By Ryan Meehan
If you missed Don Friesen’s hilarious Showtime one-hour Special, “Ask Your Mom,” you’ve got to catch him Live! Engaging, clever, and just flat-out funny, Don captures the irony of parenting, marriage and everyday absurdities through characters, voices, parodies and some of the best written routines around. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer says “Friesen will leave a lasting comic impression,” and describes him as “offbeat, satirical, self-deprecating and slightly out of control.” As the only two-time winner in the 36-year history of the prestigious San Francisco International Comedy Competition, Friesen ignites the stage with a playful, high-energy spoof of his life as a modern suburban dad trying to get through the day with a bit of money in the bank and a scrap of dignity intact. He’s a wanna-be geek who constantly upgrades to the latest tech, but can never get it to work, leading to signature bits about tech support, Idiots Guides, texting and passwords. Friesen’s credits include Showtime, Live at Gotham, The Lewis Black Christmas Special, and Comics Unleashed. He was also featured in TBS’ “The Comedy Festival” in Las Vegas and is a wildly popular on KLOS’ 5:00 Funnies and XM Sirius satellite radio. He’s also our guest today in 7 questions.
RM: Bill Cosby was one of the first comedians that you really looked up to – What was it about his storytelling abilities that made you really gravitate towards comedy and comedic storytelling in general?
DF: To be honest, Cosby is much more of a storyteller than I am in the traditional sense, but because he was my first love in comedy I think that there’s definitely a strong influence there. When I first started doing comedy right after college, I was experimenting with several different styles and personas. At the time, Dennis Miller was really a big hit with me and my roommates, so I went through a phase where I was really sarcastic and smarmy. Then I went through a Woody Allen phase, and an impressionist phase, lots of phases… I was getting decent laughs with most of these, but never really hit my stride or stood out in any way.
As a young comic coming up in LA, Cosby was a distant memory for me, an hysterical comedian from my childhood that had no bearing on my desire to get bona fides from comics and audiences (basically the same people in the LA open mike scene,) by proving how edgy I was. It wasn’t until I saw Brian Regan’s Special “Something’s Wrong with the Regan Boy” that it clicked for me that it was actually possible in the modern era to get huge while laughs working clean and mostly just making fun of your life. Regan reminded me both of how funny Cosby had been to me, and still is, and that the biggest belly laughs I had ever gotten in my lifetime had always been at my own expense. So I gravitated to a style of writing longer bits that, like Cosby’s, had a beginning, middle and and end, were self-deprecating and at times absurd like Brian Regan. There is definitely a story-like component to my bits, but they’re a lot more frenetic and with less narrative than Cosby.
RM: Your corporate site refers to what you do as “highly-caffeinated corporate comedy”…What do you feel your responsibilities are at a corporate gig? Do you feel that you are expected to give performances that are a little more on the motivational side since you are speaking to a company full of people looking to enhance their business? Or do you feel it’s more your responsibility to kind of loosen the crowd up and make sure that they are enjoying themselves more than anything else?
DF: Ha, that’s funny. No one ever asks me about corporate events in standup interviews… I’m not sure exactly how other comedians approach corporate events, because unlike in comedy clubs you’re almost always alone. I only know what works for me. For all I know I could be doing it totally wrong.
First my responsibilities: I am being paid a ton of money for one show—money that allows me to raise a family in LA—and it’s often on a weekday, so I am still able to pursue my passion and grow my act in clubs and theaters on the weekends. So my number one job is to make the agent who booked me, and the person in the company who went out on a limb to choose me, look good. That starts with showing up early, acting professionally, dressing professionally, finding something out about the company and trying to work it into the act, and just making the client feel comfortable and confident about their choice.
Once I’m onstage, I see my job as to to kill as hard as I can and not offend in the process. In other words, do my act as normal. Because my club act is already 90% corporate clean I really don’t have to change much of anything. I don’t see “motivation” as a prerequisite per se other than the fact that my act is pretty positive in general, so if people laugh hard at something positive for an hour, that tends to be motivational in and of itself.
RM: How was the second time that you won the San Francisco Comedy Competition different than the the first? Did you feel like you needed to have a stronger set to win every year after 1999? Or did you feel like you were the favorite after winning it the first time around?
DF: The second time was actually much easier and a lot more fun… The reason was, I had already won it once so I had absolutely no expectations. In fact, I never planned on ever doing it again. What happened was, the producer of the competition had a comedian cancel at the last-minute and he asked me as a former winner if I had anyone I could refer. As it happened, I had a two week opening in my calendar and was working on a 5 minute TV set. The SF competition is a potentially 3-week process that starts out with 5-7 minutes sets every night the first week, so I thought hey, maybe I could just work on my set every night in the Bay Area instead of scrambling to find sets in LA. I ended up pulling a Dick Cheney and recommended myself.
