Dan Nainan is shrewd. Bowling, he says, is a curious American sport. A black ball gets to knock down ten whities, with red necks.
His comment is ironic: I wonder why George Carlin didn’t think of this first. The comment is satirical, in the Bill Hicks sense: it makes you think, twice, but Nainan works free of scatology. He also avoids sarcasm, the taunts, sneers or sharp cuts, which punctuate the comedy of Mike MacDonald and Louis CK.
Nainan came to comedy by way of Intel, the computer chip maker. “I worked with Dr Andy Grove, when he was CEO of Intel. He’d give a speech. I’d explain a new technology.
“Speaking to a live audience scared me.” To get past his fear, Nainan joined Toastmasters, a club that helps women and men overcome a fear of public speaking. Then he took a comedy class, given by Judy Carter. She wrote ‘The Comedy Bible.’
“My first jokes were about Andy Grove,” says Nainan. “I did impressions of him, too. His wife, Eva, cried with laughter when I performed my material about her husband at a private party.”
A year or so later Intel gave Nainan new job that meant moving to New York City. “Corporate America sent me to comedy heaven,” says Nainan. When he started classes, with Steve Rosenfield, at the American Comedy Institute, his stand-up skills soared.
Jerry Seinfeld advised Nainan to work clean. “He was right. Seinfeld said, if you work clean, you can work anywhere.”
His advice “opened a world of opportunity to me,” says Nainan. “There’s no show I can’t work, clubs, corporate events or television. You can bring your children, without fear of awkwardness.”
Judy Carter advised Nainan to avoid comedy clubs. She said, “Clubs pay you $25 a set and maybe an open bottle of water. If you do corporate events, you make ten thousand dollars a show; fly first class and sleep in a first class hotel room.”
Ethnicity helps Nainan, too. “I’m half Indian and half Japanese,” he says proudly. “I get my sushi from 7-11.” He has a ready audience. He can and does work all over the world.
“Right now,” says Nainan, “my main focus is the Indian audience. I toured, for two years, with Russell Peters, a Canadian comedian of Indian heritage.” Few, in the mainstream know of Peters, but he’s an A-list comedian, who sold out the Barclay Center, in Brooklyn, NY, last November. “The audience was mostly Indian,” says Nainan.
Fittingly, Nainan shared the cover of the 10 March 2013 issue of “Parade,” with Brad Pitt and “Honey Boo Boo,” as part of the annual feature, “What People Earn.” The editors knew Nainan had learned to listen to the audience, the magic touch for entertainment success, and was on his way to the top of the A-list of comedians.
In this exclusive interview, Dan Nainan talks of comedy, today. How comedy is more business than show. How it calls for vision, hard work and focused determination.
Grub Street (GS) You worked at Intel, the computer chip maker, before you got into comedy.
Dan Nainan (DN) Yes, when I applied, they noticed I was of Indian and Japanese decent. I didn’t have to interview; the human resources person said I could start as a Vice-president. In other words, I had the job.
GS What did you do at Intel?
DN At first, I was a Senior Engineer, working out of Santa Clara. Later, I was a Strategic Relations Manager, at the New York City office of Intel.
My job, as a Senior Engineer, was to travel the world with Dr Andy Grove, the chairperson and co-founder of Intel. I visited every continent, with him, except Antarctica. Dr Grove would speak, for say an hour and then called a demonstration engineer, me, to the stage.
I’d show one or another new technology, on stage. What I liked most was talking to the computer. It would type back its response to what I said or asked.
We used Dragon Software for my link with the computer. I’d ask for something corporate, say, chip fails by region and say, “Execute.” Instantly, the computer would display, on the large screen, a map tracking fails by region.
The audience, of Intel managers or sales people, say, loved it. Often, though, some in the audience didn’t believe it was true. They might say we programmed the computer to answer pre-determined questions. In fact, I simply asked a random question, which the computer answered instantly and correctly.
Sean Maloney, the Intel Vice-president for Sales, at the time, didn’t care for the word, “execute.” I changed execute to, “Make it so,” from “Star Trek.” Then Maloney wondered if the audience knows “Star Trek.” My response was the overlap of anyone associated with Intel and “Star Trek” was one circle imposed exactly on top of one another.
GS You had an interesting job.
DN Yes, but speaking on stage terrified me. I would design interesting technical demonstrations in the laboratory. The lab work was easy for me; at least I like to think it was easier.
Sometimes there were thousands of people in the audience. Other times my demonstration was on television. Either way I worked to a large audience, which terrified me.
I decided I had to get over the fear of public speaking. The first step was a course from Toastmasters. It’s a worldwide club, which helps women and men learn to speak in public.
GS My father, a musician, used to take Toastmaster courses, too.
DN I joined Toastmasters on the Intel campus. The membership included twelve hundred computer geeks and me. Toastmasters help me lose my fear of speaking in front of large groups of people. I became far less terrified.
GS The effectiveness of Toastmasters is surprising.
DN At first, I didn’t think the courses would work. Look where I am, today. In large part, Toastmasters is to thank.
I thought humour would help during the presentations, too. I took a comedy class. Stand-up comedy might help me feel even more relaxed and improve my presentations.
GS That reminds me of Bill Hicks.
DN Yes, Bill Hicks said if you can do stand-up, you could do anything. It’s the hardest work you can do. He was right.
GS You’re taking the stand-up course.
DN The stand-up comedy classes I took were in San Francisco and lasted for several weeks. A Los Angeles-based comedian, Judy Carter, gave the class. She wrote a book on comedy, “The Comedy Bible: from stand-up to sitcom.” It was so much fun.
The first class was mutual introductions and basic improvisation, in groups. Second class, she began showing us how to tell jokes. Everyone laughed at my jokes.
I had all these jokes, written. I’d been writing for a while, as part of my work at Intel. I impressed Carter. “They were laughing at everything,” she said.
Next class, no one laughed at anything. It bummed me out. I thought about quitting.
GS Bombing has a dash of humiliation.
DN Yes, it was horrible. I thought I made a big mistake, taking this class. I don’t know what kept me going. Still, I knew I could not quit.
Thankfully, I didn’t quit because that class changed my life. The final exam for any comedy class is always a performance at a comedy club. You invite friends and relatives to come and laugh, hopefully, with you, not at you.
It was time for our performance, at the “Punch Line,” in San Francisco. I was nervous. It terrified me.
I decided I was going to learn my set, my jokes and stories, backwards and forwards. I practiced, repeatedly; at the gym, in the car, wherever I could practice. I did my act over the phone to my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.
On the day of the final-exam performance, I booked the conference room, at the Intel head office, in Santa Clara. I did my lines, repeatedly, until I knew I had it down pat. I practiced in the car, on the way to the show.
GS You booked the conference room at Intel to practice your act.
DN Sure, some employees could book conference rooms for meetings. I booked it to practice my act in a large room. In the beginning, comedians usually do six or seven minutes; I needed the room for a half hour.
When it came time for the show, I knew I knew my lines. I did well. The audience laughed, with me.
Someone recorded the show. I bought a copy of the recording. Eventually, that recording opened doors and launched me on my way.
GS Was that your first public stand-up?
DN Yes, I had a couple friends who said, “I’m not just saying this because I’m your friend, but you did great.” This is common among comedians, when you do well you’re friends confirm it for you. When you don’t do well, your friends say, “It takes guts to get up there and do that.”
GS Practice makes for a perfect laugh.
DN Audiences think comedians naturally ad lib jokes or funny stories. This is wrong. Whatever a comedian does on stage, she or he scripts.
Comedy is similar to a movie or television script. My current teacher Steve Rosenfield says, “When you’re doing standup, correctly, you’re giving people the impression you’re making this up off the top of your head.” He’s right.
