The Elephant In The Room at the Comedy Awards

This weekend, the 2nd Annual Comedy Awards took place. These are the awards where comedians do what every other industry does for itself, while maintaining enough of a distance so as to still plausibly mock the idea of awards shows.

As I followed some of the results via Twitter the name Louis CK kept coming up.  No big surprise there.  He has established himself as the man of the moment in comedy.  A sort of infallible figure of fallibility for comedy fans.  His show “Louie” won best show, in the alternative show category, helping it avoid a showdown with comedy series winner “Parks and Recreation.”

But as a stand up comic I was most interested in seeing who won best stand up special. The nominees were Louis CK, Daniel Tosh, Colin Quinn, Patton Oswalt and Norm MacDonald.  First I will offer my opinion that of the nominees (for their specials, not their bodies of work) I would have CK no higher than third. MacDonald’s special was better and Colin Quinn’s Broadway show was absolutely terrific.

But CK’s special represented a game changer, or so I was repeatedly told.  He bucked the industry by self-producing his own special.  Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari copied his model.  Now, thanks to Louis’ example, at least a dozen comedians can do this. Maybe even two dozen. And after that, I don’t think it will have any effect on the careers of individual comedians. The widespread distribution and opportunities offered by television are still needed by almost all comedians to get to the next level.  Did CK change the game? Or did he just demonstrate that after decades of climbing within the ranks of the business he now has the clout to reject it?  And before continuing I must say, because, as I have learned, when people read my posts with their own pre-dispositions, they read what they want out of my words, that this is still a compliment to CK.  He made a brilliant decision for HIS career.  My only qualm is the extrapolation that fans have made from his career to the rest of the industry. If he has changed the game then he is bigger than just a comedian and therefore worthy of cultural icon status, which may have already occurred.  But if, as I would contend, he has not changed the game, but merely his own game, then some of the praise heaped on him is overblown and is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of greatness around all that he produces, regardless of whether it is actually always great or not.

The last time I remember a comedian becoming as big (and CK is now bigger) as this was Dane Cook.  Dane Cook had a methodical, social media-driven, hard work climb over 10+ years to become the biggest name in comedy.  But the backlash against Cook was swift and furious.  Probably because the comedy community and the public at large had no real qualms about bashing a young, fit, charismatic performer, regardless of how well he did for stand up comedy as a business. Louis seems to be bulletproof.  Some of his invincibility comes from his soft underbelly, literally:   his words are harsh and honest, but his delivery device is humble and not intimidating.  Almost all friends of mine who are CK devotees acknowledge to me that they did not think that the Beacon Theater special was his best work and that there were more worthy specials this year.  But because of the “game changing” aspect of the special it was worthy.  But as I already indicated, I don’t really think it changed the game.  The same way George Carlin claimed voting was just the illusion of power, at this point, only those entertainers who already have power, can wield enough power to buck the system.  So if it was not the best special of the year (or at least not definitively) and not truly game changing, what is the justification?

My biggest disappointment in seeing the nominees and the eventual winner though, was the absence of the late, great Patrice O’Neal.  In a twist of sad irony to this post, Louis actually dedicated the Beacon Theater special to the memory of O’Neal.  O’Neal passed away late last year, but not before leaving the comedy community with Elephant In The Room, which is really just a notch below Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain for me on my all time favorite comedy specials, and Mr. P, his hilarious album, released posthumously.  I remember watching Elephant In The Room and thinking “this is going to get Patrice the next-level recognition he deserves.”  I thought it was hands down the best special of the year. No distribution gimmicks, no hype, just great stand up.  The silver lining to his tragic death should have been an increased visibility and respect for his work.  But then, late last year I noticed a poll on a comedy website that had eleven or so comedians up for “Favorite Comedian of the Year” and he was not even on the list.  And then the Comedy Awards did not even NOMINATE Elephant in The Room

Now people reading this who are already pre-disposed to embrace all that is Louis CK will probably just call me a hater.  I’ll admit there are a ton of comedians whose comedy I like more than Louis CK (if you want to know, Bill Burr and Chris Rock are my favorite living comedians).  But I also greatly respect CK’s dedication, his work ethic and and the prominence that he has brought to stand up.  If you are not quite at the “fu*k you J-L you hater” level, then maybe you would like to say “Hey J-L, I respect your opinion, but why is it so wrong for Louis to have won this? He is a great comic and it is all subjective anyway, right? How is your opinion ‘better’ than mine?”  Go watch Elephant in The Room and the Beacon Theater special and tell me there is not a difference.  And it is also just the notion that CK was crowned the way Adele was at the Grammies.  I don’t like a comedy world where we sort of have a coronation.  Even Carlin’s second to last special sucked and it was reviewed as such. But he came back and did a great one for what would be his last special.  That is how comedy should work.  You are only as good as your last show. Sure fans will give you a break because they are your fans, but should an entire industry be giving the same blind loyalty to a performer? That is largely what makes it difficult, especially when you reach that upper echelon.  You have to produce new material regularly and it has to meet the high standards you have established for yourself.  Dane Cook tapered off after his hard-earned climb to the top and he was crucified for it.  For Louis CK, however,  it seems that there is no objectivity even allowed because the comedy community is so enamored with him (“Did you think his last special was an A+ or an A++? A B+? Well fu*k you you jealous hater!”).  There is a lot to appreciate and respect about CK and I have laughed at plenty of his material.  But every so often, the avalanche of adoration impedes a deserved and justified opportunity for someone else.  I think the Comedy Awards, for whatever they are worth, did Patrice O’Neal and stand up comedy a great disservice by not awarding, let alone failing to nominate, Elephant In The Room.

Dane Cook & Comedy’s New Political Correct Police

As annoyed as I was with the gender-Eddie Brill issue that had arisen in the last week, that is minute compared to my feelings concerning the backlash against Dane Cook for a set he had recently.  According to The Onion’s A.V. Club (,67943/) , Cook had a very vulgar and unamusing set at the Laugh Factory on Wednesday night.  And apparently it was so offensive that such vaunted comedy icons like Daniel Kinno (?), Ali Waller (?) and the heir apparent to Bill Burr, TJ Miller, came out with some harsh words about Dane Cook.  I have been resoundingly ripped by NYC comics for being a so-so appreciator of Louis CK, and I predicted (about 4 or 5 blogs ago) that if Dane Cook was getting ripped it would be hailed as a great thing (I fu*king told you!) Here are TJ Miller’s comments concerning the set he saw:

“Fucking Dane Cook is eating [shit] at the laugh factory. He bumped [Bobby Lee] and is being just mean… The hubris of this man unfortunately led to his fall, but I’m afraid he is a damaged man & well, that’s about it. He [is] certainly not a comedian… Watching him try and work through his own shit on stage when he is saying, ‘Go fuck a dirty whore. That’s the best therapy.’ #lord… Dane. You’ve been doing standup for so many years and you still believe it’s okay to bomb and talk about your issues? You. Didn’t. Earn This…

I remember hearing [about] someone named ‘Dane Cook’ in college on Napster. I heard Harmful If Swallowed after college… Then there was a backlash (there always is, it’s inevitable), but it grew. It was more than I could believe, and it was due in part to him… I liked him. His snake bit, a lot of sort of absurdist stuff. Suddenly he was on SNL, he was the ‘king’ of MySpace, [and] he was famous. Good Luck Chuck and Vicious Circle sealed his fate in contemporary culture.

