Comedy Stories — Utah Comedy and Comedians

When I opened Johnny B’s Comedy Club people told me I was crazy. They said a clean, non-alcoholic club would never work, let alone in Utah. That’s where they were wrong — Utah is probably one of the only places it could work. We weren’t the first comedy club in Utah and we weren’t the last, but we did give a lot of people a lot of laughs.

The first Utah comedy club I remember was Cartoons which was originally located in the Sugarhouse neighborhood  in a building that has been torn down. I started my club career there at an open-mic competition. How many times have you heard that story from a comedian? Lots. Did well in the competition and kept going. An interesting side note, Utah radio personality Todd Collard of the Todd and Erin Show came to Utah to manage Cartoons.

Eventually I opened Johnny B’s and things took off. One of the things I am proudest of is the opportunity we gave Utah comedy to grow. Many comedians performed on our stage honing their acts, and some are working comedians today. Other people just got the opportunity to perform, to get up on stage and try it. I still have people come up to me to this day and tell me about their experience performing at Johnny B’s. Some of them just tried it once or twice.

One of the comedians who performed on our stage was Keith Stubbs, who went on to open Wiseguys, a Utah comedy club institution. Like Todd, Keith has also gone on to become a Utah radio personality as well. I have performed at Wiseguys many times, Keith is a good guy. Wiseguys is where today’s hopeful Utah comedians can get stage time. You can see it all on Wednesday night open-mic nights. Additionally, Wiseguys brings in known comedians from across the country.

Utah is no different than other places, people need to laugh. Laughter is the pressure-relief valve for life. It wasn’t crazy to have comedy in Utah when I was running a club and it isn’t crazy today. Utah is unique, that’s for sure, but so is every place you go, you just have to take it as it comes and try to understand it.

I enjoy performing comedy. These days I enjoy performing for private events, conventions and parties. I have been at it for over 20 years and I have seen and done a lot, but every time I grab the mic it is a new experience. People hire me to entertain, to make them forget, to just have a laugh and I am happy to do it. It makes me feel good to put a smile on someone’s face. In a world that is increasingly acrimonious, that is something.

Comedy Stories — Meet The Voices in Your Head

I thought I had made it when I started working in Las Vegas. I went out and took a picture of my name in lights. Vegas baby! After three or so years of the grind, of really working Vegas, I was done, burned out. The realities of living in a casino, eating at a buffet, and 3 shows a night with audiences that really weren’t into comedy but were into seeing a comedian in Vegas had taken their toll.

Las Vegas is a different place  to live in than visit. There are many things I love about Las Vegas, I still go there and have been there recently.  The people who work in the casinos have lives outside the casino, and I think it’s those people that hold the meaning for me. You share a bond with people working day-in and day-out in the service and entertainment industry.

So anyway…

There where always 50 or so comedians working every night in Las Vegas while I was there. After three shows we would be all wound up, and rather than go back to the room and watch television and fruitlessly try to fall asleep, invariably a few comedians would get together and go out to hit the late night lounge shows. One of the steady performers was Cook E. Jarr and the Crumbs. Cook E. played from 10:30 PM to 3:30 AM Wednesday through Sunday.

Cook E. and the Crumbs were a trio; keyboard player laid down the beat with a drum machine and provided the background with an occasional solo, while a guitar player did rhythm and solo work. Out front was Cook E. Cook E., an experienced Italian singer from the East Coast, with the heart and voice of Dean Martin/Rod Stewart, and the outfit of the ultimate lounge singer; spandex singlet body suit, hip boots, no shirt, open jacket, heavy tan, long black wig, sunglasses, multiple necklaces and around 20 gigantic gold rings. He sang party songs for people to dance to, and they, and I, did and had a great time. He sprinkled in some of the classic Frank/Sammy/Dean music he loved.  Cook E. always talked in between his songs, sometimes telling stories, sometimes working the room, sometimes selling Cook E. chips, recordings and pictures. I have nothing but respect for Cook E. and he and I have become friends over the years.  He has never been anything but kind and gracious to me. I respect his ability to work, and that fact that he did what he did so many times.

One time sticks in my mind particularly. Cook E. was at one of the worst/best places I ever saw him, the since demolished Continental. The Continental was a rat hole by this point in time, I don’t know what it was before, it might have been great. Located off the strip on Maryland Parkway, the tan stucco exterior was lit with lots of tiny white lights that blinked on and off inside of red neon letters. As you walked in the front door you where met with slots. Behind the slots was the bar, which was long and stretched the length of the slots. The stage was directly to the right side of the bar and at the same height, set back enough to allow a seating area in front. The bar curved around and merged into the stage. To the right of the stage was a small dance floor bordered by a carpeted wall. On the other side of that was was the hallway to the restrooms. Behind the lounge area were more slot machines.

Late at night Cook E. attracted and eclectic crowd. There were plenty of comedians, musicians, waitresses, dealers (of both kinds), hookers and tourists. Occasionally I big name would stumble in, everyone knew Cook E.He would always point performers out in the crowd, listing their many accomplishments before finally saying their name and welcoming them. He was good.

