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!
Comic to Comic: Greg Proops!
I was able to sit down in a groovy little cove in the lobby of the W in Midtown. I had just gotten an area in mind to do the interview when Mr. Proops walks over and plants a genuine kiss on my crippled forehead. His hair was perfectly coiffed and he looked and smelled divine! Not the usual bar room comedian I am so used too. Of course, forever the comedienne, I had to ask if he had any “work done.” Greg chuckled devilishly and said he had recently lost 40lbs as he got tired of being asked if he was his wife’s dad. I couldn’t help but laugh. as I know all too well how that feels.
Greg had a tight schedule, and I felt very fortunate that he could sit down with The Backstage Beat. He was on his way to the venue for 3 nights of standup and a Sunday night live podcast. I listened to a few of his “Smartest Man in the World” Proopcasts before meeting with him. His podcasts are hilarious!
Greg sits onstage at a modest table with a mic, a “couple” glasses of vodka, and a non gender orange cardboard kitten whose name is Kitten McTavish. He tells me McTavish’s story. The kitten is a reminder to replace some of his swearing, was named by his wife, and was picked up in London at a Christmas market. Kitten McTavish has become quite the charmer, and between McTavish and Greg, they receive a lot of questions. He loves reading and answering all of his emails and has a special account for that reason. You can write him or hell even McTavish at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greg told me he was on his way to London next and that he really enjoys a small venue. This seems to be very popular with a lot of the comedians we interview. I asked him what is his deciding factor in choosing a venue to perform while in Atlanta. Greg explained to me that he had known the club owner where his weekend performances were for the greater part of 10 years. He was told he was going to put all the “groovy comedians” in this comedy club. We both laughed hysterically because it was at that point I realized that I was not “groovy.” I am indeed just an old lady living her dream.
I had to talk to him about his comedic flow. While he delivers setups, punch lines, and callbacks, it is so natural; you feel like you are engaged in a conversation with him. Yet he is the only person talking! I consider him not only the smartest man, but also the funniest man in the world. He is just naturally hilarious. Genetically engineered that way. I asked him how he prepares for a show. He says he takes a lot of notes. However, doesn’t have much time to prepare. From flying, to interviews, to check in…the time is just not there.
I asked him why he chose podcast over straight stand up. Greg was very passionate with his answer and he’s full of feminist history. He wants to be fair to everyone. He said with great conviction, “I get real bored with straight male comedians and my girlfriends so fat… and these bitches do that… not just white male comedians ALL male comedians. And I just get real bored with it and I don’t find it amusing anymore…even moreover….and I’m not trying to take high moral grounds here…the lack of awareness in that area is what really drives me up the God damn wall! Like you’re not even aware that your being an asshole. Just like all men, you walk through the world because the world belongs to you and they don’t even see that. They don’t even see their in a privileged position by being a man.”
Since the “Proopcast” aired he has a lot of women that listen and write him. Women that write him that say “Thank you for mentioning this or talking about that. Like today is International Women History Day and I guarantee you NO ONE will mention it.”
Greg continues with, “TV executives will tell you young people want to watch young people. And listen…they are UNBELIEVABLY WRONG about that! They don’t care who it is IF they are interesting to them. I was watching Lily Tomlin at 7, and Carol Burnett. They think the young want to watch the young and they don’t care at all. Network execs are obsessed with it.”
We talk about that being the kind of resistance I’m running into as a comedienne starting so late in age. Greg says, “People resist.” I feel relieved; at least he notices. He continues, “To make you feel bad about yourself. You’re too heavy. You’re too this. You’re too that. I’m too effeminate. I’m too smart. I play over the crowds head. Whatever the reasons are… have glasses. We already have someone with glasses. I’ve been on auditions where they say will you please take off your glasses? We already have someone with glasses. Well…I WEAR GLASSES! Do you want me to walk into the rest of the cast? I’ll take them off.” We both discover we are not only blind but also deaf without our glasses and gnarly funny Helen Keller impressions ensue.