And then last night, he got on stage and was vicious, misogynistic, cruel, and arrogant. He talked about not paying for an abortion. He talked about finding some whore to fuck to take out his anger at his ex-girlfriend. He talked about how girls would do anything for him ‘because I’m me.’ He got mad when people were texting. ‘Dane Cook is onstage,’ he said. ‘Have some fucking respect.’

Here’s an idea, Dane: have some fucking respect for the audience that gave you the chance to be what you dreamed of being, and don’t be mad at them because you fucked it all up from hubris and thirst for fame. Don’t disrespect the people that gave you a chance. Don’t do an hour of mean-spirited trash. And Dane Cook, certainly don’t ask anyone to feel sorry for you. If you are the person you were onstage last night then you are not a good person. And the way you talk about women is disgusting and pathetic, but really just hurtful. So Good Luck Chuck. [You] need all the luck in the world to realize you need to go to therapy & figure out how to not be a hateful person. Stop performing until [you] do so.”

Now I have not been a big fan of Dane Cook post the aforementioned Harmful If Swallowed (for God’s sake I have a Dane Cook spoof video launching in the next 24 hours so he is no sacred deity to me).  I think the demands made of him in terms of producing content were bigger than his capabilities.  I don’t think he is horrible or anything, but he is not in my top tier of comedians by any means.  But who the fu*k is TJ Miller?  I know he is an actor and a comedian, but these are not the words of a comedian.  Maybe in the current sense of comedian he is (TV and movie stars who do comedy for extra money and please crowds because they are light, fluffy and familiar from mediocre movies), but he is not from the old school.  I doubt you will hear Dave Attell or Bill Burr or Chris Rock criticizing a comedian for trying different things, pushing boundaries, using abusive language on stage, etc. Perhaps it was not funny.  Any comedian who has ever tried something new or daring or dangerous has offended people while searching for the right tone, the right words and the right sentiment.

TJ Miller sounds like a tool who does not understand that stand up is supposed to be (I hope) a bastion of free speech and a place to be free to take risks.  But The Onion is happy to blast this all over like he is some sort of knight slaying the dragon Dane Cook.  Cook was obviously working things out or trying new things on stage.  It does not sound like it was funny, but if an established stand up veteran with decades of work and millions of fans cannot at least be free to try new voices and material, then we might as well shut this whole sh*t down.  Unless Dane fought with people off stage or was hurling epithets to provoke a riot what he said on that stage should not be criticized except on whether it was funny, ESPECIALLY by a comedian.  When you are as big as Dane Cook (like it or not) you bump people because a Wednesday night show, which might be a big deal to younger comics, is his open mic. And at open mics sometimes comedians say and do things that seem wrong, on their way to finding the joke.  But I am sure TJ Miller already knows that.

Really, telling people to respect 20 years of comedy and not to text makes him a douche (perhaps the third person is a tad douchey)?  And he did a lot of time?  Oh, but when he was red hot, people in LA could not wait to be in seats for 5 or 6 hours to see him and Dave Chappelle try to break records!  There is no stand up that can be fun for 6 hours, but when it was cool, no one said sh*t about Dane hogging the mic or being self-indulgent.  I am not saying what Dane Cook did was funny.  It might not have been.  But what I am saying is that the TJ Millers of the world should respect stand up and shut the fu*k up.  Save the politically correct and sensitive guy talk for the dumb groupies who thought you were hilarious in She’s Out of My League.

I am a nobody in stand up, but I at least know how the game is supposed to be played.  The process of creating stand up comedy requires fu*king up on stage in a myriad of forms.

But I did enjoy Cloverfield so good job there.

Patrice O’Neal – A Big Man. A Huge Loss.

The news started the way news seems to start these days – with a Tweet or two.  The initial hope was that it was a false rumor or something, because those things do happen in the era of Twitter and Facebook and the 24 Hour News Cycle.  But as the tweets started to roll in it seemed that they were true: Patrice O’Neal was dead.

Patrice suffered a stroke not too long ago, which sent justifiable shocks through the comedy world.  He had just had his best and most high profile year yet.  His Elephant In The Room special was an instant classic in February on Comedy Central and then his off the cuff performance on the Roast of Charlie Sheen, which was a welcome change from the neatly polished and predictably mean-spirited jokes that litter those roasts now, elevated him to another, more mainstream audience.  And then he had a stroke.

And now he has died.


Until a few years ago my favorite comedian in the world was Greg Giraldo.  A brilliant, but accessible comedian, Giraldo was exactly what I aspired to – a lawyer-turned-comedian who was in the top class of comedians – popular and respected.  But then he died too early, at 44 years old, in a hotel in New Jersey.  He, like Patrice, had finally achieved a step into the mainstream with his appearances on Last Comic Standing and his undisputed closing status on Comedy Central Roasts – he was like the Mariano Rivera of comedy.

And then he died.

As if filling a void for comedy hero in the wake of Giraldo’s parting, I was lucky enough to work with Patrice O’Neal at the DC Improv.  The first time I worked with him was a true gift.  It really felt like being a fan again.  All the cynicism and jealousy that goes with being a comedian went away because I was watching someone practice comedy at such a high level that all you could do was admire and clutch your stomach in pain from laughing too much.

But the single greatest honor I have received was when Patrice asked to have me emcee his shows in DC the next time he was in DC.  And I remember him telling me that the emcee is important and that I should not demean it.  See to a lot of comics they would consider emceeing beneath them at the 7-8 year mark of their career, but this was one of the titans of the art form telling me that what I did was important and important to his show.   This was because he was a true comedian.  It was not about status or fame – it was about the show.  And no one currently in my opinion, other than maybe Bill Burr, put on a show like Patrice O’Neal.

And the fact that my shows opening for Patrice earned me some of my most engaged Facebook fans tells me that not only did he enhance comedy as an art, but he attracted true fans of the art.

But the death of Patrice O’Neal reminds me of something quite ominous for comedy.  Comedy is not producing any new Patrice O’Neals.  Or at least is not promoting any.  What disgusts me about comedy is when I see greats like Greg Giraldo and Patrice O’Neal taking 20 years to become household names.  The advantage of that is that their skill set and world view are so damn developed that they are practically forces of nature by the time they break.  But does that mean it is right?  Didn’t Patrice deserve to be bigger (only 1 hour long special on comedy central?) than that?

But beyond the personal tragedy of Patrice O’Neal’s death is what it means for the art of comedy.  Greg Giraldo and Patrice O’Neal are not being replaced by similar younger talent.  For me there is a generation that includes Bill Burr and Jim Norton that still represent the truest form of stand up (their careers were not built through savvy social media campaigns and sitcom roles, but on stage night after night).  But like manufacturing jobs that disappeared in America or rock stars more concerned with pilates and yoga than with partying and making great rock songs, the “comedy soldiers,” as Patrice once referred to himself and Burr, seem to be a dying breed.  Telegenic and marketable seem to be more important than true comedy genius in today’s comedy market.  That is not to say there are not great young comedians with real points of views and insightful thinking in their material.  There are.  But at some point places like Comedy Central need to take some responsibility.  They have monopolized  the comedy business, in some schools of thought have ruined live comedy (imagine Broadway had a basic cable channel called “Broadway Central” where you could watch Broadway plays – it would diminish ticket sales as well as the allure of live performance), but do not necessarily keep the art in the highest esteem.