GS Woody Allen calls this, “an illusion of naturalness.”
DN The image of spontaneity is an image, maybe a big lie. Everyone thinks that’s what we do. It’s not the case.
GS How long did it take to go from deciding to conquer your fear of public speaking until your first sand-up performance?
DN Not long, but I was fearful. Jerry Seinfeld said stand-up terrified him for years. I thought I was up to the task. I mulled it over for two or three weeks, at most.
People tell me I’m funny. I can kill two birds with one stone. It’s on my bucket list: I must try standup comedy. Maybe, it will get me over the fear of speaking at huge events with Andy. “By Grove, it worked.”
GS At the time, was there any idea or hope of doing stand-up for a living?
DN No, I could not have dreamed it. I aspired to make a living as a musician. Here’s the point: when you start in this business, entertainment, there’s no one to help you. There’s no guide. If I wanted to become an accountant, physician or lawyer, say, there’s a clear-cut path: go to school, take accreditation exams and find a job. On-the-job, you find help to take you forward.
In show business, especially comedy, there’s no set outline of what to do. In the beginning, you have no idea what you’re doing; you need direction, but you don’t find any help. Most settled entertainers, it seems, don’t want to help aspiring up-and-comers.
My career started in hit-and-miss fashion. I did the first performance at the sold-out “Punch Line.” I managed to get a huge reaction.
I taped that show, as I said. In Las Vegas, for Intel, some of my co-workers found the recording, in my luggage, and listened to it. They said, “Hey, can you perform at the team dinner tonight?” There were about 250 Intel employees at the convention. I agreed.
That night, for my second stand-up show, ever, I did a bunch of Intel jokes and impressions of Dr Grove. Everyone loved it. I had two successful shows in a row.
Afterward, someone approached me. “Can you do this at the annual Intel sales conference,” he asked “Sure.” I said. “How many people do you expect?” He said, “2500.”
This is my third show. It was a Monday morning at 8:00 am, in a huge ballroom. The audience is 2500 sales people from all over the world, India, Sweden and Argentina. Nobody is drinking.
GS Or smiling much, I bet; it seems a tough audience.
DN I pretend I’m setting up a demonstration and there’s a glitch. I say, “We’re having a problem with one of our demos. While we’re waiting, I’ll tell you some jokes.”
That’s exactly what I said, “As we wait, I tell a few jokes.” My left side was literally shaking behind the podium. Remember, it’s my third show, ever.
GS I suppose the audience figures better you talk than a room full of silence, seasoned with tinkling glass.
DN I start and before I know it, this cross-cultural audience is dying laughing, at 8 am. Before the show, I asked permission from Dr Grove to do jokes and impressions mostly about him. He agreed, saying I should have fun.
I was ripping on Grove. The audience wanted my impressions of him. People were pounding on the table, roaring with laughter.
Dr Grove is outspoken and abrupt. His style is “disagree and commit.” In a meeting, Grove will ask someone, directly, “How do you add value to this conversation?” Eventually, a consensus emerges and Dr Grove expects everyone to commit to that consensus.
GS His management style can be rough.
DN Yes, it can. Laughing about Grove, knowing he knew, released so much tension. It opened a side of Andy Grove most Intel employees had not seen.
Grove, I guess, loved what I did. I repeated my act, in front of him, at the Intel holiday party. His wife was crying, she was laughing so hard.
Afterwards, at the Intel convention, people were saying, “We know you’re not an Intel demo engineer. We know someone hired you to pretend you’re an Intel employee. You’re a full-time comedian.”
Such comments blew my mind. This is about the time I had an inkling I could do stand-up for a living. Three shows hooked me.
GS Life comes in threes. What was next?
DN Truthfully, I didn’t know what to do. I did more Intel shows, using new jokes about Dr Grove and more impressions of him. Then, I felt confident enough to try a set at a local comedy club.
I edited the tape from my first show and played it for the booker at Rooster T Feathers, in Sunnyvale, California. He said, “Come do a set.” I did. The audience was small. I bombed.
It was freezing cold, inside the room and outside. I hadn’t ever bombed; maybe during my second comedy class, but that was different. It happens to every comedian. Still, I was panic-stricken.
GS You have five or ten shows. You think you’re the greatest. Everyone says you wonderful.
DN Yes, then, I hit a snag, a sub-optimal scenario. On stage, during my first show outside Intel, I sped up, as my nervousness grew. I spoke faster and faster.
It wasn’t long before no one could follow me. No one could understand what I was saying. They laughed less and less, then not.
I didn’t know what to do. I walked off the stage, in the middle of my act. That experience opened my eyes, wide.
Even today, after a bad show, I think, “Oh my goodness, I have no future in this.” When I have a great show, I’m on top of the world. I think I’m king. When I have a bad show, I consider changing my line of work.
GS When was the show, at Rooster T Feathers, that bombed?
DN That was 1998.
GS Are you’re still at Intel when you have the bad show.
DN Yes, the scene of my first bomb was down the road from Intel.
GS Did you consider quitting stand-up comedy.
DN That’s exactly what I thought. Maybe comedy wasn’t for me. Maybe only the context of Intel made me funny.
Still, I had to soldier on. One bad show is not a career. A few good shows and one bad show isn’t enough to base a career decision on.
GS Many stand-up comedians quit after the first bad show.
DN That’s sad. I’m sure we lost many great comedians after his or her first bad show. It’s not right.
Many comedians start at “Open Mic” nights. She or he goes to a club, signs up at the bottom of a long list and waits to do a five-minute show. Five hours later, the crowd thinned or too drunk, it’s his or her turn to take the stage. That’s seems a formula for failure.
GS Are there other problems with “Open Mic” shows.
DN These shows don’t have the best reputations. The “Open Mic” audience is often full of bitter, jaded want-to-be comedians waiting for their turn. They’re pouring over their notes, making last-minute changes, in response to something you said. After their set, they walk from the stage to the door and out onto the street. These are comedic demimondes.
They won’t stay or laugh to root for anyone else. Mostly, want-to-be comedians are full of themselves; once they finish their five-minute set, they leave, quickly. These comedians are going nowhere.
Interestingly, the one true talent may be last on the list. This woman or man displays dedication, waiting, perhaps, four or five hours, to perform five minutes before three tipsy patrons. It's disappointing. Sometimes, comedy is ignoble.
Many new stand-up comedians take the bad experience to heart. They think they don’t have what it takes. They quit trying, without realizing one bad show, especially at an “Open Mic,” has little, if any, meaning.
GS What other causes are beyond control?
Comedians don’t laugh as does a regular audience, the “civilians.” Many comedians don’t smile, much. Russell Peters is an exception: he’s the same off and on stage.
GS Is this a version of the circus clown, happy performing, but mostly down off stage?
DN I think so. A deep-rooted sense of defeat haunts many comedians. Yes, tears of a clown.
At times, comedy, showbiz, seems as a pendulum with only two spots, highest or lowest; movement from one extreme to another is sudden. After a bad show, many comedians want to quit showbiz. After a good show, he or she is soaring.
GS Have you done many “Open Mic” shows?
DN Not until I got to New York City.
GS How did you find your way to New York City?
DN I wanted to find a way to either Los Angeles or New York City. I felt it was necessary for a career in comedy. Intel was my vehicle.
Intel urges its employees to apply for jobs inside the company, but outside the unit in which they work. I kept looking for a job, at Intel, but located in LA or New York. With a recommendation from the Sean Maloney, the Vice-president of Sales, I found a job at Intel, in New York City, two levels higher than my job at the Santa Clara headquarters.
