Every comedian has had someone who does not do comedy tell them “You can use that”. In this show host Will Carey collections joke suggestions from non comedians and makes the performers incorporate them into their act on the spot.
This week, Liam sits down at ShowBriz Studios and talks to bestselling mystery novelist Lawrence Block. Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers’ Guild, and the winner of the prestigious Edgar Award. His books include the “Hit Man” series, the “Burglar Who…” series, and, most famously, the “Matthew Scudder, PI” series, which includes the books 8 Million Ways to Die, A Dance at the Slaughter House, and A Walk Among the Tombstones, which was made into a film starring Liam Neeson.
Liam talks to Block about his career, about following one of his characters out into Greenpoint, about letting go of your work when it’s adapted into a Hollywood movie, and about his writing process.
You can buy all of Block’s work on Amazon in either Kindle or paperback, and also help support the podcast.
Twitter is actually allowing that comedians who post jokes on their service hold a degree of creative ownership, and are deleting theft posts from joke-aggregation accounts. This is fine; we’ve reached a point where some people make a very good living reposting jokes.
All this comes with social media users reexamining the free-and-easy spirit of Web 2.0, and “creative ownership.” I promise this blog entry stops being deadly dull in another couple sentences. For a long time, the idea has been, “once content is out there, it’s anybody’s.” This is the spirit behind the comfort in which not only jokes, but copyrighted “content” like music, standup, TV shows, and movies, get so freely shared for free.
I have a Twitter account. I post a lot of jokes, observations, pictures. Some get ignored. Some do well. Some do very very well. But I mostly post topical stuff, or jokes with a serious expiration date, or observations that are only maybe interesting in the context of my personal life as I choose to share it online. And I never post jokes or ideas that I would actually use in my own act or projects, because I’ve learned a long time ago that once you put it out there, it takes just one unscrupulous hack to use it, own it, and burn it for you for good.
12 years ago, I had a blog that i updated with some stories, but mostly bits, half-baked ideas, and fully-formed jokes from my notebook. In hindsight, that seems like a terrible idea, but it really helped; I got quite a few paying gigs out of the blog, including a private party performing in front of Tim Robbins, I mean literally, and I’ll tell that story some other time. When I was on Best Week Ever, I used my blog to showcase what i thought were my best jokes that the show cut out, and that helped the writers and producers of the show see that i was constantly generating way more material than they could use, which I believe extended my life as part of the cast.
That was also when Gawker, a big media site with hundreds of thousands of hits, had a daily blog roundup, and usually about once a week or so, they would highlight something I’d written. The point being, that for a while, my blog was a happening thing, and in hindsight I really should have pushed for some kind of book deal, because I had the readership numbers that blog-to-book deals were based on in the early 2000s. But I don’t regret that too much. But…
With that broad readership, though, came a problem I never thought would pop up. See, I thought that having my material out there, in written form, dated and stamped, would mean that I had an ownership of this material. But the other side of that was that I started seeing my jokes popping up in other comedians’ acts on late night. At first, I assumed it had to be parallel thinking, but after a few months, and I’d seen the fourth or fifth comedian on a TV show–a TV show which wouldn’t even consider me, mind–killing with a joke worded almost exactly the way I’d written it, I realized I had a problem. I was supplying material to people who had better representation than writing ability.
I never accused anybody, publicly or even privately. Because what can you say? I’ve been accused of joke-thieving a few times, and all those times I had proof that it was a case of parallel thinking, two comedians thinking of the same joke about the same premise. Here’s an example: I have a joke about sex and the Olympics. It leads off the trailer for Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film!, a movie filmed in 2010. The story of how I wrote that joke is one of my favorites, and maybe I’ll post it some day. But needless to say, I have an old notebook with pages and pages of jokes about the Winter Olympics that became that one-liner.
I like the joke very much, but it’s not my favorite. In fact, that film was taken during the second taping of the TYF! movie, when I would toss off one-liners while the crew set up the next shot to keep the crowd going. It’s part of a chunk of one-liners that leads off an album I recorded in 2013. And apparently, a comedian in Canada has been using it as his big closer the last few years. Which wouldn’t bother me; after all, there’s no disputing whose joke it is, or at the very least, there’s a ton of proof that i came up with it separately and independently. Except that a couple of years ago, different accounts on the internet started popping up in places where my act, or the TYF! movie, were posted, accusing me of joke theft. I can’t say if all these fans of an obscure Canadian comedian got this idea in their head at once, or what happened, but I e-mailed the guy privately through his site and never heard back from him. The comments stopped soon after.
