“Call me a comedy coach, not a teacher,” says Dave Schwensen (below). He’s conducted comedy workshops for two decades, with much success. “Participants come to my workshops, with one idea; say, doing blue material that makes the parents laugh. They leave with another idea, the right one, write your own material that reflects who you are”
Schwensen defines comedy as the business of doing whatever it takes to make an audience laugh. Sarcasm, irony and the ingenious use of props cause laughter. Satire makes us laugh and, ideally, think. Pratfalls, a rubbery face and wriestive body motions also cause laughter.
“There’s no formula for comedy success,” says Schwensen. Look at the variety of comedians. Dave Attell dishes out attitude. Carrot Top uses props. Bob Saget works blue. Dan Nainan works clean. All are successful.
Comedy is creative expression. “No one can teach comedy. Learning to colour inside the lines won’t lead to a successful comedy career.”
Schwensen thus calls himself a coach, not a teacher. He comments on comedy. He keeps his students outside and, sometimes, inside the lines.
Comedy isn't a teachable, but good advice is available. Comedian Bobby Collins says “Stage time, stage time; all the stage time you can get.” Grab any chance to be onstage, as an emcee or opening act, working free, as needed.
Touring comedy clubs means facing a new audience most nights. Comedian Ronda Shear says “Touring is harder for women” than it is for men. “There’s too much looking over your shoulder, when leaving a club.”
“Write, write and write all the time,” says Schwensen. Drew Carey, the top comedian and host of “The Price is Right,” on CBS-TV, agrees. Write down your ideas. Comb through the ideas you jotted down to help create jokes and, eventually, an act; then to keep your act fresh.
“Have back up material,” says Schwensen. Mike MacDonald was the first client of talent manager, Howard Lapides.* MacDonald performed two different shows each night. He thought every comedian did.
“Find your own comedy voice,” says Schwensen. Legendary stand-up comedian, Bill Hicks, began his career using jokes from Woody Allen. He developed into one of three top satirist of the twentieth century, with a unique, personal and widely feared voice.
“Comedy is a business,” says Schwensen. “Business is a word you should underline,” says comedian Reggie McFadden. “Self-promotion is important,” says Ronda Shear, “make sure your publicity package is up-to-date and polished.”
Are women funny? Schwensen says, “Yes, without a doubt.” Shear says, “Comedy is a more difficult job for a woman.” Male comedians often try to turn the female competition into an outsider. Besides, says Shear, “You never laugh at mom. Dad is the funny one.”
Someone asked Schwensen to name twenty top comedians. He named thirty women, in the blink of an eye. He didn’t notice he left out male comedians.
In this brief interview, Dave Schwensen talks of managing the Original Improv, in New York City, working as a talent booker, a public speaker and a comedy coach. He offers rare insight into the business of comedy. There’s much advice for aspiring comedians, too.
Grub Street (GS) You run comedy workshops.
DS Dave Schwensen (DS) Yes, but I’m not a teacher, I’m a coach. Comedy is not something teachable.
Comedy is learnable, with time, by watching, practising and getting honest criticism. I don’t want anyone to call me a comedy teacher. I’m a coach; I frankly comment on the comedy created by students taking my workshop.
GS Most teachable ideas or skills have a formula base.
DS True, yet there’s no formula for comedy success. Andy Kaufman was unique and successful, a legend, today, and no one can match what he did. There’s only one Jerry Seinfeld, although many try to copy him, without much success.
There’s no recipe for comedy. I tell my workshop participants to burn every book they own on comedy. Books about comedy or comedians clone the author.
Comedy books are myths. It’s difficult to write for a comedian whose work you know, well. For someone you’ve never met, it’s impossible to write effective comedy for her or him.
GS What is comedy?
DS I like the simple definition, when people, an audience, laugh because someone intended to be funny, to make them laugh, that’s comedy.
GS What makes people laugh?
DS That’s a tough question. I like slapstick, my wife, Deb, doesn’t. She laughs when someone flatulates in a movie, I don’t like that humour.
Some people love sarcasm, say, of Mike Allen MacDonald, others don’t. Some people love the irony of the late George Carlin, say, others don’t. Some love the satire of, say, Bill Hicks and others don’t like having to work that hard.
Comedians usually express what makes them laugh. They are creative artists; self-expression is important to them. If they find an audience for what they have to say, his or her artistic expression, that’s great; if not, that’s okay, too.
