By Ryan Meehan
You know, an enormous number of comics—including the vast majority of those who pass through the friendly little place we like to call Cap City—maintain career objectives that include aspirations toward acting in a sitcom, or writing for one. But hell, Robert Hawkins has already done both—in the same series, no less: the late, lamented “Titus.” Indeed, he was hired as a story editor, which means he wrote a script or two per season, and contributed mightily to the scripts written by his colleagues, adding jokes, improving dialogue, etc. Before long, his work in the writers room so impressed the Fox show’s producers—who also knew of his acting aspirations and abilities (a few years prior, he had landed a development deal with Fox)—that they cast him in a recurring guest role as Titus’ brother-in-law, Michael. So when it comes to working in network television, while we wouldn’t exactly say “been there, done that”—we’re guessing that under the right circumstances, he might be persuaded to return to such work—he has logged that experience, and his passion for stand-up has never wavered. Not coincidentally, perhaps, he’s always had a tremendous flair and a considerable gift for it. One measure of this would be his results over the years in comedy competitions, or similar enterprises. In 2001, he was voted one of the 25 top comics in the country in a poll of comedy club owners nominating candidates for the American Comedy Awards. And, perhaps needless to say (given all these victories, achievements and accolades), he’s starred in his own Comedy Central half-hour special, appeared on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” and a slew of other TV shows. Still, when all is said and done about his work—cable TV, network TV, writing, acting, etc.—Robert Hawkins’ first love is performing comedy in a club in front of a live audience, and obviously he’s pretty damn good at it. He’s also my guest today in 5 questions.
RM: How has your summer been so far? Have you taken up any high-risk activities that you’d like to discuss here? How do you pass the time in the summer months?
RH: It’s been a cooler than average summer here in Dallas, TX, but for some reason it’s been a less physically active summer for me. I have a brand new pilsner beer belly and I make old people noises when I bend over to tie my shoes. I have the beginnings of what look like Rick Ross prison titties. My diet is the diet of hobo. I get heartburn in the second place. Once in a while I can hear one of my lungs whistling. My clothes, which fit fine in the summers of 2011 and 2012 when we had seventy plus days of three digit temperatures each, are tight as hell. Blue Jeans with a waist size of 34 are uncomfortable on a 48 year old size 36, and what’s worse, they make me look like I’m trying to fit in with the hipsters. I feel like a tub of shite and I hadn’t given much thought as to the reason why until you asked me this question. So, why am I a fat, sloppy, wheezing hunk of poop with Rick Ross starter tits? Nice of you to ask. My mom and several other friends passed away not long ago. Lately, that has affected the amount of diem I carpe. Just lacking some motivation to exercise. Been more involved with indoor activities. Bought a condo last year that I rent out occasionally. I play guitar about an hour a day and I like reading. Books. Right now I’m finishing Methods Of Persuasion by a kid named Nick Kolenda. Although the book’s description says you can use it’s principles to influence people’s thoughts, that’s not why I read it. I read it to become better aware of when people, particularly politicians, advertisers, news outlets and artists, are trying to pull that crap on me, which seems to be always. Next up is The Music Lesson by the Grammy winning bass guitarist for Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, Victor L. Wooten. After that I’ll rip through No Second Place Winner published in 1965 and written by Bill Jordan, a retired border patrol inspector from Texas who was “the fastest, deadliest pistolero to ever come down the pike.” Those books and others were recommended by several close up card magicians I’ve had the pleasure of meeting recently. Card magic is another hobby I can enjoy while sitting down and eating junk food in an air conditioned room. The main focus is finishing my fourth stand up comedy album. That requires writing (sitting), booking club dates (sitting), travel planning (sitting), traveling (sitting) and working on my website roberthawkins.biz. Lotta sitting involved with stand up comedy, but I’ll get back into shape pretty soon or go shopping for an erin go bra.
