Inside ‘Folk Hero & Funny Guy’ with Writer/Director Jeff Grace
With some help from Kickstarter, writer/director Jeff Grace was able to turn his screenplay about a struggling standup comic and his musician friend into a feature film. Folk Hero & Funny Guy tells the story of Paul (Alex Karpovsky) and Jason (Wyatt Russell), childhood friends who pursued their creative passions, one more successfully than the other.
Grace knows both worlds well, having been around the music scene for years and performing standup comedy for over a decade. Grace’s career trajectory follows a unique path; after college he worked in advertising until, in his late 20s, he decided to pursue a career in comedy, which ultimately led him to directing and writing his own projects. I spoke with Grace about Kickstarter’s help, Bruce Springsteen impressions, and the origin of the film’s unique title.
What was the motivation in writing a movie that focused heavily on the intertwining of music and comedy?
Well I think on a macro level what interested me was that careers in music and comedy are almost perfectly parallel, meaning as a musician or a standup, you usually start in a bar that is having a tough Monday night and just trying to find ways to get butts into the seats. So they have free entertainment and that usually takes form in an open mic — a music open mic or a comedy open mic — but they’re usually not as good for either discipline. If you’re doing well as a comedian you get asked to do these cooler unpaid booked shows, which LA and Brooklyn have a ton of, and it’s the same for music. And then if you’re doing really really well then you might get paid $25 a night to play somewhere, and then from there you usually go on the road. A comedian gets to open up for a better known comedian — same with opening bands for bigger bands. It’s this pathway through bars and clubs to I guess eventually mainstream.
One of the scenes that interested me was Jason, a relatively successful musician, having to drive his own car rather than use a tour bus. Most musicians, even some who are pretty successful, say touring is still a grind for them. It’s still tough. I imagine it’s the same for comedians too.
I know a lot of them. When you get to meet some of the bigger bands or comedians, there’s a real tough-to-define space in the middle. We know there are bands that are really huge, but then there are bands dealing with the economics of being a middle-tier band, like Broken Bells — I wouldn’t be able to tell you if that band made $2 million last year or if they’re just eking out $40,000 a year incomes. I have no idea. And comedians I know who go on the road — the economics of being on tour for six or seven months is really hard work for maybe $60,000 a year and traveling all the time. And a lot of those guys, a good percentage of them, are only doing it because they want to one day have a sitcom or one day have their own Netflix or HBO special. And with standup in particular, the only way to hone your craft is really doing it a lot, and the same goes for music. It’s not like going on the road is fruitless. It can only help to get better by doing it more.
You included a joke from your own standup act in the film about e-vites. Paul recycles the joke throughout the film.
Yeah, the e-vites joke used to be a closer for me in a 10-minute set. And I won a couple of standup comedy competitions with that as my closer. I certainly portrayed it as a dead-end joke in [the film]. Also, a joke about e-vites doesn’t feel like it’s right now. It’s not like a red hot, fresh observation. I wanted to make sure that Paul had jokes that made sense and you could see that this guy had crafted some stuff together. Just these jokes had stalled on him and he didn’t realize exactly why they weren’t working. It was to illustrate more cleanly that when a comedian starts relying on only the jokes that work, under the old “if you’re not growing you’re dying,” that’s kind of what was happening to Paul. He’s sort of staying behind the safe stuff and not exploring the new stuff. I’m sure you’ve heard Louis C.K.’s interviews about this.
Louis C.K. needed 20 years to realize that material on his kids, wife, and daily life worked more for him than only his absurdist material. Were you basing that idea off Louis C.K. directly or something you saw often in the comedy scene?
It was something I went through. I was doing standup and hit this wall — you know, in skiing they call it “terminal intermediate.” You’re good, but you’re not great. As a comedian I was good enough to be in the middle tier, but I was like, “man, I don’t feel like I’m on the cusp of having an HBO special either.” I was hiding behind [safer jokes] and not digging deeper. I met this guy from England, a guy named Paul Duddridge. He had managed a lot of comedians, big ones like Michael McIntyre and Rob Brydon. We met through a mutual friend. He came to one of my standup shows and he really ripped me apart. He’s like, “You’re hiding behind all this old stuff. You’re not connecting with the audience.” He really tore me up in a good way. He was like, “I want to go with you out to another standup show and I want you to go on stage for the next month or two, and you’re not allowed to go out with anything preexisting.” He was like, “You’re going to go on stage and you’re just going to talk to the audience and you’re going to riff.” And that was terrifying. I also felt like I was breaking some sort of rule, some sort of cardinal rule of, like, you need to have your bits. Standup is so filled with opinions from other comedians about what you’re supposed to do and what you’re not supposed to do. I’ve seen comedians watch someone kill on stage, just destroy the audience, and they’ll be like, “yeah, but that’s just crowd work.” Somehow comedians have developed some sort of rules for themselves. But George Carlin, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, those guys were not doing bits. They were just doing longform storytelling. How do you get to be a longform storyteller when you’re only allowed three to five minutes at a time? That’s a real challenge.
