Diving Deep into the Business of Comedy with Barry Katz
Ask the average person on the street, “Who has had the widest reach in comedy over the last 30 years?” and you will surely get many different answers. Dave Chappelle? Bill Burr? Louis C.K.? Dane Cook? Whitney Cummings? They’ve all had career moments that set new standards in the business, but instead of looking at any one of them individually, how about instead looking to a person who has had a significant influence on all of them — and many, many more.
Starting out as a standup in Boston in the ‘80s, Katz quit performing and began to manage comedy clubs in the Northeast before quickly turning to management. He discovered Chappelle as a teenager then just kept picking up “the next big thing” over and over again for years, including the names above as well as Tracy Morgan, Jay Mohr, Darrell Hammond, Wanda Sykes, and many more. Katz’s reach in comedy goes from the stage to television to movies to albums, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down. In fact, with his current passion project — the podcast Industry Standard, in which he interviews some of the most powerful people in Hollywood about the keys to success and “making it” — he may end up having a bigger impact on the future of comedy than he’s even had in the past.
Who knows who could end up being inspired from something they heard on the show, from either one of his guests or Katz himself, and end up as the next Chappelle. Or the next Kevin Hart, who Katz turned down as a prospective client when Hart was a young comedian in the business.
One of the things I love about the podcast is the central focus it has on successful people. Some would try to hold onto those secrets to success as much as possible, but you seem to get a lot of joy out of mining this information and then putting it on the internet for all to hear. Why such a passion for learning about successful people and then just airing it on a free show?
Well, we can’t figure out why we’re here. We can’t figure out what our purpose is for being here. We can’t figure out how many other galaxies or planets out there might have other people on it. I think probably since we don’t know any of that, the only hope we have as a group of people is to make ourselves happy, our children happy, and so on — our friends and family. To hide all our thoughts and knowledge within ourselves — if everyone did that, we’d have no hope of making this world a little bit better and civilized. Yes, we run into people who give us the finger in traffic and those things, but for me, I go back to when my dad passed away when I was four and going into the kitchen and seeing my mom crying, seeing the back of her with the shoulders shaking, and grabbing onto her leg and saying “Everything’s gonna be okay.” I think that inspired me to be the “Everything’s gonna be okay” guy, and then as I became a manager, that was part of the process — to let artists know, “Look, it’s all gonna be okay. We’re gonna get the shit kicked out of us, but we’re gonna keep getting up and keep moving forward and good things are gonna happen.”
I realized that as a manager you can only help one person. So when you go ahead and do something like Industry Standard, it’s due to the fact that I was blown away that I would leave a meetings with network presidents, like [Netflix chief content officer] Ted Sarandos — I had a meeting with him that week when he did the podcast, and I went in my car and I said “I can’t fucking believe I’m the only person who heard what he just had to say.” I’m always an inquisitive person, always asking questions, and it’s a great thing to hear people’s life stories. People say this about dating — they don’t like to hear their life story over and over again. But to me, that was my goal with the podcast and what I wanted. It sounds corny, but my job as a manager is essentially to be a dream maker. Give me a list of what you want done and let me check off the boxes, and then let’s make a new list. If we do well, let’s move forward. If we don’t, fire my ass.
When was the last time that you felt deflated from a “loss,” or do you not get deflated anymore because you’ve seen people get the “shit kicked out them” so often and get back up that there are no losses?
It’s kind of comical, but I get deflated by successes with the clients. I’ll give you an example: I think I’ve done 37 comedy specials of some kind, either a compilation or a singular standup comedy special or whatever it is, and I’ve produced 38 of them. One I haven’t gotten to network, I believe. So that’s a pretty good ratio. I don’t know why I have that ratio in that area, but if I get behind something, I do it. When one sells, that’s part of why I’m so conflicted sometimes about the podcast, is that it doesn’t feel special — even though it’s special for the artist that I sell the special for. I sold a special for Tom Arnold. I ran into him and saw his set at The Laugh Factory, and I went up to him and said “Have you ever done a one-hour special?” He said no, even though he had been working 27 years. I said, “Do you mind if I try to get you an hour special?” And I got him an hour special and I remember him getting off stage and he hugged me so hard and cried in front of me, as a grown man, and to me that was incredible. When I met with him, I looked at the 27 years of “No Tom, No,” and that’s what drives me. The actual act of selling though, it is ordinary to me. But when somebody comes up to me afterwards and hugs me like that, that’s not ordinary — it’s extraordinary.
