The Big Chill of Comedy with Fred Stoller
Back when I was a lad in the nineteen-hundred and eighties, standup showcase shows were on cable television 24 hours a day, and I watched every single one of them. They were all good to me and my insatiable appetite for standup, but the big ones were on HBO. I seldom had access to HBO, and while it was always cool to see a Carlin special or something like that at a friend’s house while his parents were sleeping, catching a Young Comedians special was even better. Running annually from 1976 to 1995, the Young Comedians specials featured comics that I often saw on basic cable, but now they were unfettered, and it was truly exciting to see comics who weren’t yet household names. Carlin and Pryor were gods among men, but the Young Comedians were closer to my age, to my generation, and made comedy seem that much more accessible. This just made it all the more exciting to me and made these specials seem like true events.
The 13th Annual Young Comedians Special aired in 1989. Hosted by Dennis Miller, the lineup consisted of Jann Karam, Drake Sather, Rob Schneider, David Spade, Fred Stoller, and Warren Thomas. In the nearly 30 years since, each and every of those comics has made his or her mark on the industry and the art of standup in wildly different ways. The lineup was such a great snapshot of standup of that time, and Fred Stoller, in his new Kindle Single Five Minutes to Kill, (available now for a mere $1.99), has gone back and traced the steps of each of those comics to find out where it went right, where it went wrong, and who the hell is really to say what is right and wrong in matters such as these. I had the distinct pleasure to sit down with Fred at an upstairs café in Los Angeles, California recently, and we discussed the book, the boom, and the Banias of life.
When I first met you about a year ago, you had mentioned this idea of Five Minutes to Kill, but unless I’m wrong, you mentioned doing it as a documentary?
Yes, I thought it would be good, but then because My Seinfeld Year did well, my other Kindle Single, I knew Amazon would be receptive. This is something where if I get a lot of interviews, I can just sit and write the story, as opposed to getting a D.P., there’s the sound, there’s disagreements, you’ve got to get releases. Because I’ve tried to do collaborations with other people, and it gets difficult. And I thought “Let me just do this as this — as a narrative story.” So yeah, I think at first I thought of it as a documentary, and it turned out a fun venture.
What couldn’t you do with the book that you would have liked to have done with a documentary?
It could have been longer, and obviously you could have footage. I have a Five Minutes to Kill Facebook page, where I’m linking photos of all the people when they were younger, and people are commenting their favorite jokes and clips of some various things. Like in the Single, I talk about one acting job I got from the special was playing a motorcycle guy on Amen, and I posted that clip. So, yes, obviously with a documentary, you can have a lot of talking heads and comments and that. But I’m hoping this gets people interested, and people have said they’re looking up the footage from the special, so I’m hoping this get people interested in the people from this story.
And so far it’s gotten a lot of very positive reviews.
Oh, I hope so. I try not to read them because you get bummed out, or you just don’t want to live by them and then you die by them. I learned that with my other Kindle Single.
But as far as the business of Kindle goes, that is really important, right?
Yes, and I’m glad—it’s hard to tell from the cover and the description—but I’m glad that people who read it say they’re very touched and that it’s a deeper story than let on. One person said it was almost like The Big Chill of comedy. It’s about life, death…you even, I think, said something that was very touching: That it’s about getting by in life and coping mechanisms.
I was thinking about the special itself, and how it came at the end of the ‘80s, the boom decade for standup. 1989 is kinda the end of the decade…
Kinda? I mean, it is the actual end of the decade…
The math, yes, it works like that.
Did you think at the time that that gave your Young Comedians special, the one you were on, more weight?
That didn’t occur to me, but in interviewing comedians for this, and managers, I got different opinions. Mark Brazill, a comedian who created That ‘70s Show, he said the Single should be called The Last Best Special. He thought this special was the best Young Comedians special, that it was changing comedy a little bit. But then, I had some people saying they didn’t like it. Mark Brazill phrased it that it was more “This is what we do,” not like “Hey, I’m a killer!” comics. More like a precursor of the ‘90s, of Mr. Show. More revelatory, talking about yourself, and more storytelling, a different kinda way.