This night was no different. In the waning hours of a long night, the crowd thinning and Cook E. pushing himself to perform for an underwhelming audience, he started talking to someone in the audience in between songs.  A guy sitting at the bar, obviously drunk, stood up and yelled, “Cook E.! What happened to you?! You used to be somebody!”

“What happened to you? You used to BE somebody!” he yelled again.

Then they started arguing, Cook E. from the stage and the guy from the bar. Cook E. had a mic and the guy had a voice. They argued about what Cook E. was doing at a place like this. What was Cook E. doing with his talent? This?! They guy was actually on Cook E.’s side as he destroyed him. He saw Cook E. as magnificent and this was not magnificent.

But it was. Cook E. was doing honest performing work. I saw the blame be the audience’s. What were we doing letting Cook E. perform in a place like this? He deserved better, not we deserved better. We were getting everything he had.  It’s not his fault the crowd sucked. Trust me, it’s a lot harder to play for a few tough people in a tough environment than a large packed, adoring theater. Trust me. The honesty in performing comes when you are not appreciated. Rock that mic. Cook E. was good.

But here was a guy yelling out loud what the voices in many performers head say: What are you doing? Are you any good? You are better than this, or maybe this is exactly what you deserve. Someone was screaming these thoughts out loud to his face. Cook E. brushed it off and kept going, he was a professional. It was like batter taking a fastball to the head. But he got up and kept playing. I respect that.

I will never forget that moment.

I have had my own Meet the Voices in Your Head moment. That story for another time.

 

 

Happy Friday!

Happy Friday! Something about spring weekends that I love. I haven’t posted here in a while, amazing how time slips through my hands.

So much in communications is changing, but the core remains making a connection. What creates a connection? For one thing, being able to see ourselves in the other. Shared values. Respect. Simple things. It can be so hard to stay focused as opposed to getting mired down in the small transactions of life and distracted by things that don’t get me closer to my big goals.

So here’s to doing better at remembering what matters and keeping it foremost in my thoughts.

Thanks to everybody at AAPC for a great conference in Orlando! Great to see everyone again.

Comedy Stories – Job Hazards

I remember smoke, lots of smoke. Smoking, I guess I should say, lots of smoking.

Looking out into the audience from the stage, the stage lights blinding me like high-beams from an on-coming truck on a lonely two lane highway, I remember billows of smoke; they would pillow up, fade, and wisp toward the ceiling. The front row, seated lower than than me, would have a straight shot at blowing their carcinogenic commentary right at me. If they liked me, they aimed away.

After a night performing, I came home smelling not just like smoke, but the burnt, acrid, black stench of a heavy smoker. Heavy smoke. Growing up on a Navy base in the 60’s and 70’s I knew smoke. My Mormon family spared me at home, but the minute I walked out the door, I was in a smoking world. There were people who I knew who lit the new cigarette with the short ember of the old cigarette while driving in a car with the windows rolled up. I smelled like that.

Some clubs flirted with non-smoking night during the week which comics generally disdained as being the stiffest crowds and hardest show of the week. When Vegas went smoke-free, the argument was over and smoking was out. Did every crowd become stiffer and we just got used to it? Could be. Comedy is about saying the wrong thing, but today if you say the wrong wrong thing people get very angry, even Christians. Maybe they need a cigarette.

After years of performing in smoke-free rooms, when somehow I did find myself performing in a smoking environment I noticed it immediately. It cut my wind, made my clothes smell again. I didn’t miss it.

The faint smell of a cigarette does make me a little homesick from time to time, remembering childhood days on the Base while I watched real men work on manly things. I am glad to be free of the villainous monster-sized cigarette smoke of the yesteryears of comedy. Couldn’t imagine it without then, can’t imagine it with it now. Life’s funny.

Getting Started in Comedy Clubs

I started getting into comedy in the early 80’s and it was wide-open, alive and on fire. Comedy got white-hot in the late 80’s and stand-up shows where suddenly everywhere on television. The first open-mic contest I entered was on a Tuesday night and you couldn’t get a seat, open-mic night sold out! Fledgling comics where getting paid. Many great comedy careers where shifting into the profitable gear; Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno and others where starting to take their place on the national stage.

Comedy clubs were popping up all over. People you had never heard of were headlining and not only that, they were being paid enough to make it their career. My first foray into clubs outside of Salt Lake City were the venerable Comedy Works in Colorado. At the time they had clubs in Ft. Collins and Denver. I remember local headliners then getting paid more than local headliners today, nearly 30 years later.

I still remember a few of the acts that caught my attention like Denver-based Michael Floorwax and Steve “Mudflap”McGrew. Todd Collard moved to Utah from Colorado to manage a comedy club and took up a radio career. There was so much going on in comedy and there were so many opportunities for people like me who were just starting out to be mentored and have a place to perform and grow. The headliners of that time were exploring all kinds of ideas. Guys like Sam Kinison burned my ears off. It was the freedom of speech, good and bad, the way that comedy was meant to be.