So I know, it’s entirely possible that these comedians on late night TV shows were coming up with my premises and punchlines independently. Until it happened with a NYC comedian who, the year before, had told me he was a fan of my blog. To see him on TV doing a joke lifted from my blog was the final straw. I should have stopped much sooner, in hindsight, but until that moment the risks of running a popular comedy blog were far outweighed by the rewards.
I took down many of my old posts. I took to updating once or twice a week, and mostly to promote gigs. I started losing my following. I got a writing job not long after that, so it was an easy transition to former blogger.
There’s an aspiring comedy writer who is suing Conan, because four of Conan’s recent monologue jokes were very similar to jokes this guy posted to Twitter. He’s suing for $750,000, which is ridiculous, and tells me that he wants to grab $100,000 and stay a happy amateur. Part of me roots for the guy; that’s more than most people make in their entire careers before they quit.
Of course, it’s ridiculous. Not just because with so many people writing jokes about the same subjects, you’re bound to get the same take on it. But I also know almost everyone on that monologue staff, and they’re all really decent people who just wouldn’t steal from the Internet like that constantly. Not that it doesn’t happen; combine the pressure of grinding out new jokes on a daily basis with the pressure of making a six-figure salary to do so, and some people on some writing staffs have been known to engage in shady behavior. But like I said, the people I know on Conan really aren’t like that. In fact, they’re some of the best original joke writers I’ve ever met, and that’s the truth.
Once upon a time, a friend was writing for a TV show. He sent around an e-mail to a few friends, saying in essence, “Famous Celebrity X Who Is Not Known For Being Funny is going to be on the show in a couple of months and what the hell do I do with this guy?” I was at dinner with a friend who was in the bathroom when I got this e-mail, so I dashed off a ridiculous premise based on some trivia about this person and sent it in an e-mail. And then forgot about it.
Sure enough a few months later, this idea appeared on TV and then started getting shared around the Internet. My friend then had to embarrassedly say that he had forgotten about my email, and the idea was pitched by another writer on staff whom I know and trust to be an original comedy thinker as well. I had one of those what they call “moments of truth,” where I realized that I had an electronic email trail, and that even though I trusted my friend hadn’t ripped me off, if i really wanted to, without even creating a public stink, I could screw him over and shake this TV show down for some money.
I decided not to do it, because I’m not a scumbag, and because I really did believe that it was just coincidence, and because this guy was my friend, and because you never want to be known as That Guy anyway. And because it was a good reminder to me that, even if at that time I didn’t have the big writing gig, I still had the right instincts and ability. And that helped when I’ve had to continue pursuing a living in this business.
So I don’t ever put my stuff “out there,” which can be vexing for people who seem to think it’s okay to record a comedy show without asking first. But until you can put it out there in official form first, there’s no controlling your material once it’s out there.
I believe that constant success from an early age makes you lose one of the most important things a comedian needs to truly be great; perspective.
For several years I really struggled in comedy. I came close to quitting, especially when I was deep in the trenches of one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. And yet, now that things are happening, and continue to happen, in my career, I can really appreciate them.
I was listening, the other night, to a comedian complaining that he could “only” get on television a few times a year these days, a figure that would be astonishing to anyone in the business, but especially, I bet, himself when he was doing open mics. And whenever I’m tempted to complain about the good things in my life, I remember where I was a decade ago. … Continue Reading
When I was a kid, I watched the footage of the Berlin Wall being dismantled. I wasn’t old enough to have lived through the bulk of the Cold War, but I’d grown up in the shadow of the threat of nuclear annihilation; one of my favorite movies as a kid was War Games, a lighthearted romp about a young kid who hacks into NORAD’s computers and almost accidentally triggers total nuclear war. Another was Dr. Strangelove.
But I certainly knew enough that what I was watching at the time was history in the making. It was quite possibly the most significant global political moment in my young lifetime, and still one of the most important I’ve ever witnessed on live television (another would be the day the entire country watched Obama announce he had killed Osama bin Laden).
I felt that same way today, watching footage of the removal of the Confederate Flag of the Southern Secessionists, a mere 150 years after they lost the Civil War. There’s a lot of sentimental attachment to this flag, and frankly, if you want to fly it from your home, your pickup truck, you want to wear it as a bikini or paint it on the roof of your car, I don’t… well, I won’t say I don’t care. I personally despise everything the flag symbolizes, but I also wouldn’t want the police taking away your right, as a private citizen, to wave it, to worship it, to wear it, to take it home and make love to it even.
