We talk to the guy who wrote the book on the history of stand-up comedy.
When Wayne Federman was still in his teens, he already knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a stand-up comedian and an actor. He had a simple plan and gave himself until the age of 30 to see if he could make a living in show business.
Well, as you look at Wayne’s list of accomplishments and see that he’s performed on The Tonight Show (and he’ll be doing it again later this month); has his own stand-up special on Comedy Central; acted in dozens of movies and television shows including 50 First Dates, Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The X-Files, Silicon Valley, Knocked Up, Legally Blonde, and Step Brothers; has performed on stand-up on stages throughout the country; had his own podcast; been the head monologue writer for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; written for multiple awards shows, and has written a book on the history of stand-up, it’s obvious his plan has worked out so far.
We had a chance to talk to Wayne about how his career started, what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian, advice he has for aspiring performers, and the development of stand-up comedy, which Wayne writes about in his new book, The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle.
Scott (GNN): So, we’ll talk about the new book in a bit, but one thing I like to do is, with every interview is to hop in the way back machine and learn a little about who I interview.
Wayne Federman (WF): Good. Let’s go. Let’s hop.
GNN: Okay. I’ve learned the people who become comedians, performers, musicians tend to fall into two camps. And there might be some overlap but there’s the camp where, “my father was a drill sergeant and my mother was a riveter and they work, work, work so I rebelled and became a performer,” or, “my mother was a musician and my father was a comedian and I became a performer.” Which camp, if either, do you fall in?
WF: Well, already you’re wrong. (Laughs) There are many more camps where comedians come from than those two. My mom was basically, for most of my life, a stay-at-home mom until I was in high school, and then she started working. My father was a pharmacist. So, what does what camp does that put me in?
GNN: You are definitely not in either of the two camps I’ve seen.
WF: Yeah, my parents weren’t drill sergeants or musicians. I will say that I was encouraged to go into comedy much more from teachers than from my home environment.
GNN: Okay. Yeah, because that’s another question. You have some people who, right out of the gate, watched a show or a performer and the seeds were planted when they were like three or four years old. Then there were some people, you know, it happened by accident later in life. Which one of those… when did you start on your path?
WF: Pretty early on. I mean, I was a funny kid. I liked performing. I liked the attention and approval. There was a lot of turmoil in our house so when I would go over to see my cousins, I would perform. But around ninth or tenth grade, I had an idea that this is what I wanted to do. So that’s when I picked up ventriloquism and started performing at school events, and at church events. I was just very driven by it. And by the time I graduated high school, I had a very specific two-part goal, which was to become a very good comedian that could be on talk shows or even host award shows. And also, to become a good actor. It was two tracks. Anything that was outside of those two goals I wasn’t really interested in.
GNN: It’s funny because I haven’t heard you mention this…I once talked to an author who said, “I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to eat regular meals.” So, was there any safety net at all? Accounting? Business? Or was it 100% focused on comedy?
WF: No safety net. I was 100% in. I gave myself until the age of 30 and then I’d judge my progress. I’ve been pretty much on my own since I was 17. I put myself through NYU. I could always get a “job-job.” Those were for making enough money to pay for rent and food. For example, I once worked for the Otis Elevator Company. I had a number of these temporary job-jobs. So, my thought process was simple, “I’ll give up my 20s to pursue this. That’s when I’ll probably be the healthiest in my life.” I didn’t have any health insurance until I was about 29 years old.
GNN: So, you had this laser focus on entertaining. Was there ever anything you tried and were like, “eh, maybe not.”?
WF: In show business?
GNN: Yeah, I mean, even learning, did you take a class on something like mimicry, and say “Hey, I want to be a mime now!”?
WF: Oh, no, I never took mime. I never went to Europe to study mime. At NYU I studied acting with a very prestigious, very serious acting teacher named Stella Adler. And we were the last class that she had under her wing. I was thrilled to study with her, although, and I’ve said it before, I liked what Neil Simon was writing more than Clifford Odets or Arthur Miller or the playwrights that spoke to her. Stella was from the Group Theater, a 30s, progressive, kind of left-wingy, school of thought that believed that plays should contain a strong social message.
