Nick Nace recorded and co-composed the theme song and score for Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film!, which Victor Varnado directed. They teamed up again for the above video, which I LOVE!
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.
WATCH TELL YOUR FRIENDS! THE CONCERT FILM! ON HULU:
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.
WATCH TELL YOUR FRIENDS! THE CONCERT FILM! ON HULU:
FESTIVAL TOUR: SXSW WORLD PREMIERE
To say that reception to the movie was better than expected is an understatement. The plan was simple; sell the film to a network for as much money as possible, and move on to the next project as quickly as possible. I had rented Anthology Archives downtown for the “friends and family” premiere for everyone in town in February of 2011. I had insisted on a trailer being made for the movie, before it was even finished, because I wanted to start promoting it as soon as possible.
I put it up on YouTube, and then contacted the comedy editor at Huffington Post, a friend, who posted it to their site. Then a man named Charlie Sotelo got involved. Charlie is the comedy booker for South by Southwest, and had worked as the documentary booker for their film festival. Victor had submitted The Awkward Comedy Show for the film festival the year before, and while it had ultimately not been accepted, Charlie knew him. When he saw the trailer for Tell Your Friends!, he asked for a copy. Victor sent him a working copy, and Charlie had it accepted for its world premiere at a 700-seat theater on March 17th, 2011, less than a month away. Which meant that Victor and Steve , along with our sound editor Jason Kanter,had less than a month to put together a finished film. And they did it. Don’t ask me how, but they put in some long nights and 12-hour days, and we had an HD CAM professional broadcast-quality copy of the film ready to screen. We flew down to Austin, texas, and spent the week hanging out, watching movies, meeting up with comedy friends, and generally having a blast being WORLD PREMIERE FILMMAKERS AT ONE OF THE BIGGEST FILM FESTIVALS IN THE WORLD.
FESTIVAL TOUR: NEW YORK CITY PREMIERE AT THE PALEY CENTER FOR MEDIA
I ran into Christian’s manager at the bar at Stand Up New York one evening, and she told me that Alexander Zalben was looking to putting on screening events at the Paley Center in New York and put me i touch.
The Paley Center used to be known as The Museum of Television and Radio, and when I was a teenager, before the days of Youtube and streaming video and every computer with an internet connection being an infinite media library, they were the place to go screen old TV shows, specials, unaired pilots. For a few years, my grandmother bought me a membership, and when I was a fat, unpopular teenager with secret dreams of somehow, some way breaking into big time show business, I would go there most weekends and check out their library, their screenings, their old-time radio room.
The Paley Center has been adapting to the new world of media, hosting an annual huge TV festival and premiere screenings as a way of retaining membership. And so I found myself walking again, decades later, through the same doors I’d walked through so many times with a gigantic HD CAM tape of my comedy concert film. And a few nights later, there I was, in the board room waiting with the rest of my cast for this prestigious screening, post-screening Q&A. I wished i could go back in time and screen video of that evening for my lonely teenage self. It would have made things a lot easier.
FESTIVAL TOUR: THE NEW YORK COMIC-CON
The New York Comic-Con is a huge three-day pop culture/nerd event held in the epic Jacob Javits Center space. We had a screening of an excerpt of the film early Sunday morning, and a panel discussion the night before to promote it. I had a bad feeling about it that I couldn’t shake all weekend. Kristen would be at the panel, very kindly staying for a few hours after a panel to promote an Adult Swim show she was starring in. Kristen was so great about using her precious spare time, in the midst of a huge career surge, to boost the film whenever she could. Whenever I get in a crabby mood and am tempted to be ingracious about something in comedy, she’s on the people I remember and take as an inspiration.
Kurt came in to the Javits Center, as did Rob and Christian. It was taking a Saturday night to go all the way to 12th Avenue way the hell on the west side of Manhattan, and we were one of the last events of that evening. Festivalgoers had already packed out panels and screenings for shows by networks like Adult Swim, Comedy Central, MTV, Marvel, and on and on. How could i possibly make my rinky-dink little event stand out?
That evening, I walked over to the tiny conference room we were using, as the Javits Center began to empty, and streams of costumed dorks left. I began practicing my “gracious face,” preparing to make this the best possible showing for our panel and whatever handful of comedy fans actually showed up. i walked down the hallway past a line that snaked down the hall, around several corners, young people who had apparently been sitting for a while to get in first. “I wonder what that’s for,” I thought. “Probably the Blu-ray release of Aeon Flux or something.”
I found the conference room for the event, which is where the first person in line was sitting. All of these people were waiting for us. My mind was blown. And then we suddenly had an opposite problem; there was a huge crowd, more than could possibly fit in our little room, waiting, and we had no ability to hook my laptop up for the A/V presentation to the little TV screen we’d been assigned. Apparently, not only had I been expecting nobody to show, but so had the Con organizers or the tech guys. We eventually got someone down, just as the panel was set to start.
Kristen came in, escorted by a security guard to protect her from, yes the throngs of adoring fans in the hallway I guess, and it was an excellent time had by all.
AND SO IT GOES…
On and on, festival screening triumph after festival screening triumph. Some of the biggest highlights of my comedy career happened in that six-month span, and everything was going well except in actually selling the damn movie. They say, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” And remember, while the screenings and festival appearances were going phenomenally, the plan was to sell this movie as quickly as possible and get on with my career. Instead, the opposite was happening.
In a way, the film came together at exactly the right moment, and came out at exactly the wrong moment. TV networks, feeling the pinch of the recent Great Recession, were no longer acquiring outside produced specials. Those that got back to me, gave me a very polite thank you but no. An executive at one network came out to the Paley Center screening, and we had a back and forth where we outlined a plan to sell it two networks, and then we took the end of December off, and when we came back she had moved on to a different job. This happens all the time in the business, and it’s not less heartbreaking every time it happens. In fact, I almost didn’t tell that story, as it still hurts as I write this.
However, it also came right before streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu and Amazon started acquiring and producing original content. Which means I did the best I could. I struck a deal with a digital distributor to have it available on certain platforms, and ASpecialThing Records has it out on a DVD/CD soundtrack set, which they did an excellent job with (it has bonus scenes, and multiple commentary tracks).
And on this, the fifth anniversary of the actual show taping, am I done with it? Yes and no. I’d still love to have it screen on television to, you know, make some money. I’m making some quiet queries to see about having an anniversary screening somewhere next year, and we’ll see if that goes anywhere.
But other than that, I had a great time, some of the best of my life. If you’re lucky in this world, you get to do one thing you’re proud of. With Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film! alone I probably achieved an easy dozen, if not more. And if nothing else, at the very least it has placed Tell Your Friends! in the pantheon of great indie shows. And yes, that sounds a little grandiose, and a little crazy, and I am absolutely correct.