The six of you have all very distinct personalities…
But it wasn’t more traditional, like Lenny Clarke or Dom Irrera, who are great comics but they were very much the ‘80s boom-boom-boom-kill. Mark Brazill thought it was more people saying, “This is what I do, I’m not trying to blow the room away, but it would be nice to do,” you know what I mean.
Yes, working towards—
Right, more than trying to crush in a traditional sense.
When Dennis Miller introduced Warren Thomas, he said “Here to give us a much needed edge is Warren Thomas.” Warren was edgy in that he loved to riff — he would do that on the Young Comedians special. I learned so much interviewing people for this. I thought because I was from the New York ‘80s comedy boom, I didn’t think there was anything like where you could make a marginal living just middling around New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, five sets a night on the weekends, and there were more clubs than comics. But they had that too in the Bay, in San Francisco, where Bob Rubin said they were like rock stars. And you see a lot of these people from the Bay and you can see how it would thwart some people, because you have this delusion that you’re a rock star, then you come to Los Angeles to showcase, to package it, and a lot of people are thrown for a loop. They go back to New York and San Francisco—some people never left San Francisco or New York because they’re the kings of the town. But San Francisco, I didn’t know San Francisco was…Robin Williams, Steven Pearl, who a lot of people haven’t heard of, created this riffing, this free-spirited, kind of reference-oriented stuff that was in the Young Comedians Special I was in.
Why do you think San Francisco would have such a riff-heavy scene?
Probably the Berkeley, hippy-ish, kind of liberal…I can’t articulate it now, but there was something with the kind of poetic, beatnik stuff, and the people there. It was like jazz — like, it was cool to go to clubs. Sorta what happened to comedy in the ‘90s with the alternative scene, where it was almost frowned upon to be an old-school comic. Dana Carvey, some people would say he was almost beyond genius, he crushed. But he has this trick like Robin Williams — they made it seem like it was all off-the-cuff, and it was almost frowned upon to be a traditional New York ‘80s comedian, wearing the jacket with the sleeves rolled up, a David Brenner or Robert Klein comedian. They dressed cooler in San Francisco.
There hasn’t really been a boom quite like it since the ‘80s. Why do you think that is?
Well, I’m out of the loop because I stopped doing standup, and then I kinda came back. But I hear there’s sort of a revival but in a different way. That’s why it’s called Five Minutes to Kill, and the reason we only had five minutes, is that usually these Young Comedians specials only had five comics, but David Spade had been turned down two times before and Dennis Miller really wanted him on this. So they created a sixth spot, so our times all got taken down. Plus Dennis Miller did a really long set at the beginning. Usually when they host these Young Comedians specials, it’s “All right, here’s the next guy!” Miller crushed with 10 or 12 minutes.
The five-minute tradition when I starred with guys like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Miller, the late Rodney Shakes would work on these impeccable, like Rodney Dangerfield, these impeccable five-minute sets. But now people make it, a guy like Big Jay Oakerson or Duncan Trussell, and they don’t go this route and I don’t know how they do it. Because I’m older, I don’t know how songs become known if they’re not MTV videos, that’s how I knew. But now they don’t go that route. There’s a new comedy boom where people do hourlong things, even if they’re not Netflix specials. It’s not as joke-joke-joke, five-minute jokey. Actually, Drake Sather was more traditional, even though he was a rebellious comedian and very edgy. But he was joke-joke-joke, but brilliant.
Do you have a personal preference? Like, do you think this evolution of standup is a good thing?
You know what? It’s like when a lot of people say comics are mediocre — when I was doing a lot of guest spots in the ‘90s on sitcoms when they were on every night of the week on every network, people would say sitcoms are watered down. But it’s like standup: If there’s a lot, only a small amount would be great, I guess. I like the late Mitch Hedberg and people like Norm Macdonald who are innately funny, so it’s like anything where it’s not so much a generation but only a small amount who you really love.
Right, those that transcend the era.
Yes, transcend the era, that’s a great way to phrase it. You know, I sound like an old man because a lot of comics under 30, and even over 30, don’t remember these Young Comedians specials — they don’t remember the impact, how it made so many careers: Kinison, Seinfeld, Saget, Roseanne, and how this was even before Comedy Central. It was before so much exposure, so it was a big deal to be on a Young Comedians special. I had tried out in New York, and Rodney hosted a few of them, and those were the biggest ones that he hosted. And I said to him, “What did you think?” and he said, “You’re too low-key, okay?” And I walked away crushed because that was one of the biggest opportunities. They had Letterman — those were the days when it was a big deal to do a Carson spot, and then it got watered down. You don’t hear about people breaking from a crushing Conan spot, or even Colbert. So that’s why these Young Comedian specials were really big.
