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A Mouthful: 4 of L.A.'s Top Comics Talk Comedy Over Burgers
It's a pretty simple formula: comics who aren't exactly starving these days + gourmet burgers = great food and better conversation. Recently, LAist sat down with Paul Scheer, Dave Holmes, Steve Agee and TJ Miller to discuss everything from the current state of comedy on television, life in L.A., and those shows that almost made them quit. The burgers - an LAist favorite from Susan Feniger's Street - weren't bad, either.
LAist: What made you all want to get into comedy?
Steve: I grew up outside of LA, and every Sunday night Dr. Demento was on and I had this little transistor radio and I used to lay in bed, hoping my parents wouldn’t hear me laughing. That’s where I found out about George Carlin. All my friends were buying the Jacksons and Stevie Wonder and I bought George Carlin’s ‘A Place for my Stuff’. First album I ever bought.
TJ: For me, it was the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. My mother also really liked Steve Martin, so we’d always watch Steve Martin’s ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl’ over and over again. So funny.
Steve: So good.
Paul: I liked a lot of stuff. My dad had all these Smothers Brothers albums and Bill Cosby albums. I’d listen to those all the time, and think they were so funny.
TJ: Smothers Brothers are great.
Paul: But the first time I was really like, ‘I want to do that’, was Eddie Murphy. I remember watching his HBO special. Well, we didn’t get HBO, but you could hear it. This was before cable was fully blocked out, so you could just listen to his show. It was great for stand up. I don’t even remember what I was laughing at, but I just remember crying with laughter.
My dad in general was really cool about getting into comedy. He would tape Saturday Night Live for me when I was really young, and we’d watch them in the morning. He would also tape comedy movies and cut out any nudity -
The group can't believe it.
Paul: I remember that movie Armed & Dangerous with John Candy. There’s a moment where they go to a strip club, and my dad would just press pause. Same thing with Beverly Hills Cop. So I just saw all these movies without a lot of nudity and, in retrospect, violence.
TJ: It’s interesting that censorship played a role in how comedy was presented to you. There was always that Steve Martin joke that my mother thought was hilarious: ‘She had the most amazing pussy. Oh come on guys, I’m just saying that cat of hers was the best fuck I ever had’.
Steve: I was just listening to that album today. ‘Let’s Get Small’.
LAist: For me, it was an old tape my father had cobbled together, full of Ray Stevens bits.
Dave: He’s still doing it, right? Either that, or he’s dead.
TJ: He’s still not taking a break.
Steve: Death is the only thing that could stop Ray Stevens.
Dave: For me, it was Carol Burnett, which I never missed. In St. Louis, one of the radio talk stations would do a Saturday morning comedy hour, where they’d play Bob Newhart and Nichols & May. My dad and I would just listen to it and drive around when he had errands to run.
Paul: That’s the same thing with me. I listened to a lot of stuff in my dad’s car.
TJ: Oh, totally.
Dave: Eventually, I did a little bit of shitty sketch comedy, but then I moved to New York. I thought, I should be practical, so I got an advertising job. I had fun fucking around on stage when I was 21, but now it’s time to be real. But I just couldn’t do it. I spent two years trying to just sit at a desk and I couldn’t do it. So I started taking a bunch of classes and doing a lot of shitty short form improv shows, and seeing a bunch of shows.
I was also performing in a really bad sketch group, and we auditioned for the Aspen Comedy festival at the same time as the original Upright Citizens Brigade. They did their show called Suicide Squad, and they - of course - blew us off the stage. Amazing.
Paul: There’s a whole thing with that. Aspen never wanted to take the UCB. I was taking classes with them at the time, and I know that they were forced to audition at Caroline’s [comedy club in New York City], saying, ‘well, we don’t trust YOUR audience to dictate whether or not you can get into Aspen. You’ve got to do it at a neutral place.’ So they did their audition for Aspen at Caroline’s. That show is just stellar.
Dave: I did so many bad short form shows in bars. We’d perform at Barrow Street Alehouse, on a shitty stage in the corner. No one comes to Barrow Street Alehouse to see comedy; they’re there to watch a game or meet up with friends. It was the worst experience of my life. Really demoralizing. Fun, good experience, but I never want to do anything like that ever again.