GS When was that?
DN That was 2000.
GS What was your first move in the New York City comedy scene?
DN There’s a back-story, of sorts. My new job, in New York City, was strategic relations for at Intel. I hated it. It was different for me. There was no traveling, no technology, no office. I worked out of my home. After a year, it was boring. I needed distractions.
I decided to go for it in comedy. I left Intel. I found a teacher, Steve Rosenfield, at the American Comedy Institute (ACI), in Manhattan. To this day, I take classes at ACI, with Rosenfield.
Suddenly, after I started classes, my skills rocket up. Rosenfield lifted my ability do comedy, greatly. I started working in comedy clubs in New York City.
GS His classes were that effective.
DN Yes, his classes focus on the nuances of performance, for example, how to hold a microphone. Another nuance is putting the microphone stand behind you, when you start; this removes any barrier between you and the audience. Try to wait for the audience to stop laughing before you start talking, again, which we call “Stepping on a Laugh.”
Audiences don’t think about such nuances. Yet, if the nuances are absent, the audience wonders what’s missing and gets restless. When we speak, informally, we use ums as punctuation; comedic nuances fill much the same role as do ums.
Rosenfield doesn’t get into having a web site or posting on YouTube, much, if at all. Those parts of a career in comedy weren’t important until a few years ago. Rosenfield is old school, in a way; his classes are about writing and performance.
Working at Intel helped me with web promotion. I knew about video and audio cutting, how to set up and promote a web site and so forth. I was likely a few steps ahead on my web presence.
GS I suspect posting videos of your shows is a double-edged sword.
DN Yes, I think so. I know comedians who don’t want to post videos of their work. Mostly, they’re afraid someone will steal their material. Theft happens anyway, people attend shows with a tiny recorder in their pocket; others are more brazen.
I toured with Russell Peters, the stand-up from Canada. He asks the audience, directly, not to video record his shows. His argument is video recording leads to posting parts of his shows on YouTube, say. He can’t reuse much of the posted material, nor can he write fast enough to keep changing his act. He polices video recording closely during his shows.
In a sense, posting on YouTube, for example, is a copyright of your work. Say, I post a set on YouTube, today, 15 April 2013; someone else posts a set, using my material, on 15 June 2013. YouTube dates the post. I have first claim to the material. The plagiarism is clear.
GS If plagiarism isn’t an issue, why don’t more comedians post videos.
DN What some comedians don’t accept is that if your material is good, funny, it’ll take off. You’ll get millions of views, as did one of my videos, from a show at the Moore Theatre, in Seattle, WA. When one video takes off, it’s likely your others will, too.
The result is bookings, income, paying your bills. If your stand-up video takes off, I don’t think you can use the same material, again, unless asked. Thankfully, most audiences like some of the oldies mixed in with the new material.
GS Do you prefer to audio or video record your shows?
DN As I mentioned, video is most important to me. I use video as much as possible, though sometimes I’m limited to audio. If I have an especially great show, I want the recording. I can post all or part of the show on YouTube.
GS Anyone can buy a flip camera for fifty dollars and record every show.
DN Sure, you never know when you’re going to do a killer set. There’s a saying, “The best show you’ll have is the one you didn’t record.” The cost of video recording is next to nothing, a camera and time to review, afterwards.
You set up a tripod, push a button and the show records. If the show is great, copy the recording to a hard drive for editing. If the show isn’t good, you can push erase.
I video recorded the show I did with Arianna Huffington and Bill Ford. I recorded from the audience. Now, I can see the clip I’m going to post on YouTube.
This posting is of me introducing Arianna, cutting to her saying, “That was so funny.” It shows me introducing Bill Ford, cutting to him saying, “Dan’s a great host. You’re funny.” This posting will impress corporate event bookers.
GS Video recording is the coin of the realm.
DN Yes, most bookers ask for links to YouTube or, less often, a DVD. If I want to work, especially corporate events, I must post on YouTube. Thus, I must video record every show I do.
GS How did you record the clip with President Obama?
DN I did an event at Ritz Carlton, in Washington, DC. Somehow, people thought I performed at the White House. No, it was a gala for the President.
Afterwards, I met President Obama. He was the nicest fellow you could imagine. He loved my show, laughing all the way through it.
I had my camera when I met the President. He said, “Dan’s hilarious.” The video wobbled for a moment, making it seem the President said, “Dan’s f***ing hilarious,” but he didn’t.
GS Was that clip good for business?
DN Yes, that clip opened many doors. It’s a special moment, to have a shout-out from the President recorded. That’s another reason I video everyone I can, I never know who’ll agree to do a shout-out, spontaneously.
I have Antonio Villaraigosa, the out-going mayor of Los Angeles, on video, saying, “Dan’s hilarious.” I have video testimonials from US Senator, Al Franken, singer, Kenny Logins, musician John Tesh and, of course, Dr Andy Grove of Intel. It’s such a leg up when celebrities testify to how funny I am.
GS Arianna Huffington is giggling. Not exactly what you expect from a former President of the Cambridge Union.
DN I’m shocked, in a good way. I never thought these celebrities would do this. No one has turned me down, especially if she or he saw me perform and liked my show.
I guess they’re happy to help my career; it doesn’t hurt them, either. That’s what I loved about President Obama. He is so down to earth. I can’t imagine other presidents doing that, maybe Nixon.
GS Did you do an impression of Huffington?
DN No I didn’t. She said, “Dan introduced me …. He didn’t do my accent, but he was funny.” I won’t make fun of the guest of honour, without direct permission.
At the Tribeca Film Festival, Colin Quinn went on about Robert De Niro. “You’ve got to lose some weight,” he said to De Niro, “you’re fat.” De Niro, of course, founded Tribeca.
There’s other material to use, no one has to attack the honouree or host. After a few years in stand-up, you should have two hours of material. It’s bad business, I think, to insult the host or guest of honour, without clearing it first, and even then.
The late Bernie Mac worked many events for the Obama campaign, in 2008. Gawd knows what they paid him. He did sexual material that upset many people. Obama, personally, asked him to tone it down.
The Obama Campaign repeated a familiar pattern. Someone will hire a comedian for a corporate event or fundraiser. The comedian says something off color, such as Bernie Mac at Obama event talking about how much he loves sex and it should canned, sold in grocery stores. The event booker then swears never to hire another comedian.
GS Do you pitch yourself or do event bookers find you.
DN It’s a mix. Many corporate events come to me because of my reputation. Many international events come to me via YouTube.
I pitched for the Wisdom 2.0 event, in San Francisco, with Arianna Huffington and Bill Ford. I pitched for the Apple Investors Summit that got me a photograph with Steve Wozniak. Sometimes it’s better to let the event booker come to me, but I pitch as necessary.
Word-of-mouth is important. Someone sees my show at a corporate event. When a friend is looking to book someone for her or his event, I get the recommendation. Video-posting sites are a new form of word-of-mouth. I also hand out many business cards.
Many comedians don’t understand marketing themselves is important. He or she is a business. Yes, we’re artisans, but we need not under sell or under estimate ourselves as a business.
At the end of every show, I work a table that sells my DVDs and CDs, t-shirts and books. I shake hands, with everyone who offers. These nuances are important.
Many comedians don’t understand how much money there is in hard goods. If the audience likes you, they want to shake your hand, get a fuller sense of you. They want a piece of you to take home; they want to memorialize the experience.
A business card is important. I stand at the back of theatre or room and hand my card to every single person. I try not to let anyone leave without my card.
Often, the audience loves what you do. A week later, though, they wonder: “What was that guy’s name? Was he Chinese or Indian? We want to book him, but we can’t find him.” That’s why you want to have your card in their hand, to stimulate memory so you won’t become part of the clutter.
