Marianne Ways: Comedy Booker, Producer, and Consultant Extraordinaire
Over the years, Littlefield in Brooklyn has become a go-to spot for Monday night comedy in New York. It was once the home of Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal’s Hot Tub before the duo moved the show to LA. Night Train with Wyatt Cenac then filled the spot with a show that The New York Times called “a staple of the New York alternative standup scene” and Time Out New York praised as “one of the best curated New York standup showcases.” Night Train recently ended its five-year run, making way for a brand new show, Butterboy, hosted by Jo Firestone, Aparna Nancherla, and Maeve Higgins, with music from Donwill. Reflecting on passing the Monday night comedy torch, Cenac said, “Hosting a comedy show, your job is to create a good energy in the room and then pass the microphone to another comedian so they can succeed. Marianne, Kristen Schaal, and Kurt Braunohler did that for me when they asked me to host a show to replace their weekly show at Littlefield, and it felt only right that I do the same and let someone else have the opportunity to continue what they started, while audiences were still into spending their Mondays with us rather than watching football.”
The Marianne mentioned above is Marianne Ways, who arrived in New York in 2003 and took a full-time job working for Big Apple Circus before making a slow but steady transition into becoming of the city’s most prolific comedy show producers. In addition to Hot Tub, Night Train, and Butterboy, Ways has been a key component behind the scenes of dozens of other New York comedy events over the past decade. She now runs MWAYS Productions, a comedy consulting and production company that books comedic talent for shows and live events like Bonnaroo, SXSW, and the upcoming 2 Dope Queens HBO specials. I talked with Ways about how she fell into producing comedy shows, the importance of paying your dues, and the three things that every show producer should be doing.
What put you in the position where comics started approaching you to produce their shows?
I moved to New York in 2003 and was lucky enough to meet David Wain. Wet Hot American Summer had been in the theaters. I think it came out right around 9/11. I’m not even sure if that’s true, maybe it’s something I made up in my head, but it did not have a successful run in the box office. When I moved here David had sent out a call for people to help do a weekend event where Wet Hot American Summer would be back on the big screen for Halloween weekend. He wanted to pick people’s brains to make it a fun event. My background before moving to New York was in music, events, and promotion, so I had all of these ideas of how to make this a fun weekend event. He put me in charge and was like, “Okay, go do it.” He handed me the reins to produce the event alongside him. That midnight screening turned into a lot of weekends of midnight screenings. I had a job at the time, but it was really fun. That was around the same time that Stella was performing at Fez under Time Cafe on Lafayette. I was like, “Hey, if you need help with anything else just let me know.” I would go help sell merch and do whatever and would get to see all these great comedians.
A lot of those shows had what were, at the time, unknown comedians to the public, like Mike Birbiglia, Kristen Schaal, Nick Kroll. Through David I met Eugene Mirman, who was running a show called Invite Them Up at Rififi every Wednesday night. He said, “You should come to my show,” so a friend of mine and I started going every week. It was one of those things where I was like, “I didn’t know this is what standup was.” It was fun and creative and goofy. People were trying out so much stuff, being so weird and different. We became friends with the comedians organically. Mike Birbiglia said, “You seem like you know how to promote shows. Can you sit down with me and tell me how to do that?” I would just give whatever knowledge of promotion I had to these comedians because they were my friends and I wanted to help them. When people needed help they would get in touch with me. I was thrilled to be involved and help out however I could.
Do you remember the first show you ever produced?
It was called Bro’in Out at UCB. It was started by Seth Morris and Tony Camin, who was one of the co-writers of Marijuana-logues. Tony had just moved here from San Francisco. They had been doing the show for a while and Seth headed to LA to help start Funny or Die, I think. Tony said, “You seem to know everybody in New York. Can you produce this show and help me find a new host?” I said, “Sure. What about Leo Allen?” We paired Leo Allen up with him as the host of the show. I turned to Holly Schlesinger. She was the producer of Invite Them Up and is over at Bob’s Burgers now. I went to her and said, “What is producing a show?” She said, “You just have to book it and make sure nothing falls apart.” I thought I could definitely do that.
I’m curious about the business side of it. You said that you were around and just wanted to help out. You had a particular skill set for that. One thing that is hard about making it in comedy is that it pays so little. I don’t think you moved to New York to volunteer in comedy. At what point did you say, “Hey, we’ve got to talk money?”
I compare myself more to a standup comedian than a manager or agent because of the business side of things. I always had full-time jobs. When I moved to New York I was working at Big Apple Circus, literally the circus, doing marketing. I feel like comedians and people behind the scenes kind of have to pay their dues. I think everyone should absolutely be paid for their work, but at the same time there was a certain point in my career where I made my money elsewhere and this was just a pastime. This was where I had fun. I wanted to be more involved. I didn’t plan to have a career in comedy, because I didn’t even know that was a thing. But I actually have fun keeping people organized and booking shows. There was also a cool factor there for sure. The first time I got paid was when Super Deluxe came around and said, “Hey, we’re going to give comedians a budget to make web shorts.” At the time, that wasn’t a thing. They gave Bobby Tisdale a chunk of money to make a web series and Bobby said, “Hey, I asked Holly if she could do it and she couldn’t. Could you produce this web series?” I said, “I don’t know what that means, but sure.” From there I heard that The Onion was hiring an events and promotions person, so I jumped over there full-time. At that point in my life the day job started mixing with the evening job. After The Onion I went to book a comedy club.
So what does your job entail now?
I have my own company that is basically booking, producing, and kind of… “Comedy Consultant” is the big umbrella that I use. Now I make a living doing what I love: booking and producing live events, whether it’s for a comedian, a brand, a network. I’ve been doing a lot of festivals and casting and it’s all centered around standup comedy. Over the years I’ve gotten to know hundreds, if not thousands of comedians, so my brain has turned into a database of talent.
After all of the experience you’ve had running shows, what three things would you say up-and-coming producers should be prioritizing at their own shows?
While there are so many factors that go into making a show successful, I think these three things are a good place to start:
1. Always have seats when possible, even if it’s mixed seating and standing.
2. Always have a good, working PA system. If the audience can’t see or hear the performers, they’ll have a hard time paying attention.
3. If an audience member is being repeatedly distracting, shut it down. Give the comedian onstage the first chance to quiet that person down, but if it escalates, it’s your job to step in.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.