For all its faults, and all the mistakes its government makes, I believe the United States in America is one of the greatest experiments in a citizen-led republic in all of recorded history. I do believe that the Bill of Rights is one of the most noble documents ever forged, and that the beauty of the Constitution is that it’s strong enough to form an entire society, but flexible enough to change along with the times. That our Founding Fathers, for all their faults, were geniuses, and men of vision.
To remove the flag of the Confederacy is to acknowledge that this is the United States of America. It’s ironic that to this day you will hear “America: Love it or leave it,” from people who proudly wear the emblem of those who tried to leave it. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that this is the dawning of a new era; people are people. Stubborn, angry, prejudiced, flawed. And everything that i love about people is attached to the same things that make me hate them, too.
And to those who are upset that the flag was taken down by an honor guard; don’t be. Sure, it owuld have been nice to have it removed by the courthouse janitor in the middle of the night, but by giving it a proper military removal, we remove the power to make it a symbol of martyrdom.
My biggest regret is that i won’t live forever, so I won’t get to see the myriad ways in which history will play itself out over and over. But I’m always glad I get to see it being made.
Watch the full ceremony at C-SPAN.
TELL YOUR FRIENDS! at Lolita
It’s hard to describe why I started Tell Your Friends! without giving you my entire life story. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to give you the abbreviated version. I started doing standup when I was 19. When I was 23, I took over my friend Brody’s show, The Brody Stevens Festival of Laughter, a weekly show at a coffee shop in the Flatiron District called Eureka Joe. I liked running a show. I got to see friends, I got to meet and book comedians I’d never met, and it was a great place to workshop new material and get better. I ran a show at what was then a youth hostel, the Gershwin Hotel. My friend Patrick Borelli ran a great show there Thursdays. Crowds built.
I was bullied out of this show by the bookers of the space; one week, they hired a jazz trio to play outside the door to the room where the show was held. Another week, they told me that the room where the show was held had been booked. I could produce my show in the front cafeteria, or I could produce my show on the roof, which would have been very cool, but I’d have to pay them a hundred bucks, to pay the building’s handyman to set up chairs on the roof. I got to the hotel that friday, and of course the showroom wasn’t booked at all, and when I asked the handyman directly, he told me he never got paid extra to set up the roof for other events. There was a lot going on like that.
I got booked to perform on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, realized I didn’t have to put up with this bullshit, and moved on. I did a lot of other things in my career, and along the way, I missed having a space where I could fail over and over again. My act was stagnating, and part of the reason was that i went into every show afraid to fail. I stuck, for the most part, with the tried-and-true, even with shows that didn’t pay and that didn’t have an audience, because I knew that bombing meant I wouldn’t be asked back.
So to make a very very very long story short, I walked into the Lolita Bar on Broome Street in the Lower East Side in 2005, which had previously hosted a show by my friend Amber Tozer, and proposed a new standup show to be held in their basement. The owners figured nothing from nothing is nothing, and allowed me to start my little show. My idea was to have a standup show that was an open mic for people who are too big to do open mics. The first show featured a headlining set from Andy Borowitz, who had just moved back to NYC and had decided to give standup another shot. People came from all over to fill that little basement, including a couple from outside Atlanta Georgia, who had driven all day because they’d heard Andy was doing a free show.
That first year was rocky, but aside from a few dead and empty shows, Tell Your Friends! took off in a big way.
TELL YOUR FRIENDS! BLOWS UP!
The neighborhood where Lolita stood (it was sold in 2012) is now a part of the sprawling hellhole that is the Lower East Side Party Zone, with hipster-big-deal restaurant Dirt Candy around one corner, a high-end coffee place and a South African restaurant around the other place. But when I started my show, Lolita was an outpost in the middle of Chinatown. Towards the end, it became a hellish place on weekends, with NYU trust fund kids and finance popped-collar types, the types who travel in packs of five in matching clothes searching for a pack of women to terrorize/hit on. Back when I started my show, though, Lolita was still a cool place to hang, a place for locals in the know to hang out and seek refuge from that scene, which was raging north of Delancey.
I could stand in the doorway most Monday nights, when my show was, and if I saw a white person approaching, I knew they were coming to my show. We had a lot of college students, until the NYPD started cracking down on underage drinking in the neighborhood, and we had a lot of locals, New Yorkers, comedy fans. Most nights, no matter the size of the audience, the vibe of the audience was mellow, friendly, like a tight-knit group.
