Talking to Eli Braden About Howard Stern, Parody Music, and Twitter
Comedian Eli Braden has an impressive 58,000 Twitter followers, but that’s nothing compared to the 6 million SiriusXM subscribers who routinely hear his parody songs.
Fans of the Howard Stern Show know Braden (@elibraden) as the comedian/musician who regularly provides the show’s raunchy parody songs introducing Robin Quivers, Stern’s well-endowed news anchor. (Sample “Robin’s Double G’s” sung to the tune of “Up on Cripple Creek.”)
Though Braden’s songs are admittedly lowbrow, the jokes in his popular Twitter feed are often extremely clever and have drawn such fans as “Weird Al” Yankovic and Molly McNearney, Jimmy Kimmel Live’s head writer who gave Braden a tryout writing on the show. He now makes his living writing for several TV shows, in addition to performing live.
I recently chatted with Braden about his start in comedy, touring with the Stern Show staffers, and writing for television.
You started out as a musician before you got into the comedy world, right?
Yeah, I was a musician for years, and I still do music stuff on the side. I was basically a singer-songwriter in a band, and I had two real record deals over the years and nothing really ever came of that. For most of it, I was in San Francisco, and I thought that other than trying to make it as an artist there are not a lot of opportunities in San Francisco. I moved to LA about 6 years ago and randomly had some friends out here. One of them was a musician, but mainly he was a comedic actor, and he said we should do some comedy songs, and I thought, “Sure, why not?” We did a couple of comedy songs and a couple of videos as a duo and put them on the Internet, and they got way more interest than anything I had done in serious music…
I’ve always been a huge comedy nerd and kind of felt like there was a gap and a lot of people weren’t doing comedy music and the people doing it weren’t doing it well. A friend of mine, Liam [Kyle Sullivan], had a viral video called “Shoes” where he played this character named Kelly who was this teenage valley girl. He made them like six years ago and he literally made like $200,000 from this video. He put it on YouTube and it got tons and tons of hits; he sold about half a million downloads off one song. And I was like, “Oh my God, we are in this new era where you can put stuff online and make money!” So the possibility kind of amazed me, and I decided I wanted to do this comedy-music thing. I started writing these comedy songs, recorded them, did some videos and then at a certain point I was like, “I should be performing live too.” I put together a little one-man act, and I was on my way.
From there, I thought maybe I can start writing comedy too. So I started writing, wrote a spec script, started spitting jokes and that’s kind of what I do now. I still do the music thing and perform as much as I can, record as much as I can and I’m hoping to make some more videos soon. I’ve done some stuff for the Nikki and Sara Show and that’s all parody songs, but it’s kind of still in the same vein.
If you had a preference between doing serious music vs. comedy, which would you choose?
At this point, I would definitely go comedy. I think my biggest problem in music, as a “music artist,” was that I never really had a lot to say. I don’t feel like it’s the drive of the artist to show their soul to the world, and I kind of feel like to make it as a real artist you have to do that. That was always a challenge to make songs. I wrote some songs and people liked them and that was great but I always felt like something was missing. Comedy just fits my personality better; it just works for me. I really love making people laugh – that immediate reaction you get from people – being on stage living and dying based on getting laughs.
One thing that bugs me about serious music is there’s so much bullshit, there’s so much mediocre stuff that gets hyped so people think it’s supposed to be good or people pretend that it is and then it’s the hot thing for a year or two and then it just fizzles out because there’s nothing there. That doesn’t fly in comedy; you have to be good. There’s no getting in just based on connections. How many people do you know who have gotten into comedy because of who they knew or because they were somebody’s kid or really, really attractive? That always has bugged me, and I don’t know why. I have this genetic thing in me where it has to be fair. Some things in music are just so unfair but in comedy it’s all equal. If you’re not making people laugh, you’re not gonna get anywhere. I love that. It’s a total meritocracy. I just love comedy, and now there are just so many more avenues for getting your stuff out there. Twitter’s amazing, YouTube’s amazing, cable TV is really taking chances with things like Adult Swim. It’s a really great time to be doing comedy, I think.
Does comedy come easier for musicians? Just thinking of Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, Jon Wurster – all these people with music backgrounds who do comedy.