We get serious again and discuss how comics are treated because of our age. Especially me as a woman. He gets passionate again and states regarding Comedy Central “They would sooner kill themselves than not put on a 29-31 year old guy. DIE…DIE…DIE. They have a bunch of new shit that is better than their old shit, like Key and Peele, thank god. In general they want it to be frat boy.”
Again we talk about resistance. I tell him I get discouraged. Greg adamantly says, “You’re either good or you’re not good. Judge me on my merit.” That is all we ask for we both agree. He goes on to say, “Oh you’re that…don’t put a label on me before I’ve said anything.”
He continues with an answer to the question on every comedian’s mind. Greg believes you got to get out of town to “make it” in some cases. “The geography of the place dictates how ignorant and stupid and vile people can be to you. ‘Well I’m from here and were shit kickers so fuuuuuck you.’ Really…really that’s how the world works you can’t open your mind in any way because where you live people throw sticks of dynamite in a pond? So when I get on the podcast these are the things on my mind. And I try to discuss them in an intelligent way. Also political things…Generalization.” Greg will go through an article that he says, “It isn’t even truth…oh the Pope left. THE POPE DID NOT LEAVE! HE’S NOT ALLOWED TO LEAVE! Oh it’s over now? No. it’s just beginning.”
We get back to the comic to comic basics. Greg says he is “Making a willful effort to dig up some old stuff, beat it up, and try to re fix it.” He says of the audience “They were half buying it last night,” and he wants to do more freestyle.
I felt inclined to ask him if he actually drinks vodka onstage or is it water in his glass. He was more than enthusiastic when answering “VODKA.” I went into my whiskey relapse story. We were both in agreement that we like to get shit faced. He enjoys doing his “Proopcast” or “vodcast” as he can just drink and talk. Greg makes me feel better about myself by saying, “All musicians and comics are drunks and drug addicts.” If you can feel better about something like that.
We talked “comedian hours.” Mr. Proops describes something I’m getting all too familiar with. He says, “You finish the late show at 1am after whipping a crowd into a frenzy. You spend 23 hours of the day focusing on THIS part of the day. And people don’t, and they don’t need to, understand the mechanics of comedy. We’re speaking as comics. It doesn’t matter to them. It should seem like magic. It should seem like you just thought of it. And they can be fooled. And that’s okay.”
“The thing is for us the doing of ‘it’ is 1/24th of the day. IF that much.” Interviews, flying, maybe writing something. “Then when you’re done, it’s like let’s go eat breakfast or let’s go eat pizza because I can’t fucking sleep.”
The conversation turns to Bob Hope. Greg gives me the scoop! “He would get up between 10-11am and would make his entire family have dinner at midnight. Everybody dressed. I’m not kidding. He kept comedian hours as if he was gigging his whole life and then he got up and golfed.”
I turned the conversation back to Greg’s pre-show prep. He told me sometimes that he stands in the back and listens. He says, “People go, ‘Do you care what topics I talk about?’ I go, no. Because I learned a long time ago from a friend of mine named Will Durst… I said to him, I got this Reagan joke and I want to do it. But I know you got a bunch of stuff on it. And he goes, ‘Your opening the floor and you’re not doing my joke…your doing your joke.’ And now the topic’s been raised so when I come out I can address it as well…. And I was like OH!”
Greg continues, “You know, ‘cuz sometimes people you know how they come up and go ‘Don’t say nothing about cats. I got cats. I do cats.’ And you’re like fuck you! You do cats. I do cats. Everybody does it you know.” Comics take note. I say to him, “You would not believe how bad that is here in Atlanta”. He belts out, “OH YEAH you’re not gonna talk about trucks are you? ‘Cuz I got a truck joke and I’m closing with it.” I tell him I’m not even allowed to do fat people jokes AND I’m fat! He tells me, “You have a lifetime experience of it and the pettiness will go away.” So that means I have hope? YES!
I end the interview with a question that we always do in Comic to Comic. Do you think one TV appearance like Carson back in the day can break a career? Mr. Proops answers, “It is the diametrical opposite of that. No! Drew Carey was the last person to get that big hit in ‘90 or ‘91. That was it. It doesn’t work that way anymore. It’s social media and internet. You have to hope for anything to happen.”
