by Ryan Meehan
Recently labeled a “big name talent” by the New York Times, Jeff Lawrence is a prototypical native New Yorker, born and raised in Queens. He was once a rock singer who has appeared on MTV Europe, and with Bob Dylan as a member of his entourage at the Grammy Awards, Whether he’s bashing religion, debunking gay stereotypes or suing his landlord in Chinatown, he always leaves audiences wanting more. Jeff has appeared on the front pages of Wall Street Journal as well as the Tampa Bay Times, and has been heard on Playboy Radio talking sports, the Dr. Fritz Show in addition to college radio stations all across the United States. He is the founder of Laughing Buddha Comedy; recognized as creating the very best showcases, classes, and mics for aspiring comedians in New York City and rated as a top 10 comedy spot in the NYC by USA Today. He is also a regular at NYC’s “Laughter in the Park”, and has his own show at The Stand Comedy Club. Festivals he has participated in include The NY Comedy Festival, The NY Underground Comedy Festival, March Madness at Caroline’s and Laughing Devil. He has headlined internationally in numerous cities including Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Berlin, India, and the Greek Islands. After beginning his entertainment career as a rock singer, Jeff migrated to the stage playing Ernest Hemingway in the musical “Scott and Zelda” at the Wings Theater. As a musician, Jeff has recorded and performed with members of The Cult and Buckcherry, released records, charted on radio, and toured internationally. He is openly gay, single, and more than happy to tell you he doesn’t have time to look for a partner, which is fine with us because he was able to make time to be our guest today in 10 questions.
RM: Who was the first person outside of your immediate family and group of friends to tell you that you were really funny? How did you respond to that reaction at the time; and how long after that did you first actually begin to write jokes down with the intention of telling them in front of an audience?
JL: How ironic, I was a rock singer, and when I entered recovery from drugs and alcohol, it was my fellow addicts that told me to try. I wanted to make a difference with the rest of my life and decided it was Stand Up or politics. I could never wear a suit and tie, so the choice was easy. But most of my life I was angry, not so much funny. No one ever told me to be a comedian.
RM: In a 2014 interview you did with Thomas J. Bellezza on YouTube you said that the first comedy class you were in was great, but it didn’t really teach you anything other than giving you the confidence to get on stage and jump right in…Based on what you’ve seen, do you think now that there are so many different places for people to learn and be taught the practice of comedy that younger people wanting to get into the business enter those situations expecting a great deal more than just learning how to have the balls to participate in such a unique performance art?
JL: Great question! Well I tell everyone that’s new, even in my classes you learn comedy in front of an audience, that’s why we include mics with all of our workshops. I’ve heard of schools that dissuade comics from doing mics so they take more classes, that’s a huge injustice. I do think newer comics due to the extensive bar and lounge scene have more opportunities and in turn they expect more. When I started there were dreary open mic rooms. Now you can go from bar to bar nightly and perform in front of your friends and patrons. The scene is so much more supportive and that keeps people in the game but also creates a false sense of what it takes to be a comic. You’ve got to hit the road and start doing those 20 minute sets. There’s a huge difference between being a funny bar comic and a professional comedian that has to put a roof over their head based on gigs. You got to get paid eventually, and that doesn’t exist in the city. Once you leave NYC everything changes. The dropout rate was huge when I started about 10 years ago. Now, comics frequent bars and clubs with their friends nightly, so even the casual comic hangs around and develops.
RM: Out of all the regular weekly shows that you have done over the past few years, which one has best aided in the development of your comedy as a whole? Why do you think that particular show has provided you with the most consistent means by which to sharpen your craft?
