June 22nd, 2010
I stood on the stage at The Bell House, a rock club in Gowanus Brooklyn, and said, “Thank you everybody, for coming out to our movie!”
Earlier that year, I had invited Victor Varnado out to lunch with a proposal: I had an idea. I wanted to take what he had done with The Awkward Comedy Show, what others had done with The Original Kings of Comedy, The Original Queens of Comedy, and so on, and make it bigger. Better. Less like another TV special, and more like an event. remember: I was grandiose, I was insane, and i was correct.
I wanted to do a concert film in the style of Woodstock, in the style of The Last Waltz. Epic, era-defining rock concerts, that didn’t just capture a show, but an entire generation in transition. And so I didn’t just want cameras pointed at a stage. I didn’t want swooping crane shots, as you see in many specials, and I didn’t want cuts to random audience members. I wanted to stage the kind of show I’d staged with TYF! over the last few years, with some of the biggest rising comics, and I wanted interviews with comedians who had come out of this “alternative comedy” scene and made it big, to talk about how these little shows had become so big.
But I really was adamant about the idea that it would be a rock concert-style film, with split screens, with cool lighting, with a you-are-there-on-stage-with-us feel. To his credit, Victor “got it” right away, and said that if I got the money together, he was fully onboard. In the meantime, I had two things I had to do: I had to write a prospectus for potential investors, because I certainly was not, and am not, independently wealthy, and we needed money to make this happen.
And the other thing I had to do was talk to my man Steve Rosenthal. Steve is an editor, a former comedian, a filmmaker. truly a genius, and an old friend. It was him who had pointed out to me at a Super Bowl party one year that most comedy specials that have swooping crane shots look cheesy, and that cutting to laughing audience members is a cheap way to edit, and that in fact even if you are genuinely cutting to a reaction shot it makes you look cheap, like you’re taking the easy way out. He had edited the Awkward Comedy Show for Victor, and I wanted him to do as good a job for me. So I took him out for a couple of after-work drinks, and explained my vision to him. To his credit, he got it as well, and we talked for a while about what could realistically work and what couldn’t. He and Victor were both skeptical about the idea of using split-screen effects for a comedy show, but I knew the kind of film I was going to stage would not just be dudes standing behind a mic telling jokes. Because the lineup I wanted to put together was going to be as diverse and interesting and daring as the shows I’d been producing, and watching, in New York City.
ASSEMBLING THE A-TEAM
The first thing you have to remember is that I was so impressed by, and truth be told, a bit jealous of the previous “collection of great comics” albums, Invite Them Up, Comedy Death Ray, and The Awkward Comedy Show, that I didn’t want anyone to ever confuse my project with theirs, and I didn’t want to make it look like I was in competition with any of these things. So my rule was simple: If anyone had been involved with one of these shows, they wouldn’t be doing standup in mine. And not because I thought they were bad, or because I was competitive; I wanted to have a very, very clear distinction, at the end of the day, between mine and theirs. All of theirs. In hindsight, this meant that i was cutting myself off from booking people I really liked a lot; in a perfect world, Hannibal Buress would have been in the movie. I was a huge fan of his. He had performed in Chicago with my friend Prescott Tolk, and he was one of those people who, when he was making the movie to New York, Prescott told me I should book and look out for. I’ve been a fan of Hannibal’s for a very long time.
But the lineup I put together was, and still is, for me, everything I could have hoped for. It was exactly what I wanted. Sitting with Victor at an outdoor cafe, after my conversation with Rosenthal, I called Reggie Watts to ask if he would headline this project. I had gone to see him a year or two before, at the small space below Webster Hall, doing an hour. I sat on the floor up front and watched him, stage lights streaming down through his afro, and realized he would some day be huge, and that someone should make a concert film with him.
I got a text back from Reggie immediately, explaining that he was on a train in France, and couldn’t answer his phone. I asked him, if I could get the budget together, would he headline my movie? I’d been booking Reggie for a few years in my crappy basement show, and he said yes of course. Everybody I reached out to that week said yes, and I think it’s because it sounded like the absolutely craziest, most quixotic undertaking possible. Getting together the budget for an indie film based on a show in a bar basement is, still, even after all is said and done, the dumbest thing anyone could ever want to pour money into. And my friends, being my friends, said yes, of course, if I could get the money together they would be in my concert film. And if the sun shone out of my ass they’d be happy to ride a unicorn over a rainbow, because why not?
SO THEN AN INVESTOR SAID YES
And things got more intense. Because I then had to confirm everybody who had said yes. And I’m going to give everybody involved credit here; they all were as good as their word. The funding came together quickly, really quickly. In fact, I was writing a submission packet for a TV show the entire week I was negotiating with my investor and everybody’s reps. I am very grateful, because not only did they all agree to do it, but they agreed to film with a little over a month’s notice, which meant that every single act went into that show at The Bell House without a contract. Which means that, if someone’s rep was particularly bloodthirsty, they could have held me up for more money, or for crazy contract demands. Instead,the only concern anyone’s lawyers or managers had was that I treated their clients completely equally. That I had no problem with; if there’s one thing my career has shown, it’s that I’m not the person who screws others over for career or financial gain.