Greg decides to break my heart. “We are not going to be on Saturday Night Live. We’re too old. As soon as people hit 40 they are rejected. And that’s the way the world works.” So, I’m really over here crying… as I just spent my 40th birthday last Friday in rehab with a broken hip.
It seems like you don’t even have to be a comedian anymore to be entertaining. Greg chimes in with “Or an actor. They’re just looking for the next NeNe.” I try to find solace in this. As I am reminded once again, I may have started my comedic journey too late in life. Forever the optimist…I’m going with it’s still too early to call.
You can connect to Greg’s Proopcast “The Smartest Man in the World” and find out everything you need to know at www.gregproops.com.
Steven Wright – Comic to Comic
I road solo to see and talk with Veteran comic Steven Wright. The show at The Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points sold out days before and I couldn’t get my hands on any extra seats for anyone to join me. My seat selection did not matter since the sound at the Theater is excellent. The crowd was a mix of 40ish Blues type folks, mixed with a splash of Lyle Lovetts fan-base. Steven Wright strolled on stage at 8:15 and sat down with an opening guitar song. The lyrics were I Love My Phone More Than You. Fancy antics to get a huge crowd to put away their I-phones and prepare for 90 minutes of genius and thought. He gave over 300 one liners and short bits with no intermission. I tried to write down a handful of these zingers and soon got lost in my notes. I was amazed at his demeanor and wondered if he would be like this offstage? His one man show was a perfect set of insight, quirkiness, thought and opinion! Do yourself a favor and catch this icons act.
My nervous anticipation gelled as I waited at the backstage door with Stevens manager and a writer from the AJC . It cooled as I put my Jew game face on. Steven Wright greeted us with a fist pump and a confused smile. It was perfect and he was just like his stage persona. He asked myself and the other press what we had talked about on the phone until he was comfortable in his own head as to who we were. Steven told his manager he wanted to leave ample time to sit down as Comic to Comic with HTRosen and The Backstage beat. I waited patiently through the fans and Pomp and Circumstance. He took pictures with fans, not knowing his fly was down in every snapshot! He asked me “HT why didn’t you tell me my fly was down?” I was quick with my retort, Sorry man I thought it might have been your schtick! I didn’t want to intrude if it was your thing.
I was sitting face to face with Steven Wright and so this Episode of Comic to Comic began. Steven answered my recurring question by saying that one appearance on a Carson or Leno type program will not make or break anyone. There are too many outlets and ways to launch a career. The options and endless multiple layers of media have changed the game for good. If you had your life to live over. Would you live it over a delicatessen? (my 2nd Question), shocked Steven with delight and changed the mood of our chat. He laughed and began to take interest. He explained how his career has been made up of his own decisions! Management always had there opinions, But Steven chose his own path. There has always been protocol to obtain appearances on shows like David Letterman. Every comic has to go through the same motions to obtain these spots. Steven Wrights comedic material choices have been his own. He was adamant on the fact that comedy has no rules and we need to figure out what works and specifically what works for us. Steven answered my(What Atlanta must haves and must do-s make up your list?) with a quip about doing and seeing nothing while he was here! His typical schedule is arriving, prepping for a show, doing the show and then moving to the next one. I joked about all the cities being the same. Steven corrected me with “No HT, They are many different cities that I have not seen.” He feels the southern crowds perceive his comedy no differently and television and the internet have created a Universal view in every town in the US. Steven Wright always set out to be a stand up comic. It was his fantasy and although he loves television and movies , His heart has been in stand up. He has been lucky because creating is like thinking and can not be stopped. Creativity is the fabric of his brain and his future looks promising. Stevens creative process started as planned and mapped out. After six months into his career his comedic radar took shape and all his ideas have just popped into his head ever since. He used to keep his sets loose and move material around. Nowadays his sets are scripted. His jokes are a play made up of one liners drawn like a painting.(you can find his original paintings on Stevenwright.com).