RM: I noticed that your record carries a “Parental Advisory” warning, but that you have also done plenty of corporate gigs throughout the duration of your career…Do you alter your existing material and simply remove the language for corporate work; or do you have two entirely different sets that allow you to assign those bits to the appropriate environment? Has the way you look at censorship changed since you started doing this over two decades ago?
RH: I put parental advisory notices on my first two albums for a few different reasons. The first reason was to cover my ass. While the material on those albums is fairly middle of the road, I didn’t want to find out later that any content on the album required me to include the advisory, thereby making me have to change the cd cover art. Another reason was that I thought kids would be more likely to buy an album they thought was risqué. I was thinking like an advertiser and using a primitive method of persuasion. There is also plenty of stuff in my act that little kids don’t need to hear, so the advisory is a way to tell parents that I’m aware of it and I think they should be as well. There’s not a big difference between corporate work and club work. Clubs are corporations right? Occasionally, the buyer will ask you to be clean. In some cases squeaky. It’s good to have some jokes that you can tell to any audience. When I started in 1990 everyone at the Dallas Improv told me to strive to be clean so I tried to tell mostly TV friendly jokes. It helped me get a few TV credits, and headliners who wanted to follow a cleaner comic would get me into new clubs. Years down the line I just started writing down stuff that makes me laugh and worrying about its suitability later. There is a conscious effort to avoid overuse of the F word and not because I’m some kind of prude, homey, but because saying fuck a hundred times before every punchline in a set creates what I call listener fatigue. As do the words; like, um, so, anyway, you know, I mean, you guys, y’all, hey, et al.
RM: Why did you decide to make your album “In Charge Around Here” available for free on your website? Do you still sell copies of the record at live shows?
RH: Making the album In Charge Around Here available for free on roberthawkins.biz was simply an effort to get people to listen to it, but I found something else I liked about the freebie. For about a year I sold cds after my shows. I felt weird and creepy putting on a merchant’s hat immediately after getting off stage. I began to measure the success of each show with the number of units I sold. If I wanted to be a business man or an advertiser I’d have to go all the way with it. A few times I even went out to the parking lot, knocked on car windows as folks were leaving, told them they forgot to buy a cd and it worked. And I felt like an ass munch. Now with the link to the free cd on my business cards, I can talk to people and give them something instead of trying to wrest ten more dollars out their drunk asses. That way feels better to me. I can promote myself at the same time, and the other two, soon to be three, albums are available for purchase at the site. All part of my get rich never scheme.
RM: You got to do Ron White’s CMT special “Salute to The Troops” a few years back…What was that experience like when you walked out on stage and saw all of those dedicated people? Did it make you think about the significance (or comparative insignificance) of what you do for a living; and were you as prepared for that moment as you thought you were going to be?
RH: Tater employed me as his opening act on the road for several months before the taping of ‘Salute’ in Nashville so I couldn’t have been more prepared for that show. Several military comedy tours have also included yours truly as the show closer in Iraq and Afghanistan twice each, plus seventeen other countries in the span of about six years. Being a former army medic I really get a kick out of playing with those crowds. No overseas tours on the books right now. Holding out for Iran. Here is a ten minute vlog I made using video footage from a three week run with four other comics in Iraq, 2003.
RM: You acted and wrote on a great cult classic FOX sitcom called “Titus” which of course starred Christopher Titus as the lead character. There’s a bit on the second disc of his newest album where he describes a meeting he had with network executives on where to take the direction of the show, a meeting where he said he refused to have the two main characters cheat on each other. He said he believes standing up for his own creative integrity in that meeting was the main reason the show was eventually cancelled. How long was it after that meeting did you find out that he had challenged the network execs? Was it something that he shared with you right away, or did you find out later when they kept altering the time slot so that the show didn’t have a chance at being renewed? How close were you to Chris at that time; and what was the most important thing that you learned from that whole experience?
