to talk Peter Gabriel, the best comedy venues, and the greater role comics play in society.

If you understand the world of promotion, the spark behind an interview is tied to a product or pitch from the interviewee. The interviewer is supposed to mention the product (or pitch) as much as possible in order to drill the thought “Must purchase” into the reader’s head.

That stated, I, Nathan Timmel am a very bad interviewer. Instead of talking exclusively about his new CD release—Escape from Halcatraz—I spent most of my time talking with Hal Sparks about the concept of art, the role of comedy in society, and wandering down needless tangents involving Bloom County and the Billy and the Boingers single placed in one of the old books. In fact, when he not only played with my Peter Gabriel reference in the first question, but took it one step further by referencing Peter Gabriel live stage performances, I knew I was going to enjoy our time on the phone.

So, instead of saying repeatedly “Go buy the Hal Sparks CD!”, this interview is an end-around. Hopefully, by offering a bit of insight as to who Hal Sparks is as a person, there’s a good chance you’ll obtain a sense of who he is on stage, what his comedy is like, and therefore want to buy the CD after all.

Hopefully it all works out in the end.

NT: Your new CD release, Escape from Halcatraz, has the same title as your 2008 DVD release. Are you employing the Peter Gabriel method of artistic expression, where your product will all have the same name in order to confuse outsiders? [Peter Gabriel named his first 4 CDs the same]

HS: Yes. [Laughs] Actually, this is the first time that special has been available on CD, so I’m not actually putting out multiple projects with the same title, it’s just the CD of the DVD. I’m sorry it’s not more complicated than that, because, ironically, most of the things I do are to be as much like Peter Gabriel as possible. In fact, my next special will be done through a phone receiver as I walk on a treadmill.

NT: And then you’ll bring your daughter in to harmonize with you as you tell your jokes.

HS: While riding a bike upside-down on the ceiling, yes. For the record: Peter Gabriel concerts? Awesome. I think the Cirque Du Soleil people ripped him off. They were sitting around, thinking, “Can you sing? I can’t sing, but I can do all the theatrical stuff!”

NT: [Laughs] Well, since this is a re-release, that makes me ignorant of many of the specifics. Talk about the special you recorded, and what buyers are getting.

HS: This is my first special; I self-produced it. It was recorded at Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco, which is one of my—if not my single favorite—club in the country. I’ve been going there for years, and the audiences are just so smart there that I knew if I needed to tape something, there would be no delay between the smart punchlines and the laughter. Like, if you do the same joke in another room, they’ll still laugh at it, but there’s a delay between the punchline and the laughter, because they might not get it right away. Taping a special, you need the audience to be right there with you; you can’t wait around for them to figure it out.

NT: Unless you wanted to hire a very precise editor: “OK, we need to take out 3 seconds here, 3 seconds here…”

HS: Exactly, too much work.

NT: Since you mentioned having a favorite club, let’s talk about that. Now that you have a name for yourself, do you prefer working clubs—“This is where I got my start, it’s real and raw comedy”—or do you like theaters, where there’s no last call or a check being dropped during a punchline?

HS: There are still certain clubs I love to do because of how they’re laid out, and how they treat the performers… Obviously Cobb’s, Flappers in Burbank is that way… but truthfully, I do prefer the 800 to 1,000 seat theaters, because the audience is there for a reason; they’re invested in the show. No one dragged them there, they didn’t get a free ticket or it just happens to be “comedy night” at a place; they’re there because they bought the ticket, and they know what I’m about. In so far as being able to experiment as a performer, and go out on a limb, it’s much better when you have a room full of people who aren’t trying to flag down a waiter and who are already interested in what I’m going to do.

NT: God, we could go off on such a tangent here that I probably wouldn’t put in the interview [I have, but I’ve edited it like a TV movie: for time, space, and content], you talk about going out on a limb and experimenting: how do you feel about the fine line between experimenting and getting your words and thoughts out there vs. the fact people have paid to laugh and not hear someone rant their beliefs into a microphone?

HS: That’s actually a “conflict” I’m very comfortable with. Laughter is the dynamic that makes stand-up special, because otherwise you’re just a philosopher hoping people are interested in what you’re saying. If they’re not, you’ll lose them. That’s why I think that if you’re doing stand-up, comedy is job one; it’s not a compromise to go for laughs. If you’re doing something else, it’s performance art, which is totally cool, but it’s not comedy. I enjoy the concept of going, “OK, here’s an idea I have, and here’s an important point socially that I think needs to be made… how do I make it funny?”

