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.

 

 

 

Utah Comedy

Johnny B, Johnny Biscuit, comedian for hire in Utah. I am clean, quick-witted and work the audience or company into the material. When I started Johnny B’s Comedy Club, I didn’t have a grand design to change the face of stand-up comedy in Utah, but that’s what happened. When I see some of the comics who either started at Johnny B’s, or passed through on their journey to their destiny, it makes me smile knowing I helped put laughs back into the community.

Today there are many comedians in Utah, and I am one of the originals who is still working. I have experience, I have many hours logged in the comedy cockpit. I’ve seen a lot of things. Utah comedy, comedy in Utah, is it’s own special animal, that’s for sure. Utah corporate comedy is another speciality. Find a comedian you like and enjoy them. Support comedy and support comedians!