Talking to Liam McEneaney About ‘Tell Your Friends!’, New York’s Standup Scene, and More
“What I learned is that doing a show in a bar basement for very little money has its rewards,” says Liam McEneaney, producer and host of the popular New York stand-up show Tell Your Friends!. On December 4th, Tell You Friends! The Concert Film!, which stars McEneaney alongside comedians Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal, Reggie Watts, Christian Finnegan, Leo Allen and Rob Paravonian, and musical duo A Brief View of the Hudson, will be released by ASpecialThing Records. A release party/Hurricane Sandy benefit show will be held at The Bell House on December 5th. Recently, I got the chance to hang out with Liam at a bus stop in Brooklyn to talk about hosting a weekly show, comedy festivals, and the inevitable move to LA.
So, tell me about the Tell Your Friends! film.
Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film! is based on a long running show that I’ve been producing for the last seven, almost eight years. It used to be in the basement of a bar called Lolita Bar. I started it because I was tired of doing open mics and I really wanted a venue for myself and for my friends who don’t really do open mics anymore [to] work on new material. So after years of doing that, I decided that I wanted to do something big. I’d seen [that] Victor Varnado had produced and directed a special called The Awkward Comedy Show. He took a lot of nerdy black comics who hadn’t broken yet, and he put them on this special. He headlined it, it also included Marina Franklin, Baron Vaughn, Hannibal Buress and Eric Andre, so like a really, really tight lineup of comedians.
I kind of wanted to do something to document the show, and also the New York comedy scene as it stood at the turn of the 2010s. I pitched it to Comedy Central records as an album, like they did with Comedy Death Ray and Invite Them Up, but I guess they just weren’t a hundred percent happy with the sales of those albums, so they were just like, “Nah, we’re not doing that kind of album anymore.” And at the time, I was not doing any specials or anything, and so a confluence of things where it’s like, “Ok, well why don’t I just produce my own thing and star in it, and have my friends who I think are super cool.” And I had been doing these big shows, and I was like, it’s a real bummer that people can’t see these shows.
So, all those things kind of came together and I got a guy who believed in my vision to invest in it, and I got Victor to direct and produce it, and it looks great. Like, it looks like a real movie. [Laughs] I think people are surprised when they see it because I think people assume that I just took a couple of hi-def cameras and put them in a bar basement and recorded people. We also did interviews with people who came out of the “alt comedy scene” like Janeane Garofalo, Jim Gaffigan, Marc Maron, Colin Quinn. People you wouldn’t necessarily even think cut their teeth in that scene. We were very lucky. We got invited into the South by Southwest Film Festival, and things have just been kind of progressing nicely since then.
And how did you get involved with A Special Thing?
You know, I’ve been a fan of them for a long time. I’m a huge fan of the stuff they put out, and I’m a big fan of a lot of the artists that they work with on their label, and so I thought it was just a natural fit. We’re releasing it as a DVD/CD set. The DVD [has] extras, like backstage footage, cut scenes, stuff like that. And then the soundtrack actually has other, longer sets from everybody, and extra material that’s not in anything. So it’s gonna be a very cool set for nerds with OCD.
Didn’t you also do a Kickstarter for the movie?
Yeah, just to finalize the finishing costs on the film. But I’ve spent pretty much a quarter of the Kickstarter money on making Kickstarter prizes. I had a lot of prizes. I’m making special DVDs specifically—and if you kicked in, those DVDs are being made, don’t worry—specifically for the Kickstarter donors. So, those are gonna have special packaging with pictures that aren’t being used anywhere else. I’m gonna sign them and hand number them. Make them nice. Make them nice, you know? But a lot of the other prizes were just, like posters that I already had printed up for South by Southwest. It was just a goof. It was a fun goof. Raised a little bit of money. There’s so much stuff that’s involved in making movies and we’re way over budget.
And I heard you’re doing a podcast?
It’s gonna be the Tell Your Friends! podcast. And it was originally conceived as a vehicle for promoting the film. And then I just got caught up in like 33 different threads in my own life, which spun themselves into a net, which kind of caught me for a little while.
I’ve already got probably 18 interviews in the can, people like David [O’Doherty], [Eddie] Pepitone, Mike Doughty, Christian Finnegan. Just guys like that, who I enjoy talking to. But I feel like Marc [Maron] does WTF so well, and there are so many other comedian-on-comedian interview podcasts, that I don’t want it to be that. So I have musicians like Doughty and Alana Amram, who’s awesome, and Catherine Popper, who plays bass in Jack White’s band. People who I really dig, who are really good at what they do. It’s like a magazine format almost, where there’s gonna be stories and little bits in there, so it’s not just an interview, but you can just listen to a variety of stuff.
When did you stop doing Tell Your Friends! at Lolita?
I stopped doing it last year. I was gonna keep it going until we sold the film, but then, in January, I came close to a TV sale. It was one of those things where I was talking to an executive and it was going really well and she was really supportive and she was pitching it to her bosses, and then there was the break for the holidays, and when we came back, she just left her job. And that’s the way it happens in show business, so it breaks your heart in a million pieces.
And seven years is a long time to be doing a show like that. I got bored and once you’re bored with a passion project, it’s over. So the last, I would say, four months were just bad. We stopped having audiences, and I stopped working hard to book the bigger names that people were coming to see anyway. New York audiences are so spoiled and fickle, because they have so many options for shows that big names’ll come and do. So it was just like, fuck it, it’s over. And sometimes, you just gotta say it’s over, or it’s time to move on and evolve this thing, because the enemy of progress is complacency. Once you’re comfortable, you’re done. I get bigger crowds and I make more money if I do a show monthly at the Bell House.