At this point, everyone orders the burger - except TJ, who also orders a skirt steak. No one is sure why.
LAist: You guys all must have stories about bad shows and terrible venues.
Paul: The one that I remember most is: it was me, Rob Heubel, Rob Riggle, Owen Burke, Chad Carter, Danielle Schneider. We had this group called Respecto Montalban, and we’d get asked to perform at benefits. So we had to do a Harold in the middle of an art gallery off 8th avenue in the upper 30s. All I remember is that we were the only white people there. It was all Japanese people there, and we were performing in a room where the floor was all pillows. Everyone watched us like we were in the Coliseum - they were all above us, staring down at our shitty improv in the middle of this art installation. We couldn’t leave fast enough.
Steve: I did a high school grad night for this school in Orange County, at Corona Del Mar. It’s all these rich kids who just graduated high school, so there was nothing they could do to get kicked out of school. They did not give a shit. They just kept yelling ‘FUCK YOU’! Within five seconds of walking out on stage, I was covered from head to toe in sweat. I just thought, ‘OK, I’m going to do 15 minutes’. The worst experience of my life.
LAist: Did you make the full 15 minutes?
Steve: Yeah. And then I said, ‘fuck you, too’ and ran to my car. Drove home cursing the whole way.
TJ: At the Atlanta Punchline six months ago, this dude tried to rush the stage and punch me in the face.
LAist: Were you in some sort of altercation with him during the show?
TJ: No. His wife was being awful. She just kept talking. I’m really polite with hecklers, and I said ‘I’m glad you’re enthusiastic, but other people are here to enjoy the show. What do you do for a living?’ I was trying to show her how I could interrupt her work environment. She said ‘I nurse’. Wait, you’re a nurse? ‘No, I nurse’. What, like businessmen? Is this a Craigslist thing? So she says ‘no, I used to nurse my baby boy, but six months ago he died’.
Everyone groans in appreciative understanding.
TJ: I said, I’m sorry for your loss, but do you see how this is maybe not the right place for something like that? And I kinda dug my way out of it. I mean, this was 10 minutes into the show. So as I’m doing my jokes, in the back of my mind, I’m fucking boiling. At the end of the set, I do these stupid characters, and for one of the characters I said ‘here’s a woman who’s had a tough time recently, but she’s selfish because she tried to put that on everyone else’. I was painting it with very broad strokes, and her husband stands up and says ‘fuck you, you son of a bitch, don’t you talk about my wife that way!’ I said ‘Sir, I think you’re mistaken; I was talking about a non-descript woman that I met three years ago in San Francisco’. He called me a piece of shit and rushed the stage, and got within five feet before they grabbed him. I remember saying ‘OK man, I’ll fight you, but if you win OR I win, the audience still loses’. I dropped the microphone and thought, I’m about to get my ass beat on stage, in front of everyone.
LAist: You guys all still do a lot of crazy, free shows. How important is that to what you do?
TJ: I make a living as a talking bear comedian. Let me make that very clear.
Paul: To me, it’s never about the money or lack of money. I’ve performed at UCB for over 10 years now, and it’s just a great place to go up in front of a sold out crowd. That’s the most fun thing you could possibly do.
Steve: If you want to make real money, you have to do the road. Locally, nobody pays.
TJ: Certainly not in any real way. You do a set at the Hollywood Improv and make, like, $9 cash.
Steve: And chicken fingers.
TJ: Sometimes that’s not even free. They’re only free if you headline. I would do this even if it wasn’t paying. Besides, there are people who want to see comedy; they should be able to see it for cheap or free. The frustrating thing is when people expect EVERYTHING to be free.
Paul: Sometimes people will say, ‘oh, you perform at UCB, they don’t pay’. That was a big argument when I first started out there. Well, who cares? I don’t have to worry about the other 100% of things. I used to rent theaters. It’s expensive, you’ve got to get someone to run the door, or do a million other things. To just show up and be able to have that lightness of not worrying about it, to just have a home, is amazing.
Dave: I make my living reading a teleprompter. If I’m lucky, it isn’t something that’s embarrassing, but usually it kind of is. And as I’m trying to figure out where it is that I fit in, it’s important that I get out and fuck around on stage. I don’t personally feel right about charging people an arm and a leg, and I don’t want to go out on the road. I feel like I’m still in the fuck-around stage, and I don’t know when that’s ever going to end.