A comedian will try to create laughter even without an audience. She or he enjoys the intrinsic satisfaction of being funny. Earning a living making people laugh is a bonus for a true comedian.
GS What makes a comedian laugh?
DS Almost any idea will make one comedian or another laugh. If someone handed you a blank sheet of paper and ask you to fill it, how would you do it. An artist might sketch a portrait or a landscape; a comedian might fill the page with jokes or a cartoon.
The same goes for what makes a comedian laugh. Around the time of the Gulf War, Bill Hicks said the US knew of the arms buildup in Iran because the US sold Iran all its weapons. Today, more than twenty years later, that comment holds a tinge of humour, but Hicks thought it hilarious in his day.
Jokes that are too inside, which come from experience as a comedian, likely won’t resonate with a wide audience. General audiences don’t know the premise of inside jokes and the premise is usually too detailed to explain, easily. Still, the comedian, comedians, will laugh.
GS Is there an analogy, in another area of entertainment; one that fits what you say about comedians.
DS Sure, music is a great analogy for comedy. There’s one Justin Bieber, with many, many less successful clones. What makes a singer or comedian different counts most.
Women and men, of all ages, from thirteen to seventy-two, enrol in my workshops. The younger ones often come to the first session with a copy of “Eddie Murphy Raw,” which makes mom and dad laugh, uproariously. The parental reaction to Murphy makes the kids want to litter their comedy with “dirty words.”
I tell them they won’t talk that way in my workshop. Comedy has evolved. The shock value, of scatological comedy, is long gone.
Comedians are smarter, today. The degree of observation is more acute. Comedians, today, are also thinking about business; working blue, that is, “dirty,” severely limits where a comedian can work.
The job market for comedians is increasingly corporate events and cruises. Both events call for “clean comedy.” If a comedian makes even the slightest off-colour joke or drops a double entendre, it can mean the corporate or cruise booker will never reconsider him or her again.
GS What’s your favourite word?
DS Conundrum, that is, as in a puzzle, mystery or challenge.
GS What is your least favourite word?
DS Hate, which is a waste of time.
GS How many students do you take in one workshop?
DS Ten students is the maximum.
GS Do you usually get ten sign ups.
DS Yes, each workshop sells out. Today, I started a new workshop in Chicago, which sold out. I finished a workshop in Cleveland last Wednesday; it had sold out, too. I regularly have a waiting list.
GS Does everyone that signs up for your workshops want to do stand-up.
DS Maybe, but I don’t believe so. Developing a stage presence is important for women or men that run large meetings, for example. Dan Nainan, he’s mainly a corporate comedian, started, as a presenter during talks by Andy Grove, when Grove was CEO of Intel; he used offhand comedy to relax the audience.
GS Does comedy have a history?
DS Yes, court jesters found ways to make a king or a queen laugh, perhaps to save their own lives. Shakespeare wrote comedies, such as “The Merry Wives of Windsor” or “Twelfth Night.” Today, most comedy relies on the same techniques Shakespeare used, such as, circumstance dominating character, a climax with a twist, which, today, is the punchline or word for a premise or setup and so forth.
Music and comedy are inexpensive forms of entertainment, widely available throughout history. The first cave dweller, to knock his head on the cave ceiling, likely evoked laughter; the large bump on his head brought sympathy. Music and comedy are healthy diversions.
In 1849, Josh Billings was telling jokes that are still in use, today, in a way. He was the top figure in American humour, at the time. He stuck tail feathers, from a rooster, in his cap, which produced much laughter at the time; he gave audiences a good feeling.
More recently, comedy moved through several stages, quickly. The 1970s focused on shock, often brought on by profanity; Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Eddie Murphy are examples. During the 1970s, comedy clubs attracted audiences from the suburbs into the city, say, the Original Improv in midtown New York City.
In the 1980s, many comedians got sitcoms and mainstream comedy became squeaky clean. At the same time, clubs moved to the suburbs and the city clubs faltered. Suburban clubs were closer to home, often less expensive and featured many of the comedians once found only in big city clubs.
The 1990s were a boom for comedy. Every other show on television featured stand-up comedians. Stand-up comedy on television kept the club audience at home.
GS What turns you on?
DS Rock and Roll Music; I wrote two books on “The Beatles.”
GS What turns you off?
GS What is the future of comedy?
DS Honestly, I don’t know. Increasingly, comedians rely on corporate events and cruises for work, maybe some colleges. This means working clean is necessary. Otherwise, I’m not sure of the future of comedy.