In addition to Andy Borowitz, we had established comedy stars come through there, like Todd Barry, Nick DiPaolo, Marc Maron. We had friends of mine who were in the process of becoming famous, like Demetri Martin, Christian Finnegan, Kristen Schaal, Reggie Watts, and so on and so forth. There’s a lot of pictures and information on this website if you want to learn all about it. In fact, go here.
But I always had my eye on the larger prize; I had a vision for TYF!, and that was not to just make it one of the best shows in New York City, but to make it a part of my larger legacy. As crazy as that sounds when I read it back to myself, I had a feeling that TYF! could occupy a permanent place in comedy history. And if you’re going to say that that seems a little grandiose, I have to politely disagree; it’s incredibly grandiose, and crazy, and as it happens, correct.
EATING IT, INVITE THEM UP, and COMEDY DEATH RAY
The granddaddy of “alternative” comedy shows in New York City was Eating It, a show held in the back of a rock club called the Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side. A lot of big names performed there, mixed in with up-and-comers and for years it was the hottest show going, and proof that you didn’t have to work comedy clubs to get seen by “industry” or build a career.
That spawned shows by myself, and Borelli, and Eugene Mirman, whose Wednesday night showcase, Invite Them Up, in the back of a former revival house movie theater/cafe would become the next iconic “indie” comedy show. Everybody went to Eugene’s for years, and he was the first person to book acts like Reggie Watts, Flight of the Conchords, Modest Mouse, Aziz Ansari, who would go on to be huge fixtures in the comedy world.
On the West Coast, a similar show, by two former Mr. Show writers, BJ Porter and Scott Aukerman, called Comedy Death Ray (now Comedy Bang! Bang!) had launched first in LA’s M Bar and then at the Upright Citizen’s Theater when it opened in Los Feliz.
In two successive years, Comedy Central Records put out compilation albums (and i’m really eliding a lot here in service of what is, ultimately, my own story), featuring some of the best acts out of both shows. And I took notice. Because, as I said, I also had one of the country’s best shows, and I wanted recognition for it. A year later, I pitched a similar Tell Your Friends! album to Comedy Central Records, and received a polite refusal; sales for the previous two were not all that they had hoped. This was, after all, the age of peer-to-peer audio sharing. Album sales had taken a huge dip, and the sort of young, hip comedy fans who would be expected to buy these sorts of compilations were stealing them wholesale.
But I’m grateful for the rejection.
VICTOR VARNADO AND THE AWKWARD COMEDY SHOW
My friend Victor Varnado had been doing standup and teaching himself the basics of filmmaking for years. In 2009, he produced, directed, and headlined a comedy special, called The Awkward Comedy Show, with fellow “nerdy” black comedians Eric Andre, Hannibal Buress, Baron Vaughn, and Marina Franklin. The five most confident, least awkward comedians I’ve ever met. But no matter; I went to the taping and, as you’d expect with that lineup, it was a great show. Victor sold it to Comedy Central, and I produced the release show, featuring the cast, as well as surprise guest W. Kamau Bell, and after-party with DJ Prince Paul. As is the case with almost every show I’ve produced, now you could sell out a large theater with that lineup, but at the time I was busting my ass to fill the Comix Comedy Club.
By the way, please don’t feel I’m understating Victor’s accomplishment here. To take an idea from scratch (in this case, take the Kings of Comedy template and transpose it onto the comedians he performed with; in fact, his original title was The Kings of Awkward Comedy until the gentleman who actually owns the legal rights to the Kings of Comedy name put an end to that). to rent out a crew on a shoestring budget, to figure out how to give the set dressing a professional look, and to direct a live show while also performing. That’s a huge accomplishment. And for Victor to do all of that and then sell it as an actual TV special with his name all over it?
Again, I took notice.But I was focused, in those days, on my own standup career. I had submitted for a half-hour special, and was particularly confident in myself that I’d get it. 2010 was my year, and I’d take the money from that special and move to Europe for a couple of years and completely rebuild my act and, most likely, drink myself to death in Kreuzberg. Instead, I found out that I’d been passed over for a new crop of comedians who had all started seven years after I had. That was a big reality check. On top of that, I did a show that night with most of those guys, and completely bombed, and sat there after they all killed one after the other. Another reality check.
I biked home that night, drunk and in an emotional freefall. And I quit comedy. And then a week later, I realized no one noticed that I’d quit comedy, and I decided that the I was going to put myself into a position where I had the power to quit and have it actually affect people.
I was insane. I was grandiose. I was, it turned out, once again absolutely right.