I do not know the solution, but it reminds me of cable news.  Instead of doing longer, in-depth stories, cable news tries to meet the consumer half way (more like 80% of the way) and give them what they want to hear.  But at some point the news station has to give us our vegetables.  Stop serving up what people want or the lowest common denominator (Lindsey Lohan’s name should never appear on CNN except on their entertainment show).  Same for comedy – all due respect to my young friends (and to my own sputtering career) but when I turn on comedy central I should be seeing Pryor, Carlin, Giraldo, Hicks, O’Neal, Burr, Wright, Rock, Seinfeld, etc. a lot more than I do.  These are among the Shakespeares of our art and people should be schooled and respect the classics.

When Patrice’s special aired I told everyone to watch it with the same vigor that I tell people to watch Breaking Bad – nonstop with a 100% guarantee of enjoyment.  Afterwards I had friends saying “I never heard of him, but man that was great!”  This is not a failing of Patrice O’Neal, this is the failing of the comedy business.  Comedians suffer and struggle and hustle to be worthy of the platform that late night television and Comedy Central provide, but once they have earned it, as Patrice did many times over they deserve at least as much air time as Dane Cook or Larry The Cable Guy.  Comedy programmers are not supposed to just be a reflection of people’s taste – they should be enriching it.

The loss of Patrice O’Neal is huge, but what makes it annoying to a super fan like myself is that it is not actually bigger.

There will be no more working with Patrice, watching Patrice or looking forward to new opportunities for Patrice.  And I am sad for the loss to comedy and his family and friends and angry at the injustice that that symbolizes.

So Patrice died one week before his birthday fits the comedy business perfectly – he almost got to be celebrated the way he deserved.  But it is nice to see all the comedians and hard core comedy fans celebrating him.  The best way to honor him going forward, at least in comedy I think, is to not settle for anything less than what he brought to the table.  And that was a whole lot.

In re Bob Hellener

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about feature work.  For those of you who read my site, but do not know the terminology, the “feature” is the middle performer on comedy shows – a bridge from the introductory remarks of the emcee and the main event of the headliner.  The bulk of the post concerned my feelings working in and observing the comedy business across America the last few years and how I feel that the changing business model of stand up comedy will in time, have a negative impact on the quality and growth of the art of stand up comedy.  I made some forceful points, as I tend to because, although I love performing stand up comedy, I have little love for the business of stand up comedy.  Agree or disagree with me I am doing it so I have a somewhat valid first person experience to draw on when I write complaints.

Well, on the post a man named “Bob Hellener” introduced himself to me – here was his first comment:

Have you stopped to think that perhaps you haven’t gotten very far because you’re not as funny as you think you are?  There are plenty of comedians who’ve been doing comedy for much less than eight years who are setting the world on fire.

Now I approved his comment because, despite the lack of social graces in the first part I thought that maybe it was someone with a valid point to share and I did not want to censor dialogue in the name of saving face.  What then occurred was a sad man who had no outlet for his own frustrations or jealousies and he began to pour forth comments and insults with increasing hostility, never able to actually provide support or evidence for any of his statements (he still has yet to name one inexperienced comedian “setting the world on fire,” one of a dozen unsubstantiated claims he made).  Here is one of the key ones:

You have no idea who I am.  But, for purposes of this discussion, that is of no importance.  What’s truly sad, but in this case laughable, is that without changing your material one iota, you could be much more successful – artistically, financially, and by any criteria that you could want.  But instead, because of your sanctimonious, holier than thou, arrogant attitude, you will unfortunately never be able to break out of the cellar of comedy.  You clearly have a tremendous amount of time on your hands.  It’s truly unfortunate that you spend it criticizing other, highly successful artists and attempting to dictate what kind of art they should produce, instead of improving your own.  You could change your attitude, and be more successful, but you won’t.  You know too much, but not enough.  You are unteachable.  You will be gone from the comedy scene within a year.  And, quite honestly, that will be good riddance.

For a more complete idea of just how absurd this was refer to the link below:

As the weeks went on “Bob” continued to post comments on my blogs (including posts that were already a couple of weeks old) on things ranging from my shows to my weight – it was like arguing with a teenage girl with special needs.  I then offered to meet “Bob” at a comedy show and allow him to perform to teach me the finer points of being a comedian (because you know a guy who anonymously posts on blogs certainly is brave enough to take some really exciting chances on stage).  If he did not show up, however (and this was not an invitation to violence) I promised I would spam all his future comments.  Well, he did not show up so I kept my word.  But that did not stop “Bob” from posting comments on new and old posts.  Here are some of his comments that never saw the light of day outside of my spam folder that he still insisted on posting:

“How dare you block my comments you coward!” – posted at 5:55 am on a Sunday

“Savor it because it will never happen again” – in response to my joy at having 5 great shows in Philly

I wracked my brain to figure out who it could be and most comedians kept coming up with the same name as to who Bob Hellener actually was:  a mental patient named Dan Nainan.


If you are a comedian in NYC or DC or a tech company with a terrible sense of humor you probably know the name Dan Nainan.  He is a comedian who defines sour grapes.  And for the purposes of this argument I will accept all that Dan says to be true about his comedy career.  Dan is a successful corporate comedian who consistently gets paid very well by doing shows, the overwhelming majority of which appear to be for tech companies in Asia, which, as everyone knows, is a sector of the globe notorious for their sense of humor and advancement of comedy.  The reason I am aware of Dan’s exploits is because he sends comedians that he deems have insulted or offended him occasional e-mails that brag about how much he is getting paid halfway around the world to do comedy.  He is like a modern day Roman Polanski – forced into exile for raping Americans’ sense of humor.

Here are the two main topics he mentions, like a boilerplate document, in his e-mails:

  • comedians in NY are fighting for cheap spots at cocaine-riddled comedy club
  • He is living a life of luxury around the globe performing his comedy

But in a recent string of e-mails to a friend of mine he recently wrote too much.  The words read too much like a comedy villain I was all too familiar with:

My bookings in Singapore and Malaysia last week, and Dubai, Hong Kong, Trinidad, Tobago earlier this year, and India, Japan, Aruba, Netherlands, South Africa and elsewhere, have all came about because of my YouTube and my Internet presence, not because of some chimp like Roger Paul or Jason Steinberg.  Steinberg tried for a year to get me to sign with him – yeah right, pay him 15 percent of a $15,000 corporate show that he didn’t even get me, just so he can get me on Craig Ferguson.  Please. (I was on Ferguson and Hellener kept trying to diminish it)

As I’ve mentioned, my YouTube video has gotten me booked all over the United States and the globe for high-paying shows.  What do the TV credits get your friends?  Hosting spots at Wisecrackers in Scranton, Pennsylvania? Unbelievable. (I’m featuring in Scranton in August and I have the aforementioned TV credit)

For every chump like you, there are many who contact me for advice – comedy has been fantastic to me and as a result I feel the obligation to give back.  You can’t possibly imagine how many aspiring comedians I have helped.  There’s so much you don’t know about this business that you could, but you and your buddies are so closed off and you think you know everything – you know too much but not enough – you are unteachable.  Fine – less competition for me. (reads almost like a cut and paste job from the Hellener comment I posted above)

Given these quotes, among others, it is pretty damn obvious that Bob Hellener is actually Dan Nainan.  Or there are two dumb, unfunny assholes separated at birth.