To answer your question, probably the things that are the most deflating sometimes: an artist tests for a TV show and if they get it — like I had somebody test for or came close testing for Young Sheldon — so when you see that project come up you know that’s getting on the air. You see tons of projects, but it’s Chuck Lorre, the most successful showrunner of this time, and it’s a spin-off of their top show, so that’s going. So when somebody is there and testing or whatever it is, you’re actually visualizing “Okay, this is what my life and their life can look like for the next seven years.” Because that show is not getting canceled. So it’s either all or nothing in those situations.
I think sometimes that can be deflating in the moment, but let’s use one of the greatest examples ever of why it shouldn’t be deflating: I was flying with Jordan Peele from Montreal, and MADtv got canceled. They only had four shows remaining within the contract that they were going to do in the fall. So he decides to put a tape together and he tests for Saturday Night Live. He submits it, Lorne Michaels decides to test him, he goes to New York, he tests, he gets SNL. He’s so excited. He calls the producer of MADtv and says, “I’m so excited, I got SNL, I just need to be let out of those last four episodes or I can do some pre-tapes or something and put them in.” “No Jordan. You’re not getting out of the episodes.” “Come on, I got SNL, it’s an eight-year contract, you’ve only got four episodes left.” “No Jordan. You’re doing the four shows with every other cast member.” Had to call Lorne Michaels and say “I have to do these four shows, can you wait for me?” Lorne says, “No Jordan, I can’t wait for you.” Jordan, his agents, managers, and lawyers are devastated. But without that, Key and Peele never would have been created. And that launched everything and let him know that he can create, write, produce, and direct. The rest of history. Bobby Lee said the other day on the podcast that he used to come in his nice car to the MADtv lot, and the first month Jordan Peele’s walking with a backpack and he’s like “Hey man what’s going on?” and Jordan said “I don’t have a car, I’m taking the bus.”
You started out as a standup in Boston with some people that you’d later represent, and maybe there’s an alternate dimension where you’re in the shoes of one of your clients, selling out Madison Square Garden, rather than repping that person. Could you have ever been a standup for your career, or was it not your calling?
I’ll say I was a great host. That was my favorite. It was fun and I think it worked. Then I started managing and I still hosted shows, which was probably bad. I used to bring up Chappelle, who I was managing at the time, and people would laugh at me because after he got off stage I’d always say the same thing: “Ladies and gentlemen, Dave Chappelle! He’s 18! 18 years old! Let him know!” Being a standup I don’t think was in my calling. I didn’t do drugs, I wasn’t a drinker, so the heroinesque feeling of the laughter was great. But I always knew that I wanted to be more in control, and when you’re doing standup, even though it could be argued that you are in control, you still gotta rely on somebody to hire you: Is my calendar empty? Is my calendar full? You’re always unemployed. I wanted to be more in charge, so that’s why I started booking shows around New England, took over some comedy clubs, and had 50 different places that I was booking in the ‘80s. Then what happened was — again the way fate works — I was married and my wife died and she was 23, and so you have the trajectory of what’s happening in your life and then it just ends. And everywhere I went people were so nice, but it reminded me of the tragedy. So you just go out to a comedy club where people are hugging you, “How you doing?” I know they’re trying to be nice, but this was like a negative/positive kind of thing.
Where did that trajectory take you?
I got in my car one day, even though I had this business there in Boston, and I drove to New York, took the 79th Street Boat Basin exit, turned and went as far as I could go. There was a restaurant bar, I parked on the side of the road, went into the bar, there was a stool, a pay phone, and the yellow pages — something your audience doesn’t know anything about, but back then you could make a call and give somebody the pay phone number. I looked in the yellow pages under “realtors” and one of them called back. I said I’d like something on the Upper West Side, which seemed nice, and asked him if he could you show me at least three places? First place he showed me was 82 West 82nd Street right near Central Park. It was a studio apartment with a loft, very similar size to this office, about 7-8 feet high, and there was a loft at the end with a ladder going up to a bed and couches underneath, a kitchenette, a bathroom, and that was it — $935 a month. I paid first, last, security and I was in.