For my own comedy nerd sensibilities, there were a ton of those showcase shows in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and you did a number of them. Evening at the Improv, did you do that more than once?
Yes, someone joked it was like jury duty. Budd Friedman would book it, and you didn’t want to do it too many times because your act would get watered down and you’d try to avoid it like jury duty. It got so watered down that you couldn’t tell who the host was after a while: “Why is this guy the celebrity host and not one of the comics?”
Who hosted when you did it?
The first one was Allyce Beasley who was on Moonlighting, the sidekick, then I did one with Bud Cort who was in Harold and Maude. I remember there was a bunch of crazy ones like when Corey Feldman did a song and dance.
You also did The Half-Hour Comedy Hour?
Yes, I get them confused. That one was, I think, Mario Joyner hosted it.
Oh, that was a good season.
Actually there’s some comedy trivia: That Young Comedians special was at The Mayfair, and it was such a nice theater, they did The A-List there, which people on the inside called “a list” because at first it was an A-list, and then they did season 2 and it was just anyone. Some people complained that the Mayfair wasn’t like a comedy club, like on some Young Comedians specials, it was intimate, you could crush. The Mayfair was a big spread-out theater, so it didn’t have that intimacy, and it wasn’t like those packed theaters where you could kill. So it was kind of weird in that sense.
The A-List had that enormous stage where they could fit that big logo on the floor.
Yeah, same place. They re-did the set, and I remember Dennis Miller was riffing, he got there early to kind of scour the set and made what looked like impromptu riffs off the architecture of the set. Very Dennis Miller, “This is Agnes of God meets…” whatever the hell. “Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.”
Did they do more Young Comedians specials?
Yes, I was on the thirteenth one, and at first I thought of calling it The Curse of the 13th Young Comedians Special. I don’t want to give away what happens, but there’s triumph and there’s tragedy. They did a fourteenth and a fifteenth, and then I think they stopped, and I think by those, some of the magic had dissipated. But if I’m not mistaken, Judd Apatow did one after, Bill Bellamy, Louis C.K., Janeane Garofalo, Ray Romano, Andy Kindler, so yes, they would scour the country, and you were honored to be one of the five comics that HBO said were on the rise, though we weren’t all so new. I remember there was one hosted by the Smothers Brothers, and Richard Lewis was on it, and I said, “He’s a young comedian?” But then again, someone said that about me.
Even today, when in Montreal, they have New Faces, but I’ve known some of those faces for years.
Someone made a point: Why did not many people break from Last Comic Standing when they did with American Idol? They were all 23-year-olds, but with Last Comic Standing, most of the new people are in their 40s and have done a million things already. As Marc Maron and Louis C.K. and Bill Burr have shown, standups really get into a major stride in their 40s, it seems. They’ve been around forever and it takes 20 years to really get there.
What’s next for you then?
I hope this does well enough. I like writing like this. I don’t wanna jinx it, but I’d rather write something like this and bring it to people rather than just pitch. With this, I did a bunch of interviews before I pitched it just to know I could do it, that I had a story. I like to get out of my head, like you’re doing now, where I have to interview other people. It’s a strange process because you have to bug people and I’m not good at that. And a lot of them are suspicious and a lot of them are protective of the people in it, a lot of people are crazy. Do you know My Seinfeld Year?
My Bania story, it’s based on a true story of this comedian I knew who gave me an Armani suit and he wanted a meal for it. So we went to Jerry’s Deli, and he said “I’m going to save the meal and just have soup.” One of the guys I interviewed for this, we went to some expensive sushi place in Malibu, and he said “I’ll just have appetizers.” And then he calls me and says, “I thought of something else!” So we went to a waffle place, and he got another meal. Then he connected with someone, he texted someone who texted someone else, and I got another interview, and he said, “Now I want a real meal at Nobu.” I said, “You’re just like Kenny Bania!” He said, “You benefitted, I wanna benefit!”
