by Andrew Wantuck
This week I spoke with an Emmy winning comedian that has worked on The Larry Sanders Show, The Dennis Miller Show, ESPN's Reel Classics, he has appeared on The Tonight Show, and Letterman. We spoke about having weird Hollywood hours, how Dennis Miller paved the way for Jon Stewart, and what it was like riffing with Johnny Carson.
Andrew: What is a typical day like in your life?
Jeff: With the business the way it is, it's like the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. You just don't know what is going to happen? One day you could be running from fox hole to fox hole, and the next day you could be hunkered down working on the something. There is a predictable, unpredictability to it. So sometimes when I am working on a project, like recently I was working on the Bill Burr comedy central pilot, I've got structured hours. If I am not, I'm at home writing spec stuff, or working on my act, or painting shutters.
Jeff: I am a bit of a night owl, so is my wife, and so is my daughter, as a matter of fact. So I stay busy writing or I'll try stay on top of the business side of selling myself or my project. So that's what I am doing. It's either working or working on trying to find work, which is harder than working.
Andrew: [laughs] Are their any similarities between the shows you have worked on or have they all been completely different?
Jeff: TV is a medium of mimicry. The highest form of flattery in television is to do the same thing over and over again. Sometimes it's actually that second or third shot that is actually the most financially successful. It's a crazy business. From a production stand point, their is a big similarity, even with the changing tides of technology. So what will happen if a show is green lit you'll get a team together. You'll get a creative team together; writing/producing. And you'll get a production team, cameramen, crew, producers facilities. So all of that is pretty much the same on every project. Now to what degree of sophistication that all depends on what kind of dough you got. It's a the creative end that changes. I had the good fortune to work on Dennis Miller and Larry Sanders and both of those, especially Dennis Miller, were really cut from whole cloth. There really had not been anything like it on television up to that point. There had been elements of it, like the monologues from the talk show end of it, or a guy doing picture funnies, certainly from SNL, but to throw them all together we literally cut a suit right around Dennis Miller, like you would taylor a suit to somebody. We knew that this is what our guy did well and we were fortunate enough to be at HBO who let us do that. And I think we kinda influenced a new wave of shows. I think you can see Dennis Millers influence in Bill Maher's show and I think you can see an influence in The Daily Show. Even if the influence is that one guy could carry a show, it's like 'hey Dennis Miller did it." That's enough. I think it really helped a lot of edgy comics realize that there was an avenue to get their message across.
Andrew: And Larry Sanders?
Jeff: That's a whole different sitcom. Gary Shandlings a genius. He's just a genius. It appears that it had been seen because of the whole 3 act structure and character development, but Garry just flipped the whole game around. Here is what Garry did, I believe. He approached comedy from a dramatic perspective. He didn't worry about the standard definitions in the world of sitcom. In terms of what laughs were, what need to be done, that kind of thing. He always said that we needed to write these characters as real people, with their own personal agendas, and their own personal problems and lets go from there and the laughs will take care of themselves. It was just a fantastic approach. For me it was like going to narrative college. [laughs] It was just such a funny show.
Andrew: What was/is your ultimate goal in hollywood?
Jeff: Well, my ultimate goal was to write and star in funny movies and I'll use any club in the golf bag to help me get there, so when these different opportunities came up I had to take them. For me, it's all part of the same process which is making people laugh, telling stories. Like the one liner for example, to me, is an example of the shortest of short stories. It has everything you need in 9 words or whatever. All the way to feature length films. It's all about getting the audience to feel something.
Andrew: What was it like backstage about to go on for Carson?
Jeff: The nerves for any talk show appearance, especially back when there were less sources for exposure, are just insane. It's like they are peeling you off the ceiling. Even in the early 90's, The Tonight Show and Letterman, to some extent, were like the gatekeeper's to fame. I remember my first Letterman, I was up and walking around the South side of Central Park until like 4 in the morning. I just could not get to sleep. So now, you are not only nervous, you are working about 3 hours of sleep. You just kinda have to let your subconscious do it, and after a little while you get better at it. Now for Johnny, I don't really remember much of my first spot. It is like intellectual skydiving, you just jump out of the freak'n plane at 700 miles an hour and hope that this shoot opens, and it did, thankfully. The thing about Carson was, he was a comic, and he really never got to just go stage and riff like he did in the old days in the clubs with his buddies, like Newhart and Rickles. So I think it really brought it out of him when he had a young comic on his show, especially on panel, he would get to just spitball. So I distinctly remember a couple times, when I was a comic doing panel, and other guys would tell me that Johnny would ask a question that WASN'T on the list. Then we would all speculate why a guy like that would do that, but when it happened to me, and I was sitting there, I could see this glimmer in his eye, like, that said let's riff. It wasn't like hey I am throwing you a curve ball, it was like he was thrilled to be talking to a comic. Plus, he was sharp. He would tag your jokes or throw out a great premise. So you really just got to laugh with him and experience some great television moments.
Andrew: Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences at The Comedy & Magic Club?
Jeff: It is just a great place to work. First and foremost, Mike's a great guy. He has a sense of what a performer is going through. They get treated well. They can grab a meal if they want, they have parking. I know that sounds dumb, but they make you feel like a real professional. Then the place itself is a great space to work. The ceilings are high, but not too high, so you can always keep the laughs rolling. Then the crowds are great. They understand comedy more so than other places. Over the years Mike has cultivated an audience that has a real comedy pedigree. So I am so glad that I am coming down there this week. That place just has everything going for them.