Monday, July 23, 2007

Standing Up

From approximately 1986 to 1991, I made my living as a stand-up comedian. There was quite a stand-up comedy boon going on at the time, probably due to the infiltration of cable television into our homes in the '80's and the cheap and easy way stand-up specials filled the airwaves.

My first professional gig was after my first year at college at a club called Giggles just south of Toledo in Perrysburg, Ohio in 1981. They were one of the first chain comedy clubs to emerge that decade. On Sunday nights, they hosted an open mic night. The winner got to come back that week to be the opening act for the headliner plus $50. Even then, club owners knew how to save a buck! For four weeks in a row, I would write material at home, practice it, and come in and do ten minutes. I was disappointed at losing the first few times, but felt good about my sets and my friends encouraged me to keep trying. The fourth time, I won and got to come back to open for Bruce Baum. Bruce Baum was pretty huge at the time. He was a regular on a game show called Me Me Laugh and had just come out with a popular novelty song called Marty Feldman Eyes - a very funny parody of Bette Davis Eyes.

I was in heaven that week and really got a taste of what it's like to perform stand-up every night with an audience. Bruce Baum was a great guy who let me ask a lot of questions about the business. When I went back to college, I found a club in Dayton, Ohio called Wylie's that I developed a relationship with. I became a "go to" guy for them when they needed an emcee or last minute replacement. It was never a huge source of income. Just a creative outlet. I stopped doing it near the end of college because I just needed to focus on having a job and making money. About a year later, my girlfriend at the time who knew about my stand-up past took me to the Red Dog Saloon in Cincinnati for an open mic. I ran into friends I hadn't seen in years and they encouraged me to start coming in and getting back up on stage. And so I did.

Right at this time, stand-up comedy was becoming big all over. Wylie's was selling out every weekend. A Funnybone moved into Cinci. Suddenly, open mic-ers found they could find enough work to start building a career. Once I was able to book a month's worth of work, I quit my job as a nightclub dee-jay.

A lot of people have the misconception that stand-up is a very cut throat-y back-stabby business. I never had that experience nor did most of my friends. If another stand-up liked your work, he or she told you. If they had a suggestion on a way to improve upon a joke or your act, they shared it. If they knew a club or a booker they could help you get in with, they helped.

One of the most generous guys I ever worked with was a Cincinnati home boy named Michael Flannery. Sometimes I would find myself stuck out on the road with a week to kill. Well, that can be a huge financial drain. Michael let me share his hotel room in Detroit once while he was working Chaplin's with Dennis Miller. So, not only did I get a free room for a week, I got to meet Dennis Miller at the height of his SNL popularity. And for the record, he was a really nice guy. He bought us drinks and told us stories about SNL all without us having to beg, which we would have done gladly. Michael helped me get over an unrequited love I had for a waitress in Kalamazoo by sitting up with me playing Wheel of Fortune on a computer and sipping Nyquil (hey - the bars were closed!). The greatest thing Michael ever did for me was get me an Emmy for writing. He hosted an afternoon kid's show in Cinci and asked me to write some character monologues for him, which I gladly did and for free. Unbeknownst to me, he submitted the final product to the Emmy review board. And I won. Pretty cool. Michael has become quite a celebrity in Cinci, even using his gifts to help kids with special needs. Check out this video.
(If you watch this video, you'll be flabbergasted to find out this TV station didn't renew his contract this year. They're fools! He got them tons of community lovin' with his work. One of the other stations in the Ohio Valley would be smart to pick up Mike.)

My stand-up career came to an end for several reasons. One, I was single and pretty lonely on the road. I felt the need to be more grounded and, hopefully, find a girlfriend. Two, my act was becoming something I didn't like. It was becoming more vulgar as I started to go for the lowest common denominator just to get laughs. And three, I was a horrible businessman. I never negotiated for more money, I took gigs that paid shit, I didn't promote myself well with booking agents or the press.

So, here are the lessons I learned from stand-up...

- If you want to be on TV or film, move to LA. Maybe NYC, but really, more likely LA. I opened for several comics that ended up working very lucrative jobs in television. They did that by going to LA.

- Talent doesn't speak for itself. Being good only gets you so far. If you don't know the business side of things, then assemble a team of people, like an agent and a manger, that believe in you and will take care of you.

- Always work on your craft. Always hone your unique perspective. I was not very disciplined in this area. I did what I thought was funny. I read papers and watched the news for material, but I didn't hunt it down. If it came to me, I used it. If it worked, I kept it. My act was a little schizophrenic because of my laziness. Talking about silly family or dating things, surreal one-liners here and there and political humor. But always ending on a dick joke. I even had a couple of prop bits (look out, Carrot Top!).

I cherish my stand-up days and occassionally think of trying it again, but for myself.

Until then, I'll just keep telling you what I think is funny.


On Saturday, I asked this question...

"On Monday (today), crewmen on the International Space Station will be taking a spacewalk for what purpose?"

Nobody fell for "Just going out for a leisurely stroll." Although I hear the stars are lovely this time of year.

33% answered "Just fixing that damn antenna." They really haven't had any problems since they got high-speed cable installed.

Another 33% said "Just checking on the neighbors." Sorry, no one else has moved into their interstellar cul-de-sac.

The correct answer, that 33% of you knew, is "Just taking out the garbage." According to Rueters, nearly 1600 pounds of obsolete gear is going to be hauled out to the curb to ultimately burn up in the atmosphere as it falls to earth. Unfortunately, it takes about 300 days to do that. So, til then, the Vulcans are going to look down their pointy ears at us and our space litter.


Pete Best said...

I almost wept when I recalled the sacrifice you made quitting your lucrative DJ job for stand-up comedy. You forgot to mention how you dropped out of medical school to become a DJ. Luckily, I'm here to remind you.

Joe Janes said...

Thanks, Pete. And I'll never forget the sacrifice you made when you convinced my parents to take me over you at the orphanage. Most selfless act I've ever witnessed. It makes me choke up with tears.