He has e-mailed many other comedians using different e-mails and I guess Bob Hellener is his newest.  He signs off his e-mails “sent from my ridiculously overpriced iPad 2” – there are literally millions of teenage girls and Porsche drivers who are more secure about themselves than Dan Nainan.  If you come off as insecure to a roomful of comedians there is something truly wrong with you.  So with a guilty verdict of Dan Nainan I thought it appropriate for me to write him a victim impact statement.  It will probably not affect his sentencing because he is already an exiled comedian in America, but here it is anyway:

Dear Dan Bob Hellener Nainan,

The last couple of months you have caused me a decent amount of frustration,  first, with your inability to argue points coherently on my website because you simply had an agenda to eventually insult me and second, with your false identity.  But now that we know who you are I feel it is necessary to tell you a few things.

Comedy is an art form first, and a business second.  Every great comedian in America came up the tough way.  From Lenny Bruce to Bill Cosby to Richard Pryor to Jerry Seinfeld to Chris Rock to Louis CK to Patrice O’Neal, they all did it a certain way.  They hustled, struggled and fought their way up by simply becoming great comedians in the greatest comedy market in the world.  America may not export as much today as it once did in many industries, but in comedy we are still king.  The crucible of American comedy is not for the faint of heart.  It is frustrating and disappointing.  And I will say what you will inevitably say – I will probably not achieve the level of success I hope for.  But at least I am trying and fighting.  My ceiling is Chris Rock.  It is lofty at best and completely delusional at worst.  But you have already set your comedy ceiling at David Hasselhoff.  You have fled to foreign markets (and markets not really known for their depth or wealth of humor) to avoid being a disappointed and unsuccessful loser.  Because American comedy has already spit you out.

Perhaps you will claim to be a clean comedian and that has hurt you.  Jerry Seinfeld was clean an he did alright.

Perhaps you will say the business is too bitter and jaded to accept someone who haters call a “hack.”  Bill Engvall seems to be doing alright.

The truth is you are the worst thing a comedian can be – a coward – and no amount of money or filet mignon can change that.  You anonymously write on blogs, you’ve told the same jokes your entire career (I may have some multi-racial humor in my set, but even in my first weeks of performing comedy in 2003 I knew not to write something as awful as your “I am Indian and Japanese, so I buy my sushi at 7-11” gem), and you brag to people who are financially less secure than you (assuming you tell the truth, which is sometimes hard to believe from someone with multiple Internet identities) to validate yourself for basically becoming a corporate lackey with Power Point instead of an artist.

Your comedy reminds me of the show Alf.  I thought it was hysterical when I was young, but as I matured it turns out I no longer found it funny.  And then as more time went on I realized I did not even think it was that funny when I was young.  You have every excuse for why you are not embraced by the American comedy community but the two main ones are you are not funny and you are a terrible, possibly unstable, person.  So continue to bring up gigs or tv spots as weapons against me and other comedians who are fighting the good fight.  You wreak of sour grapes.   People openly speak about your e-mail harassment of Eddie Brill (the Letterman booker) and of Marc Maron (the booker of the WTF podcast) so don’t act like you do not want to be part of, and embraced by, the comedy community.  You just know that between your shitty routine and your cowardly form of bridge burning you never will be.

You may get paid well, you may have legions of fans in places where comedy is an afterthought and you may have the word comedian on every one of your YouTube videos, but you are no comedian.  You are a coward.  I will never mention you or your pseudonyms on anything I write ever again because I don’t want you to infect actual comedy fans as a result of something I do.  You are someone with real mental problems beyond a lame sense of humor.  Many comedians (in between bouts of laughter) have said that you have threatened them physically (from the safety of the Internet), you sent one comedian a video of you cutting a steak to prove how awesome your life is and you create false identities to criticize people.  I’d be meaner in this post but even I can recognize when someone is too pathetic to insult.

But for everyone who is still curious about Dan I will post one more thing on his behalf.  Below is the link for a mentorship/teaching offer he has for aspiring comedians.  Turns out Dan subscribes to that old saying, “Those that can’t do, teach.”

How To Fail In Comedy While Really Trying –…

As much as  I complain about being a comedian (literally the lyrics of AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top” feel like a diary of my comedy career), it is probably tougher being in musical theater.  I mean, first there’s telling your parents that you are gay, so that is tough in many cases, but there is also an embarrassing lack of integrity.  It seems, despite being a cherished art form in this country’s history, you can barely make a musical today unless it is based on a pre-existing work and/or if you have some marginal to well-known celebrity in at least one of the roles.  I am sure if I were a talented singer/actor I’d be sort of disappointed that the only things available to me were Fast and Furious The Musical or South Pacific starring Lil’ Wayne.  But Broadway musicals still have comedy beat in one aspect.  Because they charge so much per ticket, they actually require people to laugh.  At $10 a ticket, the joke is on us, at $150 a ticket the joke is on the audience if they don’t laugh.  In a modification of the old saying about banks “If you pay $10 to watch a performance and you don’t like it the performer has the problem.  If you pay $150 per ticket and you don’t like it, you have the problem.”

In comedy, we give our product away for free so often (often to no avail) that we have helped devalue it.  Sort of like women’s vaginas this decade.  A slightly revealed ankle in 1940 had more value than a fully exposed woman in 2011 because the market has been flooded with them (of course what I mean is that there has been a great advancement in the empowerment of women).

Part of the problem is that comedy shows can be very expensive with the drink minimums, but the percentage of the bill that goes to the comedy is the part that influences the crowd.  If the bill were 100% toward the show, there might be a different mentality, but when you are being served overpriced drinks, which account for no less than 50% of your bill, the mindset is “Man, that $15 dollar show sucked, and $22 for two drinks!”  There is no need for one to justify paying fifteen dollars by laughing extra, the way there is for a $100 ticket on Broadway.  It should be noted here that The Book of Mormon, currently on Broadway is an exception to this, in that you are unlikely to find any stand up comedy in New York funnier than that musical.

So the comedy business in many ways has contributed to its own status as the second lowest art form, just ahead of poetry slamming.  But I don’t think people  realize how emblematic of America’s capitalistic society comedy is, at least in one significant aspect.  The feature act, normally the middle act at clubs around the country, is like the middle class laborer in America.  And it is a fading prospect for steady work in comedy.

If comedy were politics then presidential candidates would talk about supporting the feature acts.  They are literally the middle class in comedy.  And like the middle class in America, the feature is important to keep the machine going, but wholly irrelevant when it comes to actual business planning.  For example, anecdotal evidence has revealed to me that 20 years ago feature acts were getting $100 per set (in many cases actually more than this during the comedy boom of the late 1980s).  Guess what features get paid per set today – $100.  Is there any job in America where making the same salary (not in adjusted dollars, but the actual same salary) for 20 years is acceptable?

Here is why feature work is important – it helps comedians get good the old-fashioned way – through experience at clubs in front of different crowds.  It allows emerging comedians to get paid and continue to work and it ensures that comedy will have an ever ready supply of comedians who have honed their skills doing actual stand up comedy, rather than by being in movies or on reality television shows.   I am only 8 years into comedy, so I have no illusions that I have enough experience to “tell it like it is” in comedy, but I have been travelling a fair amount and I am smart, so that is at least a start.  Here are two stories that will help you realize what I am beginning to realize, that the feature act is merely the Wisconsin public school teacher of the comedy business.

A year ago I travelled to Detroit to feature at a club.  The terms of the feature work were as follows: $300 for 5 shows, no hotel room provided.  To translate for non-comedians this is like saying: “We can offer you the job you are looking for, but there will be no benefits, the salary is 40% lower than the industry base rate and you will have to lick my ball bag at least twice a week.”  If an employer offered you those details you would  infer that the job was not actually available and you were being pranked or messed with.