JL: When Laughing Buddha Comedy started back in 2009 we did this 99 Cent Comedy Store at the NY Comedy Club on Monday’s and Tuesdays. I hosted that for two years. It was wild, the audience had these little pom pom balls on the table and they can throw them at you if a joke was offensive or not funny, or if you pulled out notes; hosting that led to professional work and that’s when the doors opened. Definitely running the weekend shows at the Village Lantern helped because I did 30 minute sets on the average, 2 or 3 times per weekend to very tough audiences. They were free shows, so if you weren’t funny they would walk out. Producing shows at clubs like the Stand plays a huge role because I do long sets and we usually have industry guests in the room; I feel obligated to do my very best. I have had numerous bookings and opportunities out of that room. That’s where I bring my A game. But I’ve done so many, it would be hard to choose one particular show.
RM: In what ways has your comedic writing process evolved over the past decade? Do you have the tendency to stick to any one individual format when it comes to writing new bits, or do you occasionally bounce around and hunt and peck for whatever works and seems funny at the moment?
JL: When I began I was taught that stand up is setup and punch. Bad teaching! I would just cram joke after joke into a set, which can work for 5 or 10 minutes, but when I had to do longer sets I was in trouble. I would sit with a premise and spend endless hours working out a punch. I came up with some good jokes, but they were just jokes. I learned to tell my story, engage the audience etc. It was working with Frank Santopadre (Howard Stern, Gilbert Gottfried, Whoopi) that opened doors for me as a comic. He always said new comics are far more interesting off stage (myself included) and encouraged me to have a point of view and not just tell jokes, but tell my story. That changed everything. Since I’m fortunate to have so much stage time I would jot down ideas, and talk them out on stage. It took me years to gain the confidence to do that. But I’m fully confident no matter what I tackle, I’ll generate laughs, even if it’s new. I would always tape and then review that and sculpt my set. I’m much more free form, improvisational, or “in the room” these days. I hate memorizing things, and like to switch up the order of my material. Every crowd is different, and therefore, most of my sets are different from night to night. I was happy to find out Louis CK and so many others said they write the same way. When It was first suggested to me to “write on stage” I was dumbfounded by the concept. Now it drives me.
RM: How much writing and/or editing do you do at the club before you go on? With the exception of crowd work and responding to audience disruptions, how often do you find yourself going off the beaten path of what you’ve got planned for that set?
JL: I really don’t sit with a notepad before my set. I do that at home, if there’s a new bit I want to make sure I work on, I just stick a reminder in my back pocket, and look at that before I go on. I don’t like to hang around clubs, I like to walk in do my set and leave. A lot of that is the alcohol part of stand up, and I’m sober. When I was newer I would always be working on my notes. I almost always go off the beaten path. Crowd work has become a big part of what I do especially when doing 30 minutes plus on the road. I like to make the audience feel they are part of the show, and really engage them.
RM: I saw you had a Facebook post back on May 13th where you mentioned that in all of your time doing comedy you’ve never had more than one relative at any given show, but the previous night at Stage 72 you had four of your cousins show up…What can you tell us about your family and the way they have responded to your career in stand-up? How much do you discuss your family history in your act; and have you ever altered certain jokes in your set based on the presence of a relative in the audience?
JL: Another really good question! I don’t have much family unfortunately, my parents passed away before I began stand up, my brother is very supportive, I often run jokes by him. I think overall the family is really happy someone is pursuing the arts and doing this crazy thing. We were poor Jews, parents were from the depression, so most of my family couldn’t afford the opportunity of attempting a career in the arts. Since it’s so rare I have family at a show, I never alter my act. Although at that particular show I began talking to my family and asking them questions I didn’t know about our family from the stage; the audience loved it.
RM: When did you end up working with members of The Cult? Is there anything you’ve learned about the concentration aspect of performing during your time as a trained vocalist that you have been able to directly apply to stand-up comedy?