When someone calls to book me, I always say, “How did you hear about me?” They say, “You handed my son a card at one of your shows, five years ago.” The card cost me one-sixth of one cent. It’s the best investment, I make. One card can lead to thousands of dollars in bookings, especially with corporate events.
GS I notice you often start a show by saying, “I know what you’re thinking, what race is that fellow?”
DN Yes, you get that idea from watching the videos I post on YouTube. Now, audiences expect me to start that way and I do. That opening is evergreen.
I should mention another great result of a stand-up video gone viral is it forces me to create, to write new material. This is good. Yes, there’s a downside to YouTube, it leads to over saturation, but there’s an obtainable balance.
The model for stand-up comedy has changed in the past seven or eight years. The web, the Internet, intervenes. The old ways work, well, less and less.
GS How has the model changed?
DB In the old days, maybe fifteen years ago, before the web was important, comedy-club bookers or agents and managers had control. Not all bookers and agents were jerks, only most; aspiring comedians had to plead and kiss behinds.
In those days, hundreds or thousands of comedians were battling for stage time. The pay was horrific, $25 weeknights and, maybe, $75 on weekends. This is what New York City comedy clubs were paying comedians that appeared on Letterman or Leno. The old model was exploitive.
In a large way, the new model removes the middle person, the booker or agent. The web, such as YouTube, Blip, Vimeo or DailyMotion, allows posting of videos, at no cost. Bookers scavenge the videos, looking for bankable talent. Comedians are no longer as dependent on agents.
GS Can you give me an example.
DN Sure, Vic Dibitetto posted a brief video right before Hurricane Sandy hit the New York City area. His video was simple, “The snow is coming. I’ve got to get bread and milk.”
The Dibitetto video is thirty seconds long. In its first day, on YouTube, it received more than a million views. Now, if you search YouTube for, “Bread and Milk,” it’s up over nine million views. He says he’s made a huge amount of money from the YouTube royalties.
GS Someone is selling “Bread and Milk” t-shirts.
DN I’m not surprised. Dibitetto has received more press and exposure than twenty years on the road, playing comedy clubs. Russell Peters is another example. His video spread, wildly, before YouTube; every Indian wanted it and shared with his or her friends.
Justin Bieber, “Owl City” and many bands are hugely popular from posting on video web sites. By word-of-mouth, texting or e-mail, these videos go viral. Suddenly, the videos have millions of views and you’re booked, everywhere.
Agents aren’t at the centre of the new model. Video web sites are most important, today. If you have something funny to say, post it on the web and bookers will find you.
In the old model, comedians sold albums, as did Bill Cosby and George Carlin. Both sold albums or CDs as if they were rock stars; at one point, Cosby had sold more albums than had anyone, rocker, pop singer or comedian. Still, most comedians sold a thousand copies of a CD, from the trunk of his or her car or the back of the clubs they played.
Now, the big money comes from personal appearances and touring. If you have a popular video, clubs and corporations want to hire you to perform: views of your video website page convert into bookings. My YouTube videos have gotten me booked all over the world.
GS Do many comedians work the new model, today?
DN Not enough, I suspect. It seems a quixotic thrill, roaming from club to club, say, in New York City. You do twenty minutes for $25, Sunday through Thursday. The pay may jump to $75 on weekends.
You take the subway. You sleep in your own bed. You wake up in your own space. You work seven days a week for sustenance.
Many comedians scrap to earn a few hundred dollars a week. Some top name comedians scrape, too; it’s not only beginners or those who aren’t too good. Many comedians seem willing to exchange admiration, by small, local audiences, for a life of near poverty.
GS That’s not only among comedians.
DN No, it is part of the larger starving artist disorder. Comedy is clannish, much as is high school. The main difference is money.
Club pay is survival pay. Private events pay a hundred to five or six hundred times more. How many club sets must I do to earn what one private corporate event pays me?
Those happy with club pay are one clan. Those who play corporate events are another clan. There are many clans between the extremes, but it’s difficult, maybe, impossible, to have one foot in each of the extremes.
GS Do you have an example of the distinction among clans that you’re making.
DB Sure, a few weeks ago, in San Francisco, I did two one-hour private events. One was with Judy Carter, my first teacher. The company wanted team-building training done in a humorous way.
Carter is an expert at such training. I didn’t know anything about how to make team building funny. Nor was I especially interested in doing it.
Judy Carter made it work. We split the fee. It would take more than two years, working clubs, in New York City, to earn as much as I did in that show; plus, I did a second show, for a different audience, the same day.
GS Is it possible to bridge the extremes, work clubs and corporate events, successfully.
DN It’s difficult. Clubs and corporate events usually call for starkly different material. I’m not sure anyone can work clean in clubs, all the time; Seinfeld maybe, he’s such a huge star. Corporate events want squeaky clean, all the time.
The demands, for material and physically, are significantly different for clubs and corporate events. In a club, I might do two forty-five minute shows a night, six or seven days a week. For corporate events, I do, at most, about seventy-five minutes, once a night, two or three times a week, in different places.
There are lifestyle differences, too, as Judy Carter pointed out to me. Club work usually involves the grind of touring. For corporate events, I go first class, which is usually less stressful.
Combining different material, the demands of the job and the lifestyle likely make it nearly impossible to work the extremes of clubs and corporate events, successfully.
GS Let’s go back to the clannish ideas and biases, I suspect, leads to bitterness.
DN There’s an underlying mutual hatred among comedy clans. There are comedians that work the Village, Greenwich Village, in New York City, and make little money. These comedians do alternative material, such as rap jokes, which they consider edgy and clever. In a way, these comedians see themselves as punk, but they’ll buy into anything commercial.
GS There must be a market, if small and poverty-stricken, for punk comedians.
DN I am sure, but the so-called punk comedians believe if you make money, you sold out. This clan despises Larry the Cable Guy, Russell Peters, Dane Cook and Carrot Top, comedians that work to huge audiences, every night. Jeff Dunham tops the most hated list these days.
GS He’s a ventriloquist, isn’t he?
DN Yes, but his act is stand-up. He has a set with a puppet, “Achmed, the dead terrorist,” which has 164 million views on YouTube. More than 200 million visitors have seen at least one of his YouTube videos. His current sold out tour, “Disorderly Conduct,” drives visits to his YouTube pages and his web site, which produce more bookings.
The purists, mostly working the Village, claim comedians should not do puppets, impressions, props or ethnic comedy. If you make money, as does Dunham, for example, you’re not an artist. Money soils; makes you and your work impure.
GS It sounds like punk comedians versus Louie CK.
DN Louis CK is a successful comedian. Many in comedy don’t care for him, either because he’s successful. On line, one fellow keeps going on about Louis CK: he spews pure hatred. Less successful comedians hate comedians that are more successful.
GS That’s the case everywhere outside a Buddhist monastery and even then.
DN I guess, but the less successful don’t understand, fully. What they think doesn’t matter. All that matters is what the audience thinks.
GS As along as the audience isn’t indifferent.
DN Right, an indifferent audience doesn’t stay for your second set, ask you back or watch your video postings. Does the paying audience enjoy you comedy is the question. For the club-pay clan, what counts is how much other comedians enjoy your work.
GS Lenny Bruce said when the musicians laughed he knew he’d lost the audience.
DN I’ll take the audience every time. Other performers don’t pay my bills. Still, I want everyone to laugh, the audience, musicians, servers.
GS If audiences are civilians, are comedians the militia.
DN In a way, but any sense of military camaraderie, as in a spirit of mutual trust, doesn’t exist among comedians. The clans are tight. The occupation isn’t.