Well I took the job because (like Americans who believe in the reality of the American Dream) I have a foolishly optimistic side of me that believes that by meeting different club owners and performing all over the country, sometimes at a loss financially, I will eventually become a better comedian and gain networking opportunities in the business.  So I went to Detroit by Amtrak (17 hours), stayed in a very cheap hotel and took Greyhound bus back to NYC (18 hours).  For that trip I netted $13.  It was one of the proudest moments of my career because I felt like I had just stuck it to the man.  But in reality I had done nothing but waste my time.  It felt like that moment when Jerry Maguire leaves his office and believes that many will follow him, only to find out that Renee Zellweger is the only one.  The truth is I was never wanted at the club, nor is any other feature act worth his salt who does not live in that town.  For the record, attendance for the weekend was well over 1000 people so I am pretty sure twenty cents per person would not have been a major business sacrifice to ensure the standard 1988 rate for a feature act (I just realized that my next sketch may have to be a UNICEF or ASPCA style ad for comedians – “For just twenty cents a customer, you too can ensure that this comedian will not have to be completely embarrassed at school alumni or family functions.  In the arms ooooooof an aaaaangel…”

 Another club experience demonstrates that sometimes a club will not even have the decency to tell you that they are screwing you when you take a job.  I travelled to an audition at a club in Chicago on short notice on my own dime.  It was a fairly expensive plane ride and I had to put myself up in a hotel, but I have enough experience and confidence in my material to do those sort of things.  I performed for a half hour on the show and did very well.  I was told that the booker enjoyed my set and I could expect work out of it as a feature at their clubs (I had already asked for this assurance before booking my flight).  Well, after various immediate emails and prompt replies regarding payment for my performance at the audition, the line went silent.  It has now been 9 months since I received a reply to an e-mail (which means approximately 15 unanswered booking inquiries – including – “Please save me the trouble of not e-mailing you if work is not available – no hard feelings, just want to know where I stand.”  It is one thing if you do not think my comedy is worthy, but as someone who has worked the club, even if just for one show, I should be accorded the dignity and respect of a response.  But the irony that this showed me is that to some clubs the most important person is the headliner and the least important person is any other comedian that is not headlining.  This feels more like a story of a bitter Hollywood writer than a middle stand up comedian, but comedy is becoming more Hollywood anyway so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the shit-eating-grin  has migrated to the heartland.

Now don’t get me wrong there are definitely some club that get good comedians booked for shows and take an interest in the overall quality of the show, not just the headliner.  But there are still a lot of terrible emcees and features out there for sure – and the message is “who cares?”  The same way a majority of Americans vote with their wallets when push comes to shove, clubs and audiences vote with the headliner

But this post is not without a slightly positive story.  I was booked to emcee shows for Patrice O’Neal at the DC Improv, which I just finished up Sunday.  It turns out he had requested me.  That felt great, to have one of the current giants of stand up comedy request me because he liked the job I did last August when I opened for him.  But despite my high opinion of my own comedy (and it is substantial) I might not have stood out or have been as memorable as an emcee if other clubs around the country were lining up solid emcees for their shows.  This exchange solidified to me that clubs are not putting a premium on developing emcees and features (if I were making an American analogy – this is the outsourcing of products to China or India, based solely on cost, regardless of quality or customer satisfaction, i.e. even Apple might not use China if every fifth iPod were broken).  I have travelled many clubs and I have seen a good share of awful emcees and features.  This is a travesty.  There are a lot of talented comedians out there who are not given financial incentive to travel by clubs, and many clubs have no desire to book quality out-of-town comedians because it might cost $100-$200 more per week than the local guy they have do jokes (when he is not making the mozzarella sticks in the back).

The people who suffer are audiences who want to see good comedy and are not, much like my observation in my recent Charlie Sheen post, just the fame hungry buffoons that are multiplying like Gremlins.  The good fans then learn to pursue only well-established comedians they like or ignore the club when they book famous people who are not funny.  But the no name people, trying to make a name for themselves through old fashioned stand up are not bookable acts because the club has established a tradition of not consistently booking funny people for the “no name” spots.  It is sort of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, did clubs get lazy or did people get stupid first, but either way, it is hurting the grass roots of comedy.   Specific comedians will always have fans, but the business will only truly thrive if clubs foster fans of comedy, not just comedians.

The other people who suffer are comedians.  It is becoming harder, both due to volume of comedians and lack of nurturing on the part of the establishment to make a living being a feature act. In fact it is actually impossible.  So, instead of creating a new class of headliners through old fashioned work and opportunity you have comedians trying to become YouTube sensations or focus more on acting (  That way, when they have the fame, it won’t matter how good their stand up actually is – they will be headliners.   Simultaneously more and more headliners bring their own opening act, which further cuts down on opportunities for “freelance” comedians if you will.  Now I have seen a couple of comedians bring their own feature because they are dominated by insecurities and want to know the level of the feature so they can assure themselves that they can surpass it, but a majority bring their own feature because they do not seem to trust the clubs to book solid people in front of them.  And why should they?

I have been told that a few years ago some comedians in NYC tried to start a Union for comedians.  I guess it failed because you would need to have exactly the things that are lacking in America today:

1) The upper class would have to give a shit.  Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Dave Attell, etc. would have to be on the picket lines along with everyone else.  But they, rightfully so, would feel that they have paid their dues (some in a much more encouraging time for stand up) and would probably not.

2) People outside of the industry would have to give a shit.  Probably wouldn’t happen.  Not while Adam Sandler and Tyler Perry are still successful filmmakers.

3) Comedians would have to accept that the America Dream is a fantasy and not a blueprint of success.  Better pay and a higher standard of quality for emcee and feature performers would have a good impact because for a majority of comedians this is as high as they should aspire to.  It is not mathematically possible for all features to become headliners.  But if people continue to think that the corner office and the Greenwich house will be theirs eventually then they will never fight the fight that they are currently losing.  That is why so many blue collar people seem to be anti-Union and why so many comedians don’t seem to give a shit about the highway robbery that is occurring.

We have a society now where news organizations care about ratings above information, where companies care more about stock prices than workers and products and a comedy business that only cares about comedy when it is convenient.  Hopefully some of these things change.  This just in – I was just told that for my upcoming gigs in New Haven, CT I will be receiving a hotel room.  That was fast.

Charlie Sheen – The Comedy America Deserves

The Twitterverse has been buzzing with Charlie Sheen’s terrible comedy performance last night in Detroit (seriously hasn’t that city suffered enough?).  Well, apparently the “My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option” was not the groundbreaking comedy experience that so many stupid, fame-hungry, comedy-ignorant people were hoping for.  But, just like the Rolling Stones said, they may not have gotten what they wanted, but they got what they needed.  Or at least deserved.  OK, so that is not exactly a Rolling Stones song anymore.  Just keep reading.

For me, the Charlie Sheen tour represents a new low for comedy in America, but also something else: it is the convergence of that low with America’s morbid new pastime: voyeuristic fascination with self-destruction.

Starting with comedy, his tour sold out across America because of a series of bizarre (and admittedly quite funny – both intentionally and unintentionally) interviews he did following his firing from CBS’ “comedy” Two and a Half Men.  Well, mainstream America never had the most sophisticated sense of humor, but several things in the last several years have further eroded that sense of humor.  From America’s Home Videos (I will admit – I enjoyed it when I was 10) to YouTube, ridicule and bodily harm have increasingly replaced nuance and creativity as the humor America responds to.  Shots to the nuts have made Adam Sandler and Kevin James bankable movie stars and when people turn to their computers they seem more likely to laugh at someone’s expense than at someone’s creativity.