TJ: If you’re not doing a lot of stand up, free or paid, you’re not going to be able to get paid at all. There’s a discipline that requires you to do shows for free. When I go to New York City, my home club is this place called HA!, which most comics have never played. Six shows a night, seven nights a week. It’s a lot of tourist crowds, and after midnight it’s shitfaced 17 year-olds from the Bronx, and I love it. You can just eat it on stage, and… whatever. I’ve got another show across the hall in ten minutes.
LAist: So what has brought you all to Los Angeles? Is it just the work?
TJ: I hate LA. I mean, I’ve gotten used to it, but I definitely prefer New York. I’m just not famous enough to live somewhere else. I have to be in the room to book parts for movies. I think I’d be a better stand up if I lived in New York.
Steve: For sure. Absolutely.
TJ: If I was a stand up in New York, I could get up all the time.
Paul: I grew up in New York, I lived there forever before moving out here. New York is great, but I really enjoy LA. At lot of my friends are out here. To me, I couldn’t imagine being in LA without UCB. This place would be very different for me without that. I’ve got all the people that I came up with, and I get to perform with the same frequency to the same crowds, and still have better opportunities for work. But I agree with TJ, you can get up more in New York.
TJ: I think I hated Los Angeles for the first year I was here because I couldn’t get up anywhere. Now, if I can make it to Tiger Lily in time tonight, they’ll let me do a set. Once I’m comfortable in a city, comedically, I’m fine.
Steve: I grew up an hour away in Riverside, so I had nothing to lose by coming to LA. If shit failed for me, I was an hour away from driving to my parents’ house. I actually came to LA as a musician, I didn’t come as a comedian, or for acting. It just kinda happened. I don’t want to be a stand up comedian. It’s icing on top that I can go do shows and interact with people; that’s really fun. But I’m too high strung. I stress out, I panic. When I did my first headlining set at the Improv, it could not have seemed like a longer hour to me in my fucking life. I’m never going to be a Louis CK. This shit is terrifying for me.
LAist: It’s interesting that you came to LA as a musician. Is there anything that someone could offer you now that would lure you away from comedy?
Dave: I didn’t hate the world of advertising. I didn’t like sitting in an office, but there’s still an element that’s exciting to me. Problem-solving, brainstorming. It can be a really fun show. I love doing what I’m doing, but the lack of a structure - any sort of ladder - can sometimes be terrifying.
TJ: No. I don’t think so… Even in high school, I thought that comedy was a very important job to have. It’s an important element of the human condition. And I believe that if you submit yourself to that vocation, it will be rewarding. In reality, not everything is “the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out”, but I honestly believe that stand up is.
Steve: I grew up scuba diving, doing rock climbing in Joshua Tree. I thought I’d probably go into Search & Rescue. I knew people that did it, so I had the ins. I just ended up in LA instead, and now I’m 70 pounds overweight, and probably need somebody to rescue me.
Paul: Steve has this insane picture of him on the side of a mountain.
Steve: You wouldn’t recognize me. I had long hair, 6% body fat.
At this point, Steve spends the next 10 minutes trying to find this picture on his phone.
Paul: I never really had that thing that someone could tempt me with. As soon as I got out of high school, I focused on comedy and just kept going, going, going. I did go to college for teaching, but very begrudgingly. I got out in three years, because I would take classes over the summer, just to be done. I mean, I was already touring with Chicago City Limits in college, and we’d go on the road every Thursday night to Monday morning.
TJ: That’s the real trick to elevating your comedy in general: doing enough of the road to understand what all of America laughs at, and filtering that through what you already do. That’s how you become successful in film and television. Alternative kids just stay in their alternative worlds in these major cities, while road comics are out pleasing middle America. You need to understand both of them to be successful. Me doing stand up in Des Moines, IA or Louisville, KY is essential to me being in movies like She’s Out of my League.
Paul: There is a difference between, say, The Office or Arrested Development. You can’t just play to too small a crowd, even if it’s really good. I don’t think that’s a selling out thing, it’s just a matter of finding the balance.