We can keep it off the record, but who is Bania based on?
You can put it on the record because he and I have talked about it. Bruce Smirnoff, do you know him?
Lanky guy, big nose, got a nose job, Jewish guy. And he said it was a thousand-dollar Armani suit, but then I found out he went to some sales rack and got it for $200. And he did work out with weights, and another part of the story was finally I took him to Jerry’s Deli, and then when he heard I based an episode on that, he wanted more money. He goes, “Wait a minute, you wrote a Seinfeld?” So I had to take him to The Palms or Dan Tana’s, I think. I was fired from Seinfeld, so I wasn’t rich, it was only that one season, and this place was everything was à la carte, so he kept ordering more coffee, desserts, going to town like it was on CAA.
And now I have another Bania in my life, and I won’t say who that guy is, but you know, it’s like the cliché, like it’s your baby. I wanted to get the story, so I went everywhere. Rob Schneider was so open and cool, I went to see him at the Ontario Improv. I gotta say, he puts together a good show, he’s very talented with voice and characters, and he went very deep and gave me a lot of good insight. Just tracking people down on phones, I’m glad it materialized just tracking people down, and I got to not eat alone as much. I would sit places and listen to it, and I tried some places that would transcribe it, but they didn’t do so good. I interviewed a woman at a Korean BBQ, and you couldn’t hear it because of the sizzling of the thing, so you learn little tricks.
That’s why I have two mics going.
Yeah, it would suck if you didn’t get an interview. So I hope people just appreciate the story. I made friends from this, it was so great to see people like Rick Messina, who’s a big manager, he manages Tim Allen, Drew Carey. I started with him, he was a bartender at the East Side Comedy Club, and he’s just done so well. So it was great to see people I haven’t seen, talk to people who are retired now and are happy, talking to kids of people. I felt like a detective, like I was in the movie Spotlight, meeting people in crazy places. One guy was in a depression and I had to get him out of his place and take him crazy places. And it was very fulfilling to tell the story.
So you’d like to do something else like this?
Maybe. I like non-fiction. I don’t know if I’d interview again, but I like writing like this. I can get deeper than with my standup. My standup is all right, but I can’t get that deep. You just tell jokes, which is valid, but I really like getting into the psychology, the pathology of minds. So I think I’ll just interview myself, the pathology of my mind. It’s obvious when I’m on stage that I’m a neurotic guy, but I can get deeper into writing about incidents like this and time frames. Another memoir, different kinds of memoirs. I just like getting deeper, so this book, I hope, is deeper than it lets on.
Absolutely, it is.
I just like the control because I’m very socially awkward, but with standup, you gotta hang out in green rooms with other comics and I have anxiety there. The bro scene, the testosterone guys, the hipsters. I like people but not in scenes, and going back to why it’s not a documentary, I can sit and write. That’s my passion, I discovered through this.
Jann was really cool, really open. Some people have silly shame issues, but I really commend her, she’s one of the people hopefully you’ll read in this that really opened up. She opened up so much, maybe this will be an actual book, and there will be all the extras again. Jann Karam doesn’t get enough credit, she was a precursor of comics like Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer.
That’s a great story, that she was supposed to be Elaine on Seinfeld, but—
But she was too beautiful to be Jerry’s girlfriend, and the audience would get mad that Jerry dumped her. Jann never got the credit, she had such a breezy quality. Her boyfriend described her act as she’s catching butterflies on stage. Doing these little asides, “Hmm, I thought of that,” and that kind of persona, not the ‘80s type.
It was a seminal moment in our lives that has bonded a lot of us. I’m touched that when David Spade goes on Howard Stern and on Marc Maron, same with Rob Schenider, they say names like Freddy Stoller and Jann Karam. I was listening to Rob Schneider on Marc Maron, and Maron said, “What was your big break?” He said, “The 1989 Young Comedians special.” Wait a fucking moment, I was on that, why wasn’t that my break? What did I do wrong? Hey, I guess I must have been non-remarkable, the industry saw me and said, “Whatever, OH THESE TWO!” But then I started examining, there are people on that special who wish they had my career, and you really can’t compare. And I learned a lot just examining what “make it” means.
Photo courtesy of Fred Stoller.