GNN: It’s interesting how different comedians’ career paths are. I interviewed TJ Miller once and he did go to Europe and studied the circus and learned how to juggle…
WF: I love that guy. And he is a big devotee of William Claude Fields, W.C. Fields. So, Fields was an incredible juggler that came out of the clown tradition. Fields didn’t speak on stage for years. And Miller is part of that tradition, very old school show business. I’m not surprised he went to Europe.
GNN: So, I hear him and how much he studied and I hear you and how much you studied, and I have to ask something I’m super curious about. How much comedy can be taught?
WF: That’s a great question. I just did a symposium at USC on that very question. My three guests were Demetri Martin, Lisa Kudrow, and Matt Besser, who created UCB. And basically, yes, you can teach comedy if somebody has something. A good teacher can definitely help them, focus them, and help avoid years of frustration because they’re doing something ridiculous. But my feeling is there has to be a certain spark in you to do comedy. And some people do not have that at all. It’s called a “sense of humor.” So, you have to have a sense of it. So, some people I’ve met who are just hopeless and there’s no way they could do comedy. So yes, you can teach comedy to an extent. In the same way that you can teach someone to be an opera singer, but you can’t simply teach someone to be a great opera singer. That comes from God or nature.
GNN: Yeah. I interviewed a comic book artist once and I asked him if being an artist could be taught. He was very political with his answer.
WF: What’d he say?
GNN: He started off, “Absolutely. I think anyone can be taught to be an artist with the right teaching,” but I could tell… I pressed him a little like, “Come on, man. I can tell from your answer you’re trying to be political.” And he’s like, “You know what? Now that I think about it, I taught art at a college. There was this one guy and he couldn’t even get the basics of shadows and shape drawing. And this guy had all the desire in the world.”
WF: That’s heartbreaking.
GNN: That’s exactly what he said, “It killed me to tell him that you’re just not getting it…not even the basics of it.”
WF: Right. Along those lines and I remember in elementary school, when we would do art, some kids just could draw. They could just do it. They weren’t taught it or anything. So if those people went to art school, they might learn some technique. Like how to draw a human hand or something really difficult. But if you can’t even draw at the beginning, I can’t imagine… but, maybe? Who knows? It’s a very weird thing. I equate it to singing. Some people just cannot sing. They just can’t do it.
GNN: No, that’s absolutely true. I don’t need any specifics because I’m not trying to put anyone down, but have you seen people that had you saying, “Holy mackerel, this guy’s been doing this for two or three years and I just don’t think he’s going anywhere.”?
WF: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of them.
GNN: Have you also seen the reverse of that, it’s like, “This guy seems to be funny and I just don’t get why he’s not making it.”?
WF: I mean, there are a million variables that go into this. A million might be an exaggeration but hundreds of variables go into performing on stage. And as Robert Klein once said, “It’s a quantum leap between making your friends laugh and making a room full of strangers laugh under the light.” It’s just a whole different world. This is what I have seen. I’m not going to name her, but she wanted to be a comic and would study those New Yorker comics. She broke them down. “What am I seeing here that’s making me laugh?” And every day she would read them, look at them, and figure them out. Like a math problem. Eventually, she started writing great jokes, developed an onstage personality, and went on to a great career. So yes. Yes, I’ve seen people be able to crack it without being naturally funny or extroverted.
GNN: One more thing about learning comedy. I had a friend at one of my jobs who decided he was going to take improv classes. And to me, I was like, “Man, that seems like an oxymoron. How do you learn to improv?” But from what I’ve learned as you said, it’s a learned thing. You can learn how to play off of other people. We went to go see his final performance. And like you, I was like, “Man, that one guy was rough,” but my friend was pretty good at it. I was like, “You know what? He did it.” It really was a relief that he didn’t suck!
WF: I know. It’s so tense when you’re a friend of a comedian and they drag you to a show. It’s hard.
GNN: I was like, “Please don’t. Please don’t suck.” A little tiny part of me was like, “I’d love to give him a hard time if he did suck, but I think there are a lot of people here, and I wish the best for him.”
So, moving on, so who were your influences growing up?
WF: Growing up is different than the ones that affected me as a standup, so…
GNN: Let’s start with your influences as a kid. Were there shows that you watched or performers that you saw that really influenced you?
WF: How early are we talking?
GNN: I mean, as early as you sat in front of the radio or television set. Were there any funny people that really got you?
