by Ryan Meehan
This upcoming spring will see the release of new comedy albums from two of Michigan’s most popular stand-up comedians: Stu McCallister and Adam Degi. I’ve never met either of these guys, but I’ve followed their work online for a while and found it to be intriguing and thoroughly entertaining. Stu is one of the elder statesmen of the Midwest stand-up scene, and he’ll be taking us through some of the unfortunate encounters he’s experienced during that journey on an album entitled “Mistakes Were Made”. Adam got his start a little later but is still killing it almost daily, and his LP will be called “Personal Lunch Lady”. Some questions are better off unanswered (Such as Why does Stu have so many cats?; or How did Degi end up with such a ridiculously hot girlfriend?) but we wanted to pick their brains a little bit and get to the source of their comedy. I am honored to have both the beardest and the greatest as subjects in First Order Historians’ first-ever dual artist profile as we await the release of their new albums.
RM: Think back to the moment you each first took the stage and decided to do comedy…What made you take the initial step from thinking that you had some thoughts others found to be humorous to actually getting up there and telling a short set of jokes in front of a group of people that were complete strangers?
SMC: I actually took a comedy class in 1999 in Buffalo, NY. I did the graduation class and maybe a dozen open mics in the next year. Needless to say, it was pretty worthless and I don’t even count it as anything. It wasn’t until 2004 that I can honestly say I started doing comedy again. I would go to the comedy club in Grand Rapids, MI (Dr. Grins) just to see shows. On Thursday nights they would do an open mic before the paid acts. While watching those guys perform I felt that I could do just as well as they did. I did some open mics there (it was the only comedy open mic in Grand Rapids at the time) and took another class. I just knew that I could make people who didn’t know me laugh at things I said. I also hated my job and this was a good outlet for me.
AD: The first time I got on stage was at a high school talent show, so at the very least I had the support of family and friends. My first show in front of complete strangers was at my home club and I don’t know if anything told me I knew strangers would think I’m funny, but part of the appeal is not knowing. I still get on stage now not knowing if people will think some jokes are funny. Watching people who have no business even speaking in public definitely helps motivate you in the beginning. I was always good at making people laugh in large groups, sometimes friends of friends I didn’t know well…so that gave me confidence as well. That and the fact that I knew pretty early on I wasn’t going to be capable of doing anything else in life.
RM: How would each of you summarize your first couple of years doing comedy? If you could go back now and give yourself one piece of advice you think might make a better comedian today, what would it be; and why do you think that nugget of information would be so helpful to your development as a comic?
SMC: I got pretty lucky starting out. I quickly became the house mc of Dr. Grins because they guy who was the house mc was leaving. He chose me to take his spot. No audition, no interview, I was just handed the job. I think I got it because I was always there. I was at the club every week even if I wasn’t performing. I just liked hanging out and meeting the comics. I think he saw me as someone who was responsible, wasn’t a dick, and was at least kind of funny. Being an emcee isn’t always about being funny. You’re the hype man. I had to watch the room, time the other comics, organize the open mic…The job became more for me as I was the liaison to media in town as well. It was a good experience for me, and at the same time I think it hurt me. I did it too long. At the time though I never saw myself as a working comic. I had a good day job and comedy was just something on the side. If I could go back I would have encouraged myself to stop emceeing and push to feature more.
AD: In my first few years doing comedy I didn’t even have a car, but I was lucky enough to have friends like Stu McCallister dragging me around. Getting to shows and doing them is important – obviously – and in the Midwest you need your own transportation. Looking back, I wish I would have been more ambitious as far as the business/networking side is concerned. A lot of guys are getting booked in a year or two now, because they talk to the right people and quickly surpass others because they hustle even if they’re not ready to be booked. So I’d tell someone new to learn the business, have reliable transportation, network and enjoy it before it turns into a job. There’s a hell of a lot more stage time now than when I started. Take advantage of that and don’t limit your writing to one style or let yourself be influenced too much by any one comic. Keep an open mind and write that shit down or record it so you don’t forget it.
RM: For those who may not be familiar with the Michigan comedy scene, how would you best describe that subculture when compared to similar groups of comedians in surrounding Midwestern states? What are some of the most reassuring aspects of being a part of that network of comics; and what are some undesirable qualities that scene has absorbed in the years the both of you have been doing comedy?