GS In your workshops, do you make a distinction between stand-up comedy and late-night monologues, such as what David Letterman or Jimmy Fallon do?
DS Yes, I do. I explain that someone, such as Letterman or Fallon, has a huge writing staff. They may have a daily pool of one hundred or more new jokes from which to select, to build, a six-minute monologue. Their monologues must be fresh, every night, and usually are fresh, given the volume of material from which they can choose.
GS I think the final monologue for Letterman is eight-to-ten jokes. Leno was roughly more than twenty. I’m not sure about Fallon.
DS Right, each late-night monologue draws a few jokes from a huge pool of fresh material. I explain, in my workshops, how a comedian, unlike someone doing a late-night monologue, usually writes his or her stand-up routines. This takes time; it can take up six months or longer to write and learn a routine.
Every time a stand-up comedy performs, in a sense, she or he is writing or rewriting routine, finding out what works and what doesn’t work. This is one reason stage time is important. It’s the only way to find out what works and what doesn’t work for a comedian.
Some comedians use a rule of three. If new material doesn’t work, doesn’t evoke laughter three times in a row, they drop it from the act. If it works three times in a row, she or he keeps the new material in the act.
GS Testing new material, trying it out before a live audience, is important for building a stand-up routine.
DS Yes, when I ran the Improv, in Los Angeles, Jay Leno came in to try out new material, almost every day. His writers, from “The Tonight Show,” would come in during the week, too.
I must push comedians, with whom I work, to develop an act. Testing jokes, in an act, under fire, is essential. A live audience lets you know, quickly, if a joke works.
GS What is your favourite indulgence?
DS Chicken wings and beer are my favourite indulgence. Once a week, my wife, Deb, and I do wings and beer. Sometimes we don’t even leave the house. W we grab some wings and beer as we head into the basement to watch a DVD.
GS Stand-up comedy is hard work.
DS Yes, Leno is a great stand-up comedian, as is David Letterman. They’re two of the best; yet, both had or have a staff of writers to rely on. Stand-up comedians that work local clubs or tour work much harder than do late-night monologists.
GS Bob Hope had a large staff of writers on call almost 24/7.
DS True, but the comedians I work with are on their own. She or he writes their stand-up routines. It’s not unheard-of to buy a joke, here or there, but it’s rare; a joke that works for one comedian often doesn’t work for another.
GS What’s the difference?
DS Comedy is a creative art form. You’re a creative artist when you’re doing stand-up comedy. You’re no different from an author, musician or painter. As comedians, men and women write plays, do stand-up comedy, paint pictures or take photographs. They’re a creative artist.
David Letterman has a hundred jokes, say, e-mailed into the show by approved writers, each day. Leno went through phases. When he took over from Carson, he had a writing room. For a while, he had jokes e-mailed to the show by writers. At end of his run on “The Tonight Show,” he had a writing room, again.
Approved writers can write in the style of Letterman or Leno. That’s how a joke writer gets on the approval list. The show staff agrees the writer can consistently write in the voice of the late-night monologist.
GS I agree, but wonder if monologue and stand-up content, “jokes,” build differently.
DS I don’t see a difference between monologue and stand-up content, material. I believe they’re the same, other than the voice in which the writers build the jokes.
GS A joke is a joke.
DS In a sense, yes, Jay Leno is a great stand-up comedian. His monologue, on “The Tonight Show,” was a mostly clean stand-up routine; the same is true for the Johnny Carson monologues, although Carson did the occasional off-colour joke or double entendre. Late-night television talk show monologues are stand-up routines, if much briefer, say five to seven minutes, ten to thirty jokes.
GS Dick Van Dyke had a good formula for writing comedy, which he got from Carl Reiner. He said the buildup and punchline or word had to match by weight. A great buildup to a weak punchline went nowhere; a long set up needed a heartier laugh than a short set up.
DS I agree, but understand there’s no sure-fire formula for writing comedy. In large part, it depends on the comedian. There’s style to delivery. Among joke tellers, such as Rodney Dangerfield or Henny Youngman, say, the setup is brief as is the punchline or word.
Young would say, “For our anniversary, my wife said she wanted to go somewhere she had never been. We spent the night in the kitchen.”
Dangerfield always said it was setup, middle and punchline in quick succession. “I don’t get any respect,” he’d say. “I step into an elevator and before I can say anything, the operator says, ‘Down?’”