Well, I’ll tell you this quick story: when I was in high school, my band actually opened for Fred Armisen’s band on a number of occasions. I think they were in Madison or maybe Chicago at the time, but I totally remember. They were like this noise punk band, and he had these long dreadlocks. I heard him on this interview one time saying he used to have long dreadlocks, and I was like “Oh my God!” I couldn’t believe it. He’s completely different now. That guy’s great and he’s so talented. But to your question, yes, being on stage as a musician definitely helps you get more comfortable on stage for comedy. It’s a different beast though. Definitely having a guitar with me helps because it’s like a security blanket. I actually got really sick over the holidays and had complete laryngitis – I couldn’t talk or sing or anything like that for like weeks. So I’ve been using this as an opportunity to try stand-up, and it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve mainly just been doing a lot of one-liners, scattering my Twitter feed to find the best ones. It’s been going over great, and I really love it. I think I’ll be doing some more stand up, just for fun. The reason I hadn’t done stand-up before was because if you want to do stand-up you kind of have to do it all the time and really get out there and do all the shows and put in your hours, sometimes doing 2-3 sets a night. I have friends who do that and I really appreciate the effort they put in, and I just didn’t want to be someone who was like “Oh I’m gonna start doing stand up now.” [Laughs.]
You don’t have any videos online of yourself, do you?
I don’t. I’m definitely gonna film it soon, but I wanted a couple under my belt just so that I could build up a show. That’s the way you want to do it, you want to get a good set.
Yeah, one pause could change the way an audience reacts to a joke; it’s so scientific up there.
But there’s also something really fun about just getting up there and being really spontaneous too. I’ve seen guys go up and throw out their entire act and just go on something that was going on in the club that night and turn it into a hysterical 10 minutes. You gotta have your tools sharp first in order to know what you’re doing.
You mentioned Twitter; did you know you were a good joke writer before you started twitter?
Not really, man. I started doing Twitter right around the same time that I started doing comedy, and at first, I thought Twitter was the stupidest thing I had ever heard of. It was so dumb, but then once I realized there were all these comedians on it just tweeting funny jokes, I loved it. When I go and look back at my first tweets in probably like ‘06 or ‘07, I wasn’t doing any jokes. I was mainly doing music stuff. So at some point I made the transition to doing jokes myself, and I look back at them and they’re horrible. I was a really bad joke writer, but Twitter really pushed me to write better jokes because I would see what would get negative feedback or no feedback, what was funny, and it’s kind of like a joke machine. You sharpen your skills. And then they invented Favstar where people star tweets they like, and it’s a really cheesy culture of people who just star each others tweets all the time so they can get little stars or whatever, but it’s also really good feedback on what’s working, what is resonating with people. It really helped me. When I was first getting into comedy writing I took them very seriously. I was working on jokes and making them as good as they could be before I posted them and it was very cool. It was a huge part of my development as a writer.
Has it helped your career at all?
It definitely has. I was lucky enough to get a lot of followers. One of the best things is being able to promote, but also you get people in the industry and they like your stuff and they follow you. I wrote for Jimmy Kimmel for two months as a trial period and the only reason I submitted for the job was because Molly McNearney, the head writer, really liked my stuff. Between Twitter and my presence on The Stern Show, I think that’s where I really got to a high profile faster than people normally can. Everybody in the industry loves Howard Stern. Howard is huge in LA. I’m a huge Howard Stern fan and just being able to be a part of the show is just amazing for me.
How did you get involved with Stern?
I had sent in an idea for a Chuck Berry parody song. One day, I was just writing and I had an idea for one, and I was like, ‘How do you turn this in?’ So I just recorded it totally low-fi on my computer in GarageBand, and I sent it to their main address on their website, and they played it the next day, and I could not believe it. So I was like, “Shit, I’m gonna do another one!” I had another idea, recorded it that day, and then, sure enough, they played it the next morning. I was amazed. It was about almost two years ago, and I’ve been sending them in since then.
I’ve been in the studio on the show twice, and I do all the touring with Block Parties now because I was in San Francisco once when they were doing one, and I said I would love to get up, and they had me up, and I did a medley, and they loved it. They’ve had me back at pretty much every one. I’ve only missed one since I started. It’s so much fun to do. I know almost everybody on the show really well, and it’s just the coolest thing to make. The Stern Show, music, and my kids are my three favorite things in the world.
Do you have any Ronnie Mund stories that you can share?
