I sat down with Rob Shapiro after a week on the road with the king of underground New York comedy. We were at Siberia in the heart of historic New Orleans. The tour started at Jerry Farber’s in Atlanta. Jerry Farber had mistaken Rob for his brother Rick. The sibling comic rivalry has gone on since both brothers started in comedy in New York City so many years ago. Rick Shapiro has taken the fame role in this comedy family and Rob Shapiro has become the legend of underground.
With 25 plus years of a hard road-dog type career, Rob Shapiro mixes bitter times, a hardcore past and a sheer determination to be funny ‘till he dies. Rob reminds me of all my relatives with his gritty demeanor and a life-doesn’t-owe-me-shit outlook.
The interview starts with Rob’s description of the hotel our promoter booked him in. “Crackheads man, like everywhere, in the lobby and then again by the rooms. Genuine crackheads, so genuine that they have reached authentic status.” A fan and friend of 25 years walks up behind Rob and surprises him. He says that this kind of dedication to his comedy after all these years is what keeps him moving and shaking. I ask him the stock Comic to Comic question: “Rob, do you think one appearance on television can make or break a comedy career? Like back when you could go on Carson and the phone would start ringing?” He shrugs and gives the quirky grandpa-like smirk I have now seen over and over. Rob gets teary eyed and states that this question will take an hour to answer!
He rants about how the heart of comedy is gone and everyone thinks it is a get rich quick game. Rob started after his brother and saw a group of comics who treated each other like family. They would go out all night together. Rob was in his early thirties and saw the scene as a great mountain to conquer. Shapiro went the Ivy league Wall Street route prior to comedy and states that he was so jealous of Rick and the comedy scene that he had to do what he loved. There were no cliques in comedy. Everyone tried to help each other with the hopes that one would break and the rest would follow! Real comedy appears to be dead and there doesn’t appear to be heart anymore. Then Rob sees guys 35 and up doing it and it rekindles that drive and he sees heart in the older determined comics. He goes on to say everyone wants to be a writer and an actor first and a comic second. The guys who want to be comics and only comics get a better result.
There is a hunger that comes from doing just stand-up, and it drives Rob. When you just want to make people laugh, you will find it while you’re on stage–you learn to steer that car and hit it. You’re dancing with it, you’re living it, so genuine that it becomes authentic. In the old days, if a fellow comic saw you, they would say do that father joke, it kills. Nowadays a comic will say don’t do that joke again, ‘cause they are afraid you will upstage them. We are all in the same boat.
Marketing has become the new art. Function now follows form! Audiences have become so ready for a flashing light. You as a comic have to create a branding. Rob hates the term branding! He laughs at me saying that I was walking around the ghetto in New Orleans dressed in a black suit and Payas. Whatever it takes to make the audience take notice and give us as comics the platform to bring the funny. The audiences have become so Jimmy Falloned out of nothingness. We need our shtick since the backstabbing and nonsense between comics has become crazy! Most comics got into this business because we were antisocial and because we were hurt in life. Clubs like the Comedy Cellar in NYC or The Punchline in Atlanta have to compete now because every corner now has a club. Comedy clubs used to mean a vibrant force where they ran ads and filled the seats. They booked based on funny and to please a crowd that the reputation of the club backed.
Rob goes on and on to say most clubs will not bring in anyone, as if it was just a four wall place with a microphone. Every club owner used to be a producer and promoter, and now they forget that they sell drinks and we make ‘em laugh (simple logic from Rob Shapiro). My time with Rob has been crazy and a great opportunity to learn from a legend. He has taken A Jew and a Black Guy under his wing and schooled us. My tough New York street smart mentality is influenced by the originals of the field we struggle at every day. Rob Shapiro is a true original and we will see him back in the south this summer. He is just getting started all over again!