It’s like being an artist, and saying, “I paint paintings, and within the ‘confines’ of this canvas, I can do anything I want; I can go anywhere.” I think the same thing goes for comedy, except the canvas is laughter. As long as I’m getting laughter, it allows me to go however deep I want into any psychological or spiritual area and hold on to people. Where if you’re just philosophizing, their minds will wander.

NT: Or they’ll start to think about why they disagree with you, or why you’re wrong…

HS: Exactly. In the most recent show I did in Edinburgh, Scotland, I ended the show with a bit about a Jewish person and a Palestinian in a cave coming to the conclusion, “You know, we’re a lot alike.” And I almost wanted to avoid the joke because the conflict has been going on so long, and on a socio-political level the joke could be the equivalent of “Dogs and Cats are different” or “Men and Women are different.” But, at the same time, is there a responsibility on the performer to gain a new perspective on it? Obviously the conflict hasn’t been solved, so if you create a bit that doesn’t take one side or the other and you make jokes that ridicule the whole thing you actually do help—in a way—to chip away at the reasons for the fight.

NT: I would agree with all of that, and go one further that even if you are re-treading old ground or doing a “Men and Women are different” joke, as long as you bring your personality and perspective to it, you can give the bit some vitality and originality.

[Interviewers note: I brought up Doug Stanhope much earlier in the interview, and then Hal and I went down what would be several pages of transcribed paths were I to have included all our ramblings about him, Carlin, Eddie Izzard, and comedy with commentary.]

HS: Exactly, you brought up Doug a while ago—and while I should be promoting my own stuff, I love the art of stand-up comedy so I don’t care and love talking about this—Doug has a bit about politicians running on getting the unemployment rate down, and wondering where the guy running on 100% unemployment is. Where’s the politician saying “Let robots do it! Spend more time with your family!” And while a lot of comics are talking about the economic climate right now, that’s Doug bringing his own unique voice to it. And I talk about economic and job frustration in my act and on Halcatraz, and do so from my point of view and using my voice.

NT: Which goes all the way back to the idea of the comedian as the court jester, who poked fun at serious subjects and at the king in order to get a message across, but with a feather-touch, so to speak.

HS: Yes, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that in America, a vast majority of people are not seeking democracy; they’re seeking individual kingdoms. They want to sit in their TV-chair thrones, with their remote control scepters, and change channels, going: “Off with his head, off with his head” until they find something they like, then watch that until they grow bored and “Off with his head…” As a stand-up comedian, it’s your responsibility to call attention to that so it doesn’t grow out of control. You get people to laugh at themselves, that they not take themselves too seriously.

NT: I would agree with everything you said, except for one part where you said it’s becoming more and more obvious, or clearer and clearer about how “Now this is happening…” I think people have a tendency to say “It’s worse now than it’s ever been,” when in fact it was probably fairly bad in the past, we just tend to gloss over the negatives in history and paint it as a shining example of “When things were better”.

HS: Oh, sure. I’m not a big believer in “The past is better than the present.” I just think that because of the comfort level we have today, there’s a good segment of society that says, “Well now I can have everything I need, I don’t need anyone else.” They fail to remember how inter-connected we all really are.

NT: OK, that I agree with; I think I confused your point of “We have more access to apathy now than before” with what I thought you had said.

HS: Because we live as “kings” more than we ever have… I mean, 600 years ago, ice cream was a near-impossibility for over 80% of the populace. Now you can barely drive a block-and-a-half without seeing some form of it. A lot of life is the normalizing of experiences; we take it for granted.

NT: And to take your historical example and modernize it: 10 years ago having a plasma-screen TV would mean you were rich; today everyone has one. So, let’s try and take the fact that how we’re speaking right now will give people a good sense of who you are and how you think—now that they have that foundation, describe your comedy to someone who hasn’t seen you. You’re obviously intelligent and well-spoken; take the “armchair king” we’ve been talking about, someone who might think you’re just going to be speaking over his head, and draw him in.

HS: Well, that’s my job, isn’t it? I take things that are of “higher concept” and boil them down to their most palatable and understandable version. It’s not my job to be the encyclopedia, I’m the Cliff’s Notes; I don’t end the conversation, I start it.  While my stand-up isn’t political in nature, it can’t not affect politics, and while I’m not sociological in nature, it can’t not have a sociological effect. I’m basically deconstructing your life in a way that if somebody else did it, you might get mad at them. But in the way I do it, you go, “He’s doesn’t mean any ill will.” So I’ll go from the sublime to the mundane, all in order to progress the conversation a little bit.  A lot of what Halcatraz is about is ego; about how completely full of shit we allow ourselves to be, myself included—when you see the opening and ending, and how they tie together, that will make more sense.