JL: I think stand up is its own beast. My first show I figured I got this after years of performing, and acting on stage in NYC. I bombed mightily and shook like I never shook in all my years in Rock and Roll. Kinley Wolfe who was the bassist from the Cult played with my band, Milk the Cow after his stint with them back in the mid 90’s in L.A. Just like comedy is a small circle here, Rock and Roll was a small circle out there. We had this guitarist, Yogi Lonich, but I felt he was too jazz oriented and chose someone else for the band. He wound up in Buckcherry! We released a comedy single in the mid 90’s which I still perform on occasion. Everyone asks me why I quit Rock and Roll? I answer “because my band was called Milk the Cow”. When I started stand up, my act was half musical comedy so my music did help me get through a lot of those rough sets early on. No matter what when you’re done with a song, the audience applauds; I desperately needed that. I actually got told by a booker of a major club not to do it. However, Stand Up NY passed me off my musical comedy. I rarely do it now, I’d rather just talk in the mic. On the road, I tend to do a little more, the crowds love it and sometimes I’ll close my set with a musical number. The city clubs are very prejudiced against it and it’s too bad. I always said if Andy Kaufman was starting out today he probably wouldn’t have made it. Reggie Watts and a few others have done well, but again, it’s not major comedy clubs that offer or promote that avenue. Sometimes I see new comics audition for a club in the city with a guitar in hand and I feel like telling them not to bother. It really is unfortunate.
RM: This question may be a bit out of line, but did your previous issues with addiction prove to be beneficial when you played the role of Hemingway as he notably struggled with alcoholism throughout his life? What reasons other than your prior musical background had an effect on your desire to pursue musical theater?
JL: Totally out of line, the nerve of some people! (laughs) My life is an open book. I really didn’t decide to pursue it. I met this agent and she sent me out for film role the next day. She knew I could sing so she sent me out to audition for Rent. I got 4 callbacks for Broadway, but never got the part. I told the story of how I landed the Hemingway role in a Storytelling show. I was headed to Amsterdam to be a judge in the Cannabis Cup and figured why wait to party? So I started partying the night before. Then got called by my agent that morning to audition right before my flight! I showed up with my luggage all strung out and brought it with me on stage. You know you just can’t trust actors. I had a horrible audition, but the Director gave me the part without a call back. She said, “when you walked in we knew we had our Hemingway.” I actually performed after I got high one night, little tipsy from wine on others. It definitely helped, I was a mess, and people said I was spot on. Tough role to recreate, but I really was into it. I read all his books and lived the character off stage all month long. I felt I had so much in common with him, from scars, to traveling, to depression, so it was a natural for me.
RM: Middle America probably subscribes to the incorrect stereotype of gay men which suggests they have no interest in sports, whereas your tastes clearly prove that is not the case…Which other stereotypes regarding men of your sexual orientation tend to piss you off the most; and do you think there is any chance that over the next couple of decades we will start to see those stereotypes disappear or at least decrease in inaccuracy as well as intensity?
JL: I don’t get pissed off about the stereotypes I guess because I live in NYC. We’re all smart enough to know the fruity gay guy is just one type. The world is changing quickly, evidenced by all the athletes coming out. I can honestly say I would have pursued sports much further if Gay was OK back in the 80’s and 90’s. I loved to train in the martial arts and probably would have been an MMA fighter if that was around. I was angry and needed an outlet. I fought Muay Thai in Thailand, and got my ass kicked. I guess if I had to choose one, the stereotype that we’re all promiscuous is ridiculous because all men are that way. It’s not a gay thing, it’s a primal thing.
RM: We obviously live in a time where everybody is extremely dependent on their electronic devices, and although usually most people are respectful of performers there are still a few people who are constantly texting and tweeting during shows…What does that look like from the stage; and have you ever called somebody out during the middle of your set for doing such a thing?