Bob Newhart tells great, comedic stories. He can hold a huge audience for a fifteen-minute story. The audience is then ready for a shorter story or two before he does another long piece.
Newhart is a great example of this because his stories are colourful and descriptive. You and I remember “The Beatles.” That means we remember listening to Newhart albums. He created mental visions of his characters; what they looked like, what they were doing and so forth.
Stand-up comedy and comedic storytelling are different beasts. There’s little, if any overlap. Neither can follow the formula that works for the other, nor can anyone mimic Youngman, Dangerfield or Newhart, effectively.
I like to call it colours; stories use much colour. The descriptions are in place and it builds to a big ending. This is the punchline, which resolves the story.
GS Do you think it’s a punch word or a punchline?
DS That depends on the joke or the routine. I’m trying to think of a punch word joke. Rodney Dangerfield would say, “My wife wants to have sex in the car. The trouble is she wants me to drive.” In this case, “drive,” is the punch word.
On a “Tonight Show” appearance, years ago, the late David Brenner opened with the following joke. “Do you remember when total recall meant you had a good memory? Yeah, it’s changed. The other day General Motors announced a total recall of 248,000 cars.” Then he tagged the joke, with, “The problem was the brakes. When you stepped on the brake pedal, the car didn’t stop.”
In a way, there’s a punchline, “Announced a total recall of 248,000 cars,” and a punch word, “stop,” in this joke. The joke hits the audience twice. If the first part doesn’t work, the second does or both will.
GS What’s your favourite piece of clothing?
DS Jeans, I buy multiple pairs of the same jeans.
GS Among those that make a distinction between monologues and stand-up routines, truth is a defining part: monologues begin with truth, say, a news story.
DS That’s another way of saying topical. Focusing on current events, as monologues often do, involves truth, of a sort. Monologues need fresh material five days a week; news is the easiest place to find new, raw material for fresh jokes.
The news media report an event, on the assumption, the facts it has are true. If a comedian uses a reported event to launch a joke, then, yes, truth drives the monologue or stand-up routine. Still, stand-up is less reliant on topicality than is a monologue.
GS Stand-up tends not to be as topical as monologues on late-night television.
DS Not necessarily, consider the late Rodney Dangerfield. He did non-topical, standard-form jokes. “The way my luck is running,” Dangerfield might say, “If I were a politician, I’d be honest.”
GS Rodney Dangerfield was a classic.
GS I get the sense a stand-up routine focuses on stories far less than topical jokes.
DS Yes, true, but the important goal is to build rapport with the audience, right away. How does a comedian do that? Many comedians rely on the topical, on current events; what’s going on in the city where they’re performing.
Comedians call me because I’ve worked in New York and Los Angeles. I worked in Cleveland, too. Now, I’m working in Chicago. They want to talk about how to work the market.
“What’s important and topical,” they ask, “for audiences in each city?” I might get a call, from a former student. She says, “I’m starting to work Cleveland this Thursday night. What should I talk about?”
The comedian wants to open with a joke or comment with which the audience can identify and likes. A comedian may be new to the market and unaware of potential sore spots. Thus, they ask others that know the market.
Alternatively, a comedian might reveal something personal to set the audience at ease. David Attell comments on his baldness; Dan Nainan talks about his Japanese and Indian heritage, Lisa Harmon about her weight and so forth. From these comments, the comedian goes into her or his stand-up act.
GS What would the act be, today?
DS I refer to comedians as creative artists. Their art form changes, with time. All versions of creative art can find an audience; a comedian can hope that audience is large enough to allow him to make a living.
No one is doing a succession of one-liners, as did Dangerfield or Henny Youngman. Jerry Seinfeld is doing observational comedy. Down the street, Carrot Top is using props in a successful stand-up show.
GS There’s no template, today, as there might have been fifty years ago.
DS No, there are few, if any, modern Bob Hopes. Bob Newhart continues to work, telling longer stories than do most comedians, except for Bill Cosby, only Louis C K may come close to that. There’s much attitude and edgy self-deprecation, today, though.
GS Television shrunk the number of comedy clubs, with content that mimics the clubs.
DS That’s been a pattern for some time. It’s easier to watch comedy, at home, safer, too, and less expensive. Cable channels, today, rerun network comedy shows, from the past, which expands the extensive choice.