WF: Well, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, the earliest stand-up I heard was those Bill Cosby records we had in our house. There was one in particular. It’s his first one, Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! I listened to that quite a bit. There were some Warner Brothers Records in the house. I guess it’s the same label as Cosby now that I think of it, with those Looney Tunes characters. They were very funny… I mean, it’s not stand-up comedy, but they were comedy records. And my uncle had a Jackie Mason album, I think, called I’m the Greatest Comedian in the World, Only Nobody Knows it Yet! and I remember that album. And, of course, I read Mad magazine.
GNN: Of course!
WF: Yeah. So those are the earliest…actually, before I even thought about being a comedian or anything like that, I’d listen to that stuff. I wasn’t old enough to watch The Ed Sullivan Show. So, I didn’t see any of that genre. I didn’t see any of Alan King… any of those dudes. So, that was the earliest. And then, when I was a teenager, it changed. How about you? Is there anything? I’m talking about elementary school level…
GNN: Yeah, in fifth grade, I was at a friend’s house, and he got a tape cassette and he popped it in…
WF: Let me guess, Adam Sandler?
GNN: No, but I’ll tell you what, Adam Sandler’s music CD that he did with The Lonesome Kicker and stuff is on my iPod. It’s fantastic. He does not get enough credit for the musical comedy.
WF: Yeah, he’s incredible. He’s incredible. All right, so I was wrong about Sandler.
GNN: No, no. That’s okay. I was wrong at the beginning of the interview, so now we’ve evened the scales of correctness and wrongness. No, it was “Weird Al” Yankovic and his Even Worse album.
WF: Oh, yeah. I know Weird Al. Yeah, I guess I was in high school at that time when they would play Dr. Demento on Sunday night, along with something called the National Lampoon Radio Hour or half-hour. That’s where I first heard of John Belushi and Gilda Radner, before SNL. But along the same lines, there was a very funny song that Demento would play called Shaving Cream. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that tune.
GNN: No, I’m not.
WF: Oh, my God. You’re going to be so happy when you hear this song.
GNN: I’ll have to give it a listen.
WF: It’s Benny Bell? And it’s from the 40s, I believe. He played it every week. Shaving Cream. That’s all. It’s a simple comedic idea.
GNN: I’ll definitely give it a listen. But back to Weird Al…I love parody…big fan of parody.
WF: Then do you like Mel Brooks? I mean, most of Mel Brooks’ movies are parodies.
GNN: I do love Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
WF: Are you telling me you’ve never seen Blazing Saddles?
GNN: Of course, of course. I remember I saw it when I was a kid and I didn’t get a lot of the jokes, but I have seen it as an adult and I did think it was funny. I always say when people are mean that they, “punch horses.” I always thought that scene was funny in Blazing Saddles.
So, back to the history of Wayne Federman…I’ll admit I got this information from Wikipedia, which we all know, 100% true. Never anything wrong on Wikipedia.
WF: I had nothing to do with that site. I know that people put stuff up. Sometimes it’s right. Sometimes it’s wrong.
GNN: That’s why I always want to preface that I know that it is not 100%. In 1987 you moved to Los Angeles?
WF: That is true.
GNN: Okay. So at least we got that. You were doing stand-up at that point?
GNN: And you got commercials and small television roles. How did you feel your momentum was going towards your goal? You said 30 was kind of your stopping point.
WF: Right. Turned 30 in 1989, so it was going well. I had already done stand-up on television. I was part of the Screen Actors’ Guild. I paid off my student loan. I could make a living. I was completely done with all the “job-jobs.” I haven’t had a job-job since maybe ’85, so that’s a pretty good run. Knock on wood. I’m thrilled that I could do that. Yeah. And then I started landing commercials, so that was really very helpful. And that’s the first time I got health insurance, in my 20s. I never had health insurance when I lived in New York.
GNN: Really? I can’t even imagine that.
WF: No. There were free clinics if there was ever a problem. And by “problem” I mean syphilis. (Laughs) No. If there was ever anything that went wrong. For example, I had a sprained ankle and the free clinic took care of me. It was fine. So, when I took stock of my career at age 30 and I was like, “Okay. This is it. I’m going to be doing this.” And then I just kept going. Simple as that.
GNN: How was your first paying gig? Stand-up gig?