To some extent, it’s comedian versus audience. We try to make the audience laugh. You’d think this would lead to much wider spread camaraderie, among comedians, but it doesn’t.
It’s a dog-eat-dog, catch-as-catch-can occupation. As I’m trying to arrange bookings, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of other comedians trying to find work. It’s a backstabbing sub-culture.
GS I guess you don’t have an agent.
DN Someone sees my show. He or she asks me, “Who’s your agent?” I say, “Dan Nainan of America.”
GS Leno doesn’t have an agent, either.
DN Everyone, as much today as ever, thinks a performer, a comedian, needs an agent. We don’t. The Internet intercedes for us, as I explained earlier.
Go to my website. Everything is available, my e-mail and my phone number. If you contact me, I pledge I’ll get back to you.
GS I know, I tried and you answered on the second ring, the same with e-mail. You have no need for an agent.
DN Right and it’s so interesting. Too many times someone who booked me said, “We also wanted to use ‘so and so,’ but we had to go through his agent. We contacted the agent, but he or she never returned our call” or “It took two or three weeks to get back to us and, by that time, we booked someone else.” How much money did the performer lose because of an agent?
GS Do you have an example?
DN Sure, I took a booking to headline at Western Michigan University (WMU). They wanted me to help book a Middle Eastern comedian, to open the show. They tried, but had no luck.
I know three comedians who fit what MSU wanted. I had to contact the managers of these comedians for the school. One agent got back to me and had the booking for his client.
In Los Angeles, a few weeks later, I bumped into one of the two comedians whose agent ignored me. I told him the agent cost him a five thousand dollar booking. Incensed mildly describes his reaction.
I don’t want someone representing me who won’t return customer calls. Customers are my bread and butter. Two weeks or even three days is too long to return a call; I don’t want someone to cost me money.
GS People think you have to have an agent, but that’s not true.
DN Right, many times, I get a call. The caller will say, “Am I talking to Dan.” I say, “Yes.” They say, “Are you kidding me?” They’re shocked, honestly.
Louis CK needs an agent or manager. He’s hugely successful. He can’t book or manage himself. Someone once told me; “You need a manager when you can’t manage your own affairs.”
Right now, I can handle my own affairs. I’m not a celebrity. I’m up and coming.
GS Is there a point where a manager or agent is useful.
DN If you need an agent, it’s because you can’t manage your own affairs. You’re too busy. You need help. To that point, you can do it on your own.
Agents seldom understand nuances. They say, “His or her price is five thousand dollars or her or his price is ten thousand dollars,” implying take it or leave it. That cuts off those who can only afford, say, two thousand dollars.
Money isn’t the only reason to perform somewhere. I might take two thousand dollars, this time, knowing, if I do a great job, they’ll ask me back for fifteen thousand next year and many years into the future. There’s also exposure to a new audience that’s worth more than money. I don’t want to cut off the nuances.
Similarly, there might be a corporate client willing to pay fifteen thousand dollars, but the agent quotes ten thousand dollars. I lose five thousand dollars. At this point in my career, those decisions are mine. I’m able to handle my career.
There’s another money angle, too. An agent takes ten percent off the top. A manager takes fifteen percent. That’s twenty-three hundred and fifty dollars off a ten thousand dollar booking. I’d rather keep that money for me.
GS Do comedians at your career stage, the ones you know, have agents.
DN The simple answer is no. Television, I think, leads to agents. Doing Leno or Kimmel is a ticket to agents and managers. Late-night television talk shows create much interest, which is different from the Internet. At this point, management may play a useful role.
GS You didn’t mention David Letterman.
DN There was a time when Letterman was important for comedians, not as much anymore. David Letterman doesn’t book as many stand-up comedians as his show once did. Today, there are those who say Letterman is a one-way ticket to obscurity.
GS What do you mean when you say late-night television talk is a ticket and that interest developed by late-night television is different?
DN Maybe a ticket to a sitcom, that was the route for did Paul Reiser, Roseanne Barr and Jerry Seinfeld. It’s prestige to do stand-up on a late-night television show. The exposure is to a mostly different audience than YouTube, say.
Still, I can point to dozens of websites for comedians with agents. After performing on Leno, say, he or she continues to do what they did before the big shot, club tours. Maybe they earn more, but it’s still the grind of the road, touring.
I’m in a middle ground. I’m known, but not renowned. I make a decent living doing what I do, mostly without the road grind.
Let me give you an example. Almost no one knows of Don McMillan.
GS An engineer turned comedian.
DN Yes, he has a master’s degree in electrical engineering. McMillan does only corporate events, no clubs, no road grind. He makes fifteen thousand dollars a show; three million dollars a year for two hundred shows. You don’t have to be famous to make a living at stand-up.
GS Let’s see, your comedy is shrewd. You’re social media savvy. You’re business savvy. That’s a three-tier advantage.
DN There’s an old showbiz adage: show business is 95% business and 5% show. Not understanding the business end is the Achilles Heel of many comedians. No matter how creative the comedian, if she or he doesn’t grasp the business end, they’re going nowhere, fast.
Most comedians, most entertainers, have no clue. I have friends who get calls for bookings. They offer a price that’s a fraction of their worth.
GS Then they wonder why they struggle to survive.
DN I tell them they must at least start talking about a price that’s many times what they think their worth. A friend, from DC, has forgotten more about comedy than most of us know. A booker called him, asking if he can open for the emcee of a corporate event; he agreed, accepting a five hundred dollar fee.
Headlining the show was George Kresge, who works as “The Amazing Kreskin.” He’s a skilled magician, with a popular and clever mind reading act. I suspect Kresge earned about ten thousand dollars for the show.
From experience, I believe my friend could have asked for five thousand dollars and got it. I said to him, “You cost yourself at least forty-five hundred dollars. You should have said five thousand dollars.”
DN My friend says, “You’re right. When I gave them my price, they asked for more comedians at that price.” At that price, why wouldn’t the booker ask for more comedians? Ten comedians for the price of one would make the event booker look great.
Too many comedians don’t understand the value of what they do. They besmirch the occupation by selling themselves cheap. Some comedians need to wise up.
Do you remember Elliott Spitzer, the governor of New York? He used State time and State money to hire a prostitute. He left the governorship in disgrace.
GS I do.
DN I read an interview with the prostitute Spitzer employed. She said, “I’m not the most beautiful girl in the world. There are plenty of women … more beautiful than am I. When I charged a client a couple hundred dollars a throw, they treated me like dirt. Now that I charge two thousand dollars, they respect me.”
Her comment struck me and stuck. Many comedians don’t understand her point. The business end of the show is at least as important as the show.
I have a business background, a degree in management from the University of Maryland. I worked at Intel. I’m a tech geek. This gives me a huge advantage over my competition, but lifestyle plays a part, too.
Comedians working clubs, say, finish at 11 pm. They then party until dawn. Much of the postmortem Bill Hicks product stresses the party lifestyle.
When I finish a show at 11 pm, I go home or back to hotel. When the club comedian gets up at 4 pm, I`ve put in a full day, working on my material, making contacts that lead to bookings, chasing auditions for commercials or voiceover work and so forth.
Many comedians don’t understand the business of doing shows takes place during the day. If you go on auditions for commercials, say, that all takes place in the business day between 9:30 am and 5:00pm; that’s how I got my Apple Commercial. This stuff happens during the day, not at 3 am.
If you think you can stay up all night partying and wake up late and succeed, you`re mostly wrong. Waking up early is a remarkable advantage, but few do it. I get calls at noon and people, “Did I wake you?” I say, “No, I’ve been up since 7:00 am.”