Escape from Halcatraz is currently available on iTunes.

 

Dylan Gadino Interview

When Rooftop last talked to Dylan Gadino from Punchline Magazine, big changes were afoot. His baby had just received major backing from Salient Media, and with that everything was about to move forward with serious intent.

Well, it’s been almost a year and big changes did happen. Punchline moved under the Salient Media umbrella, brainstorming took place, and the new project—Laugh Spin—was created.

The essence of Laugh Spin is that of Punchline Magazine, but with bold new steps being taken. Nathan Timmel phoned up Dylan to discuss the events of the past eleven months.

NT: So, Punchline has become Laugh Spin, talk us through the transition.

DG: A little over a year ago now I made a deal with a company in Los Angeles called Salient Media. They are the digital arm of The Collective, which is a management agency that reps bands and comedians and the like. Salient Media is their production side; it puts out DVDs and CDs and they deal with websites, they have another popular website, bloodydisgusting.com, which is part of the horror film genre. Anyway, I teamed up with them, so they are essentially now the parent company of the website. They are mainly in charge of business development.

As we were going through the process of transitioning from Punchline being something I owned exclusively to having their backing, we decided it was probably a good idea to take the opportunity to reformat and re-brand everything, which I think is a good thing. For one thing, we wanted to make sure our new brand was singular, and that there would be no confusion with anything else. With Punchline Magazine, you have the Punchline comedy clubs and other Punchline branded entities. The other thing was the word Magazine; the word is becoming less and less relevant.

NT: I remember you talking about that last year; the problem with the whole magazine format, and that you went digital on purpose, because physical magazines are a dying breed.

DG: Yeah, in ten years, no one is going to even know what a magazine is. When I launched the site in 2005, magazines were already bombing. So I wanted to move away from that, and then the final thing is that punchline magazine dot com is a long URL to type, so we wanted to tighten that up, too. We wanted something short, punchy, and obviously relatable. Laugh is obvious, and Spin is a word that sounds active, and looks OK when smashed up against Laugh…

NT: Better than “Laugh Sneeze” or something like that.

DG: [Laughs] Right.

NT: What will be the new directions Laugh Spin goes in?

DG: Well, we’ll still be mainly editorial, but one of the new developments is we have a record label and we’re starting to put out records. We released something from a band from Australia called “The Axis of Awesome.” We’re also concentrating on getting a lot more video content on the website. We’re very interested in working with comedians and having them produce their own editorial content. We’re not looking to compete with Funny or Die or College Humor; we’re not looking to create funny web serials or that, we’re interested in editorial content. If a comedian is on tour, and wants to do a bi-weekly video diary of life on the road, that would be our angle. We’re also interested in getting into Podcasting.

NT: So who have you enjoyed talking to in the past year?

DG: I sat down with Colin Quinn when he was promoting the HBO version of his one-man show. I’d seen him on stage before, but I’d never actually talked to him, and it was cool because he was a super nice guy, very easy going… I’d heard from other comics that he was decent, and a caring guy, and yeah… very easy to talk to and laid back.

NT: Did he talk about his special being a tough sell, because that was historical comedy, and audiences don’t always like to think?

DG: He talked about it a little bit. He had Jerry Seinfeld directing it, so he obviously had a lot of power behind it with that name, but he talked about keeping it short. I think the tagline was “The history of the world in seventy-five minutes.” He wanted to make sure people knew what they were getting into, that it might be historical, but he was going to make it a tight set.

What I found interesting about that special is: live, Colin is a very divisive performer. Not because he’s controversial, but because of his style of performing; his stage voice is very ragged, he won’t push sentences, he’ll mumble, and some people really love that, but others just don’t like it. So what I found amazing about the HBO show was he was so polished; he was so disciplined. If you watch the show, it’s very George Carlin like, where every word is specific and has meaning.

You can find LaughSpin on the web, and follow them on Facebook.

An Interview with Jordan Brady, Director of I AM COMIC

Years ago, when I met the woman who became my eventual wife, when describing me to her family she stated quite matter-of-factly that I was a Stand Up Comedian.  Her mother, bless her heart, responded with a curious confusion: “Well that’s nice.  What does he do for a living?”