WF: This is a great question. Well, my first paid show business gig was in high school playing drums at a wedding. So, that was my first time making money doing something artistic. Playing those songs. But I did do, I was just looking this up, a gig where I did some ventriloquism at the New York Athletic Club. Because I was a camp counselor in the summers when I attended NYU, one of the other counselors approached me with an offer. “Hey, I have this thing at New York Athletic Club. I’ll pay you $150 if you come in and perform.” I believe it was $150. And so that, is probably, is my first paid gig. That’s 1979. Crazy, huh?
GNN: How did it go?
WF: Pretty well. It was fine. I wasn’t really a stand-up at this point. I hadn’t really learned how to do stand-up. So, I think I did maybe an old Victor Borge routine and then my ventriloquist stuff. I was 20. 20 years old.
GNN: Okay. So, you’re getting gigs. And I mean, again, obviously, you’re a talented guy. I’ve watched some of your stuff and it’s really good. You’re in commercials and you’re acting…what do you think separated you from other talented comedians? Because a lot of talented comedians don’t make it. Was there something? A good agent? In the right place at the right time?
WF: Yeah. I don’t have anything like that.
WF: I wish. That was my dream…like, somebody is going to see how talented I am. I’ve never had a big break at all. I’ve just had a number of bookings and gigs. And it’s just all just piled up. And now, looking back on that Wikipedia page, it looks impressive. But I’ve never had anything like a “big break.” The kids today, like to call it a grind.
WF: Yeah. So, that’s me. I’m a grinder. I would say, another key to my success is, I can accept rejection pretty well. It takes like a day, or two, to kind of let it flow out of my body, and then I move on. I keep going.
GNN: Any big rejections that really pushed you? Were you this close to being the third step-brother in Step Brothers?
WF: No, but I was very close to being a regular on News Radio. That would have been an incredible career-making job. I was very close to being Mr. PC in the Apple vs. PC campaign. I lost on Star Search, I mean, I’ve had some real kind of humiliating setbacks. It hits me in the gut. Then I get up and just keep on going.
GNN: So, in 1994 you do The Tonight Show.
WF: Yes, yes.
GNN: For some kids who are reading this that weren’t born in ’94, Jay Leno was hosting at that point, correct?
WF: Yes. Yeah. Did you know I’m going to be on The Tonight Show again on April 23?
GNN: As a matter of fact, during my research, I went on waynefederman.com and I saw that you were going to be making an appearance. That’s awesome. So, in 1994, Jay Leno is hosting. You seem like you were pretty confident. You were doing really well for yourself. What was it like being on The Tonight Show? Any different than just doing normal standup? Very different?
WF: Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s cool. I mean, my goal was to have done it with Johnny Carson, but it didn’t work out. Another one of those big disappointments that I didn’t mention in my list of career disappointments from a couple of questions back. But it was just great. It was something I wanted to do since I first saw it as a teenager. But what I like best about that night was that the Tonight Show was still taped at Carson’s old studio. Studio 1 in Burbank. So, it’s the same curtains, same mark, that same audience, the sloped bleachers. It’s surreal to be on TV because the whole time it’s hard not to think, “I’m on TV.”
GNN: When you said you didn’t get on with Johnny Carson…
WF: Very big disappointment, very big. It took a long time to get over.
GNN: What does getting on the show entail? Do you try out? Do they send someone to watch you? Do you apply? What’s the process for you getting on the show?
WF: There was a guy who booked the comics. So, unless Carson saw you at a benefit or something like that, this guy would be Johnny’s eyes and the ears. His name was Jim McCawley and he saw me. He saw me a number of times. And then at the last audition, he got drunk and didn’t remember the show and it was all just a mess. That was tough. But I was so desperate to be on the show, I’m not sure if I would have been able to do well with Carson watching.
GNN: So, as your career continues and you’re getting TV roles, you’re getting commercial roles…the Hertz “not exactly” commercial was pretty funny and you were in one of the Geico commercials with the camels. Then you start getting movie roles and you come up with…I don’t know whether to call it a technique or a method or a philosophy, but you’ve come up with this very famous thing called the “Federman and Out.”
GNN: Please let the readers know what Federman and Out is.
WF: Federman and Out is for someone on my level of show business, not the lead, who appears in a number of movies, but just in one scene. I do something kind of funny, goofy, and then you never see me again. It happened over numerous films: 50 First Dates, 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Step Brothers, Legally Blonde. So, then I made it a bit. I think the problem is that my magnetism on the big screen is so bright that it is blinding. It would just overwhelm the movie if I were in more than one scene.