SMC: Well, I can say it has grown a LOT from when I first started. In Grand Rapids there was only the weekly open mic at Dr. Grins. There was an open mic at the comedy club in Lansing (Connxtions) but you weren’t always guaranteed a spot. There was nothing in Kalamazoo. You could drive all the way to Detroit to get on the open mics at Joey’s in Livonia, Ridley’s in Royal Oak, or at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase. There weren’t any other comedy open mics that I was aware of. But then social media popped up. Bar shows popped up. Open mics were becoming a common thing. There are now numerous open mics in Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Kalamazoo and Lansing…all within an hour drive of where I live. And there are many more in the Detroit area. There is a Facebook page called Michigan Comics Network which people use to share information about open mics, showcases, clubs, contests, fests and any other comedy related news. It is a good place for guys to get information when they are just starting. Life would have been easier 12 years ago if that was around for me.
I can’t really talk about other scenes, other than I always appreciate when local comics come to shows. To me it shows several things: It shows that the club is probably comedian-friendly, and that they are supportive of the scene. I like when clubs have open mics or let guys have guest spots. This is how you make a scene better! And it shows me that the local comedians care about getting better. I always tell people that unless you have a gig somewhere you should be at the local club. Just being there shows the club you care about comedy, and it allows you to network with guys who are working the road. Why ask other open micers questions when you can ask working comics questions?
AD: I think Grand Rapids specifically is a great scene now because there’s a good amount of opportunity for stage time. There’s open mics Sunday through Friday and everybody is pretty supportive of each other. I don’t think it’s as “cliquey” as some other scenes and mostly everybody is welcomed with open arms. Christ, you don’t even have to be funny to get along with people and the only complaints we’ve heard about not fitting in are from people who are unlikable. It can probably be intimidating before you know people like anywhere else, but once you break the ice and meet a few people it’s all good. LaughFest has really changed things for us because Grand Rapids is a comedy destination for 10 days a year, and it’s given some local working comics a lot of opportunities that they wouldn’t get somewhere else. As far as the undesirable in Grand Rapids it’s pretty simple: One of the biggest booking agencies in the Midwest is in GR, and as great as that’s sounds it’s also frustrating because you’ll always be a “local comic.” They saw you as that open micer so many years ago, and sometimes it’s tough to shed that image no matter how much you develop and grow. Things like that can hold you back. I mean you’re from here, how talented and funny could you be?
RM: Without giving away the premise of any of the material on either of the discs, why did each of you decide to go with the titles for your respective CDs? What were some of the other titles you didn’t choose that we might find to be amusing?
SMC: Well, it still isn’t set in stone yet, but I believe I will call my CD ‘Mistakes Were Made’. It is just fitting because I have made mistakes both in life and comedy. I truly don’t think you can succeed unless you have made mistakes. Other CD title options were ‘Suck My Dick’ and ‘I Open For Adam Degi.’ I might use those for other albums.
AD: I struggled with the title of my CD. I was originally going to call it “Breaking Dad” based on a joke about the passing of my father and the show ‘Breaking Bad’, but I think the joke itself is difficult enough for people to understand. Instead I went with another joke on the album about hiring a personal lunch lady. I’m not smart enough to come up with a name that could describe the entire album or has some kind of meaning.
RM: Besides the fact that the two of you are really close, why did the two of you decide to record your albums on the same night and release the discs simultaneously?
SMC: Adam really was the one who wanted to record the CD…It just never seemed to be something that I wanted to do. I actually wanted to record a CD similar to Adam Sandler…A CD that was just skits. I think it would do well, and it would be material I would never do onstage. I actually have about 30 skits written that maybe one day I will make a CD of, but with the encouragement of Degi we recorded a standup CD. If nothing else it is encouraging me to drop material and work on a new set. And it just something else I can offer to fans after shows, and maybe get some play on the radio.
AD: Well…personally, I don’t have as many adoring fans and the following that the almighty Stu McCallister does. He’s the face of Grand Rapids comedy, and the guy gets recognized at the grocery store for Christ sake. Really I was just using him to ensure that people would be in the seats. We hoped that if we recorded albums at our home club on the same night with a few months to promote and invite people we could pack the place. A lot of guys have recorded albums in front of 20 people and if you can’t hear people laughing it’s no bueno. They actually ended up turning a lot of people away at the door because we were at capacity, and we encouraged friends and family to invite people that hadn’t saw us before so we could get some genuine laughs. When I record my next album it will have to be out of town so people don’t say “He only does well in front of his friends.”