Ronnie is actually a really nice guy. I mean he is who he is on the air – he’s a wild man – but he’s also a real sweetheart and personally I’ve never treated him with anything but the upmost respect because he’s been really good to me and he has me on his show and is very cool to me. Pretty much anything that happens at the Block Parties goes right on the air. We’ll go somewhere for the weekend, and then you’ll hear it play out on the air for two days.
Are you guys like The Beatles when you walk on stage with all those super fans in the audience?
It’s weird because sometimes it is that way but also the audience knows what’s supposed to happen. They listen to the show and they know what’s going to be happening. They know they’re not just supposed to be crazy, they’re supposed to also be giving people shit. It’s the best part. At least a couple of people get thrown out of every show because everyone is in a haze of drunkenness. The Stern Show definitely brings out that element in people. Fights break out – it’s a real rock and roll show. It’s crazy, it really is crazy.
How often do you write new songs? I was checking out your SoundCloud and you have a bunch of new songs on there. Are you doing these daily?
Back in the day, when they were first getting played, I was unemployed and freelancing stuff, so I had a lot of time on my hands and could do a lot more. Now I’m working full time and have a lot less time to do them. I’m always writing down ideas that I have in my head and then when I have a day off I’ll do like four of them at once. I’ve got them all planned out, I just take the time to record them… I get all the music off iTunes karaoke tracks. There’s been a few of them where there’s been no karaoke songs like a couple Neil Young songs where I actually played them myself. But for the most part you find the karaoke track, you get it up to the part you want to use, and then you sing it.
You’re in rare company to have actually met Howard in person. Was he cool?
He’s a really nice guy. I didn’t really get to spend a lot of time with him but the last time I was there I got to take a picture with him, which was really cool. I really respect him, and I think history will redeem him. I think he’s really been vilified as a monster in culture – it’s sort of softened now, but back in the day, he was a beast. But if you actually listen to the show, you’ll hear that no, he’s actually he’s the smartest guy in the entertainment industry and he is the most honest person. He’s a flawed human being like the rest of us, and he’s willing to expose that. To me, I grew up with him and I evolved and grew up with his show in the background. I’m not Jewish, but I kind of view him as a rabbi. I think he’s a certified genius, and I hope he stays on the air until the day he dies.
You mentioned you’re working full time. Are you working on a show? Any projects coming up?
I’m working on a show right now for MTV. It’s a clip show and I write the jokes for that. They don’t have a name yet, but it’s basically going to be like Most Shocking on TruTV where they take longer clips and then tell a story out of it. There’s another show I worked on called Upload with Shaq. It’s kind of on the same lines as Tosh.0, but Shaquille O’Neil is the host and his co-hosts are Godfrey and Gary Owen, and it’s actually really funny, and I think it’s going to be really successful. That’s also on TruTV. It’s got a lot of really funny writers.
Was working on Kimmel a challenge for you? I’m always interested in how writing jokes on Twitter translates to writing TV sketches, etc.
Kimmel was a real challenge for me because I wasn’t even writing the monologue or the sketches. I was writing these things they do called integrations, which are the product placement sketches at the beginning of every show, and I was writing those on my own. It was kind of amazing that they put some untried entity completely in charge of that, but the woman who wrote those was on maternity leave for two months, and they liked my content and still might offer me a position sometime in the future. I think they gave me this position just to try me out. It was tough because I was dealing with corporate clients and to a certain point they’re much more interested in not sullying their brand with the kind of comedy that people might actually like. I would have a funny idea that Jimmy liked and approved, but when we sent the script to the company, they wouldn’t want to do any of it. So it was challenging, but at the same time, it’s network TV. They’re paying you a lot of money and you have to be flexible, you have to be able to deliver. As a writer, having to deal with corporate clients would not be my first choice.
Yeah, I can imagine it would be tough working in a box like that.
And they would always say, “Oh, we love you, we love Jimmy, do whatever you want to do, have fun with it,” and then that would never actually be the case. One thing I will say about Jimmy is talk about work ethic, that guy is a machine. He’s there early in the morning, and he’s busting his ass all day. Every aspect of that show he has a hand in. He has no problem delegating authority, but he’s got a hand in everything and has a very clear idea of what he wants and what he doesn’t want. I was amazed. You look at celebrities and think they have such a great life, but nobody works harder than that guy. He was nothing but nice to me.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.