Then I needed a comedy club as a base. My friend Eddie Brill had a club in the Village and was moving to LA and said I could take it over. I went there and Rick Messina, who was booking things at the time and now he manages Drew Carey, Tim Allen, and many other people, had it. He gave it up to me. I went to the owner and said “You take the bar and the food, I’ll take the door and do this,” and he trusted me even though he didn’t even know me. I was there for 17 years, and that’s where I decided to start managing. I went to 57th and Broadway, where my mother told me “That’s the place to be,” and I walked into the Hard Rock Cafe building with the car coming out of the side. I noticed Spotlight Entertainment, the biggest comedy agency at the time, and I walked up and I said “I don’t know what I want to do, but I want office space here,” so they let me rent the space for $600, and it was probably only a quarter the size of this office. But I was there and I started my management company. New York is where I met most of the teenagers that I started representing, like Chappelle, Tracy Morgan, Jay Mohr, Jim Breuer, Jeff Ross, Wanda Sykes, and so many more. The list goes on and on. Some I met in Boston like Bill Burr, Dane Cook, and Louis C.K. Louie was my first client ever. He helped me set up the wires and lighting at the Boston Comedy Club and he was the first person on stage there.
I know that Louis C.K. has been a very important person in your life, so I’m curious, how have these last six months been from your end, witnessing his fall?
The thing about life is that there are times that are cyclical where you have certain relationships with people. I had an incredibly close relationship with him. When my wife passed away, he was there for me, even though he was a young kid, and he was great, I owe him a lot. I stopped working with him after seven years, or something like that, and I haven’t really been in touch with him that much over the past ten years, but I still hope that he would call me a friend and I would call him a friend. In terms of what he’s going through, I mean, our life is so bizarre sometimes and I’m not a political guy, but I don’t know if people understand the whole picture of every specific situation that they judge people on. I’m not saying that what has happened to the women is not wrong, because it’s fucking horrible. I can’t even imagine.
What I’m trying to understand is why one guy is in the White House and had over 20 different people come out and say that he did something and there’s even physical evidence, written documents, and nothing happens. And then Louis C.K., he does what he does, admits what he did to the world, and he’s probably gotta take three or more years off. I don’t know what the penalty should be, I don’t know how the world should work, I’m not privy to that. I feel bad for the women and I know he feels bad for them. But I also feel bad for him, because I think when somebody does something like the level of what he did, I would like to believe in the human condition that most people don’t understand in their hearts and their minds the negative effect it has on somebody — until it’s too late.
I can’t believe that most people, who do something along the lines of what he did, when they go into it are saying, “Okay, I’m going to do this and I am going to ruin this person’s life.” Even the most evil motherfucker. I would like to believe they think in their minds, “Well, this isn’t that bad.” Because they don’t really understand the effect it has. I don’t know what the answer is, it’s been going on since Fatty Arbuckle. There isn’t one woman reading this article — if there is one it’s a miracle — who has not experienced some kind of craziness with men in some way or another.
So Louie, I would hope that at the time — you know that thing where you’re in court and they say, “We’re gonna let this person off for temporary insanity”? I would like to hope, for most people I know that’ve been involved in these issues at the level that he was involved in, that it’s this temporary thing where they lost their way. And if you measure their whole lives — Louis C.K. has been on this earth for 50 years, more than 30 of them as an adult — out of all his waking hours, what percentage has he been a good man? A good father? A good businessman? A good worker? A good associate? A good friend? And what percentage was he a negative force in the world? It’s like one percent of one percent of one percent of one percent. That obviously doesn’t make it right, but it’s hard to grasp sometimes when you know somebody the way that I know them, and I know a lot of people who I have been finding out were involved in these type of incidents. I get calls every month from every group about another person that I know and there’s an article about to come out, and what do I know? Every month. It never stops.
Who is the hardest worker you’ve met in this business?
