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January 22, 2011

An Interview with Jeff Singer
by WomenInComedy - 0

WICF recently caught up with WICF 2011 "Step Up Your Stand Up" instructor, Jeff Singer.

Jeff has worked behind the scenes for numerous live events, radio programs and television shows. He is currently the Executive Consultant for the Just For Laughs International Comedy Festival, a post he has held for the past decade. Just For Laughs is host of the biggest worldwide comedy event in Montreal plus its recent expansion in Toronto and Chicago.

With those impressive credits, WICF is thrilled that Jeff is offering a special intensive version of his workshop exclusively for the WICF, at a discounted price for early registration (by Feb 4th).

Stand up comedians who have taken his workshop once already in Boston are signing up again, for a few reasons.  2010 Boston Comedy Festival Finalist Matt D., who took this workshop last year, says, "Stand ups should be taking this workshop.  For only $150, this is the guy you want advice from if you're serious about comedy. Sometimes you need to hear things about your stand up you might not want to hear, and people in Boston can be really nice, so this is a great chance to get honest feedback from industry.  Who else in Boston are you going to hear it from? Take his workshop and you'll see where you stand.  He definitely changed how I do stand up."

This year's workshop will differ in format to the benefit of comedians who want more targeted feedback, as Jeff will focus on more one-on-one for each comedian's stand up comedy.  Classroom sizes will be limited to just 9 people.

WICF talked with Jeff about the comedy he loves, what sets great comedians apart, and the recent comedy festival boom.

WICF: How did you get started in comedy?

Jeff: I first got started as a PA during the summers for the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal when I was a teenager. Back when Leno and Seinfeld were on the rise to stardom. I think I still have a photo of me and Leno when his hair was longer than his chin.

Years later, after college, I moved to New York to work at a talent management company which represented a lot of stand-up comedians. I've been in it full-time ever since.

WICF: You produce and curate comedy. In your opinion, what makes a great stand-up comedian? What makes you laugh?

Jeff: Vulnerability. Sincerity. Personality. Originality. These qualities crack me up.

I'm all over the map when it comes to my personal comedy tastes, like with music. I admire a strong writer as much as a polished performer. But to make me laugh out loud, a stand up has to reveal something in his/her soul that puts everything on the line. It's having the courage to dig deep, commit, and stay true to your voice. It could be controversial material, an offbeat character, a real-life story — as long as it's genuine.

I once produced a live show called "Confessing It," where comics tell embarrassing anecdotes, scandalous stories, drunken tales, etc., as the title suggests. Jim Norton did it at the Montreal Festival years ago. He told a story about picking up a street hooker from his car, having sex with her behind a dumpster, and the shocking discovery that ensued. He told it so poignantly, a challenge given the racy subject matter. The crowd was floored and laughing their asses off. It worked so well because you could see it was difficult for him to share, was absolutely true, and hilarious.

That's the essence of great comedy for me personally.

Jim Jefferies and Patrice O’Neal are other guys who reach inside. Marc Maron has done it his entire career, and now regularly via his Podcast. Nobody is more emotionally naked on stage than Marc. Even comics who may not tell stories about themselves yet have a definitive original voice, like Dave Attell and the late, great Greg Giraldo, it's seeing and feeling that authenticity that hits you hard.

I'm not a big fan of the overly manufactured personas or characters. If it doesn't ring true immediately, I'm not buying it. There are always exceptions, though. When you watch someone like the bombastic Neil Hamburger extol his poetic vitriol with total commitment, you can't help but fall in love.

WICF: If you were not in comedy production, what would you be doing?

Jeff: Good question. I'm still trying to figure that out, especially during my "in between gigs" times. I imagine it would still be something comedy-related.

I've begun teaching these comedy workshops, which is a completely different tangent from producing shows yet still related to this universe. I've enjoyed them tremendously so far and look forward to more. I also would like to pursue writing more. I've written material for many of my productions and have had the privilege to collaborate with reputable writers, including one of my comic idols Robert Smigel.