GNN: You’re the pizza of entertainment! You can only have so much pizza before you get sick of pizza. Pizza’s so good, but if you have too much pizza, you get sick, and then you don’t like pizza anymore.
WF: OK, I don’t know if I’m signing on to that analogy…
GNN: No? Well, you can circle back around if you need that analogy. I’ll gladly give it to you for free.
WF: But yeah, it’s actually been a blast. People are like, “Are you upset? You’re not the star!” It’s like, “Well, yes. Of course, I would rather star in a movie. But I’m still thrilled doing a Federman and Out. I’m thrilled to be in movies at all.”
GNN: So, what’s your favorite Federman and Out? Do you have one?
WF: That’s easy. Legally Blonde. My second favorite? The blind guy in Step Brothers.
GNN: “Can I come over later and feel your face?” That’s a pretty funny line. I mean, you do get a great line in every movie. It’s not even like you’re the guy who comes in and gets hit by a bus and doesn’t get to say anything.
WF: Yeah. Again, I’m not complaining in the least. I’m embracing it. I’m actually…what’s the word for it? Branding. I branded it.
GNN: No, absolutely. I mean, you talk about merch, and it’s funny to hear in the documentary you’re in I Am Road Comic that some comedians have so many differing opinions on merch. “What do you think about merch?” “I hate merch.” “I love merch.” “It’s stupid not to do merch.” “I know it’s a necessary evil.” They’re all kinds of answers. “Federman and Out” on a t-shirt, are you kidding me? How is that not on your website?
WF: I’m really bad at merch. I’m really bad at it. There’s a self-promotion part of me that’s not great. It just seems kind of cringy.
GNN: It would be great, Federman and Out on the front…
WF: And what’s on the back?
GNN: Not the movies because you probably can’t get the rights, but all the roles you played, just the names of each role you played in the movies: Blind Guy, College Admissions Guy, Guy Peeing…
WF: It’s a miracle if my role has an actual name.
GNN: So, this will never happen to you in real life, but let’s say you had to at, this point, stick to one lane from this point on — stand up, TV, voiceover, commercials, author, simply just writing from this point, teacher. You teach at USC. You’re an adjunct. Which one would you do if you could only do one?
WF: I think I’d do stand-up. I love going on the road and performing, but, wait…I don’t know. Let me think about that. My initial reaction is stand-up, but I’m in my 60s now. Do I want to be on the road every week or whatever? I don’t know. I guess it depends.
The answer might be acting because I really enjoy that as well. And you’re home and in your bed. Plus, there are residuals. That’s a good question, man. Awesome. It would still be performing. Yeah, I don’t think it would be writing or teaching.
GNN: Commercial work?
WF: And I love doing those. I mean, I have had a blast doing those. I’m thrilled to do it, but I think it would still be stand-up. God, I haven’t changed at all since 1974. It’s sad! Okay, now I’m depressed! (Laughs) I still have the same goals I did when I was 15.
GNN: It’s so odd that you say stand-up, because in that documentary, I Am Road Comic, it looks like stand-up gigs can be terrible. I don’t know if that’s just how they framed it, but it looked terrible.
WF: Oh, it did? Well, I mean, that was a terrible gig.
GNN: So, that’s another question I have…has your stand-up career been a bell curve? Basically, most things are good in the middle 80 percent, and then 10 percent of gigs are really good, and 10 percent are really bad? Or has it been better or worse?
WF: I’ve had way worse gigs than that I Am Road Comic gig. At least you had a hotel, people showed up, you got paid. I’ve had way worse bookings than that. I mean, that was not a good gig. Most gigs are better but not by much. Not by much. (Laughs). It all depends. I’ve gone from… I don’t know if you know this, but I helped produce Judd Apatow’s stand-up special for Netflix. And when we would do gigs together, sometimes we would fly by private jet. So, I have experienced the whole spectrum of road gigs. Traveling by jet and performing in legendary venues like, that one in Nashville, where they used to do the Grand Ole Opry… the Ryman Auditorium. A highlight of my life. To stupid bar shows or “noon-ers” on college campuses.