At my 20th high school reunion, many of my former peers were intrigued by my profession, and somewhat wistfully wondered whether or not they had chosen the right life path by getting a standard, nine-to-five job.

I mention both of those moments because each shows how little the outside world knows about the world of comedy, or the life a comic lives. The stand up comic is a rare breed of person that if not validated by the television, doesn’t seem to exist to people. Regarding my (now) wife’s mother, as I was not famous, she didn’t believe it was possible to survive by slinging jokes from the stage. Regarding my once classmates, they were not aware of the amount of effort it takes to both hone your craft and get work doing it.

Stand up comedy is rarely seen as an art form; a musician may garner respect for his songs, but many people believe that all you have to do in order to become a comedian is just stand on stage. Charlie Sheen recently discovered the error of that assumption with the failure of his Torpedo of Truth tour (the natural irony being his tag was “Failure is not an option,” and yet the tour was been considered a failure on near every level).

Fortunately, Jordan Brady is out to change the preceding stereotypes of comedy, and is doing so in the form of a documentary. I Am Comic is a film that exposes the masses to a glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain; from the unknown to the famous, comedians are interviewed and share insights into their lives and world. A former (and perpetually part-time) comic himself, Jordan wanted to show the world what comedy meant to him and how at times being a comic felt like being in the mafia (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…”).

Rooftop set interviewer Nathan Timmel to dig into Jordan’s brain, and after several trips to the dentist (by Nathan, damn my feeble teeth) waylaid plans to speak on the phone, they were finally able to connect via email.

NT: How much footage did you shoot; meaning how much ended up on the cutting room floor?

JB: I shot over 200 hours of stuff.  It pains me that some great young comics are didn’t make it.  Sean Patton, Anthony Jeselnik. Even the always funny Kathleen Madigan didn’t make it, but she’s on the DVD.  The first assembly of material was 2.5 hours long.  I was riveted, but that’s really obnoxiously indulgent.

NT: I saw the movie streaming on Netflix; does (or will) the DVD/Blu Ray have extra scenes/interviews?

JB: YES! The DVD is out and has killer bonus stuff.  Todd Glass & Larry Miller sharing a hell gig at a Prom (which is free on iTunes now), More Sarah Silverman & Kathy Griffin, and a song about “Merch” sung by yours truly.

NT: How long did you travel and shoot footage?

JB: I spent 8 months shooting.  After 5 months, we edited as we went.  I made the film between directing commercials, which is my trade.

NT: How much time did you spend with each interviewee?

JB: Anywhere between 10 to 20 minutes.  Some bigger names were longer.  Jeff Foxworthy was so gracious to have us in his studio.  Sarah Silverman had me to her set.  And Roseanne, one of the most intriguing comics, went for an hour.  Louis CK on for a while too, just chilling and chatting with us, which was very cool.  On a sad note, Bobby Slayton, who always kills, spoke one run-on sentence for 24 minutes.  He’s in the film for 8 seconds… but he gets a laugh.

NT: Who was your biggest “get” that you may or may not have expected to land, and who would you say your biggest miss was?

JB: My biggest “get” for comedy fans has got to be Louis CK.  He shared his process and it was insightful and unique.  Funny thing, I’ve not heard from him since that cherished interview.  Personally, I’m a huge Wayne Federman fan, so watching him write behind the scenes for Jimmy Fallon was a treat.  Wayne also played “Ronnie the Roster” in my flop “Waking Up in Reno.”

I also cherish the fact that Phyllis Diller is in the movie.  She’s a comedian to her core.

The biggest “miss” was Dave Chappelle.  I stalked him, and knew him before he blew up.  Aziz Ansari was going to let us go backstage at his Comedy Channel taping, but it got pulled the day of.  Do they still call it the Comedy Channel?

[Interviewer’s note:  nope, it’s Comedy Central]

NT: Ritch Shydner’s return to the stage became the accidental narrative arc to the documentary; what theme did it supplant? What was your intent going in?

JB: By the way, I love your questions.  Ritch’s arc is so emotional for anyone that’s done comedy.  Inititally, I wanted to do “Build-A-Comic”: a spoof of “Last Comic Standing” sorta.  We were planning a showcase for a newish comic.  The winner would get two weeks of gigs all over NYC, some cash and a place to stay.  I’d end with a showcase for “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

Comedian Eddie Brill, who is also in the film, books comics on “Letterman.”  He allowed us to shoot his showcases, which was great footage.  But when I saw had badly Ritch Shydner missed performing, giving jokes to comedians, I knew that was a unique storyline.  I gave Ritch 6 weeks to write a new 6 minutes.  Just before his first time up (at the Liquid Zoo Open Mic – a true Hell Gig!)  I said, “Ritch, if you kill it will be good for the doc… and if you bomb, it’ll be great for the doc.”  He did great!