GS Do you research your corporate clients before their event, maybe to tailor material to the company or industry?
DN Honestly, no, I try to avoid custom material. I write mostly by inspiration and from observation. Some comedians will agree to customize an act for the client, which might involve several grueling weeks of writing new material while you’re working other shows.
New material is just that, new. I might spend weeks, on the phone, with corporate employees or the CEO, to create new material. When I use it at the event, it’s written, but untested. It may not work. Good or bad, I catch the blame.
Seinfeld or Chris Rock may spend weeks testing new material in clubs. When they use the material, say, on late-night television talk shows, they know it works. I don’t feel I can customize material, successfully, because I can’t test it before using it live.
I imagine some comedians can customize material, performing it without testing. I don’t think I have that skill, yet. I’ve been successful steering corporate clients away from custom material.
GS Some material must be generic, everygreen.
DN Yes, for example, “I had a two hour act ready for you. When I ran it by human resources (HR), they cut it down to 15 minutes.” That joke works at most every corporate event. I drop in the corporate name as an adjective for HR: IBM HR, Apple HR and so forth.
To answer your question, I don’t customize material for corporate events. I mentioned working with Judy Carter a few weeks ago in San Francisco. The client wanted a customized exercise, with spreadsheets and such, which I don’t do. I hired Carter to help me.
GS Your heritage is an essential part of your comedy.
DN “You’re probably wondering,” I ask the audience, as soon as I come on, “what race is that guy.” As the laughter, the relief, begins to fade I say, “My dad is from Indian. My mother is from Japan.” You can hear more relief. Then I say, “I get my sushi from 7-11. I’m both Harold and Kumar. I’m so Japanese, I was cordless at birth.” Now the audience, mostly relieved and relaxed, laughs with me.
GS That’s a great opening.
DN My parents unwittingly wrote many of my jokes. Much of my material comes from what my father and mother might say as well as family events.
GS Can you give me an example.
DN Sure, when I was a kid, we’d be driving in the country and see cows. I’d say, “Those cows are grazing.” My father would say, “Now there’s a word with many meanings. For exam-pull, a cow can graze.” I say, “A bullet can graze your head, especially if you’re hanging out with Vice-president Cheney.” My mother says, “It’s a donut.”
I told that joke for five thousand non-Indians; everyone got it. Then I did the same joke for and audience of five thousand Japanese; no one got it. Someone came up to me, after the show, “You funny, Mr Daniel-son, but we no understand ‘grazed donut’ joke.” I say, “Well, it’s the ‘l’ and the ‘r.’” “No, prease exprain.”
My parents came to watch me perform at the Maximum India Festival at the Kennedy Centre, in Washington, DC, a couple of years ago. There were 2000 people in the audience for the Millennium Stage. My parents beamed. It was awesome for all three of us.
GS Does some of your material play better to Indian audiences than to general audiences?
DN Sure, let me give you an example. I'm sure you've called technical support and gotten an Indian who is pretending to be American. A man answers, saying, "Thank you for calling technical support, my name is Brad Pitt." Next thing you know, Indian companies will outsource to poor Americans, who are trying to pretend they're Indian. (Spoken in a thick southern drawl), "Thank you for calling Air India, my name is Shah Rukh Khan."
I think everyone gets the first part of the joke. When I flip it, Indians get more out of it. When people meet me, they automatically think I’m vegetarian because I’m half Indian. I tell them my father was from the only largely Christian province, Kerala, in southern India.
GS Elsewhere, you mentioned your parents immigrated to the US.
DN They came to study, at the University of Indiana. “People always ask me: your dad’s from India and your mom’s from Japan. Where could they possibly have met?” I say, “Indiana.” They met in Bloomington.
GS Your heritage is comedy waiting to happen.
DN My parents upset their parents by coming to the US to study. When my parents married, their parents, all four of them, were upset. You don’t marry someone who isn’t Indian or Japanese, respectively. Those cultures were anathema, at the time.
My parents are traditional. That’s one reason I do clean comedy. They stress the importance of education and working hard. For them, there’s a limited range of acceptable jobs, such as physician, lawyer or engineer; any job that supposedly makes much money, but that list does not include a comedian.
Still, my parents are encouraging. If I did profanity, that is, worked blue, and my parents caught wind of it, they’d be beyond upset. They’ve always been nurturing and encouraging, providing a wonderful home life. I can’t turn my back on them, do an act full of profanity, simply for a small chance at fame and fortune.
GS This spills over, nicely, to corporate events.
DN Profanity is not what a corporate audience wants to hear. Yet, there are different levels of clean. There’s television clean, that is, no swear words, but many double entendre, such as, “Panda mating fails and Veterinarian takes over,” is fine.
Corporate clean sets the bar highest. I have to cut or severely limit my ethnic material for a corporate audience. Interestingly, there’s material, say, ethnic jokes, I can do on television, but not at corporate events.
Some comedians may call me a sell out for working clean. They don’t understand how working clean expands the range of where I can work. Any profanity is unacceptable to most of my audiences.
I was just in San Francisco, at a summit called Wisdom 2.0. I introduced Arianna Huffington and Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford Motor Company. I got testimonials, from both of them, for my work.
If I worked blue, Ford would not have said, “Dan is hilarious. He’s a great host.” That testimonial is worth many future bookings for me.
GS You credit working clean to your parents. Did anyone else suggest you not work blue?
DN Yes, I happened to be at a club when Jerry Seinfeld showed up. He was standing in the lobby. Everyone says, “No, you can’t talk to Jerry Seinfeld.” I went up to him and said, “Jerry, I have a question for you. I’m starting out as a comedian. I’m wondering if you have any advice.”
Seinfeld says, “You should work clean. You will work everywhere.”
I took his advice to heart. I researched him. He doesn’t smoke. He’s not into a self-destructive lifestyle. Too many comedians drink too much or abuse prescription or illegal drugs.
GS A comedian that worked mostly blue, Buddy Hackett, said something to effect that ‘if it’s dirty it isn’t funny and if it’s funny it isn’t dirty.’
DN Good distinction, we work for the audience. If the audience laughs, comedy is successful. Working blue, in any way, is not for me. A market, of some sort, exists for every style of comedy as well as every style of content.
GS Comedians are enemies of limits. Doesn’t working clean, or working blue, that is, at the extremes, reduce the ability to push into new territory.
DN If a comedian works blue; he or she limits their bookings. No corporation will book anyone who works blue. Those who work this extreme limit their careers to working clubs, mostly.
If you work clean, you can work everywhere and anywhere. I can work clubs, civic and corporate events, anywhere in the world. No one is wary of booking me. They know I won’t embarrass anyone. They can bring their families to my show.
GS My sense is reputation, for a comedian, comes early and fast. Once set you can’t change it, much.
DN Well, never say never, but that’s mostly true. My act won’t include a swear word. I think of many blue jokes, but I won’t use one. I toured with Russell Peters and the late Robert Schimmel; both used much blue material.
I understand blue humour; I find much of it hilarious. Still, it’s not me. If worked blue, even a bit, my income would dry up. I toured with Peters and Schimmel because my act complimented, not copied, theirs.
GS How do you write comedy?
DN There are two ways to write comedy. One-way is to sit in front of a computer and write for two hours, say, letting material freely flow or not. The other approach, which I use, is to make note of what goes on around me.
GS You’re always writing.
DN Yes and let me give you an example. Have you ever been in a restaurant where ten or twenty people, at a nearby table, roar with laughter every few minutes? Someone makes a funny comment and everyone laughs. As my teacher, Steve Rosenfield, says, “This is raw material for jokes.”