Couple that with America’s increasing, almost faith-based devotion to famous people, irrespective of talent or quality, and you have the two main ingredients in the recipe that is hurting comedy.  One of my favorite comments I received from a fan in Iowa last month was, “You guys were great and I had never heard of you.  Last month I came with my girlfriend to see Pauly Shore and he sucked.”  That was just one man’s opinion, but it illistrates something larger that I see in comedy.  Comedy clubs, like much of corporate America, are increasingly more concerned with the bottom line at the expense of the quality of their product and the workers that provide it.   Clubs are more than willing to bring in acts like Pauly Shore, largely on name recognition alone because they will fill seats.  However, what happens is that clubs continue to bring in acts solely on name recognition, so they continue to draw reality show, fame-hungry morons to their clubs, but the real, substantive comedy fans stop going, except to see acts they already know.  Comedians in my position are reliant on real comedy fans to build their base.  People who like famous people will not come to see me perform.  People who are real comedy fans and looking to find new voices and new perspectives will, but they cannot if they stay home because they have been turned off by the Steve-Os of the world.

So Charlie Sheen represents the apex of these trends in comedy: fame-hungry people who laugh at train wrecks.  But there is a more insidious side to these crowds as well.

I was recently watching an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary about June 17, 1994.  It was a day with an incredible mix of high profile sporting events, but the overwhelming headliner of the day was the infamous White Bronco Chase featuring a suicidal OJ Simpson.   I remember sitting in a hotel in Evanston, Ill. for my brother’s college graduation watching the Knicks-Rockets NBA finals game with my Patrick Ewing-worshipping family and being interrupted by the car chase.  But what I did not realize at the time, but was made clear from the documentary, was that was the turning point for American popular culture.  If there is any moment where our voyeurism hit an awful point of no return it was that car chase.  People were stopping their cars on highways in LA to watch the chase and every news network was covering it.  I believe that it was simply with the hope of catching a suicide of a famous person on camera.  It was intense, but it was also shameless and disgusting.  If a no-name serial killer were fleeing they would not have covered it so intensely, but to see a famous person flee justice and maybe kill himself – what a rare chance on television!

Fast forward – reality television now features people having sex on camera (Real World, Jersey Shore), people dying (Deadliest Catch and the new reality show “Coal” which is less “appreciate the working man” and more “hopefully we can see poor people die or get in dangerous situations”), and just generally elevating and tearing down insignificant people.

Well, once again Charlie Sheen is at the peak of this as well.  He is a drug-addicted, crazy ego maniac.  People tune in to him to see him rant, but also to possibly see him self-destruct fatally.

Charlie Sheen represents the combination of the worst trends in comedy and in our popular culture.  And after raising him up, people are now eager to boo him and act as if they are not getting exactly what they paid for.  Because if there is a national pastime in this country it is not baseball or football; it is raising someone up beyond where they should be and then tearing them down to lower than they deserve to be.  And now I am sure all the “comedy fans” who have tickets to upcoming Sheen shows are already rationalizing  their purchase by saying – “I hear he sucks.  I can’t wait to boo the dude!”

I feel the same way about people who go to see Charlie Sheen’s tour that I do about people who vote for Sarah Palin.  If you support it then you, more than anyone, actually deserve to get what you want.  Good luck to everyone with tickets.

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The Movies That Explain America

I have a joke about the Rocky films (which has been added to recently) that they can tell us about Race and American History because Rocky is always fighting and defeating  whoever white people fear.  Here is the proof:

1976 & 1979 – post Civil Rights Movement, Rocky defeats an articulate black man

1982 – Rocky defeats an angry urban black male

1985 – Rocky defeats a Communist

1990 – Rocky defeats a redneck (perhaps prescient of Timothy McVeigh and David Koresh)

2006 – Rocky loses to a black man, but with dignity (sort of the foreshadowing of John McCain’s “hey white people we gave it a good try, but you can’t keep darkies down forever”)

My joke was that Rocky will eventually have to fight a gay Arab (with perhaps a Mexican trainer) to continue this trend.

However, the Rocky series also demonstrates an important lesson about gender relations.  When Rocky met his wife Adrian, she was an autistic pet store employee, but thanks to fame and wealth she was able to speak and look prettier and tell Rocky what to do – it really tells you what is possible when a woman gets a taste of money.  When she told Rocky “YOU CAN’T WIN!” in Rocky IV, his response should have been, “Ohhhh, look who can talk all of a sudden – you couldn’t even look me in the eye in ’76, but now you live in a big mansion and you are talking all this sh*t!”

Well, Rocky now has some important additions to my list of  movies that explain what this country is all about (and I honestly believe should be shown in schools).  Let’s welcome the Class of 2010:

1) The Distinguished Gentleman– Every year this movie becomes more and more relevant.  I honestly believe it is Eddie Murphy’s best movie and unquestionably his most meaningful (sorry Pluto Nash).  How is this movie not holding a more honored place (maybe because it is a re-make)?  Congress has now become an even bigger joke than it was in this film that is around 15 years old.  Money has become too powerful and we need term limits (for example – politicians that often have made major legacies by helping lots of people, Roosevelt, Kennedy – and even Spitzer, at least as Attorney General of NY,  were independently wealthy).  Money corrupts the process and the only way to curtail that is to eliminate some of the incentive for powerful interests to set up office in Congress.  The quote from TDG that best represents our government:

Jeff Johnson: “With all this money coming from both sides, how does anything ever get done?”

Lobbyist: “It doesn’t.  That’s the beauty of the system.”

2) Wall-E– Though I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda more in 2008, the story of a panda doing kung fu does not have quite the impact of Wall E.  Watching Wall-E and then seeing the greatest innovations in America being, in a nutshell, “Look at the new and awesome ways we have developed for you to get all you want without getting off of your ass” is only a few steps away from living on floating chairs.

3) Inside Job– In comedy it is very popular to bash traditional religion, but no one (sans George Carlin who did it exceedingly well) ever truly attacks the most harmful and invidious faith based ideology in America – capitalism.  This documentary, and my favorite movie of the year so far (that’s right Inception – you are #2) basically shows that the American dream has simply become the “you cannot understand God’s will” of the priesthood that is corporate America.  Unchecked capitalism for the last 30 years (ushered in by Reagan, but guided by two Bushes and a Clinton) has helped bring America down from its pedestal.  But don’t tell Americans that.  The American dream no longer exists.  it is now more like the American lottery or the American delusion.  Corporate America has bought our government and the trajectory of our economy is an ever-widening equality gap. It is a scary and depressing film if you really see what it’s about: that greed runs this country and that too many people are too stupid or too scared to see it.

So there you have it: Rocky, The Distinguished Gentleman, Wall-E and Inside Job.  A round of applause for the Classof 2010.  Now you can skip History class.

Greg Giraldo: An Appreciation

Yesterday my favorite comedian, Greg Giraldo, died from a drug overdose.   The first time I saw Giraldo perform was at the Columbus Funny Bone.  I was in law school at the time and was visiting my then-girlfriend in Ohio.  It was only my second time to a comedy club and he delivered the goods.  The guy clearly had a great mind, but also the talent to convey his strong opinions on subjects without alienating audience members (though at this point he was big enough in comedy to bring some of his own audience).  I would start doing comedy shortly thereafter and Giraldo has been the standard I have measured myself against ever since.