NT: Is Ritch still performing today?

JB: Absolutely! Ritch Shyder is headlining clubs, and has ever since we wrapped.  He lives and breathes stand-up and clawed back to the top faster than anyone could dream of.  He’s one of my favorite comics to watch live, because he always goes off on a mad riff. And by mad, I mean madcap.

NT: During the explanation of Steve Royce’s Comedy Evaluator Pro, the line “Listens Politely” showed up on screen. Was anything edited? I’m wondering if the machine was showed to any comics, and then discussed/debunked?

JB: You are a clever one. Ritch Shydner wanted to lambaste Steve’s invention!  I asked Ritch to be polite.  You can see him biting his tongue.  It’s a pretty goofy program, but I must say, it’s Comedy Evaluator Pro – a step up from Comedy Evaluator Lite.

NT: The awkward question: Seeing Giraldo and Schimmel… Was there a sense of unhappiness from Giraldo? His Larry the Cable Guy roast was a true moment of honesty and pain.

JB: Schimmel knew what he was battling with, and you can see it in his eyes.  He’s so calm.  Greg I’ve known since he got his first deal.  My first wife was his agent, she took him to Montreal, so I have followed his career since then.  He was so nice and gracious.  Troubled?  Not that much more than many comics I know.  Obviously he was struggling.  He is missed.

NT: How did you determine the mix you were going to use of celebrity and (relatively) unknown comics?

JB: The film is about working comedians.  So I felt compelled to cover the spectrum fairly with the access I had. And I’m proud of the balance.  I could edit an entire film comparing & contrasting Sarah Silverman & Jeff Foxworthy. And it’d be funny!

NT: What has been the comic reaction to Carlos Mencia admitting flat out he will steal?

JB: It’s odd.  Carlos had some interesting views on being a stand-up, but the stealing thing overshadows it all.  Marc Maron saw the film when we screened up at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, and then had him on his popular WTF podcast.  When anyone puts the “I Am Comic” clip of Carlos on youtube, it instantly gets 40,ooo hits.  Some think he’s bullshitting, some think he’s admitting to it.  I see him as wanting to move on.  Joe Rogan made it his mission.  I just asked Carlos if he wanted to address the accusations out there, and you see his response.

NT: Marijuana was a fairly prevalent theme across many comics; some people seemed to be joking uncomfortably about their use; others were unashamed.  Did you find more comics using drugs/alcohol as a muse, or as a method of maintaining the high of the stage after their performance had ended?

JB: Marijuana (aka Mary Jane, Refer, Weed, Pot) can fuel creativity as well as keep a high going.  I quit smoking pot altogether… because the pot-cookies are readily available.  Yes, the pot & the booze keep the high going.  I did a mere 7 minutes at a benefit the other night, and was rev’d up from the high of getting laughs.  The tendency is to keep the buzz going, get higher baby.  With a dark mind, comes dark habits.

Pot also quells ADD and OCD, I find.  That said, many top comics abstain and have the disipline to write & perform without anything.  God Bless them.

I Am Comic is indeed available for purchase, and can be found HERE.

Enjoy.

Mike Merryfield Interview

Mike Merryfield is a man at ease with who he is.  A father of two—four years for one child, seven months for the other—Mike is no longer trying to impress anyone; he’s just interested in being honest when on stage. This approach, combined with a likability factor that lets the audience in on his jokes, has allowed Mike to excel in the world of comedy.

Nathan Timmel dialed Mr. Merryfield up and they chatted about his third CD, “Cupcakes & Potpourri,” now available on the Rooftop label.

NT: How many years has it been since your last CD?

MM: It’s been at least five years since I’ve put anything out; the last release was a double-album, where I crammed like two hours of material on to the disc. In the past two years, I’ve written like a ton of new stuff, and when Rooftop approached me with the idea of putting out a new disc I was just ready. I think this one is right around forty-five minutes, and while it’s the same style as the last release, you know how it is, the longer you’re a comedian, the better you get at it. Your skills improve. So, the two hours I have out there on itunes I’m proud of, but this new release is what I really think represents who I am as a comedian. It’s more my “comedic voice.” You know how they say you’ll find your voice as a comedian? I think I’ve found it.