I have an MBA and figured I could put that to good use. But the thought of going to work at a place like Proctor & Gamble, marketing Gillette razor blades, makes me ill. Though I take my hat off to the genius who came up with the idea of the blue indicator strip that fades when it's time to change blades. That thing turns white after two shaves. What a racket!

WICF: As comedians, we constantly hear that industry is looking for "edgy". We don't really know what this means. How do you define edgy as it relates to comedy?

Jeff: It's an industry buzz word that's been around forever. By definition it means to be daring and provocative. Having a sharp edge, unlike a twice-used Gillette razor blade (sorry, couldn't resist).

I think it also refers to the expression "over the edge," which alludes to the edge of sanity. An edgy comic takes someone by surprise with their material, forces them to think differently about things they may find offensive or discomforting.

Most comics labeled "edgy" usually have a dark sense of humor. But that's not always the case. It relates to what I was saying earlier, about possessing the courage to take risks. Having the balls to say things that would make most people cringe, and turning that around into laughs. Although overused, it's ultimately a compliment because the flip side is being generic, dull, common, middle-of-the-road. Nobody wants that.

Surely not the safest path, but "edgy" gets respect and attention.

WICF: How are the comedians at typical comedy festivals different from comedians one might see on Comedy Central?

Jeff: It really depends on the festival. In my experience there's plenty of crossover. Many comics with half hour and one-hour Comedy Central specials will appear at comedy festivals around the world. Comic correspondents on “The Daily Show” are festival staples, too. You'll see more up-and-coming new talent at festivals and local hometown heroes who may not have as much national exposure.

Big comedy festivals also showcase a broader range of talent and programming. For instance, at Just For Laughs in Montreal, there are solo shows, sketch shows, theme shows, international shows, theatrical shows, in addition to pure stand up.

In 2010, comics like Jack Whitehall, Tim Minchin, and Bridget Everett received critical and audience acclaim. None of them have been on Comedy Central yet to my knowledge, or at least by that point in time. So the festival setting allows for that first-time discovery.

Again, the size and scope of a festival will determine the crossover percentage. Go to Edinburgh or Melbourne and you'll see stuff you'd never see on American TV. I think the biggest difference is the live experience vs. the TV show package.
There's nothing better than seeing a comic live.

Festivals allow comics to do what they want on a stage, whereas networks like Comedy Central have more restrictions, creatively and logistically. And now you're starting to see some collaborations, or "comedy jamming," like Jon Dore and Rory Scovel's hilarious bit or Reggie Watts working with friends on the music show. These experimental moments start at the festivals before landing on television.

WICF: What's your all-time favorite movie?

Jeff: "The Jerk" is one of my favorite comedies. It's the first movie my Dad ever brought home on VHS and I've seen it a hundred times. I grew up watching comedies with over-the-top characters like this Steve Martin classic, and "The Party", with Peter Sellers. They don't make good movies like that anymore, with rare exceptions such as "Borat".

Ironically for a guy who works in comedy, I now lean towards dramas. And heavy ones too, like my favorites "The Killing Fields", "Midnight Express", and "Deliverance".  "Birdy" is at the top of my list. I read the book and am obsessed with the movie. The Peter Gabriel score is haunting. And it's got some really funny moments in it too.

WICF: Do you see stand ups whose end goal is to be a stand up or does everyone want their own sitcom?

Jeff: It used to be that a comic's ultimate goal was to get his or her own sitcom. That was before the internet explosion and the birth of reality TV. Technology and the ability for anyone to become a "star" have changed the playing field. So now I'm seeing young comics whose goal is to do anything and everything at the highest level: writing, acting in TV/movies, directing, hosting, making short films, live touring, radio, podcasts, you name it. It's not just about landing the sitcom anymore. That's much harder to achieve these days anyhow. Plus, the concept of the traditional "sitcom" has transformed. Look at what Larry David and Louis C.K are doing. Comics want to create and star in their own vehicle, whatever that may be. And the range of the business has expanded. There are more late night talk shows now than ever before for writers. Tons of comedy websites, personal blogs, Facebook, YouTube. Webisodes at places like Hulu and My Damn Channel, iTunes, where you can distribute digital CDs and podcasts. A stand up's career can go in so many different directions today.