The hardest working person I ever worked with is Whitney Cummings. And I kind of get emotional about it. I remember being at the Sundance Film Festival and Whitney was doing correspondent work for the channel, talking to people, and I got to thinking about her, that she could be a standup, and a writer, and an actress, and she could produce. I remember approaching her and telling her that and she’s like “I just do the correspondent stuff.” I had a vision of what I thought she would be or could be. That doesn’t mean that she’d never had the vision in her life for every one of those things — I’m not saying that. I don’t even know for sure at this stage of my life if that was the case or not, but the fact is I wanted to work with her because I felt she could do all those things — things she wasn’t doing at the time. To be working with somebody when relatively very few things are happening and they create three television shows that go on the air in one year, I’ve never seen anything like that. Whitney was the kind of person that would go in the shower or the tub with an iPhone inside of a ziploc bag. That’s the kind of person she is. She never stopped except when she was sleeping, and I can guarantee you she’d wake up in the middle of the night and write down ideas too. I’m proud of her success.
How do you see the difference in opportunities for women in comedy today compared to back in the ‘80s or ‘90s?
I’m gonna ask you a question: Tell me all the female standup comedians who are leads in a hit sitcom. Name them all.
It’s coming back!
Okay, but you can’t name hardly any today. Ironically, before, it was Roseanne, Ellen, Brett Butler — these people were the biggest stars on television. Believe it or not, back then, there were more prominently in the eye of people every week. Joan Rivers did late night. There were huge people on, and there’s no one on now except for a select few like Ellen and Roseanne is coming back. But that show is not for you. That show is not for my kids. That show is not for people in their 20s, millennials. That show is for older people.
I just remembered Lady Dynamite, Maria Bamford.
Yeah, that’s right. But what I’m saying is that what’s driving things now is the fact that comedy is bigger than ever and as hot as it’s ever been, so that’s a good thing. I remember when I met with Chris Rock, maybe seven or eight years ago, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If women in comedy could figure out the combination of doing a great hour on television, there’d be many more millionaires in standup comedy for women. For some reason, for most women, the code hasn’t been unlocked.” Then again — we’re not talking about this, but I think it’s valid — one of the most amazing anomalies in the world of any profession is the fact that in magic there has never been a female household name magician in our lifetimes. That is insane. I mean, when you think about that fact, that’s like no women CEOs or no women doctors who are top-level surgeons. It’s crazy. So in comedy at least there’s a lot more than magic. There’s at least ten women who you could say are millionaires from standup and we all know who they are, with more and more breaking through every year.
If someone is reading this and they don’t know Industry Standard or they don’t know you, but they’re interested in getting into entertainment and you want them to start off on the right foot, which episode would you recommend first?
Honestly I can’t do that. It depends on what area moves you in life. If you’re an actor, you should listen to Larry Moss’s episode. He’s the greatest acting guru of my generation. If you’re an athlete, listen to Dennis Rodman’s episode. If you aspire to own your own company and run your own successful business, then maybe Jeanie Buss, the owner of the Lakers. If you want to know how to be a person who moves up the ranks to become the president of a network and dominates, listen to Ted Sarandos, the president of Netflix. If you want to know what it’s like as a comedian to get the shit kicked out of you over and over again and then be the biggest star in the world, $100 million movies, selling out stadiums, then listen to Kevin Hart’s episode. If you want to know what’s like to be in a profession that you’re not sure you should be in but you’re making money in it, but see a higher calling for yourself, listen to Dr. Phil. If you’re a writer, producer, or director and want to know how to get from failure after failure to the top of your game, listen to Judd Apatow.
It’s really all about the journey. It relates to every single walk of life. It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a student, or you could be working at a Panda Express. Ted Sarandos was working at a video store and going to community college and today he’s the most powerful network president in the world. So every journey involves a ton of different things, from hard work to making the right decisions to taking risks to treating people right, and all these twists and turns of fate that let you know that you’re supposed to be in the right place, not only at the right time, but oftentimes at the wrong time.
Who’s a comedian you didn’t believe in who went on to become a star?