I honestly never really expected to advance, but I wound up winning the first night and was ahead literally every of the competition night from then on out. This time around I focused more on enjoying the experience and making friends with the other comics than on the competition itself. The lack of stress made my sets progressively more relaxed and stronger as the weeks wore on, and I ended up winning it without any of the stress and angst that I went through the first time around. I actually had to cancel a cruise I was booked to do during the finals week, which cost me a decent chunk of my winnings but in the end it was worth it.
RM: What can a comedy fan expect if they purchase your DVD “Inexplicable”? How long did it take you to compile the material on that disc? And how have you changed as a comedian in the almost ten years it’s been since that special aired?
DF: Oh, I don’t know… I find it’s hard to describe your comedy in a way that makes it sound funny. “Inexplicable” is my self-produced hour concert taped at the Crest Theater, Sacramento, in 2005. It was about 10 years in the making.
I still sell it on my website, but I haven’t really pushed it very hard since my Showtime Special “Ask Your Mom” was released in June 2012. The reason being is that Showtime wanted a best-of hour of my comedy at that point in my career, so there ended up being a lot of overlapping material on the two specials—roughly 50%. It actually seems like even more since the themes are mostly the same. Consequently, I tend to promote the newer, higher profile special. Both special are available on my website.
RM: Do you find that crowds on some of these cruises that you’ve done are more drunk than at some of the comedy clubs on the West Coast and across the rest of the country? What’s the most intoxicated patron that you’ve ever had to deal with at one of your shows and how did you handle it?
DF: In my experience, drunkenness is not much of a problem on the cruises. If anything, the trick is finding a pulse. For as much comedy as I’ve done, I don’t really have any great drinking or heckler stories. I don’t usually draw that kind of crowd, and my pacing is fast enough that I tend to drown out all but the loudest and most determined drinkers. I do sometimes have problems with loud, drunk parties of women in late shows, but they’re not problems of the confrontational kind. It’s more of the oblivious chatty kind… It’s kind of hard to shut up someone who is the loudest laugher in the room, but has no idea that they’re ruining the show for everyone else by hooting on every other punch line.
RM: What’s your prediction for the San Francisco Giants this year? How rough was it to see them not make the playoffs after winning the World Series the year before? Do you think they will at least make the postseason?
DF: Oh God, I’m an eternal optimist. Seems to me like they’re on a pretty good streak in even years. I think if they stay healthy there’s no reason why they couldn’t go all the way again, but to be honest I’ve thought that almost every spring for the last 40 years. You might want to ask someone unbiased.
RM: When you look at the industry of standup comedy, what changes do you think will happen within the art form over the next ten years? As a performer do you ever envision the big picture like that; or do you try to just focus more on what you’re doing and adjust to the changes when they finally do happen?
DF: I guess as an artist you’re always trying to project where things are going, or at the very least recognize trends about where things currently are. It’s hard in some ways because we’re so close to the forest. I tend to focus most of my energy on just developing the next hour special, the next late night set, and trying to be out in front on any new technologies that will impact our industry. YouTube and the internet in general is changing how and when comedy is consumed to some extent, and definitely how it is marketed. But the live comedy scene seems to be stronger today than it was when I started in the mid 90’s—the margins seem might be thinner and the pay has flattened out, but there are a ton more venues available to work your craft.
As far as the art form itself, there are certainly styles of comedy that are hotter than others—alternative is big… gritty, self-loathing seems to be popular—who knows… I just do what I do. I think if you’re true to yourself and at the top of your game, there will always be an audience for what you do. So I just focus on constantly writing from my point of view and trying out new material every night. I trust that the audiences will let me know if what I’m doing is relevant or not.
RM: What’s up next for you in 2014? Any big plans in the works that we should know about?
DF: Hey not to complain, but isn’t this the 8th question? Do I get extra credit? 2014? Trying to get some high profile late night sets and constantly working on my next hour special. My target is to have it ready for taping within the next two years. I’m trying to get enough name recognition to do a nationwide concert tour in the next few years. The main thing for me is to always keep the forward momentum. And of course my ultimate goal is to become a national treasure, or at the very least to get my wife to find me funny.
Official Website: http://www.donfriesen.com
Don on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DonFriesen
Don on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DonFriesenComic
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