Not that the production was smooth sailing, by any stretch of the imagination. There was one day when everybody on the show would be available for filming, which was June 22nd. That day, Reggie would only be available for the late show, as he was going to lead a yoga session in front of 1,000 people in Central Park that afternoon, and then was going to headline a fundraiser for his friend’s theater troupe before getting into a car and headlining the TYF! filming. (The day after his manager had given the go-ahead to have Reggie as part of the show, the New York Times ran a full-page article about him. In the three months since i’d first approached him about the film, he had become huge.)
There was a lot of scheduling craziness going on (Kurt was moving into a new apartment the night we filmed, so he arrived the the Bell House with all of his stuff in suitcases). And while all of this was going on, I had to keep going out nights to keep my act sharp. I was truly worn out by the time we reached the Bell House, which we rented for free, by the way, after I struck a deal with the booker Heather Dunsmoor, that allowed us to use their space in return for charging a five-dollar cover that the venue could keep.
In fact, we taped two shows that night, and I completely bombed the first show. I was doing a set that I’d worked out at all the shows I was doing, and of course, when you do material that people who come to see you see at show after show, it’s not going to go well. I was panicked backstage between shows, and I quickly made a mental inventory of other material I had that had ever done well in the past. If you watch the movie, and I hope you do, the “Ten Whiskeys” bit did extremely well, but I was desperately trying to remember how it went as I was going along! Anything you see me do in that film comes from that second show.
We interviewed over two dozen people, in addition to the principal cast, for the documentary aspect of the TYF! movie. In addition to all the people you see in the film, we talked to Morgan Murphy (in the back of the Purple Pianos Studio, our friend Sven’s rehearsal space in the back of his junk shop attached to his moving company in Williamsburg) We talked to then comedy-blogger now owner of the hottest club in NYC The Stand, Patrick Milligan. We shot him in the old Mars Bar, a beloved East Village dive bar. Most of the space we filmed in were more than happy to have us, but to get it, we had to send our Production Assistant, an attractive young woman, to talk to the owner, an old neighborhood guy who sat out in front of the bar every day in a lawn chair watching the world go by. When we went to LA (more on that in a second), we talked to one of my absolute favorite people to come out of the UCB comedy scene, Seth Morris, on the roof of the Gary Sanchez Productions office, where he then worked.
We flew out to Los Angeles, as I said, because there were a few people I felt we could not honestly make an accurate movie about the New York City “alt. comedy” scene. One was Jeff Singer, the former producer/booker for the original New York City big deal bar show, Eating It (his partner, Naomi Steinberg was, sadly, not available). Another was Marc Maron, who is now a huge star in the standup world, but at that time had just released the Robin Williams episode of WTF that would put him, permanently, on the map. But at the time, he was still a comedian who, to me, represented the best of the New york “alt. comedy” scene of the ’90s, when it was still a dangerous, exciting, rock n’ roll scene.
And while we were there, we wanted to talk to Seth, to Kumail Nanjiani. Unfortunately, Pepitone was away in Florida filming a movie, and Baron Vaughn (the original permanent host of TYF! until he got too successful) was in Toronto shooting a TV show. But for the most part, we were able to get everybody we wanted. In fact, we were so successful at getting people to talk to us, for the most part, that Victor had to finally put his foot down and refuse to film any more interviews.
I had one of those perfect LA moments, after just landing at LAX, with our Production Manager, Myka Fox (herself a very funny comedian and writer), at whatever budget car rental place we’d picked. While filling out forms, the woman behind the counter, an older, very tanned woman with a thick Israeli accent, asked what we were doing in town. And me, being very proud of the fact that I’d actually pulled this off, made the mistake of saying, “Oh, we’re here filming a movie.”
The woman then grilled me about where I got the budget for it, and explained that she was trying to put together her own action movie, the plot of which she then outlined in detail, which involved ninjas traveling in time from ancient China to present day, and she could get Tom Cruise but CAA wanted a guaranteed budge of $60 million before he would attach his name, and I realized oh yeah, everybody in this town is show business and nobody gives a fuck. Here was a woman, helping me find the cheapest option for renting a car before driving out to the fleabag motel in LA where we were staying (on the Sunset Strip, now torn down for a boutique hotel), who thought I could conjure tens of millions to make her dreams come true.
That didn’t stop me, a couple days later, from having a moment, sitting in the passenger side of the car, riding down Hollywood Boulevard on our way to interview Seth, where I realized, “Here I am, on my way down Hollywood, to film my own movie that i star in that’s actually happening.” It was a great moment.
And then we were done shooting. It was then up to me to get out of the way and allow Victor and Steve to do what they did best, and what I didn’t do at all… edit together a movie.