NT: How would you describe your voice and how it has changed over the years?

MM: I think in the beginning I was acting how I thought a comedian should act on stage. I was being all “quirky” and “clever” and just trying to be this character that wasn’t me. It was kind of an extension of me, but it was more or less acting. Even the way I wrote, to re-tell those old jokes really took acting. I wasn’t writing for myself, I was writing for the type of comedian I thought I wanted to be, which didn’t make any sense because the whole reason I got into comedy was to just be me on stage. I probably spent the first seven/eight years of my career trying to be a “funny comedian,” but in the past four years I’ve given up on that and am just myself on stage, which is what I should have been doing all along. I wish someone would have told me in the beginning, “Hey, just be yourself.” Because now that I get that, it makes it easier to write. I don’t have to add anything to what I think; I just get an idea, take it up on stage and start working it out, and if it’s not funny, it’s not funny. But the point is, as I test these ideas, I’m real to the audience, because I’m not doing these over-rehearsed bits that have to be said in the same order, with the same inflection, just to get a laugh. I think comedy crowds can tell the difference between something rehearsed and something honest.

NT: OK, now I want to challenge you, because of a conversation we had years ago: I know Doug Stanhope influenced you, not in content of material, but in the delivery of it.  You told me that after you saw him the first time, you walked away from it just blown away because you believed he made the entire act up on the spot, because it sounded so natural and fresh. Then you heard him again a few months later and it was the same exact bits, but they still sounded natural, fresh, and made up entirely on the spot, because he did use the exact same inflections and stuttering pauses.  Then you buy his CD, and it’s again the same material, with the same pauses, but it still sounded like the very first time he’d said any of it.

MM: I think he’s so good because of the way he words everything. There’s your standard, “set up/punchline” jokes that the old-school comics—Jerry Seinfeld and so on—tell. Doug, and Louis C.K. is another one who has inspired me, is more a storyteller. Neither of them is doing “bits,” they’re telling stories. And maybe they’re telling them the same way each time, but that’s the genius of it. I mean, I had been doing comedy for two or three years by the time I saw Doug, so I knew the game, I knew guys went up on stage and did the same old crap over and over, because that’s all I had seen at that point.  And then I saw Doug and, yeah, was blown away, because it looked and sounded so natural.  Again, I thought he had made it all up, the whole hour. With Louis C.K. it was the same thing; the first time I saw him was on Conan. I didn’t know who he was back then, but he was sitting on the panel, being interviewed. I had turned it on in the middle and was drawn in because he was hilarious. At the end, Conan said, “Comedian Louis C.K.,” which I thought was cool. Four months later, I was working at the Comedy Café in Milwaukee, with Louis C.K., and there he was on stage, and he’s doing the same stuff as he was on Conan. I was just blown away, because I thought the stuff on Conan was just made up for that; interview material. He performed it so fluidly and flawlessly that it looked like it was off the top of his head each time; both on Conan and then months later on stage. So, both of them inspired me to just be more myself, and to tell stories more than do “bits.” Be less rehearsed, be less set up/punchline, don’t try to be more clever than anyone in the room—[laughs]—because I’m not a clever person, but I think for a while I was trying to act clever on stage.

NT: So would you say then you have become a storyteller comic because of them, or that they made you realize you could talk about your thoughts and ideas more than just sitting down and saying, “OK, I need to write a bit about the president, or whatever is in the news right now”?

MM: Oh yeah, I’m way more personal now than I ever used to be. Which is something the greats say all the time, that if you write about yourself, because then you can’t be accused of stealing, and no one can steal from you, because they’re your thoughts, and your ideas. And sure, these days I’m talking more about my kids than ever before, but that’s my life and where I’m at. I do try not to do all kid or all family shows, because I know there are people in the audience without kids and who don’t give a shit about my kids, though. My thing is, I try to take each show as an individual event. I don’t necessarily have a forty-five minute set I do each time, where each joke has to go in a specific order. I do that because it challenges me, and makes everything seem more fresh. If I don’t even know what joke comes next, that makes the show more interesting; less rehearsed.

NT: Back to the CD: did you record one or multiple shows?