In the early 1990s, I booked the television show, “An Evening at the Improv,” on A&E. The show spawned much competition. There was “Caroline’s Comedy Hour,” “Comedy on the Road,” “The A-list” and “Stand-up Spot Light,” on VH1, among others, on other networks.
GS That was saturation.
DS Over-saturation, I’d say. At one point, I read, there were three thousand comedy clubs, in the USA; a few years later, the number was down to one thousand. Today, there are even fewer clubs. Everybody stays home to watch comedy on television.
I ran the Improv, in New York City, the original one in Hell’s Kitchen, on the west side, 44th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. It had the original brick wall that so many clubs copied. The audience came from all over, Queens, out on Long Island and the other suburbs.
Once television got on the comedy bandwagon, the audience from the suburbs dwindled. They stayed home to watch comedy on television and avoid the long drive in and out of the city, the cost of parking, babysitting and so forth. Extra-large screen televisions brought the in-home experience closer to the live show.
GS Where do comedians work, today?
DS I believe a good comedian knows the markets she or he can work and does. Clubs are still important and, of course, there are the Improv locations, which I worked many years. Today, I work the Chicago Improv.
All the Improv locations remain a big deal. Headlining an Improv is high status. It builds the fan base for a comedian. Audiences know the comedian is good, else how could she or he headline at an Improv; the same goes for “Comedy Central,” on television.
Comedians are smarter, today. As I said, they know and understand the business, the corporate market, the cruise ship market and the college market, where an of off-colour or double entendres probably go over.
Twenty years ago, when I was booking in New York City and Los Angeles, I don’t remember much talk about corporate or college shows. Those weren’t the goals. All those years ago, the goals were the Improv and other big clubs as well as “The Tonight Show.”
Only when I began working in the Midwest did the college market become a goal for comedians. There are several thousand colleges in the USA and the money is good, but the comedian might work atop a table in a cafeteria. The corporate and cruise market, as well, became a goal for comedians.
Good comedians are adaptable. He or she knows it’s important to remember their audience and taper their act to it. Thus, a good comedian can do clubs, corporate events, cruises and colleges as well as television if it becomes available.
I think it comes down to writing and creating. One idea I try to instil, in my workshop participants, is to write. A comedian must write his or her act and deliver it as if it were spontaneous.
GS Jack Benny said his best ad-libs were the ones he rehearsed the most.
DS Yes, in my workshops, I offer writing tips and ways to develop a strong writing style for stand-up comedy.
I worked with X-rated comedians, Christian comedians and everyone between. One idea, which they all must share, is being true to their own beliefs. “Write comedy consistent with your outlook on life,” I say. “Be true to you.”
Martin Lawrence, Richard Pryor and George Carlin used words and ideas that reflected who they are or were. No one could tell them to work clean. It wouldn’t pan out; they’d say, “This is who I am.”
I worked with Bill Hicks. He had a reputation for not working clean, as did Sam Kinison, among others. Hicks and Kinison were great comedy writers and intelligent; in the right club, they soared and the audience went home satisfied.
With or without the F-bomb, Hicks and Kinison had great material. They liked to shock audiences, though; it was part of the fun for them. Bill Hicks was a comedy genius.
Eventually, comedians that are good writers survive and are successful. Maybe they continue to write and perform great stand-up. Maybe they move to a writing room for a sitcom. Maybe they write for late-night television monologists. Maybe they write, in their basements, for their own pleasure.
GS We know about the public, the performance, side of Bill Hicks. What was he like offstage?
DS Easy-going, he hung out at the Improv, in New York City, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I worked there at the time. I always thought the funniest part, of working the Improv, better than the shows, even, was hanging around the bar, listening to the comedians talk before they went onstage. Bill Hicks was there, Larry David, co-creator of “Seinfeld,” and many others.
The atmosphere was great. Onstage, Bill Hicks was flammable; he would say much what people thought, but were afraid to say. Offstage, he was much quieter, cool, thoughtful.
GS What is something you like to collect?
DS I’m a pack-rate
GS What must you have with you all the time?
DS My Kindle, for sure, and my laptop must be with me always.
GS Comedians are commenters.
DS Yes, they watch, most acutely, from the edges. I think if a comedian is successful, she or does it from the edges. He or she sees the folly, of mainstream society, most clearly from the edge, where she or he avoids the competitive frenzy.
This may explain why, at one time, the early and middle twentieth century, say, comedians often came from ethnic groups not yet fully integrated into America. A hundred years ago, vaudeville built on ethnic humour. Dutch humour, which was a guise for anti-German humour, was everywhere.