He was an attorney before pursuing comedy, but it was not just personal parallels that I felt connected to.  It was the sharp way he took down people and institutions without once seeming like one of the lefty zealot Carlin-wannabe hacks that dominate the political discourse in comedy these days.  To borrow from politics, he thought like a liberal, but seemed to deliver from the center.

What bothers me most about the loss of Giraldo is that I wonder if the comedy climate will allow or develop another comic in the same mold as Giraldo.  More than ever I feel like comedy is about niche markets.  The more people I see getting breaks these days, the more I feel like producers are simply trying to re-create The Hangover – if you look half crazy (Alans), nerdy (Stus) or are very telegenic (Phils) you are even money.  And if you are a social critic, “truth” is acceptable as long as it is is delivered by some far left, “daring and brave” comic who preaches consistently to his own choir, but beyond that – good luck.

But Giraldo was the comic who achieved success while not fitting any mold or focus group.  He could mock the Church in one joke and then mock gay marriage in the next and never feel preachy about either.  He was just a comedian who could look on the handsome side of normal (when not disheveled), speak intelligently without being consistently left or right, and could just write the best fu*king jokes.  He was just so good as a comedian that he did not need a niche.  I hate when I read about him being pigeon-holed as an “insult comic.”  He was so much more than that.  But even Giraldo, a comedian who while alive did not need a niche to make it big, is now being shelved into a niche so he can be neatly categorized in death.

But I wonder if the direction of modern culture will restrict or constrain the next Giraldo (or the next great comedian to be inspired by Giraldo’s voice) from reaching his or her potential.  Much like I never think another Michael Jordan can be fostered because nowadays anyone with Jordan’s talent would be exalted as a superhero from the age of 14 (see LeBron James) and would thereby lack the insecurity, drive, and chip-on-shoulder syndrome that drove Jordan.  Similarly, Giraldo came up in a pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook age in comedy, where a comedian’s mind was his chat room, complete with insecurities and fears, which, for anyone who read the Psychology Today article featuring Giraldo, knows helped drive him, even if he never felt as focused as he should have been.

Now, more than ever, comedy, especially for up and comers, is a big circle jerk of artificial support and well wishing and just generally a cyber world of sycophants.  Anyone who has been to an open mic in NYC knows that there is such a cliquish and tribal nature that is utterly nauseating.    Giraldo was so deep in his own head, at least from what I read about him, that he fell into addiction.  But sometimes I feel like great comedy can only be borne from minds that go into places that most people don’t like venture into.  Instead the comedy world I live in is full of young comics with lots of friends, lots of “likes”, and lots of meaningless drivel.

My favorite compliments I have ever received as a comedian were the few times when people have told me that my comedy reminded them of Greg Giraldo.  It meant that I was funny and what I was saying actually had meaning.  One time a club manager asked me who my favorite comedians were and the first answer I had was Giraldo.  He dismissed my choice and replied that Giraldo was not making nearly the money that some other comedians were making.  And I replied that that spoke poorly of clubs and the business, not of Giraldo.

I abhor people’s inability to have feelings anymore without posting a Tweet or status update.  I felt no need to express what I felt about Giraldo yesterday because anyone who is worth anything intellectually or comedically would mourn the loss of Giraldo and his immense talent and originality.  But since I am a comedian and I had not written anything in a while I figured readers or fans of this blog would not know me as a comedian without knowing how I felt about Giraldo.

I remember when I lived on the Upper West Side a few years ago I was working out at Equinox on 92nd st and Broadway and I saw Greg Giraldo on an elliptical machine.  I had never actually met him and I was very excited.   I smiled at him and pointed as if to say “Hey – I’m a big fan.” He removed his headphones and sort of nodded a thanks and that was the only exchange.  I guess if I had known all his internal struggles I would have told him he was worth more than a drug addiction and that he meant a lot to me and to a lot of people.   He may have just written a joke about some weird, preachy douchebag at the gym.   But maybe he just didn’t hear that enough.

Comedy: A Love Story

I’m Mad As hell… And Will Probably Take It Some More

In what is becoming a tiresome ritual for even my mother to read about, last week I suffered another mild indignity at a comedy club.  But this new one both angered me and perplexed me in equal measure and forced me to take a step back and look more globally at comedy.  I wish I could say I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, but I love comedy (the performance and writing aspects) and know that I will endure the accompanying bullsh*t long after it is sensible to (are we there yet?).

It was the line outside for New York Funniest Comedian, a fraudulent open call to all comics in New York.  Now most comics of any established reputation in NYC that wanted to compete called the club ahead of time and got a specific call time.  This is allowed for a couple of reasons: comics that the club likes or respects (or are affiliated or managed with people the club respects) should not have to waste their time and/or suffer the indignity of waiting on line for hours to do two minutes of material.  The other reason is that the club already knows who they want to put forward into the competition at least 99% of the time.

I chose not to call ahead because some self-righteous aspect of my personality wanted to be rejected from the line.  I know that subconsciously I enjoy enduring the hypocrisy and lies of this business in some sort of self-righteous self-indulgence, even if it just for me and a few loyal readers (if Hunter S Thompson was a gonzo journalist, so maybe I have a future career as a depresso-journalist).  So I waited on line for four and a half hours outside of Caroline’s on Broadway as I watched comic after comic that could be considered in my peer group in the business walk in for their “audition,” which, I learned later,  just amounted to saying hello to the booker and being put on the list of those that are actually being considered for a spot in the semi-finals (taking place tonight and tomorrow night).

Well after waiting all that time I was spotted at the front of the line by a Caroline’s employee and was told, “Oh, J-L, you can go down (to audition right away).” I felt a little guilty, but that guilt was assuaged by the rationalization that I had waited the exact same amount of time as the rest of the comedy proletariat.  When I got downstairs I went inside and was not required to do any stand up whatsoever.  I was just told that I would be on one of the semi-finals shows on Tuesday or Wednesday.  I left sort of relieved, but sort of disgusted.  I had friends (or at least friendly acquaintances) waiting on line upstairs, with literally no chance at making it, no matter how good their audition.  But we will get back to the story a bit later.

Believe (Almost) No One

“______ is looking for new talent to bring into the club for paid work.  ________ will be watching these shows so definitely sign up.”

This was an excerpt from an e-mail I received about 6 months ago.  I did one of these shows, a bringer (aka the crack cocaine of the comedy world where you are required to bring friends, family, co-workers) as a warm up for a television audition.  I was well beyond the delusion that had plaguedme for years that anything career changing would happen from this bringer, but I wanted to do a show that would help me prepare for the audition.  Well after the show, unsolicited, I received a glowing review from “______”.

So in a moment of temporary insanity I emailed that club’s booker and was told, “We like you, but right now we have too many comics for the spots open.” I accepted that as truthful words from people who had been nice to me for many years.  However, kind words can best be summarized by Al Capone from the film The Untouchables: “You can get a lot further with a kind word and a gun, than you can with just a kind word.” In other words young comics, the only nice words you should fully trust from a manager or booker are “here’s you money.”   This is not saying they are all liars or lie all the time, but to preserve your feelings in a business rife with disappointment, protect yourself first.