JL: Funny you ask that, I have quite a reputation. I will not let anyone use their phone in my presence and will always address it. Just this past weekend at the Stand I asked this guy texting in front of me if ever had his ass kicked by a gay guy. You had to see the look on his face. He put that phone away lightning quick. I have tossed about 100 people from my room for chatting, or being disruptive. As a producer I can do that. I’m even banned from a couple of places for refusing to go on with my set until everyone shuts up or puts their phone away. It is so disrespectful, especially when the lights are down and it’s so obvious. I have this new thing, where if someone is texting, I’ll stop dead in the middle of a sentence and whisper for the audience to stare at them. It can go on for 5,10, 20 seconds. when the person looks up he sees the whole audience staring him or her down. I’ll ask them who they are texting and why? If in front I’ll always try to take the phone from them and improvise their texts. At all LBC shows and mics we tell all audience to use their phones outside the showroom, and we have a no phone rule we try to enforce. Some people hate me for it, and they can go fuck themselves.
RM: If you had one wish for the industry of stand-up comedy as a whole which could be granted and would instantly come true, what would it be? Why would that be the first change you’d hope to see; and how much progress in that department do you think we’ll see come to fruition in the near future?
JL: Well if I can be greedy I have two wishes. One, that the business wasn’t so homophobic. There are more young gay comics breaking through but it was really rough getting road work starting out. Very few gay comics are club regulars, and gay people are often hysterical. It’s the oppression. I once held a gay fundraiser attended by most of my straight friends and they said it was the best show they’d seen. It comes from the notion that tourists are from middle America are more conservative, and gay people just talk about being gay and sex. Bookers are afraid. Again it goes back to not taking chances. With so many tourists, and tickets sold in Times Square, the clubs mostly care about the audience having two plus drinks, and not leaving and demanding their money back. It’s easier to sell “this guy is on MTV” than “this is a really funny gay guy”.
The other wish would be to judge a comic by their merits, not by their TV credits, age and potential. Again it goes back to the ticket teams needing something to promote. I’ve run street teams and when you tell someone a comic has been on MTV they are more interested. Most of the clubs have gotten into management, and it’s all about youth and development. Isn’t it ironic that everyone says it takes 20 years to master stand up but most of the club regulars are comics in their 20’s and 30’s? You got to live life to talk about it, and older comics have a much more developed point of view on life. It’s sad to see many great comics in their 40’s and 50’s getting cut from lineups in the city unless they are famous and/or can sell tickets. The road is different, most comics and crowds are older. That’s why I went into producing my own shows. So no one can tell me I’m too old or to gay, or too edgy, etc. I let the audience tell me after the show what they think. I’m proud of the fact that my act appeals to everyone from their 20’s into their 70’s. Political correctness is what’s inhibiting so many comics from being great and saying what they want. Do you think Lenny Bruce or Pryor could get away today with what they were saying back in the 70’s? Even Amy Schumer had too apologize for a Mexican rape joke. It is sad that most of comedy is reduced to saying things that have to appeal to the politically correct masses. Blame social media and network television.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2016 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
JL: I really take it day by day. I did some gigs in Europe last year and hope to go back in August. I don’t do the grind as much in the city, running from gig to go to do 3 or 4 sets a night. I performed at the Mayo Performing Arts Center last year, 1,200 people; it was incredible. I’ve done Laughter in the Park the last two Summers. Gigs like that inspire me. I just performed at the Crest Theater in Florida, and laying out on the beach is what life is all about to be honest. I think comedians put too much pressure on themselves and can become obsessive, even desperate, leaving very little work/life balance. In my heart I know I’m more than just a stand up. There are many things I’ve done and would like to do. I’m working on a book, and a one person show would be a great venture to tackle. I am planning a comedy taping in the Fall at Stage 72. There’s lots of interest in a Laughing Buddha reality show, there has been for years, so hopefully we’ll get that into development. But again, I take each day as it comes, I’m not a real goal oriented guy, I don’t write things down. I’m very lucky, the phone always rings, like this interview. This has been great, and thank you so much for reaching out to me and allowing me to contribute to your column.
Official Website: http://www.jefflawrencecomedy.com/
Jeff on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/10153508274712838
Jeff on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Jefflawrencenyc
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