RH: Seems to me like there is a lot of creative head bumping going on behind any and every creative endeavor where there are that many people involved, especially television, especially network television, especially network television comedy. Titus and I didn’t hang out much outside of work, but work was all we did. Fifteen writers spent a lot of time together, I felt close to all of them and I’ve never laughed so much as I did with them day after day. At times, the writers’ room was an insane asylum. We’d take quick breaks during 16 hour work days, play foosball for fifteen minutes and talk enormous shit about each other. One guy pretended to quit during a writers’ meeting. He grabbed his notebook and jokingly stormed out of the writers’ room, down the elevator, out to the parking lot, into his car and drove to the studio gate and back just for a laugh. In that short amount of time, the rest of us emptied out his office. When the show runners had meetings with network suits, the writers quickly got notes from the meeting so everyone could be on the same page. I don’t think there was any one meeting that went so badly it made them cancel the show. There were ongoing creative differences between Titus, who was usually right, and the suits who weren’t always wrong. Eventually we got on a short list, went from one time slot to another and saw two other FOX sitcoms start using Titus’ original concept of the neutral space for expositional dialogue. Then see ya, Mencia. Sucks. That show should definitely be in syndication. There are some full episodes of Titus on YouTube.
RM: Which element of the comedy club environment is the most critical when it comes to being able to host a really good room? Why is it that some club owners are able to figure that out, and others sometimes struggle for decades to get out of the rut that is having a reputation for being a tough room?
RH: There is over thinking on the part of some club owners. Seems like if they can find a way to distract customers from the comedian, they use it. I’ve been to places where there is more light on the dart board than on the stage. Some clubs sell giant mind eraser drinks with flashing lights that obstruct the audiences view. One pecker shaft bought the club in Tucson and hung a big mirrored dance ball from the ceiling in the middle of the show room. As the saying goes, “Come on guys. You can do better than that.” The Improv has always kept to the original formula they created; Brick wall backdrop, modest decor, good lights, good sound, enthusiastic wait staff who take drink orders stealthily, funny comics and tactical crowd control.
The single most important element of a good comedy club is simplicity. It matters. Yes you want your clubs’ logo visible to the patrons, but not a gaudy neon bug light behind the comic. Yes you want to sell as much food and beverage as you can, but we comics need their minds somewhat pliant, not swimming in ever clear. Yes you want to avoid any confrontations with rowdy patrons, so don’t sell two for one Jager shots, sit the drunken bachelor party in the front, start the show with let’s get ready to rumble, tell the audience to “make noise,” watch the emcee, your cousin, eat a Philly cheese dick on stage for fifteen grueling minutes, then expect everything to go perfectly. And please put some speakers in the bathroom so that while Britney the bride to be is puking she can hear me talking shit about her.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2014? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
RH: Here are the remaining 2014 club appearances. Check my website for updates. Love to see your readers out there somewhere. And check me out on twitter @hawkinsdotbiz
21 – 23 Cincinnati Brew Ha Ha – Sawyer Point, downtown Cincinnati
24 Improv – Addison, TX
27 – 31 Comic Strip – El Paso, TX SEPTEMBER
3 Inn Of The Mountain Gods – Mescalero, NM
4 Santa Ana Star Casino – Santa Ana Pueblo, NM
5 & 6 Laff’s Comedy Caffe – Tucson, AZ
9 Private Corporate Date – Woodland, CA
11 Private Corporate Date – Selma, CA 12 Trek Winery – Novato, CA 14 Comedy Celebration Day – Sharon Meadow, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco @comedyday 17 Doc’s Lab (formerly The Purple Onion) – North Beach, San Francisco 25 – 27 Tacoma Comedy Club – Tacoma, WA NOV
20 – 22 Hyenas Comedy Nightclub – Dallas, TX DEC
4 – 6 The Loony Bin – Wichita, KS
Official Website: http://roberthawkins.biz/
Robert on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/hawkinsdotbiz
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