I took [Paul’s] advice and I got much better. After doing that for a couple of years I started my own standup show here in LA called Graceland, and it was through Graceland I could do 30-minute sets. And that became the foundation for my first hour-long comedy special.
When did you start doing standup comedy?
I was working in advertising, much like the main character in the movie, until I was about 28. I didn’t do standup until late 20s, early 30s. The whole Chicago comedy scene at the time was guys like T.J. Miller, Kyle Kinane, Kumail [Nanjiani], Pete Holmes, Nick Vatterott — guys who have really made it now and are doing some of the best work there is. Those guys were deep in that scene and I was too. But I was more on-again, off-again. I was working like 65 hours a week in advertising and I was doing a lot with Second City and ImprovOlympic. I think the guys I just mentioned were more fully dedicated standup comedians.
What moved you from doing standup to directing?
I actually finished a standup special that’s coming out next week. I got so caught up in the movie that I had all this footage from the standup special I shot and I was like, “I don’t know what to do with this thing.” I never really moved away from standup. But I guess philosophically I did. I personally was having a hard time doing the full-time, three-show-a-night standup comedy scene. It was hard because I was getting work as a writer, a director, and an actor too. I was having a hard time balancing that with two or three standup shows a night. There is a clique or club of comedians that can pop into any show and get ten minutes, and I wasn’t that guy. It was taking a lot of work to book even unpaid gigs around town. That’s why I started my own show. I still love standup — I still love to do it, but for me I knew I was pretty good at making movies and making videos, and it just felt easier and it felt like I was better at it.
Is there a preference for doing standup comedy or filmmaking?
I really find myself attracted to writing and directing. I like the process better. The standup process is pretty rough. All your nights are tied up. But there’s nothing that can replace the immediate feedback of a crowd and as a standup comedian I have a high level of comfort on stage, but in a weird way I felt like I was less prolific writing in that space.
In preparing for the role, did Alex Karpovsky go to comedy clubs for practice?
His first stint in entertainment was standup. He was sort of doing arthouse, almost Andy Kaufman-esque characters. I think he did it for a while and it didn’t click with him. But I kind of, on a leap of faith, thought Alex would be really good. He had the vibe of a standup comedian. Originally I wrote the movie for myself to be in, but as you go through the financing, it’s so hard to get a movie made and it’s even harder when it looks like it might be some actor’s vanity project. I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer/director and I thought maybe me not [acting] and having an actor who’s got more experience than me and has more of a profile will help me get other good actors to be in it. That did work out. Alex is an actor in a show that’s part of the cultural conversation. Girls is a show that, even though it’s not the highest rated show of all time, it’s certainly known in the right circles. It really made other actors feel comfortable signing on once they knew he was a part of it.
You mentioned once that a more than $50,000 Kickstarter campaign helped finance the film. You also said previously you can only go to that well one time. Do you see yourself using Kickstarter for another project?
I don’t think I would. Making a video and defining what you want to make is really helpful, but I think for hours put in for the money you get out, we might have been better off spending more time calling investors. What it did was, when we reached out to real investors, we had this video. We had shown there was public support for this idea.
Can you talk about the music in the film and the discussions the characters have about artists like Springsteen?
There was a lot more Bruce Springsteen references in the movie originally, but we had to take them out because we couldn’t get his music. There was a scene that’s in there that’s like, “What would Bruce Springsteen call these guys on the road?” And I was like, “Oh Folk Hero and Funny Guy.” But I don’t really know what a “folk hero” is. In the movie Sunken Treasure, the Jeff Tweedy documentary, he went on the road by himself and I saw him on this tour. Jeff Tweedy with Wilco sells out big venues. Jeff Tweedy by himself is one-tenth the draw power. Probably most people don’t know what Jeff Tweedy looks like even if they know the band Wilco. That was the kind of character I wanted to create — the guy that had the anonymity to be in and around the world, but to a certain group of people was considered very famous.
When you write conversations like where the characters rank their favorite artists from Paul Simon to Bob Dylan, was it a struggle to make such real-life conversations come across as natural?
There’s a lot of rehearsing with [those scenes] and then telling the actors to kind of throw it away. We had a lot of time to rehearse in LA with Alex and Wyatt and Meredith [Hagner] and Melanie [Lynskey]. The key was to make it feel naturalistic because I had the luxury of hearing them say it and then giving them notes. The funny thing is I originally had both [Alex] and [Wyatt] doing their best Bruce Springsteen impression. Wyatt had a hard time doing the Springsteen impression. It kept coming out like an old blues singer. I grew up in New Jersey so Bruce Springsteen, he’s religion in New Jersey.