I looked on this club’s site a month after the “too many comics” e-mail and saw names on weekend shows (i.e. actually paid work, not the indentured servitude of unpaid “guest spots”) that I have never seen on those shows before.  I then checked the management/representation of those names and saw that it was the same two agencies representing a large majority of the comics booked at that club.  So while the nice answer may have eased my mind for a few weeks, the true answer, “we’re not booking you until you hook up with the right agency” or “we just don’t think you are good enough now” might have left me with a clearer plan and some dignity.  However, it also may have meant that the $10,000+ that my friends and family have given to that club over the years would have dried up.

But that is the basis of the bringer system, which feeds money to clubs and producers on a weekly basis in NYC.  You tell young comics how good they are when they suck because you know their friends are enthusiastic and will pay money to see their friend embark on a new and fun hobby.  So to get money you encourage lots of performances of shi**y comedy because you do not care about exploiting the overgrown dreams of a new comic.  I received just as many compliments from clubs when I was starting out as I do now.  I know I am good now, but I have watched early tapes and I make myself cringe.  But I could fill 3 bringers a month when I started doing comedy.  So I got filled with lots of false compliments from clubs.   Those compliments may have given me encouragement to continue and for that aspect I guess I should be thankful, but when my friend supply dried up no one came calling that “really good comic” named J-L anymore.

But don’t think that this is a club only issue.  I have been told absolutely disgusting stories about bringers run out of lesser venues where comics who are lonely or friendless or just clueless are paying relatively exorbitant money just to get on shows based on promises that, even if true, do not warrant their expenses.  Much like the U.S. Congress, once the money begins flowing in the bringer system, it creates a corrupt and result-less process.

What’s The Matter With Comics?

I read the book “What’s The Matter With Kansas” several years back and it explored why so many working class Republicans worked in favor of a party that did not have their interests at heart (or at least in practice).  I think it is the same in comedy.  Every comedian believes that they can make it.  Last Comic Standing’s last two seasons had open casting calls in NYC.  Of the many, many hundreds that lined up up outside those two years, one made it to the next round, where he was eliminated and did not even get a clip of his comedy on television.  And I believe most people in line thought everyone else was wasting their time by showing up, except for themselves.   But all you are when you show up for an open casting call is an extra in the movie “The American Entertainment Dream.”  The stars are already cast and you are just there to make the stars look more heroic for standing out of the crowd.

Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

Much like capitalism, the big villain in Michael Moore’s new film, comedy capitalism forces comics into being relatively selfish and dog eat dog.  Three years ago I had a pre-arranged audition for Last Comic Standing, meaning I was one of the many comics who bypassed the cattle call with a legit shot at getting on the show.  I did not get it, but I did not feel ashamed at the time for trying to “get mine.” And many comics would not begrudge me for doing so, but then I must begrudge myself, if one can do such a thing.  I do feel guilty about that.  At some point, like in America, I think that the “haves” of comedy must stand up for the “have nots.”  If I named the best comics in NYC in my opinion, I am sure there would be at least an 85-90% correlation with who the clubs and industry think are the best.  But to sustain the venues of those talented comedians, the comedy clubs, owners, bookers and industry place an unfair and unwarranted burden on the nobodies of comedy.  They have them line up outside of comedy clubs, not for a chance to achieve success themselves, but to artificially exalt those who are already having success.  They entice you with misleading promises and compliments so you will bring friends on a Tuesday, just so they can pay the electric bill and the rent for the “real comics” on a Saturday.  This is not about giving spots or work to lesser or newer comics; it is simply about respecting all comics as people.

People look at Goldman Sachs as emblematic of what is wrong with capitalism and how the rich get richer.  This is no less true of the comedy business.  Dreams are exploited (The American Dream of a house, car and good education versus your name in lights and artistic sacrifice paying off).  But comedy, like capitalism, has no end game except for the Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfelds of their respective arenas.   And because of that, no one speaks up because everyone is too buried in their own quest for success in the rat race to stand up and say, “Hey club or TV show – it is not okay to exploit my fellow comedians.  Even if they suck at comedy, their hope and dream is not something that you should be able to exploit.  Whether their comedy is good, great or terrible, their dream and desire is real.” No one says that. I did not say that three years ago and am not happy with myself.  I told myself last week, that no matter the result of the NY Funniest Comedian competition I would write this, because unlike a lot of my contemporaries I did stand on that line and the whole experience did not feel right.

New York’s Funniest Reject?

On Sunday I learned that I did not make the cut for the 30 semi finalists, which perplexed me and angered me.  I was fully prepared to go along with the charade and do two minutes of material, but was told not to.  Much like my status in the comedy world right now I was too qualified to audition, but not good enough to get the part.  So I had neither the satisfaction of performing, nor the gratification of advancing.  I have e-mailed politely requesting an explanation, but have not received it yet.

The names were a who’s who of up and coming comics in NYC.  Perhaps some of them were on line, but I do know that most walked right by.  I do not blame the comics for this because this is the system that dangles success carrots in front of them so that they have blinders to the exploitation of their less experienced or talented brethren. Or maybe some of them laugh and don’t care because some of those comics on line do in fact suck at comedy (possibly because they are new, possibly because they are not funny).  Who knows, but I think if asked to think about it manyestablished comics would acknowledge that it is not right, but would also shrug their shoulders and say, “what the fu-k can I do about it?”

Because the plain truth is that from bringers to cattle call lines, the clubs know deep down that barring a comedy miracle, nothing is going to happen for these people that they entice to their clubs.   So I think if I ruled the comedy world this is the short wish list I’d have for comedians:

1) Boycott bringers in 2010 (unless you are doing it with a clear head to get a good tape AND THAT’S ALL)

2) Clubs would have no more open calls.  I would have no problem with the NY Funniest Comedian competition if it was submission or invitation only – this would be honest and that is all that I think comics are entitled to.  Honesty does not guarantee any success, but it does guarantee that the comedians get to keep more of their integrity.  There is one NYC club I would like to work at eventually if I ever attain the success I hope for, simply because they’ve never lied to me.  That is it.  I was never given excessive compliments, never given excuses or half-truths and that is really all any comic should want or feel entitled to.

3) Comedy shows would book based on stand-up and not as if they were casting a cooky CBS sitcom. Otherwise I am just going to grow out a huge fro, wear glasses and not stop eating cupcakes until a heart attack or a development deal is mine. (This one is a little more selfish on my part).

I understand that comedy is a business, but I think comics need to stand up for the integrity of the business for their fellow comics.  In the 1970s comics went on strike to get paid.  That is a much more concrete demand than what I am writing about (PETC – People for The Ethical Treatment of Comics?), but integrity is still important.  I know this won’t change anything substantively (I am under no delusion that 30 comics will pull a Rudy tonight and hand in their microphones so that someone like Mick DiFlo, one of the most respected, but anonymous comics in NYC, can perform), but perhaps it will make some comics take a moment and think about what’s going on in comedy.

I know some may dismiss this as the sour grapes of an increasingly bitter comic, but I really would like to see the culture change and not just for me.  The only way I can see this helping is maybe if you know a new comic with some potential, or at least some enthusiasm you can tell them to approach the business more practically and avoid some of the things that will hurt them so that they can look at the business honestly, even if it won’t be honest with them.

I remember two very well established comedians saying to me about 4 years ago: don’t do bringers.  Just write and perform over and over again.  Like anyone young, either in life or career, I did not listen until I was knee deep in regrets.  Maybe more young comics will be wiser than me.  Maybe not.

If this is my Jerry Maguire Mission Statement then I can expect my career to go further South, but I having already had a legal career and a girlfriend with a son during my comedy career (check my 2 CDs for details), so I am in uncharted territory for Jerry Maguire. Wish me luck.