Twenty years ago, Kevin Hart is sleeping on comedian Keith Robinson’s couch, and he used to go on at the club and had great energy, great poise, great charisma, was funny, but had very little extraordinary material. He wanted me to represent him and I didn’t think that he was ready yet. I just felt like he needed more seasoning, more whatever, but he said that he was ready. He knew that he was ready to act and that he was ready to do standup on bigger stages. He went to LA and booked a pilot right away, and even though a lot of those things in a row didn’t go, he was a working actor right away with no experience in that field, and he was right and I was wrong, because he knew that he had what it took.
How do you feel about Dane Cook getting to the top of the world and then becoming the butt of the joke for a lot of people because he wasn’t a “comic’s comic” or because he was accused of plagiarism?
Me personally, I’ve been shit on my whole life. I’m probably the most imitated person in this business who’s behind the scenes. Every comedian has an impression of me and is always roasting me. Even my kids. I’m used to being shit on. I took a lot of beatings because it’s the tall poppies syndrome when you do something and people want to cut you down to everybody else. Louis C.K., ironically, I would credit a high percentage of the backlash against Dane to him because he put out that Dane stole material, which turned out to be 92 seconds out of the seven hours of material that Dane had. Louie’s thing went viral and it hurt Dane. That was disappointing that somebody who I knew and I considered a friend was going out there and doing that, but it’s something that is common in our profession throughout the years.
I interviewed Byron Allen and he said “People always shit on me about my shows: ‘Your show doesn’t even get a one rating!’” And he’d go back to his office and he’d think to himself, “I’m a fucking millionaire with a one rating.” The fact is that in our world you can be an incredible success — again using the scenario, one percent of one percent of one percent, fractional reach — and you can be a fucking millionaire. It’s crazy.
How did it feel to see Chappelle’s four specials last year after he had all that time away and so many people doubting if he could ever return and get back to the top of the game?
How many people do you know in your life that would turn down $5,000? $50,000? This guy turns down $50,000,000. And bets on himself. I remember seeing him for the first time after he turned it down. He went on stage, the applause dies down, and I’m paraphrasing, but he says, “You guys are showing me a lot of love here, but I bet you can imagine the first time walking in the house telling my wife that I turned down $50,000,000.” He had the sense to bet on himself and he believed in himself as an artist. And look at him now, $60 million, 12 years later or whatever it is for the specials.
What do I think of the all the specials? First of all, I love him and I revere him and I think he’s a genius, but I’m not the greatest fan of the philosophy of putting out four specials in a row. I don’t think that you can possibly be the best representation of yourself. You can show your audience what you’re like during this process of creating this material, but there’s no way that you’re going to create an hour of material that’s going to be as strong now than if you worked on it for the next three years — where there’s obviously going to be more nuance to it.
On the flip side, he invited one of my sons and I to Radio City Music Hall, and it was the day after Charlottesville and he went on stage and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to do my regular act, this thing in Charlottesville happened and I’m going to talk about that.” And he did 30 minutes of material that didn’t exist 24 hours before that. I would’ve given anything to film that and see it. Even if his specials were created recently, they’re still 100 times better than 99% of what’s out there.
On the other side of the coin, Chris Rock gets a Netflix deal and it almost feels like he’s willing to let people pass him until he makes sure that the special is the way that he wants it to be like this other specials. Dave is more like amazing jazz. Rock is like great R&B — it’s just tight, you know? And what’s amazing about that special – Tamborine — remember Trading Spaces? One family would have one room they wanted done and then the other family, and they’d switch places and there’d be one designer and he’d walk in the room and he’d say “Woof, this room is pretty shitty, but that lamp. That lamp is pretty cool. We’re going to design the room around this lamp.” Rock takes this word that we’ve all known our whole lives: Tamborine. Funny fucking word. Tamborine. And he creates a special built off of this word that becomes a concept that becomes the theme of literally the entire special, and if you have not seen the special, then I suggest you lock yourself in a room somewhere and watch it, because the fact is what he’s doing — and what Dave does and a select few like Jim Jefferies do on stage with one mic and one stage — is the most important thing in comedy, and it’s the most important thing in life, and that’s why there are so few people in comedy who are really enormously successful. The word is “truth.” They tell the truth. And they tell the hard truth. And it’s incredibly powerful and most comics can’t do that, and that’s why those guys are on another level.
Check out Katz’s podcast Industry Standard here.