Steven wants our readers to experience some of his comics to watch. Check out, Bill Burr, Joe Derosso, Jim Jeffries, Ron Lynch and Dana Gould. You can find all about Steven Wright at Stevenwright.com on Facebook and on twitter. I truly enjoyed sitting Comic to Comic with him! He took great interest in my comedy views and Ajewandablackguy.com and what the Stereohypes.com are doing in the comedy world. I asked Steven if he wanted anything specific included in the article? He scratched his head, shook some dandruff into his palm and gave it to me!
Comic to Comic with Josh Blue
This episode of Comic to Comic starts in reverse order. I was sitting down at The Punchline with Josh Blue at the end of the night after his amazing set. Josh obviously was struggling with what the hell my rabbi’s attire was about as we loosened up and had a drink or two. He stuttered a Facacta L’chaim. This fantastic sentiment took me by surprise which is very hard to do because Josh takes a long time to get any words out.
I asked Josh if he thinks one appearance can make or break your comedy career. He thinks it’s a combination of many appearances that build a steady foundation in modern comedy. The Last Comic Standing winner started in a college town at student center where he had to move the pool tables to perform. His career has been built on mixing that college crowd from his beginning with the broader fan base he derived from national television fame and the title of Last Comic Standing. Every comic has their own path to follow. What works for one may or may not be the recipe for others. He accepts being labeled as a handicapped performer and feels his act is much more than just that label. He is very likeable on stage and addresses topics that touch all of our lives. Josh knows that he can’t get a way from the stereotypes, and if he can be both recognized by his disability and touch lives and educate about living with cerebal palsy, then he has succeeded in comedy!
The show was great. Fellow Stereohype Angela Miller was the host. She recently broke her hip and came on stage on crutches. Angela sat through her performance, and I think the fact that she was at crowd eye level made her set very identifiable. Her facial expressions and mannerisms define her genius approach to comedy. The feature for the evening was Manny Oliveira. I have seen him a lot on television and his down home comedy style did not disappoint A heckler was interrupting one of his bits and his retort was simple: “Lady, lady go with it for the sake of the freakin’ joke!” He described a ride on Buford Highway like being on a trip from Hong Kong to Hell. Angela brought out the star of the evening, Josh Blue. He came out with, “This make-a-wish is kickin’ my ass.” A couple was in the front row making out and Josh paused to see if they wanted us to wait while they went outside and got it on. I was impressed by his unique subtle way of dealing with hecklers and cell phones. The meter of his rhythm is slow and sets a relaxed tone. I couldn’t believe his set was 40 minutes and I hadn’t looked at my watch once. He opened the floor to questions and made the crowd feel like they were part of the show. Josh Blue will be at The Punchline all weekend doing shows Friday and Saturday night. There are still a few tickets left so get them at Punchline.com now!
Josh was born in Cameroon, West Africa and is now American making him an honest to goodness “African American.” I always inquire about what other comics associate with Atlanta and where they go every visit. Josh Blue gave the strangest and most interesting response I have gotten so far. He goes within a radius of whatever hotel he is at and tries to find at least 9 species of animals and critters. What a fantastic and nerdy hobby! Josh says he still gets nervous at every performance and thinks that is what drives him. He praises The Punchline and is adamant on the piece of advice he gave me about traveling and gaining a fanbase in every town. He says the waitstaff in the comedy clubs are the best gauge on success with the audience. Comics need to recognize that comedy club staff know what is funny and what is not. Be kind to the waitresses and barstaff because, they will save your ass when you are in trouble and fill the seats by word of mouth as well. He is married to a lovely Asian lady and made a crack of how people ask him if he has an Asian fetish. Josh says, “I guess I do now,” but the real question is what the hell kind of fetish does his wife have?
Josh likes to share the stage with all kinds of comedy acts. As long as they kill during their set, he feels it brings greatness to what he does. He always wants the crowd to walk away happy and people know the caliber of funny that he brings as a headliner. I want to add that Josh Blue was the easiest interview I have done as Comic to Comic with The Backstage Beat. His easy going but driven attitude makes this comic feel like the road ahead is bright. Making your own path is the only way to succeed and for longevity. You can find Josh Blue at The Punchline tonight and tomorrow. You can follow him anytime (just not too close!) on Twitter at @joshbluecomedy www.joshblue.com and find him on Facebook and at your local physical therapist’s office.
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