By the 1960s, Carlin was the “Hippy-Dippy Weatherman.” That was comedy, at the time, family jokes about husbands, wives and children; mostly mocking. Red Foxx and a handful of other comedians worked “blue,” but not in important clubs.
Still, the “Hippy-Dippy Weatherman” was a subtle, ironic commentary on the mainstream. Local radio was an essential part of the day for most people. This was especially true for mornings and diving home after work.
The weathercast were often void of much meaning; “It’s sunny and hot.” Well, listeners could see that for themselves. When the weather turned bad, say, a snow story or tornado, weathercasts took on more importance.
Weather presenters, on radio or television, have a tradition of being the fool. It compensates for the long periods of time when they have little or nothing to say. Carlin grabbed on to that tradition for his “Hippy-Dippy Weatherman.”
GS Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy worked from the edge.
DS Yes, Richard Pryor is dropping the F-bomb, repeatedly, in a top grossing film of his performance, “Live on the Sunset Strip.” This reveals him as an outsider. After his time on “Saturday Night Live,” Eddie Murphy is dropping mother-f**ker in a top a grossing movie, “Raw.” Murphy, too, identifies himself as an outside until his family movies were huge successes.
In the 1970s, George Carlin challenged with the law, with his “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television,” routine and won. The words are shit, piss, f**k, c**t, c**ksucker, motherf**ker and tits. In the 1960s, Lenny Bruce used the same list, as did Carlin, adding ass and balls to a list of words that will get you arrested.
GS Success, for a comedian, as most creative artists, likely means moving from the edge toward the centre. A sharp producer builds a sitcom, for example, around the comedian, as happened to Roseanne Barr, Ray Romano and, of course, Jerry Seinfield. The rest of the cast are strong, B-list actors.
“Home Improvement,” the hit sitcom of the 1990s, built firmly on the stand-up act of its star, Tim Allen. “Roseanne” built on the persona Roseanne Barr perfected in her stand-up act. “Seinfeld,” of course, is the champion of this strategy.
DS I think that’s true.
GS Success also means his or her comedy grows blander, as she or he doesn’t want to disturb those that occupy the centre of society. She or he doesn’t want to rock the boat.
DS That’s interesting. Carlin might be the exception. Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison, had they lived, would like have stayed at or near the edge. Eddie Murphy moved toward the centre, given his movie success, which he didn’t want to disturb.
Lenny Bruce, for all his problems sixty years ago, did have the chance to move from the edge, but choose not to move. Mort Sahl never made it all the way to the centre, with his brand of political observation and comment humour.
Carlin was “The Hippy-Dippy Weatherman,” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That was a different form of observation and commentary than later in his career. It was still from the edgy, just not as far as he was later in his career.
GS What occupation, other than author or comedy coach, would you like to try?
DS Rock Star, who wouldn’t?
GS What occupation would you not like to try?
DS Anything that would put me in a suit and cubicle
GS Do you think Woodstock change entertainment.
Yes, after Woodstock entertainment, comedy included, changed. Before long, suits and ties, the uniform of two or three generations of stand-up comedians, were gone. Carlin had long hair, beard and wore tees and jeans. Scatological punch words and lines popped up everywhere, in the 1970s.
Much the same happened in music and radio. Music lyrics quickly grew more suggestive, “Let’s spend the night together,” for example, from “The Rolling Stones,” or their “Brown Sugar.” Shock jocks, such as Howard Stern, became more widespread.
Still, some comedians, notably Ray Romano, stayed in the mainstream. They succeeded. They moved to the centre via wildly successful sitcoms.
GS Romano is a great comedian, too often overlooked and thought of as only a sitcom star.
DS Yes, he is great comedian, one of our regulars at the Improv, in New York City. He was on our Improv softball team, our shortstop. Larry David played first base
GS I can only imagine sitting on the bench, among these great comedians.
DS It was hysterical. Getting back to Ray Romano, his act solidly based on his family life. His mom and dad lived next door to him. His brother lived with him. He has a wife. He has kids.
GS His life became a huge hit sitcom, “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
DS Romano never went near the edge. At the New York Improv, Romano would do a set before Bill Hicks, who was oh-so different, hovering somewhere at the edge, about to fall off, into the abyss. The variation was remarkable and funny.
