by Ryan Meehan
Rob Durham graduated from The Ohio State University in 2000 with an English Degree in one hand and a microphone in the other. From there Rob has built an act that he prides on originality and his unique point of view. He has been praised by many of the business’s big names whom he has worked with. From Bob Saget calling him “Freaking Hilarious” to Louie Anderson’s written claim of “Very Funny!” (Rob still has the cocktail napkin as proof), his material is respected by all who hear it. With a smile that says I didn’t get my braces off until I was 27, Rob’s innocent look helps him vent about his other career as an English teacher, his horrible dating history, his wonderfully spunky wife, and other near death experiences. He’s the author of a fantastic how-to book on becoming a stand-up comedian entitled “Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage”, and we are pleased to have him as our guest today in 7 questions.
RM: How did you first get into doing stand-up comedy; and at what time did you find yourself noticing some of the nuances that the really skilled professional comics had? How long was it before you were able to put enough of those pointers together and realize that you had enough material for an entire book?
RD: Near the end of college I got hired as a doorman at the Columbus Funny Bone. One night I saw the open mic workshop and thought, “I’m as good as at least a few of these people.” I wrote down what I thought was material, signed up for an open mic, stacked the crowd with some friends and won a weekly contest on Ohio State’s campus and grew that ridiculous confidence no beginner should have. Week two without friends in the crowd was the common harsh reality that I was going to have to work that it.
The biggest advantage to working at the comedy club was not just getting to see a number of comics perform, but more importantly, seeing each of these comics perform the same set seven or eight times in a week. Once I got past laughing, I could focus on the details. I noted the subtle changes in phrasing and energy, but the biggest lesson was what kind of material was overdone or hacky. I was fortunate enough that many of the comics talked to me backstage or when I would pick them up from their hotels. I learned a lot from some of the best.
A little over a decade into my career I became frustrated seeing open mic comics make the same mistakes week after week, so I brainstormed ideas for a book. I filled several sheets of notebook paper with previously unwritten rules and lessons and out came the book. The first draft took about four months, the revision process another five. As I wrote it I realized that a lot of what I was writing was either from mistakes I made or from more experienced comics sharing advice. Right before printing I panicked when I saw how many books were already on the market, but since they’re mostly about joke-writing I feel like they’re a different topic than what my book focuses on. RM: Without spilling every secret that is written in your book, what are some fundamental basics that are covered there? Do you feel that they are strict rules or simply guidelines to follow if somebody wants to get ahead in the stand-up comedy community?
RD: The main theme of Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage is that you have to be respected and liked by not just the audience, but also club management and the other comics. If one of these three parts is missing your career becomes a lot more challenging and a lot less fun. The first two chapters really focus on the “what not to do’s” and I think that helps new comics start their attempted careers without losing respect from the club and the other open mic comics. A lot of new comics sabotage their sets before they even begin their first joke. My book helps to eliminate those mistakes.
RM: When it comes to the rule “Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage”, do you think that when amateurs make this mistake they are just being lazy or simply unaware of the rules of how to respect the stage? And if they are unaware of the rules, is it usually out of disrespect for themselves; or the stage and the audience that they are wearing shorts in front of?
RD: I just think it’s ignorance towards stand-up. I don’t blame them for not knowing because the only experience they have with comedy is what they see on TV. The comics on TV have a license to joke and act like they want (Gabriel Iglesias even wears shorts), so the newer comics adopt that illusion of a carefree do-what-they-want attitude before they should. They also make the same mistake of thinking comedy is more glamorous and lucrative than it really is. It’s the equivalent of trying to learn to play poker by watching the pros on edited ESPN footage. They only see the career at the mastered level.
RM: You talk a lot in your blog about establishing good relationships with other working comics…How do you maintain friendships with comedians that you probably wouldn’t otherwise hang out with, and still do so without appearing to be like a “brown-noser” so to speak? And is carpooling the key to saving on travel expenses in a difficult economy?
RD: Unfortunately carpooling opportunities are rare though they are nice when schedules actually coordinate. As far as maintaining relationships, Facebook has made it much easier. A funny comment here, a “like” clicked on their son’s lost-tooth picture there, and they keep your name in their memory bank. During the last decade us comics would call each other on long drives to or from gigs just to share stories from that week. I’ve tried to make calls more recently and people in general (not just comics) don’t like spontaneous conversations as much. I still have a few good friends that always get back to me.