TJ: The best comedies are on Adult Swim and FX, but there may not be enough people watching them. The number of people who watch Community aren’t nearly the number that watch Big Bang Theory. And while that’s not my favorite show, it’s a much smarter, better show than Two and a Half Men.
Paul: There is something about those shows, where people try to subvert the form to make it interesting. But most people are going out of their way to watch because they want to see that form. There’s a reason why that many people tune into Two and a Half Men. Those people aren’t seeing comedy four nights a week, or going to some French restaurant to see an alternative stand up show.
Dave: A friend from college just got back in touch with me on Facebook, and he asked me if I’d ever been on ‘Three-and-a-Half Men’, because that’s his favorite show. He said it twice. And he’s not a dumb guy, he’s just not paying attention to what his favorite show is called, and that’s what that type of comedy rewards.
TJ: It’s not bad that comedy is an opiate; it’s bad that sometimes people want to cut it with other shit.
Dave: Solid drug metaphor.
LAist: What about self-producing full length content for the internet?
Paul: I do think entertainment is going more and more to the BBC model. I worked as a writer for a show that was run by these BBC guys, and they had produced 15 shows that had been on the air, and had sold two more to America. I assumed, well, these guys don’t have to work now. They said ‘no, we work all the time’. That’s the model everyone is hitting; you are always working. Maybe not in network television, but even there the money’s not as great anymore. On Will & Grace everyone got Porches when they got picked up. People aren’t getting that anymore.
Dave: It’s a harder game to get into now if your motivation is just to become super famous and make a shit ton of money and retire when you’re 30. This is not the time for you, at all. This is the time to do half a dozen things all at once, and get paid for two of them.
TJ: I think the $20 million a movie thing is over. And it should be.
Paul: I’d rather make a whole movie for $20 million, total. That’s the other thing: you make something for a cost, all of a sudden you can make more things. That’s what I’ve learned, more than anything. If it’s cheap enough, people will let you do more of it. Even if it’s not a huge success. No one’s losing money on it. You pay $12 million an episode, and you get two million people watching, that’s a total failure.
Finally, Steve finds the picture of him rock climbing. The difference is remarkable.
TJ: Was it worth the search?
Steve: No, not really.
LAist: Steve, you’ve got a real love/hate relationship with the internet. Do you find that more and more it’s just something you have to embrace?
Steve: You mean like twitter and tumblr? There are moments when I hate it, but that’s usually because of the fact that people can say anything they want back to you. You can say whatever you want, but you’ve got to be ready to have the most hateful shit in the world spewed back at you. Usually for no reason at all, other than the fact that they can anonymously say anything they want. Shit that no one would ever say to your face, because they know you’d break a bottle over their head.
Paul: I don’t even think you would rationally think some of those things. People just… try to break through the noise of every response by saying something awful.
Steve: The internet has turned into a gigantic open mic night. That’s certainly what twitter is.
Paul: We’re such content devourers. I know I am, with twitter or podcasts or tumblr. I remember a friend taught me how to use tumblr, and I thought it was amazing. It’s like blogging, but easier. At the time, everyone was designing these awesome websites, but no one cares. They want something to come back for, every single day. With tumblr, your homepage is always something different. That philosophy has now taken off huge. What else, what else, what else. You can’t go away for a while, or it’s just out of sight, out of mind.
TJ: It’s also just good to be funny. I like the idea that somebody will read your tumblr during the day, and think it’s so funny that it gets them through work. People say that about Doug Benson’s podcast all the time, that it’s their favorite thing and they look forward to every week.
Steve: It’s also amazing how often you get recognized for twitter, as opposed to a TV show or movie that you did. I get that way more than anything.
Paul: At Bonnoroo, people were coming up to me about my podcast. That’s crazy awesome. To them, it’s like a free comedy album. If I was a kid in the middle of the country, to hear all these people, I’d freak out. All we had were comedy albums, and they were few and far between.
LAist: So that would be your advice to young comedy fans out there? Just take in all this content?
Dave: Yes. With the internet, you can be a sophisticated comedy nerd at, like, 13 without leaving your parents house.
Paul: And all those people will come take our jobs.
Portions of this interview were removed for brevity or coherence.