MM: I actually bought recording equipment about a year ago, all the mics and everything needed for a professional release, and I would play it back and edit it on my mac. So I’ve actually been recording all my shows for the past six or eight months with the full intention of putting something together, and I did have one great show set aside that I planned on using. Then I was in Appleton and had a really, really good set on Saturday, the early show. I wasn’t too dirty, I wasn’t too clean, it was like the perfect set, and I got every bit in that I wanted to, so the CD then turned out to be that one show, in one take. I maybe chopped off five or six minutes; jokes I didn’t want to repeat from the other disc, and you have to take out the merch pitch, but other than that I got really lucky.

Cupcakes & Potpourri is available for download now.

Hari Kondabolu Interview

Comedian Hari Kondabolu has appeared on John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Live at Gotham, but on February 11th, he’s hitting even bigger marks: his very own Comedy Central Presents.

Nathan Timmel shot Hari some questions via email, and after snafus involving spam filters, received these insightful answers…

NT:   You have a strong educational background; what pulled you towards artistic expression, specifically comedy?

HK:  I’ve been writing jokes since I was 16 and I first did stand-up at my high school when I was 17, so comedy has been a part of my life for quite some time. Making people laugh was always the biggest rush I got as a kid and since I wasn’t athletically gifted or had any musically talent, comedy seemed like the only reasonable thing for me to do given my skill set. I dabbled in poetry for a bit in high school too, but when people started laughing at my heartfelt scribbles about teenage longing and unrequited love…my direction was clear. I mean, as I got older and my world view started to develop, I started seeing the power of standup as a way to express frustration and create a unique experience for myself and the audience that was not only funny, but potentially powerful for those who could relate to what I was talking about.

NT:  How would you describe your comedic style to someone who has never seen you?

HK:  I like to play between the space between discomfort and laughter. I like long set-ups that build to something. I’m most interested in the big topics like racism, religion, sexism, colonialism…etc…and the ways even small day-to-day things could have larger implications and a history. Actually, as I type this, I realize that this will not help anyone who has not seen me perform to imagine what I do on stage. Don’t they have e-mail? I’ll just send them a clip of my stuff. Probably the bit about Cocoa Butter or the ridiculousness of Mexican stereotypes.

NT:  Did you bring an overall theme to your Comedy Central Special, airing on Feb. 11th?

HK:  I think the special I taped didn’t have a clear theme, but did show my range. There was definitely a lot of discussion or race, religion and the environment and some weirder stuff too. Again, no firm theme, but I felt it was a strong collection of material. I’m looking forward to seeing how 40 minutes of tape was edited for television.

NT:  You keep a blog; is it for comedy, other thoughts, both, or neither?

HK:  The blog on my webpage (http://www.harikondabolu.com) does a little bit of everything. It used to be primarily for essays and rants, but it’s turning more into a place where I post pictures and videos I’ve made. I do sometimes use the space to write about things I find funny or interesting and want to discuss in greater detail than jokes generally allow.

NT:   You’ve written/produced a short film—Manoj. Is writing/acting where you see your career heading?

HK:  I’m definitely interested in film and television, especially the writing aspect. I don’t get too many opportunities to act, but I’m collaborating with someone whose on the same page, it can be extremely rewarding. I don’t know where my career is heading exactly, but I definitely plan to keep writing a variety of things and performing.

NT:  What are the best and worst aspects about performing live?

HK:  When you have an audience that gets what you are doing, it’s pretty incredibly. Your frustrations feel validated. You feel like all the work is paying off. You feel like you’re not alone in the world and people are seeing what you’re seeing and are appreciating what you’ve just contributed to their lives. You feel free up there and are able to talk off the cuff and let the jokes fall where they may. When there is a disconnect with an audience, either because your point of view and style is not connecting…or they are extremely drunk, and it’s a struggle up there or 20, 30, 40 minutes…you being to ask yourself existential questions like “What am I doing? Why am I here? Am I living a life worth living? Socrates felt “an unexamined life is not worth living.” All I do is examine my life and then share it on stage. This is a good thing? Didn’t they kill Socrates for doing this? I bet, no one in this little basement knows who Socrates is.”

The Beards of Comedy Tour

Four comics. One van. Twelve shows in twelve days. The Beards of Comedy have an ambitious start to their 2011. Starting January 19th in Portales, New Mexico and ending January 30th in Seattle, Washington, they will cover nearly 3,000 miles over those twelve days. Not bad for a troupe based in the south.

Rooftop is helping sponsor the tour, and therefore had Nathan Timmel speak with Joe Zimmerman about beards, comedy, and life on the road.

NT: First off, we met in Duluth, Minnesota, years ago, correct?