This was every night at the New York Improv. Brett Butler was great, too, and often overlooked. “Grace under Fire” was her hit sitcom. She’d go onstage, at the Improv, and no one knew what she’d do to be so funny. The same with Larry David, we never knew what he would do.
I didn’t see many Christian comedians at the Improv, but they existed, too. There were so many these different acts. Some did family humour, some were on the edge, most, I guess, were between those extremes.
GS What are you reading right now?
DS I read a great deal, “Down the Highway: the life of Bob Dylan,” by Howard Sounes, is on my night table. Last week, I read the autobiography of Carol Klein, “A Natural Woman.”
GS As well as your own books, what books do you urge readers to read?
DS Anything entertaining, such as “The Beatles: all these years Volume 1,” by Mark Lewisohn. It’s the first of his trilogy on “The Beatles.” In this book, they’re young smarty-pants, with much angst, and trying to make it.
GS What’s your favourite curse word?
DS Fuck, what else, it’s the world for all occasions.
GS Did Carlin try new material at the Improv, in New York City?
DS Yes, of course, he’d often come to the Improv to try new material. Carlin might ask to do seven minutes. This meant he wanted to test a material for an HBO special, say.
At the end of seven minutes, Carlin would ask me, “Can I do a few more minutes?” I was running a comedy club. As if I would say, “No.”
Word would get around that Carlin was at the Improv. Every comedian, in the city, would head for the Improv. Suddenly, the back of the showroom would pack with comedians.
GS I’ll bet.
DS One night Carlin came into the Improv. He had the sniffles from allergies. He was carrying a small package of facial tissues, in his back pocket.
As he was finishing a great seven minutes, he explained, to the audience, he had allergies; thus, the sniffles. He took out a tissue, blew his nose and then did twenty minutes, more, on the facial tissues. He was making it up on the spot, as far as I could tell.
GS Spontaneous comedy is possible.
DS Yes, experienced comedians can talk extemporaneously and get away with it.
GS I heard a story of Seinfeld asking to do seven minutes at “Gotham,” in New York City. At the end of the seven minutes, the audience began to shout out demands, “Do the Post Office” and so forth. He stayed for more than one hour; it was like a 1960s pop band playing a small setting, everyone wanted to hear the hits.
DS I’m not surprised.
GS Dave Attell worked, with you, at the Improv in New York City.
DS Yes, he was starting out in comedy. He was the door attendant and my right-hand. I couldn’t do anything at the Improv without the help of Attell.
He was still doing open-mics, trying to break into the bigger clubs. On a lunch break, say, Attell would run across town to do a brief set at another club. On another break, he’d rush to another club to do a set.
GS That’s driven.
DS Yes, a great person. I like him. Onstage, Attell delivered much attitude; he seemed a time bomb. Offstage, he’s as sweet as can be.
GS Onstage persona and a different personality offstage works best.
DS Yes, Emmett Kelly, the renowned circus clown said persona and personality was necessary, if a clown, a comedian, was to make the audience laugh. There are comedians that are the same off and onstage, such as Ray Romano. Most, in my experience, are different on and offstage, such as Bill Hicks or Dave Attell.
As I mentioned, earlier, onstage, Bill Hicks was explosive. Offstage, he was calm, friendly and, in a way, quiet. Onstage, he could be different from night to night, sometimes intense and ready to attack; other times, more thoughtful and philosophical.
Some comedians would do the same jokes, repeatedly, every night; everybody knew their acts by heart. It wasn’t unusual to stand near the stage and watch one or more comedians mouth the act of the comedians onstage; that’s how familiar some comedians become, probably without knowing it.
GS They think different night, different audience, I guess.
DS That may be true. I don’t recall Bill Hicks doing the same act twice; he always seemed fresh. He would pace the stage, smoking, talking and thinking.
GS Audiences want comedians to repeat well-known routines; it comfort food for the soul.
DS Yes, as The Rolling Stones must play “Satisfaction,” “Brown Sugar” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” else the audience leaves disappointed. Comedians must do their well-known material. Bobby Collins must talk about his dog. Seinfeld must talk about waiting in line at the post office.
It’s common for the audience to call out routines they want to hear. Usually, this happens after the comedian does whatever she or he wants to do. At a Jeff Foxworthy show, the audience will want his “You Might be a Redneck if …” routine, which is usually his encore.
GS Must a comedian find his or her own material funny?