So, that’s the deal. I’ve got one in January [that] Gilbert Gottfried’s gonna headline, I’m really excited. It’s pretty amazing, actually. I’m shocked I pulled that one off. And I would eventually like to grow the show out of the Bell House to either a tour, or just a big venue. Like, my hope is for the 10th anniversary to have it at a big space.
What kind of space are you thinking?
Well, I mean the dream is to do a place like Carnegie Hall. That would be amazing. That would be maybe for it’s 50th anniversary. But you never know.
I know you did a show as part of the New York Comedy Festival. How did that go?
I did. That was one of those—every time I really look forward to a show, that’s when I know it’s not gonna go well. And it was, I mean, it ended fine, but it was just one of those shows where like, the audience was really quiet. You know, theoretically, if you’re a comedian, you should be able to perform in front of any kind of crowd, and the goal is to be someone like Jim Gaffigan who can do Eugene [Mirman]’s show and he can do my show, but then he can also perform at Carnegie Hall or whatever, the Pepsi Thunderdome in Janesville, Wisconsin, and do as well in front of every kind of crowd. But my show had my friend Tanya O’Debra pretending to be a 13-year-old doing burlesque for the first time, and crying and clearly hating it. You know, people who are coming to a New York Comedy Festival show just aren’t gonna get it. So the crowd was 50 percent laughing really hard, and then 50 percent, like, women looking really shocked and upset.
And in terms of festivals, I dunno. I’ve never really had success with getting into festivals and doing festivals, so they’ve never really been a priority for me. I mean it was a nice thing to say I was doing. I had fun, but ultimately I just don’t think that comedy festivals really serve entirely the same function that they used to. It used to be that festivals like US Comedy Arts in Aspen and Just for Laughs [in Montreal] served the function of getting all this talent together that people wouldn’t see live, and that’s still a very cool thing. It’s still a very cool thing to get people like Robin Williams and Ricky Gervais and Jim Gaffigan. But the other thing was to get talent in front of industry that they wouldn’t normally see. But they truth is now you can just go on YouTube and look for any comedian that you want to check out. So in that respect, they’re just another aspect of the business that I think is changing, or at the very least needs to change. And that’s only a little bit of bitterness because I never get invited to be in them.
I might just be spoiled by cheap shows in New York, but I was a little bit surprised by some of the prices at the New York Comedy Festival.
That’s one of things I’ve always tried to do is keep my shows cheap, because I am aware that there’s a lot of competition. And also, if you’re [charging] $50 a ticket, you have to do your best stuff. I like to do my best stuff, but there’s a certain relaxation that comes with knowing that people only paid $10 or $15 to get into a show. The nice thing is, if I charge $15 at the door, I can still do a fair split, where everyone gets paid well enough that it’s worth their while. I mean, comics can get $120 a set, and I can pay more than that because I’m not as interested in making a huge percentage of profit. So if you keep your margins low and you pay comedians well, they’ll keep doing your show. With the festival, there were shows that were $80, $100. And I mean I get it, it’s a big festival. I always feel like, if I charge less money and do more shows, people will keep coming because they’ll feel good about what they saw. By the way if I ever become super famous, I’m definitely charging $80 a ticket for concerts.
For a film that’s, in part, documenting the New York Comedy Scene, a lot of your cast members have since moved to LA. How do you feel about that?
Well it definitely makes it hard to do a release show. But when I started the process of getting this film together in 2009, they were all guys and ladies who were on the rise but hadn’t broken yet. And in that year, people’s careers just really started happening. Finnegan got cast on Are We There Yet?. Kristen had just kind of broken through to that next level where she was a guest on the Simpsons and on Letterman, and like the week after I finalized everything with Reggie’s manager, he had a full-page profile in the New York Times. So I was very, very lucky to catch my friends right when they were breaking big.
The problem is, once you break big, there’s not a hell of a lot of work in New York City anymore. You can get a writing job on one of the five big shows in New York City. You can be lucky like Kristen and get cast in 30 Rock, or one of the other two sitcoms that’s filming in New York. Or you can like shuttle back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, which is a pain in the ass. And there’s just a point where you gotta go where the work is. So, that’s the story of the New York comedy scene.
I wish I could remember who said it, but they said that your local comedy scene is like comedy college. You learn how to do what you do. And then you come to New York, and that’s like comedy grad school, where it just really kicks your ass and you either get better or you drop out. And then, moving to LA is like graduating and going to work. So it’s always very sad to lose people, but on the other hand, I was just in LA, and for the first time I really thought [that] it wouldn’t be so bad to actually live out there. The weather’s nice, a lot of work, just get my shit together, learn how to drive, because I’m a native New Yorker. But I mean, when you get the call, you gotta go. Leno said it in his autobiography, and it’s a 100 percent true. When you get the call to go out to LA, pack your bags, drop what you’re doing in New York and just go.
Is there anything else you want to plug?
I’m actually starting a weekly open-mic. Ali Farahnakian, who runs The PIT, he’s opening a new bar called The Comedy Bar on West 29th Street between 6th and 7th. It’s this gem of a bar. He’s created the same vibe as the Bowery Poetry Club if it had opened in a Swiss Chalet. I started doing stand-up in the nineties in these anything goes open-mics in these small black box theaters downtown that are no longer there, like Surf Reality and Collective Unconscious. And I really kind of miss the kind of anything-goes craziness. We want to kind of foster that environment. We’re gonna do that every Sunday, starting when the bar opens, hopefully in December.
And I have other things coming down the pike in 2013, because we live in a world where comedians kind of have to put their own projects together now, and that’s just the way of it. So, no rest for the wicked. Robert Frost said, “I got miles to go before I sleep.”