JZ: Yeah… I think there were two nights to the run; one night in Wausau, Wisconsin, and then Duluth. We may have done a Thursday, but I don’t remember.

NT: Neither do I, really. Good times. You said you just got your first Mac, and are excited. I’ve edited two CDs on my Mac; did you get one to start doing your own production?

JZ: Absolutely. I can do more with video, audio… scriptwriting.  And I really want to get into podcasting. Marc Maron’s podcast really got me hooked.

NT: Now, generally when you see a packaged tour—The Pot Smokers of Comedy, the Latin Comics, and so on—you get a series of comics who go up and speak redundantly about the same topics. I’m not sure anyone expects four comics in a row to go up and promote beard humor, so give me a quick rundown for the four different comedic styles of the members of The Beards of Comedy.

JZ: The overall concept is basically that of an indie music tour, because we’re sort of DIY and not always playing traditional comedy venues. That being said, we don’t pride ourselves on alternative comedy or anything. Andy [Sandford] is very smart, quick witted and sarcastic. A lot of good one liner type stuff, if you like Shane Moss type humor, but Andy does have his own voice.  Dave [Stone] has got a sort of this “flavor of the South, who hates being from the south,” so he has a very interesting perspective on growing up in Georgia. He’s a people’s favorite, as his material is original and unique, it appeals to people of all gender and race. TJ [Young] is clever; he’s the wordsmith of the group. If you ever have a conversation with TJ he’s bound to throw a bunch of puns at you, which then everyone makes fun of him for, but he’s just about as good as it gets when it comes to wordplay. Me? I’m just a goofy, silly, happy-go-lucky/absent-minded professor type.  I always come out and open the show with some banter, then come back later and actually do a set.  We all basically try our best to be original, and stay on the intelligent side of the spectrum.

NT: Who dreamed up The Beards of Comedy, and, and I mean this with all due respect, how much marijuana was involved? Did you all get together and decided to grow beards, or did four bearded comics decide to band together as a unit?

JZ: It was more the latter. We were all friends, and three of them already had beards. We were all a part of the Atlanta scene, and about two-and-a-half years ago, I said purely as a joke that they should tour as ‘The Beards of Comedy.’ A few months later, I realized that these were guys I did want to tour with, and that I could probably grow a beard and join them. We didn’t use the name for marketing reasons; we don’t tend to market ourselves to beard groups or anything beard related like that. The name is more a front, and a way to name the tour.

NT: Well, this brings to mind two questions: are there beard related groups you could market to if you wanted to? And when you decided to grow your beard, did the four of you sit down and discuss the different styles of beard you would all represent? Meaning, did one person get assigned ‘The Amish,’ and another ‘The Grizzly Adams,’ and so forth. Do you present your tour as representing four unique, disparate, beard flavors?

JZ: See, that’s a great idea. We really have not capitalized on any beard marketing. Where TJ would be the ‘sweet’ beard, and Dave the ‘angry’ beard.

NT: Like a boy band, where they have the lover, the bad boy… everyone plays a role.

JZ: I almost feel like we should do that, so the people remember us individually, but I believe we’re all almost too self-conscious to actually be labeled like that. I mean, I would be the ‘sexy’ beard probably–*laughs*–and I would be too embarrassed to call myself that.

NT: Now, has the group ever been confused… has anyone ever heard “The Beards of Comedy” and thought, “Oh, this must be a group of women married to gay men?”

JZ: We haven’t been confused as that so much as we’ve had women who have gone on dates with gay men ask to be a part of the group, and we’ve had some of them sit in with us on occasion.

NT: Talk about the tour you’re embarking on; where can people see you this month?

JZ: This is our West Coast Tour, January 19th through the 30th. We’re going to be in ten different cities in twelve nights, cool venues with us stuffed into a van in between the shows. Rooftop is kindly helping sponsor us, and we’re hoping to see some of those folks in San Fran.

NT: Are you planning on recording the tour? Either a second CD for the group, or a DVD of shows and the trip; a documentary with comedy as a part of it?

JZ: We’re going to do a daily blog from the van, and a daily podcast from the van. If not daily for the podcast, frequently. We’ll have a journalist from Atlanta Magazine coming along with us and who is going to be writing up an article on us and the tour. Right now we don’t have any plans to record a CD or DVD, but I’d love to. I’d love to record and document what we’re doing, but right now it’s hard coordinating all the travel arrangements without having to think of recording on top of it.

You can find all the tour dates for The Beards of Comedy HERE.