RM: How was the crowd that night? When you decided on recording your albums was it pretty much a no-brainer to go with Dr. Grins as a venue, or did you consider any other comedy clubs at any point during the initial stages of the idea?
SMC: The room was packed! We couldn’t fit any more people in the room, and people actually had to be turned away. It was a nice feeling to know that you could pack your home club. I don’t think Degi or I really thought of any other room to record in. I have done well at the Skyline in Appleton and the Comedy Café in Milwaukee, so maybe I would record there in the future.
AD: I think I covered this in the previous question but I’ll answer anyway because I’m a good person. Grins is a great club, my home club and in a location where most of our friends and family could come out. That and we did it on a night that wouldn’t interfere with a lot of other shows and open mics. Some people drove a few hours so we were incredibly humbled by the turn out and overwhelming support. We wanted a club because it’s a controlled environment for comedy and there’s no distractions as well as a staff. The club was nice enough to let us record, but as much as we’d love to believe it’s all about us they made money that night so it worked out for everyone.
RM: How involved have you guys been with the post-production aspect of the records, as far as any sound editing or mastering? Was this a process you were familiar with beforehand, or are you relatively unfamiliar with those practices?
SMC: My involvement in the post-production is pretty minimal. I am not tech savvy and to be honest, I really don’t care. I have people involved where this is what they do. I trust them to make me sound better than I actually am.
AD: We have no involvement and I personally wanted no involvement, I just told them to add a laugh track and a few Chappelle bits if they could. We paid somebody so we wouldn’t have to deal with any of that shit. I can’t write brilliant jokes and be the sound guy.
RM: Did either of you have any family members in the crowd that evening; and if so how do they typically respond to your style of comedy? What’s the most unusual thing you’ve every had someone in your family say about your stand-up?
SMC: I didn’t have any family there that night. I don’t have any family living in the area. My mom lives in Buffalo, NY. While she is supportive she really doesn’t understand what I do, nor does she really appreciate my sense of humor. I got my sense of humor from my dad I guess, but he passed away in 2000.
AD: I had probably 7 or 8 family members that night…They’ve all saw me several times and have always been super supportive. They’re all pretty open to my sense of humor and aren’t too politically correct or conservative, because they’re fucking smart and enjoy life. Having said that, when you do a bit about your dead dad and his cancer you go into it pretty skeptical.
RM: When you over hear some fuckhead saying something along the lines of “I could do comedy, it looks easy as hell” or something of that nature, what would you really want to say to them if you didn’t have worry about that situation escalating into a brawl or a verbal altercation that might make you appear unprofessional or easily rattled?
SMC: Well, it is fairly disrespectful of someone to say that. Of course they don’t know that they are being disrespectful. They just see someone on stage saying words and getting people to laugh. They don’t understand the structure of a joke, what a callback or a tag is. They don’t know about timing. They don’t know about pacing, facial expressions or body gestures are. They just see someone talking. We all can talk. We all can make our friends/coworkers/family laugh. They just don’t see the work that is involved. With that being said, I would just encourage them to find an open mic and do some time. I think they would quickly realize how hard it is. I would bet most would never ever do it or they would quit pretty quickly.
AD: I would say, “I get it…You make your friends laugh at work or your dumb relatives, but it’s not the same.” Tell me this, have you ever had to host a game show called “The Real Deal Crazy Game Show” at noon in the cafeteria of a community college and tried to keep the attention of people looking at you like you’re an asshole for an hour and a half just so you could pack your spinning game wheel, mystery boxes, awful prizes, bag of game equipment, and terrible game show banners and then shove it all in the back of your 2003 Taurus so you could drive at least five hours every night to your next destination for another awful show the next day so you can do a few comedy shows for the same agency that ended up owing you 13 thousand dollars? Huh? Anybody? No? Then shut the fuck up and do a little research before you act like it’s the easiest art form in the world because you watched a few guys struggle at an open mic.
RM: If you couldn’t answer the following question by saying “stealing material”, what is the most disturbing trend you see in comedy today? Do you think that ten years from now that will have changed, or do you still foresee it being a problem for the future of the industry?
SMC: I’m not a big fan of shock material. You see this with a lot of female comics. Usually they are good looking women and then they say something really gross or unexpected that gets a laugh not because it is funny but because people are nervous. I don’t like ranty comics. The older I get the more I don’t like it. I find it tiring. I just want to enjoy the show. Make me laugh. It is kind of like chicken wings: Sure you can make them nuclear hot but I just want to enjoy my meal. I don’t want to work for it.