GNN: I got you. I mean, I admired you in that documentary because you were pretty down-to-earth about it because you had brown water leaking onto your bed and your response wasn’t, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get out of this place.” It was like, “Well if the bed were a king, I could just move over where it isn’t dripping.” I’m was watching like, “Holy crap. He’s trying to figure out ways to stay at a hotel room with brown water leaking out of holes in the ceiling.”
WF: You also saw in that movie that one kid came in on a bus. 30 hours on a bus or something like that. Look, I’ve taken buses to gigs. Yes, it can be bleak. I have to say that just listening to this is I’ve always been very grateful to be part of it. Like I said earlier, I was going to give it a try until I was 30 years old and see what happened.
WF: I’m thrilled to do all these various things. You said that I’m like the “Renaissance Dude.” What was the word you used?
GNN: The Swiss Army Knife of Comedy.
WF: Yeah. Yeah. I feel like I might be wrong about this, but I feel like that’s helped me not burn out on the road. If I had just done just stand-up comedy this whole time, I might be burned out a little bit.
GNN: That’s a good point.
WF: So, it’s still kind of fresh for me.
GNN: When I got the email from your PR folks, and they said you’ve got a book coming out, I did some research. I don’t like interviewing people I don’t know anything about or don’t like their work. So, I watched your Comedy Central special.
WF: You did?
GNN: I did. I watched it on Amazon Prime. It was the 30-minute special where you threw the football to that poor schlub, and he botched the throwback. I was like, “Oh, man.” You had your minute. You had your moment, dude. He could have hit you with the pass and he could have been a superstar and he blew it.
WF: I remember that. I thanked him for ruining it.
GNN: While I was watching your special, I was curious, it seems in this day and age there’s a “look at me” kind of thing going on. And I’ve noticed, the more comedy shows I go to, hecklers seem to become more common. So, how do you handle it? I was at a David Koechner show and I learned from the guy before him. I’d never seen this before. There was a guy in the front row. He wouldn’t shut up. He had to comment on everything. And the guy before David is like, “I’m going to teach you guys something about comedy.” He’s like, “The person before the headliner has two purposes: number one, to warm up the crowd, and number two, to find people like you and let the headliner know that people like you are out here.” He’s like, “I’m going to give you one more chance. Keep your mouth shut.” So how do you handle or like it to be handled?
WF: If I’m on stage? Or if there’s somebody opening for me and there’s a heckler?
GNN: Both. If you know about it in advance or if it happens during your act.
WF: I don’t really deal with hecklers that much because I don’t ask rhetorical questions during my act. A lot of comedians get in trouble by asking questions. For that reason, I don’t really have a problem with hecklers. It’s never been a bad situation for me. Some comedians encourage it because they like the juice of dealing with the heckler and audiences seem to like it when that guy gets put down and stuff like that. But I come at it, I think, from a little more empathetic point of view. It all depends on what they’re saying or how they’re saying it. And a lot of times I’ll compliment them and just try to befriend them. That’s my style. I try to befriend everyone, so.
And also, if I go too hard at a heckler, it kind of ruins my stage persona. I’m this nice guy who’s sort of bumbling through life and figuring it out. So, if the crowd sees me as a verbal assassin, it kind of undercuts what I’m doing comedically. I know we are really deep into the weeds.
GNN: No, it’s interesting to hear. Again, you’re right. I mean, now that I think about it, that is a trap. The whole “asking a rhetorical question” thing because somebody’s going to answer it…
WF: I never even ask the audience, “how are you doing tonight?” Nothing like that.
GNN: Okay, another question I like asking content creators…there are a lot more ways to be seen right now, but there are so many ways to be seen that it’s difficult to wade through it all. So, someone is trying to be a comic, and yeah, there are a million places they can put themselves. It’s in your book. You can have a YouTube channel and you can have a TikTok channel and your own website, but the problem is, everybody has that. So, while you can be seen more places, you’re now jockeying for position with all these. Do you have any advice for being seen? Is it just a simple matter of practice, practice, practice? Getting up in front of people? Are there skills that people might not know about? How do you get to be a good standup comedian?
WF: Well, the best way to be a good standup comedian is to get on stage in front of strangers, if possible. That’s the key. And if they’re paying, even better, but as long as they’re strangers. Other comedians, not as good. Your friends, not as good. But a lot of people can become comedians now without even getting on stage. They can do videos. Or lip-sync stuff. Sarah Cooper’s a perfect example. So, I don’t know. Here’s the advice I would give, and it’s not my advice, it comes from Steve Martin. And it’s this: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” That’s all. That’s what happened to him. So good. They can’t ignore you.