The real challenge is when you’re stuck in a condo with some arrogant headliner for four days. You can only smile and fake laugh for so long, but you have to remind yourself, “This could lead to money, this could lead to money…” as often as possible. It depends how bad you need the work/money. You never know when a fellow comic could happen to help you towards a big payday. I find that they usually take the hint that you aren’t meshing well when you say things like, “Well, I’m gonna go check out all the cool touristy things to do in Topeka. See you at the show tonight!” One time I couldn’t stand the headliner so much that I paid for a hotel room and stayed there for the last two days and just told him my sore back needed a different bed.
RM: When it comes to the comedic writing process, what guidelines do you set for yourself as far as coming up with new material? Do you have a maximum number of “new” jokes that you will try out during a single show when you are on the road?
RD: Almost all of my newer jokes have to go through several weeks at open mic. The first challenge is remembering them in the best wording. Once they make the act they still have to fit their way in somewhere, and then again, the challenge is remembering to do them exactly where they were placed in the setlist. So I’ll admit I’ve never had the problem of putting in too much new stuff at once (though I wish I could).
RM: Another thing I found to be interesting on your blog is when you are talking about responding to bookers who have emailed you with available spots, you said “When you reply, just write which gig (with date) you are available for and include your name and phone number. Nothing else is needed. Write the email in standard letter form. DO NOT CALL THEM.” Why is it so important that email is the preferred method of response? Is that necessarily because of the fact that there will be an electronic record of your exchange, or does it have something to do with telephone conversation becoming less and less popular due to the increased usage of email and text messaging? And is texting a booker pretty much out of the question in just about any scenario?
RD: Bookers hate the phone because even though they have no problems saying no, it’s much easier to type. They also like to give everyone a chance to respond that day. If they booked based on who “buzzed in” first it would get pretty crazy. Electronically they can book things at their own pace. Keeping that in mind, they have a lot of emails to handle so if they have to read anything extra, you’re wasting their time. Texting would be a mess too. Today a booker sent out an email to all of his possible feature acts for some gigs in May. He doesn’t use the BCC option in emails so the email shows that the message went to 313 other comics.
RM: Other than being entertained and having several good laughs at a show, what do you want comedy fans to take away from your performance? And what’s the most bizarre compliment that you’ve ever received after a gig?
RD: On top of comedy I’m a full time high school English teacher. After a show last year a parent whose child attends my high school said, “I’m going to see if they’ll transfer my daughter into your English class.” A few days later a secretary told me that a parent had called, but unfortunately they couldn’t just change the daughter’s schedule because her mom “liked the teacher’s comedy act so much.” I guess I want to represent teachers in a better light. We’re not all terrible people who only care about the subject we teach. We were disgraced in pretty much every 80s movie and everyone is jealous that we get summers off. I’d like to demonstrate that times have changed as far as what kinds of people teachers are and that we need those two months off (wasn’t it three when we were kids?) from dealing with over a hundred teenagers day to day. I really know how to pick the low-paying careers, comedy and teaching, but at least the two are related enough that it feels like I do five fifty-minute shows every day by the 3:05 bell.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2014? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
RD: I’ve got another book coming out very soon. I took a lot of crap for writing the first one (I’m still not sure why), but this one should endure a whole new level of ball-busting. Last summer I was scanning the Kindle Top 100 and noticed that a majority of the titles were in the “Chick Lit” genre. So…I spent last June and July pounding out a few thousand words per day about a girl in her 20s who becomes a female comic. 80,000 words later I’m just about ready to release Dreaming the Chase on ebook using a penname (probably Bobbi Patrick). I’ve already started working on the sequel and eventually there will be paperbacks I can also sell on Amazon and after shows. I feel bad when people buy Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage thinking that it will be funny. This way I have something for the non-comics to read. And if this book “makes it” and I get rich, I’ll never again have to pretend to enjoy the company of another headliner I can’t stand.
Official Website: http://www.robdurhamcomedy.com/
Buy Rob’s book: http://www.robdurhamcomedy.com/my-book/
Rob on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobDurhamComedy
Rob on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RobDurham
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