DS Of course, take Carrot Top, he loves prop humour and that’s what he does. Comedians, in New York City, degrade prop humour. Yet, Carrot Top sells out everywhere; he works a great deal in Vegas, which pays him well. Audiences can tell he loves what he does.
A successful comedian does what she or he enjoys. When they do, the audience enjoys the material, too. If a comedian tries to fake it, the audience knows.
Newer comedians often hire a writer or buy material off the web, which is a sin. They try to memorise the bought material, but it means nothing to them. Audiences know their soul is not in the material, as it would be if they wrote it themselves.
If the comedian doesn’t think or know if a joke is funny, the audience will agree. A-list comedians share what they think is funny, their material has a personal meaning. Audiences prefer genuine comedians.
It’s important for comedians to read, a great deal. Bill Hicks, from all accounts, was a voracious reader. From reading come new ideas for jokes and routines.
GS In a sense, you’re saying good comedy bases in fact or even truth.
DS Yes, there’s an episode of “Seinfeld” focusing on the fact George Costanza, portrayed by Jason Alexander, is losing his hair. He orders a hair tonic from China, but the instructions are in Chinese. Cosmo Kramer, portrayed by Michael Richards, says, “Let’s order Chinese Food and have the deliveryman translate the instructions.” They do.
Larry David, co-creator of “Seinfeld,” did this exactly from the Improv. He had hair tonic or another product, with the instructions in Chinese. He used the phone, at the Improv, to order Chinese Food, from down the street. The deliveryman translated the instructions for him.”
GS Truth is stranger than fiction.
DS One sitcom strategy is to borrow from life.
GS What’s your favourite ice cream?
DS Chocolate Cherry Bordeaux, but I do experiment
GS What sound or noise do you love?
DS The noise my rain noise machine makes; puts me to sleep.
GS There seem so few women comedians, which leads to the idea women are not funny.
DS Women are funny. I worked with many funny women, Reneé Hicks, for example. I don’t understand why men think women are not funny.
Someone once asked me to name twenty comedians. Here’s what I came up with, without much thought. Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Phyllis Diller, Jean Carroll, Totie Fields and Joan Rivers, were all funny; Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg and Roseanne Barr are funny. In the 1990s, Brett Butler, Nancy Redman, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Wendy Liebman, Margaret Cho, Anita Wise, Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer, Tammy Pescatelli, Jann Karam, Sue Kolinsky, Janeane Garofalo, Leighann Lord, Valri Bromfield, Rita Rudner, Lisa Lampanelli, Rhonda Shear, Mary Ellen Hooper and Judy Gold, among others, were hilarious. Today, there’s Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin and Ellen DeGeneres.
GS That’s thirty, not twenty, comedians, all women.
DS In the early 1990s, when I managed the Original Improv, on West 44th Street, in New York City, I unintentionally put together a show with only women comedians. I didn’t realise that was a comedy club no-no. A comedy big shot told me I made a mistake and not to repeat it.
A week or so later, Marlo Thomas, Elaine Mae and Phil Donahue came to the club to see a regular show. Afterwards, Thomas asks to talk with me. I figure one of the comedians insulted her, but she says, “Why aren’t there more women performing at the Improv.”
GS I think she was right.
DS I agree.
GS Is there a mistake you made, when you began authoring and coaching comedy, which you now regret.
DS In coaching comedy, no, there was no major blunder. I got into that work slowly, over a few years. I kept my mistakes to a minimum.
As for publishing books, a big mistake, I do regret, is thinking I could publish my first book with a New York publisher, without having a literary agent. I can tell you how that’s next to impossible.
GS What inspires you?
DS How each us fits into everyday life.
GS In what city could you lose yourself for hours to explore.
DS New York City, it’s impossible to find everything that city offers.
GS What is something about you that would surprise readers?
DS I’m a self-taught piano player.
GS Thanks, Dave.
DS You’re welcome.
Dave Schwensen (2013), “How to be a Working Comic,” published by North Shore Publishing.
Dave Schwensen (2012), “Comedy Workshop: creating and writing comedy material,” published by North Shore Publishing.
Dave Schwensen (2005), “Comedy FAQs and Answers: how the stand-up biz really works,” published by Allworth Press.
*Howard Lapides is an LA-based Talent Manager and Award Winning Movie and Television producer.
Click here to buy books by Dave Schwensen.
Click here to watch Dave Schwenson Comedy Workshop participants perform.
Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews.
Interview edited and condensed for publication.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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