GNN: Yeah. That’s fantastic. I mean, it’s simple and it’s accurate.
WF: It’s simple. Yeah. So, if you’re not working on being good, you’re not working. Advice from me. (Laughs)
GNN: So, one last question on Wayne Federman history. In 2009, you were head monologue writer for Jimmy Fallon?
GNN: How difficult is that to pull off? I mean, you have got to just ingest current events constantly…
WF: I was quite good when we were launching that show but then I burned out rather quickly. Some people are really, really good at it. Some of those writers, every day, look forward to new articles, new things, and to try and make comedy connections. Amazing skill.
GNN: Was it the creative aspect? Or was it just tough going through current events…God, especially now, it’d be so damn depressing. I can turn it off. I’ll turn off the TV. You can’t if you’re doing that job.
WF: Yeah. It wasn’t about that. It was just the Groundhog Day of it all. You create a 100% new show and then it’s over. And then, you wake up and create another show. Wake up. We have to do a show. Wake up. Hey, we have to do this show. And so that’s what ground on me a little bit.
GNN: I totally get that. Now, let’s move on to a “for instance” question.
WF: Let’s do it.
GNN: So you’ve got in your book, it’s split by eras of comedy, like big happenings in certain eras.
WF: 10 chapters in the book, yeah.
GNN: If you could be trapped in any era of comedy, which do you think would be the coolest era to be trapped in?
WF: A future era. Can I go there? If so, that is where I would like to be trapped.
GNN: And what do you think that entails?
WF: I don’t know. That’s what I’m curious about. I mean, I know the other eras, so I’d be very curious to see how stand-up develops, what people like, and what kind of comedians there were. Who, of this generation, became influential?
GNN: It’ll be holograms of people up on stage…
WF: Who knows? Maybe a hologram of Seinfeld or something.
GNN: That would be cool. And they’re doing it with musicians. It would be super interesting. A comedian, it would be cool to see W.C. Fields or like an old comedian. You find his acts and have him perform them as a hologram.
WF: Maybe. Let me tell you the difference between music and comedy is music, the song is basically the same every night, but with stand-up, it’s about your reaction to the crowd’s reaction.
GNN: That’s a good point.
WF: There’s a comedian named Dana Gould who said it very well. Stand-up comedy is a conversation, but only one person is talking.
GNN: Because they don’t ask any rhetorical questions.
WF: Right, exactly.
GNN: It all works out. Now, we’ve mentioned the book a few times, but let’s do the official book plug. The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle by Wayne Federman. So, clearly, you’re a student of stand-up comedy; you do it for a living. When were the seeds of this book planted?
WF: Early, early in Florida. When I was a kid, I was really into stand-up history, even in high school, when I discovered radio comedians. I told you I started as a ventriloquist and I loved was this guy called Edgar Bergen. He broke through on radio in the late ’30s, 1938 I think it was. So, once I got into him and those shows, and then I expanded my knowledge base. I learned about Fred Allen and then Jack Benny. And through them, I learned all about vaudeville and The Palace, and then I was on my way. So, that was my earliest comedy nerd stuff. And then, decades later, I wrote an article for Vulture magazine called “The History of Stand-Up in Ten Easy Steps,” and this book is sort of a re-purposed and expanded version of that article. Greatly expanded. The book starts in the 1860s; the Vulture article began in 1947.
GNN: You also have a podcast, The History of Standup.
WF: That’s part of it as well.
GNN: So, for anyone who reads this book and likes it, does the podcast kind of run simultaneous or is there more in the podcast?
WF: We don’t do it chronologically, but, yes, the podcast actually gives you more information than the book. But there are hours and hours of shows.
WF: With the podcast, you get to hear it and you get to hear the actual comedians and their bits. You get to hear Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Pat Morita…Mr. Miyagi…he used to do stand up, so you get to hear him.
GNN: So, if anyone likes the book, reads the book and likes it, they should listen to the podcast, too?
WF: Maybe. The book grew out of three things: teaching at USC, the Vulture articles, and the podcast. And then, suddenly, we were in a COVID pandemic and I thought, “Let me just write this book.”