Raw material pops up all the time. You’re talking with a friend or walking along the sidewalk, alone, and a funny idea hits you. When this happens, I grab my phone and write out the idea.
GS Steve Allen carried a portable tape recorder, all the time. When an idea hit him, he recorded it.
DN Technology did away with bulky tape recorders. The technique is the same. When an idea hits, unexpectedly, make a record of it, somewhere, somehow.
If I don’t write it down, I may lose the idea, forever. Later, I can wordsmith my notes. What is the best way to present this to an audience?
No one can create humour in a laboratory. There’s no way to predict whether something is funny or not unless you try it on an audience. Even today, Seinfeld tests new material at smaller clubs.
Only an audience can tell you, reliably, what is funny. Often, I write material I believe is hilarious, but it gets crickets, that is, a few little laughs among tinkling drink glasses, not a full response from the audience. The opposite is true, too, a joke I believe is weak gets a huge reaction.
Mostly, audiences are unpredictable. This is why I must test new material, on an audience, before I decide to keep some material, in my act, and discard other material. I work for the audience, which decides for me.
You watch Chris Rock or Seth McFarland doing jokes at an award show. I know they tested the material at clubs, maybe a hundred times or more. Testing comedy is learning for both comedian and audience.
Say I go to a club with ten new jokes. Only four work. I write six more jokes and go back to a club. Maybe six of the ten work. I write four more and re-test all ten, again. Eventually, my act forms.
In a theatre, with an audience of three or four thousand, my material must work. I must know my material works. My confidence comes from testing and re-testing.
GS You implied you don’t do many club shows. Where do you test your new material?
DN I test my material in my comedy classes.
GS Isn’t that testing before other comedians or, at least, aspiring comedians?
No, my classmates, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, are fresh; open to new material. Years on the road hasn’t jaded them. The class is their first exposure to comedy.
During the day, my classmates are bankers, teachers, waiters and so forth. Sometimes the course is a birthday gift. No, my classmates are a pristine audience, a great way to test new material.
Other comedians test material at “Open Mic” shows, which, as I mentioned, I don’t think works for me. Sometimes, at a regular show, I’ll include a new joke in material I know works well. That’s a good gauge of new material, but such opportunities don’t often arise.
Afterward, I listen or watch the tape. Did they laugh at the new joke and how? If they laughed uproariously, then I have a new joke in my repertoire. If they didn’t laugh, I can try to fix it or take it out.
GS How much pressure do you feel to write new material?
DN I come up with new material, every day. I’m always writing jokes that I try out at my class or slip into shows. By in large, I think I have an infinite amount of material.
It’s easy and tempting to coast along; I can just go to a show and do an hour. The chances are the audience is hearing my material for the first time, live. By the time I perform for the same audience, say, next year, at the same corporate event, my material has mostly changed, except for the evergreen material they expect to hear.
GS You did a television commercial for Apple.
DN I never dreamed I’d do a commercial, let alone one for Apple. Every actor wants to land a role in an Apple commercial. It’s at the bottom of all my e-mails, “This guy was in an Apple commercial.” The day I shot that commercial was among the best days of my life.
The Apple commercial opened another source of income for me. Now, I’m always auditioning for another commercial. Every comedian wants a role in a commercial. I’m working that goal, every day.
I think of comedy as the root of a tree. It branches are acting, say, in a sitcom; television commercials, voiceovers, print modeling, hosting, books and so forth. Comedy is a launching pad.
A move from comedy to other creative work is natural. Comedy builds confidence. If I can do comedy for an audience of thousands, why can’t I act?
Once, you had to look as a soap opera model to land a commercial. Now, advertising agencies and their clients want ordinary, average-looking women and men in their commercials. When we watch commercials, today, the actors are short or tall, skinny or heavy and from any ethnic group.
GS You do voice over work, too.
DN Yes, more comedy fallout. Someone sees my act, likes my voice and I land an audition. I put an audition reel together. I circulated it. I landed many auditions.
I’ve done five voiceovers. I go to the studio. The engineer directs what I do. It can take five or ten minutes and is a well-paid sideline.
GS Yes, I understand voiceover work pays well.
DN When I decided to try voiceovers, a friend said, “You’ve got to meet my uncle.” We three went to lunch. My eyes opened, wide.
The uncle is 80 years old. He’s an old-school voiceover artist, with the pipes of gawd. Many years ago, on a short break from his day job, he auditioned for a seven-word commercial. When he got back to his office, the agency called to say he had the job.
He didn’t go back to the studio. The agency used his audition for the commercial. That spot ran for seventeen years; he made millions from saying seven words, once.
GS How does anyone earn that much money doing voiceovers?
DN Residuals, every time the commercial airs, you earn money. All he said was, “When E F Hutton Talks, people listen.” He joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which assures he earns about one hundred and fifty dollars every time his phrase airs in a television commercial.
GS Voiceovers are most lucrative.
DN I made about twenty thousand dollars for the Apple spot. It’s a simple idea, two fellows and a white-paper background. I worked ninety minutes on a one-day shoot for that commercial.
GS No lines, as I recall.
DN No, I would have loved to have a major speaking role, but they wrapped me in bubble packaging. The principle performers, those who spoke, earn seven figures on annual retainers with Apple. I was the silent star of the commercial.
I’m not widely recognizable or the star of the commercial. Thus, SAG doesn’t consider me a principle performer. Even if I had lines, in that commercial, my pay would be the same.
GS Which comedians inspire you?
DN Jerry Seinfeld is number one. Seinfeld can show up at any club and take the stage, right away. He’s Seinfeld.
Seinfeld is a model. He arrives at noon for an evening show. “What’s a comedian doing here this early” is a typical response to him.
GS Obviously, business is a strong focus for Seinfeld.
DN When he told me to work clean, he was right. I’ve always looked up to him. I’m where I am, today, because of his advice.
GS Is Seinfeld, live, as funny as his reputation suggests.
DN Yes, I once saw him when he was trying out a set for “Late Night, with David Letterman.” He did about five or six minutes. That’s roughly the maximum on Letterman.
When he finishes his set, Seinfeld say, “Does anybody have any questions?” He did a question and answer session that was so funny. A fellow, in the front, tried to ask a question, but he was so drunk no one understood what he said. Seinfeld says, “Well, you gave it a shot.”
Seinfeld goes to clubs to test material. He says, “Okay, this is new material” and sits down to read form a notepad. Afterward, he says, “What did you like about that. Did you like anything about that?” The new material was terrible. He accepted that fact.
Seinfeld can do whatever he wants. Honestly, though, I think a comedian should memorize lines and not read them from a notepad. A large part of the job is making it spontaneous, as Steve Rosenfield advises.
GS Reading from a notebook destroys the magic.
DN Yes, as I said, you have to try every joke in front of an audience. If it doesn’t work, you throw it out. Every comedian, from the bottom to the top, has to do this.
During the question and answer session, a woman said to Seinfeld, “Do the stuff about your wedding.” He says, “I don’t have time. It’s a long bit, but when did you see me do that?” She said, “I don’t know, at the Gotham.”
Everyone in the room roars with laughter. We were at the Gotham Comedy Club, in New York City. Seinfeld points to the sign. That was hilarious.
Someone told me a similar story about Seinfeld at another New York City club. This time, though, a comedian heckled him, “What’s up with people on the bus,” referring to the tourists in the audience.
“Wait a minute,” says Seinfeld, “weren’t you just up on this stage?” “You’re not supposed to heckle me. We’re brothers. You’re doing worse from the audience than you were doing up here.” My friend said, “That brought the house down.”
As funny as it turned out, comedians shouldn’t heckle each other. It’s the crowning insult. Seinfeld handled it well, turning it to his advantage, which isn’t always possible.