AD: The most disturbing trend is something that hasn’t changed and won’t…and that’s just the fact that being funny isn’t the most important thing in the business of stand up comedy. I know it sounds crazy, right? Being funny in comedy isn’t the most important thing? How can that be? Well, there’s so much bullshit off stage that hold comics back and it’s their own fault in most cases but still frustrating. I’m not even talking about your behavior as far as not being a dick, not drinking too much, ruining your hotel room or hitting on the wait staff. I’m talking about knowing and networking with the right people, do you have a manager/representation? Do you have a nice website, do you mingle and shake hands and hang out? How is your online presence? Do you kiss enough ass, if at all? Are you too outspoken on social media, do you have too much of an opinion? Is your act safe? “Ohh, you’re just a white man in his 30’s? Sorry, we have enough of those, it doesn’t matter if you’re funnier.” The same could be said about most professions. Nothing will ever 100% depend on you talent and ability, there’s other factors involved and it doesn’t matter who deserves it more. There’s 100 times as many comedians as there is opportunities, so you just have to find a way to separate yourself from the pack. Unfortunately that way can’t always be good jokes. Ohh, that and hipsters at shows. Please stay home you miserable fucks...
RM: What is something that each of you can share about the other that most people would be surprised to know?
SMC: A lot of people probably know some things about Degi, like he is a pretty decent rapper. Boy can spit fire! And when he is balling his jumper is just butter. Nothing but sweet, sweet cash as he yells ‘COOKIE CRISP!’ But what people don’t know is that he is a big fan of opera. I’d come home and Degi would be blaring some music that I have no idea what they are saying. I’d say ‘What the fuck Degi?! Turn it down!’ and he’d say ‘Puccini bitch!’ and that would be that.
AD: Stu was a social worker and volunteers at cat shelter. Despite his sheer hatred of some open micers and the fact that he doesn’t read the bible on a daily basis, he’s one of the nicest selfless humans I’ve ever met. Much better person than me, and I’m almost perfect.
RM: What have you found is the best approach towards setting realistic goals for yourself as a comic? Do you think that question would elicit a thousand different responses if you asked that number of comedians?
SMC: I think it is just about controlling what I can. Write my material, contact bookers and clubs etc…I can’t make clubs work me. So I try to be positive and grateful for the ones that do work me. Why stress about the ones that won’t book me? There are plenty of avenues for work that I can pursue.
AD: Yeah, this could definitely be answered a thousand different ways. For me, I try not to get too far ahead of myself. Sure, I’d like to have an HBO special and sitcom as well as my own basketball shoe and movies, but first I just want to headline all clubs. You have to set your goals according to your location geographically as well. There’s a ton of stuff you can do in NY and LA that you can’t do in Caledonia, MI. I think a lot of comics struggle with being delusional…and I get it. We all love attention, that’s why we did this in the first place…and we all have a certain amount of confidence. It’s just important to know where you currently are and what you need to work on. Most of us are nobodies – including myself – and we all have a ton to work on. Most importantly (as I’ve stressed previously) in order to reach your goals as a comic it’s just as if not more important to become good at the off stage shit.
RM: After the release of these albums, what are your plans for comedy in the remainder of 2016? Anything else big in the works that we should know about?
SMC: I’m planning on applying for some new fests this year, I’d really like to start headlining more regularly. I was taking an acting class, but had to drop out of because of health issues. Once I get healthy I would like to take it again. I’d like to get in some commercials or do voiceover work, and maybe I will work on that sketch CD.
AD: I’d like to start a blog, and maybe something on YouTube in the the next year that involves me trying to make people laugh. I’m starting to headline some clubs and hope to weasel my way into a few more. Really, my plan is to just stay positive and have fun. Sometimes you forget you started doing this because it’s fun. Oh, and if a guy approaches you with a grey, hair sprayed mullet, a black turtle neck sweater and a gold necklace from a Mr. T starter kit and he asks if you want to host a game show you run away as fast as you fucking possibly can and you don’t look back.
Stu’s Official Website: http://www.stumccallister.com/
Stu on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StuMcCallister1
Stu on Twitter: https://twitter.com/stumccallister
Adam on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AdamJDegi
Adam on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ADAMDEGI
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