GNN: I mean, if you’re not going to do it during COVID, then when would you find the time?
GNN: I don’t normally read non-fiction, but I really enjoyed this book. It does a good job covering the history without going too in-depth. It seemed as if every section or chapter could have been blown out into stories about specific performers.
WF: No question. Almost every page of the book could be a book in itself.
WF: I mean, let’s go back to TJ Miller’s guy, W.C. Fields. There is a guy who just wrote three dense books, 500 pages each, on W.C. Fields’ life. The early stuff, the middle stuff, and then the movies. That’s one just one comedian. Three volumes. So, virtually, any page in my book could be a book in itself. So, with that, and I know you said earlier that it’s not in-depth. Hopefully, it tells a compelling narrative. It would have easily been 1,800 pages.
GNN: Right. And I didn’t mean not in-depth. It tells a good story. it doesn’t like, “Hey, let’s talk about this one comedian for a while,” and then you’re like, “Holy s**t, I forgot where we even were on the timeline.”
WF: Yeah. I mean, the most I might do is write two or three paragraphs on Steve Martin or Fred Allen or somebody like that. I think I do seven paragraphs on Richard Pryor. But, yes, almost every page could be a book.
GNN: Any plans to do any more books?
WF: No. Not at this time.
GNN: Well, it was a good read. It’s odd to say a non-fiction book would be a good like airplane read, but tis was.
WF: Thank you. That’s my goal, to make it for people who like stand-up to be like, “Oh, this is interesting.” And things keep repeating themselves throughout. Adapting to new technologies, right? That was a theme in the book.
GNN: No, absolutely. Yeah. It’s, “Hey, now we’re recording it. Now we’re on the radio. Now we’re on TV,” it was all about how technology changed the game.
WF: Now we have record albums, which is how you discovered Weird Al!
GNN: Amen to that. So, people can get the book, The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle on Amazon.com, right, for Kindle and in paperback?
WF: Yes. You can get it through Amazon and also at local bookstores. I’ve done a thing where it’s available through expanded distribution. So, if you have a favorite local bookstore, and you don’t like Amazon or something like that, you can order it through there. It’s the same price through local bookstores as it is online.
GNN: Can they get it on your website? Can they get the book on the site?
WF: Well, you can go to the site and click on the book, and it will take you to Amazon.
GNN: If they wanted to learn more about you first, they could go to your site and then get the book on Amazon. Can people find you anywhere else? Are you on Cameo? That’s the next step for you, is Cameo.
WF: You don’t think I’m on Cameo?
GNN: Are you on Cameo?
GNN: Oh, okay. Oh, so people can find you on Cameo as well. That’s awesome. I didn’t look at that. That’s one thing I didn’t check!
WF: It’s not going well for me on Cameo.
WF: Yeah. This is what I’m telling you. I know you think I’m a big-time celebrity. I’m not. And the reason I know that is my Cameo bookings.
GNN: Oh, man. You know what though? There’s so many. It’s getting so crowded on there…
WF: No, you don’t have to try and make me feel good. I feel fine, I’m just saying I think I have a very accurate view of where I sit in the business. (Laughs) And I have data. I have data to back it up. I have the data.
GNN: All right. Well, then I’ll move onto my last question that I ask everyone I interview. Because this is Geek News Network, what are you geeking out on right now? Music? Movies? TV?
WF: Oh, my goodness. All right. Well, unfortunately, you’re catching me at a very weird time because I’m crazily promoting this book on Geek News Network. Okay, I’ll tell you something I’m geeking out on, is reaction videos on YouTube. I think they’re really fun… music reaction videos. There’s a kid in Sweden, his name is Roomie. He’s got a YouTube channel called RoomieOfficial. You should check him out.
GNN: Okay, will do. Thank you for the time. Again, folks can get your book, The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle on Amazon.com, at local bookstores, and at your website, and it’ll link to Amazon.
WF: You’re welcome. Thank you for reading the book. I love that somebody who’s not that into stand-up could get through that book.
GNN: I appreciate you taking the time. I also appreciate you. My tree of entertainment has like fifty new comedy branches I have to go climb out on and experience new comedians. So, I really appreciate it.
WF: All right. Cool, man. Thank you, Scott. Thank you so much.
GNN: Yeah. Thank you very much, Wayne. Have a good one!
Credit for title image/photo goes to Jim Reese.