GS Do any newer comedians inspire you.
DN Here and there, but I must to tell you I don’t watch television. I’m not part of this whole club scene, either. Newer comedians take a long time to come under my radar.
I’m impressed with Louis CK. I saw him live. I thought he was hilarious. To be truthful, I’m not fully familiar with his body of work.
Bill Burr impresses me, too. He’s funny and irreverent. He’s done the late-night television shows, has an HBO special, radio shows on SiriusXM and a Monday morning podcast. He’s busy.
Mostly, I don’t watch other comedians. I guess I could watch them and get some tips. In a sense, though, I work in a vacuum, a hermit in a vacuum.
GS You don’t watch much television. That's counterintuitive for a comedian.
DN I don’t think so, at all. For me, not watching television is a matter of time management. Often, I work so much, I don’t have time to write; watching television would cut into my limited writing time.
Last Saturday, for example, I flew from Maui to Tampa, arriving in Tampa on Sunday morning. My Tampa show was Sunday night. Monday morning, I flew back to Maui.
I fly about two hundred thousand miles a year with American Airlines. You can understand why I don’t watch much television or other comedians. I’m too busy.
I talk with many people who want to be comedians, dancers, authors, producers, singers and so forth. They say, “I don’t have time. I’m so busy.”
These people have boring day jobs. They need and want an expressive outlet, but, to pay the bills today, but keep clerking away, Monday to Friday. When they go home from work they’re exhausted from the boredom, they watch television. A typical adult American watches 32 hours of television each week. Often, they also party for five or six hours a week.
Add watching television and partying to the time spent at work. It adds up to about seventy-five hours. Say you sleep eight hours a night. You must also eat, brush your teeth, travel to and from work. There are barely enough hours in a week.
They have no time to do anything except work that cycle. I tell aspiring comedians to adjust his or her life. Drop television time to work on an act, for example.
Steve Chandler, of Phoenix, AZ, has a great book, “1000 Ways to Motivate Yourself.” He says, “When you’re watching television, you’re watching other people do what they love doing for a living … they’re getting paid big money to do what they love doing.”
Which side of the glass do you want to be on, the doing and having fun or the watching side? I, for one, can’t sit and watch other people on television. I’d rather be reading, learning a language or writing jokes and creating.
I just don’t get it. To be honest, watching television is a drug. It’s anodyne, with no risk or reward.
My advice is drastic. Turn off the television. Spend some time creating or exercising; it’ll change your outlook and the world.
I met Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, after a show. He did a shout out for me; you can see it on YouTube. Wozniak said he was an outcast in school. He wasn't part of the most popular or any clique.
“When you’re not part of the popular crowd,” Wozniak said, “you don’t socialize as much. You have much more time to work on stuff.” I’m not suggesting anyone aim to be an outcast, but think how Wozniak spent his time, what he achieved.
People always say I must watch television. How can I be an entertainer and not watch television? “You’ll never be success if you don’t watch television.”
I consider myself moderately successful. My audiences find me entertaining. I’d rather be on television than watching it.
I don’t know much about pop culture; anyone can use pop culture references. None of my material has such references. I’m a hermit; I want to be one of the few, not lost among the many.
On the road, I perform to huge audiences. That’s my social life. I don’t know what’s going on in the comedy community, to be honest.
GS What do you do with your time?
DN I’m a nerd, of sorts. I spend much time at home. I play six musical instruments. I learn languages. I read a great deal.
GS What musical instruments do you play?
DN I trained, classically, on piano. Learning rock guitar polluted me. I also play bass guitar. I play drums. Two or three years ago, I took up the cello. Not long ago, I bought a violin.
Learning to play music helps keep the brain in shape. The same goes for learning new languages and reading. When you’re active, learning to play an instrument or a new language, say, your brain is active, in alpha state, and you burn calories; the brain is in beta state when you watch television.
GS Do you use any instruments in your act?
DB Not so far, but everybody tells me I should. I can play Chopin, on piano. I can play Van Halen, on guitar.
Music might work in my act. I’m considering how I might work some music into my shows. It will come, I think.
Right now, though, what I need to do a killer show is a microphone and me. If start playing music, I have to lug equipment, say, a guitar and amplifier, or arrange for a tuned piano. My shows thus become larger productions, I’m not sure I want to do that.
GS How many shows do you perform a year?
DN I work about eighty paid shows a year.
GS To invoke a pun how does your material stand up.
DN Comedy is akin to the music business. “Coldplay,” for example, does a forty-city tour, performing the same music, in roughly the same sets, repeatedly. I do much the same.
I do an hour at a corporate event in Seattle, on Friday night, say. Saturday, I do another corporate event in Phoenix, using mostly the same material. It’s unlikely the audiences overlap.
GS Do you adjust some material for the city you’re working.
DN Yes, as long as I don’t get lazy and slack off, my material grows and changes over time. If I return to the Friday-night corporate event next year, my show has almost surely changed.
Audiences want more new material from comedians than they do from musicians. Think of rock acts from the 1960s, living well doing the old material, night after night. If I were working clubs, there some chance some audience members would have heard some of the material. Seinfeld did a club tour, a few years ago, that included stops in Connecticut and New York City. Someone in the New York City audience yelled, “I heard you do the same material in Connecticut, last week.”
GS It has a ring of heckle to me.
DN Maybe, but that audience member doesn’t understand how comedy works. Every comedian does the same material, repeatedly, but for different audiences. Although my “What race am I” is on YouTube, with more than a million views, audiences expect me to start out with it and I do; some material is evergreen.
Russell Peters says, at this point, he simply can show up and do his show. He doesn’t have to think about it. He can phone in his show. Audiences love him; he makes much money.
The challenge is not to write material to have thousands of jokes, but to use what you write. Thus, my sets change over time. I keep adding jokes, cutting away what doesn’t work, well.
GS Would you have to change your sets more if you did more pop culture references.
DN Yes, but what I want is evergreen. When something fades from pop culture, my jokes would go with it. Topical material has a shelf life.
GS When Bush 41 lost to Bill Clinton, Bill Hicks said, “There’s goes half my act.”
DN I agree and geography presents another problem. As Steve Rosenfield says, “You can’t do subway jokes where there are no subways.” New York City has subways, Peoria, Illinois, does not.
My goal is to develop clean material that’s generic enough to work most anywhere, most anytime. If I can develop a twenty-minute set that works anywhere, I can work anywhere. Such a set isn’t rigid, if I do a joke about I-86, which goes through one town, I can adjust if the I-81 goes through the next town.
GS Talking with you is a rare learning experience. Do you have any last thoughts for today?
DN All entertainers, not only comedians, need to recognize how technology opens doors. A generation ago, performers needed to develop a network of agents and managers. She or he needed to collect television credits. Only then was a breakout possible or likely.
Today, technology, such as YouTube, opens doors agents or managers cannot. Russell Peters is the best example. Based largely on video postings, he developed his career to the point where he can sell out arenas.
The web is a tool anyone can use. Anyone, anywhere, can create and post a video to the web. If it’s good, if enough viewers like your video, it can spread like wildfire, go viral, as did “Bread and Milk,” by Dibitetto.
The web enables your success. New entertainers must recognize this and use it to his or her advantage. Record your shows, watch yourself perform, post your best work for all to see.
If you want a job that’s creative and expressive, put the drink down, turn off the television, stay in on a Friday night to work on something creative. You can change the world and your world.
GS Well put and thanks, Dan.
Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews
Interviewed edited and condensed for publication.
Thanks to Corina Kellam for conducting the initial interview.
dr george pollard is a Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth" as well as the Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment.
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