In 1990 I opened Johnny B’s Comedy Club in Provo, Utah and it took off like a rocket. We brought in acts mainly from the LA, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Nevada. We didn’t use local headliners for many years, but we always used local openers, so many Utah comedians got the chance to take the stage with nationally touring acts. The great time for comedians is between shows and after, when the comedians hang out and talk to each other.

I learned so much from the other comedians I worked with. They taught me the theories and practices of being a comedian, not from a manual but from the telling of their stories and experiences. There were some acts that were horrible people and treated me terribly as an opener, I remember them as well as the comedians who treated me wonderfully.

Comedy is a lonely profession. Comedians are very independent. Hard to make friends at work like a regular profession because it was all so competitive and ego driven. That’s one of the things that disappointed me about it all, the lack of connection. There was no team in comedy.

I worry about comedy today. I see clubs headlining fading television stars and acts that put butts in seat regardless of the craft. People will pay more to see someone they’ve seen on TV than to see a good comedian, and frankly many audiences can’t tell the difference. I’m not blameless, we booked Ron Gallagher, the brother of the actual Gallagher doing his brother’s act, at our club a couple of times a year and made good money. But we didn’t do it every week like I see clubs doing now.

Where is the “farm league” of comedy today if not in the comedy clubs? YouTube? And worse yet, comedians are being sued for their performances now, for the words they use. Dangerous times. We need places where people are free to say whatever stupid thing they want to say, to practice on stage, and audiences smart enough not to believe everything they hear or so sensitive that they can’t blow off what they don’t connect with. We need comedy because comedy is our pressure relief valve, and we need it at all levels.

 

Comedy Stories — Popcorn, Candy and Sodas

When I started comedy I was in college and I had several jobs. One job was rather unique. I worked at a movie theater complex that had four screens (which at the time was considered a complex). Before the movies I would go in with a box full of popcorn, candy and sodas and sell them by talking to the crowd. More like yelling over the crowd. Kind of like a hot dog vendor at the ball game.

My friend Eric Kepo’o had started the idea and I came in as his helper. Eric really had a way with people and he would go in and talk and do his comedy and sell stuff. Then he invited me and we both did it. It was a great training in “street” comedy. Just going with the flow.

One interesting aspect of the job was going from theater to theater, audience to audience, one right after the other. One screen had a Disney movie, the next had a slasher movie. It was very interesting to see what kind of crowd came to what kind of movie. You had to be able to switch comedy gears immediately.

It was effective. I saw the sales numbers without us and with us, and they made more even after paying us. It was so scary. It is amazing the tough things young performers have to do.

Comedy Stories — The Dungeon

There was this one time… In over 20 years of comedy there are so many stories. I tell them to my wife and she says I should write them down. My dear father tells me to write them down. So here we go. Hmmm, where to start? How about the beginning?

To answer your question before you ask it, yes, I have always been funny. There were plenty of hi-jinks in high school and college, but this is a story about my life in comedy on a stage.

Some of my first performances were in dives. I remember one particular place that was in the basement of a sandwich shop near the University. The ceiling was so low that while standing on the 4 inch high stage I could put my hand flat against the ceiling. The walls were covered in dark brown, wood shake shingles. Attached to the walls were old, used horse accessories like a bridle, reins, and assorted rusted chains. It had a strange, S&M ish ambience. The stage was maybe 4′ by 4′ and tucked in a corner. The room sat about 75 people if you weren’t worried about fire escapes, and they weren’t. A thick smell of deep fat fryer oil wafted down from the sandwich shop upstairs. The name of the restaurant was the Rolling Scone.

Shows were on the weekend. They tried me out a few times before moving me up to a paid slot. There were two comics and an MC. The comics each did a 30 minute set and we were paid $10. Sometimes. My early set was made up of “funny” songs that I had written. That’s how my goofiness manifest itself before it was “trained”. I had a few jokes in between. Basically I was snarky, I was in my early 20’s. I played the guitar, I played a tiny Casio keyboard. I wore a vest.

The place was often packed. Of course, when you are in your 20’s you have lots of friends and if you invited a few, the place could fill easily. I remember good times. I thought I was funny, my friends thought I was funny and nothing really mattered. The comedy was pure, raw and ragged. There was no career to feed, no image to uphold.

I made some friends there that I still have today. Some of the people who came through that tiny venue have gone on to distinguished careers in showbiz. Surprisingly accomplished careers. You never would have known it watching us then, but that was back when we were young and  all we knew was that we wanted to, we didn’t have a plan or know where we were headed, and we didn’t care where we performed.

One time they brought in a real comedian to perform special shows for a couple of weeks. I remember performing there with him and thinking “What would an actual talented professional comedian be doing playing in a place like this?” But there he was, getting his free cokes and scone sandwiches in between shows. He talked to me, gave me advice about comedy. I remember he told me I should do song parodies instead of the originals I was working. I thought he was nuts. After his shows, I remember thinking that while he was funny, whatever he was doing in comedy it wasn’t heading anywhere. I dismissed him.

A few weeks later I saw him on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This was back in the day when Johnny could make a career. After that appearance his career took off and he never looked back. His name is Louie Anderson.

So much for my ability to judge talent.