Ben Bailey became a star driving a taxi on “Cash Cab.” Artie Lange landed his dream job on satellite radio with Howard Stern. Tom Kenny, the voice of Sponge Bob, started as a stand up. Chelsea Handler was a stand up before getting her own talk show and becoming a best-selling author. Frank Caliendo still contributes comedy bits and football picks to FOX's “NFL Sunday” show. Howie Mandel made a fortune hosting “Deal or No Deal.” Judd Apatow was a stand up and now a writing/directing/producing icon. The list goes on.

I think this generation realizes they can carve out their own unique path in comedy, and be successful. That all said, I still come across comics whose goal is to simply become a famous stand-up comedian. I always enjoy hearing that.

WICF: There seem to be more festivals in recent years — what does this do for stand-up comedy as a whole, for comedians, and for you as a producer?

Jeff:Yeah, I've noticed that myself. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's good for comedians and stand up as a whole. It shines a brighter light on the craft, gives comics more stage time with access to bigger audiences and wider publicity. Much like music festivals do for bands. I support that.

On the other hand, it has the potential of diluting the talent pool if standards aren't kept high. In other words, some cities put together a bunch of comedians and call it a "Festival" when it's nothing more than packaging and marketing the same comedians and shows you can see year round. Or, there's no real screening process and anything goes. Audiences see an inferior product, which unfairly taints everyone involved. Or worse, they can't tell the difference between good and bad comedy.

I compare it to expansion in professional sports leagues. Some fans love the idea of adding teams to Major League Baseball. More cities, more match-ups, more players to watch. Fans in Arizona, Colorado, Tampa and Miami were thrilled to finally get their own franchises. But others think it elevates players from the minors too quickly, pitching is weaker overall and league competition isn't as strong. As a producer, the same applies. The more events where I can produce shows, the merrier. You just hope the infrastructure is solid and that you get the proper support to pull it off properly.

WICF: Many of us here at WICF find stand-up comedy competitions puzzling, since by nature comedy is subjective and tastes vary wildly. Having served as a judge on many comedy competitions, what is your view on their ability to find the best talent?

Jeff: You are absolutely correct. Comedy is subjective. That's the nature of this business. I understand why you find competitions puzzling. I wouldn't blame you if you simply hate them. But subjectivity extends beyond judging a competition. You want to get booked in a club? Well, the reality is, you're competing with hundreds of others who want the same thing. The decision may come down to the owner, who has the last word based on her personal tastes. Auditioning for a TV show or festival? Now it's three or four people "judging" you. Have a job interview at Disney? Get ready to be judged, Judy. Life's a competition and fair or not, decision-makers often go by what they like personally without being objective. I don't like it myself. In the context of a live comedy competition, I view it more as a platform where multiple comics get a chance to thrive. It's not only about the so-called "winner.” And the judging panels usually comprise three to four people. So the consensus may not be unanimous, either. Generally speaking, if I am working with peers who have experience and discerning taste, we more or less wind up agreeing on the few who make it up the ladder.

I've been on both sides though. At some competitions I've been mystified over the winners. It wasn't from my vote. That usually happens when the judging pool is six or seven people, which is too many. But hey, who's to say my pick was right? It's just my opinion. If you base the judging on comparative objective criteria, you can reduce some of the subjectivity. I may not be personally fond of a comic's style or material, but if he's got the mechanics down pat, is memorable and earns the laughs, he'll deserve to advance or even win.

It's important to remember that competitions are in the here and now. You're judged on how you do that night, or the course of that particular competition. Tomorrow's a new day. Last year, in Atlanta, I was a judge at the Laughing Skull Festival. Ben Roy, a comic I had previously scouted in Denver and really liked, was a contestant. He had a rough set and didn't even make it to the semi-finals, which surprised me. Cut to four months later, he's one of the standout New Faces in Montreal, getting tons of buzz, signing with an agent, and kicking off his headlining career. From my perspective, finding the best talent doesn't happen in one night. A competition is just another showcasing avenue with prizes and accolades. If you manage to win, it's a nice feather in your cap. If you don't, it's just the last gig you did. Keep your chin up, on to the next.  That's the world of stand up comedy.

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