steve stajich--champion 1988
Coming in for a landing in Seattle
Nice to meet you on the World Wide InterWeb… my name is Steve Stajich and I was honored to win the Seattle Comedy Competition in 1988.
While I believe that you never quite give-up stand-up (more on that in a moment), I did stop performing comedy on stage about ten years ago. So I can’t speak with much authority on the stand-up comedy business right now. I will say that in living in Los Angeles you observe that there are templates in stand-up and comics find their template and pursue it: Edgy guy, likeable guy, actor guy looking to get roles from club sets, guy pretending to have a mental problem but not really, and so forth. Female comics now seem to have greater latitude in presenting a persona than they did during the so-called “boom” years, but you’d have to talk to them about whether it’s still more difficult to be a female comic.
It seems that all the appealing features of being a stand-up have remained the same. I don’t mean the life on the ‘road’ dimensions, with dial settings varying from “Frank Sinatra” to “I think that shit just caused my heart to stop beating.” Although there’s a rich education to be had from those aspects of comic life. But what drew me to stand-up was that a person could aspire to write funny ideas that became a show or “set” and then present that little production with almost nothing between you and the audience’s reaction. If you do stand-up and have a gift for it, it can take you all around the world and land you in some wonderful places. One of those, for me, was the 1988 Seattle competition.
Every generation will likely testify that theirs was the best time to do whatever it was they did. Pre-“boom” comics reflect nostalgically on doing sets during the days of Lenny Bruce, or working tiny clubs where they opened for Bob Dylan or Joan Rivers with her original face. But that said, I think it was definitely easier and faster to become a stand up during the post-cable TV ‘boom’ of the late 80’s and 90’s than it is right now and in those ways anyhow… better.
Maybe stand-up is more regimented now (see “templates”) but today a comic with something truly fresh and original might go further because everybody, including the public, is less enamored of the craft itself. Today you can’t buy a pile of sweaters and immediately start middling at the nearly 470,000 Funny Bones that were built following the Funny Bone Act of 1985, which stipulated that every shopping mall in America must have a room filled with plastic chairs pointed at a microphone. Some towns would work around the comedy regulations and use the rooms for AA meetings and cattle auctions.
I spoof, I kid… but in reality those rooms provided much needed work-out space. Of course there are far fewer rooms now, following the “Repeal of the Funny Bone Act-Act” of 2005. Stage time, especially with a civilian audience and not a room filled with other comics waiting to perform, seems harder to come by now.
Moments ago I mentioned having a “gift.” I mean this only from a technical standpoint, as one would concede that it takes a special skill set to be a dentist or Rush Limbaugh. During the “boom” I think there were a lot of people out on the road who were looking to find themselves rather than work on any particular honing of craft. It was easier to follow a comic on stage that was earnestly looking to improve and grow than one who was trying to overcome a failed marriage. It’s something any person can observe on “Open Stage” night about the allure of being the center of attention in a room with a working microphone in your hand.
The contest process, especially as the Seattle competition was structured at that time, became an effective way to get comics in touch with their gift or their search for it. Thus did Seattle become a key moment for me because, much as I didn’t expect to share anything really personal here… man, I wanted to win that thing. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I needed a process that confirmed I had a gift and that I had the right to be out deploying it despite the concerns of loved ones and the IRS. That’s not a blanket endorsement of all contests for comedy. For example, the TV show “Last Comic Standing” cultivates a certain kind of presentation which leads to some very generic comics being involved. And I’m not sure I’d want to compete in the Funniest Person in Waco Contest, or any town you’d care to insert there.
Ultimately, I think a good stand-up wants to ‘win’ every set they do. Unfortunately, the means is often adjusted to fit the end and that can lead to a lot of profanity and sexual banality and perhaps one gets “results” but… what did you use for ammo? Still, comics must want to excel at every single show. In that way a contest, even one stretching over weeks… is really one long show looming large. And because of the scope of it, you can really get in touch with exactly what you want to present on stage and how you want to do it. My hesitations about the process stated, I would say comics should get involved in a contest but use it all as a forge to hammer out what you ultimately want to do on stage. Don’t let the contest tell you what to be or what to present, with the possible exception of trimming your hilarious colonoscopy bit.
Since I have nothing to gain by kissing up 21 years later, let me thank the Fox’s for running a great event that mattered very much to me. Let me again thank Rod Long for the night he talked me back into the contest when I thought I couldn’t hack it. Everyone in the Seattle event in 1988 had been so nice and so open and so mutually supportive that I actually felt bad that we couldn’t somehow spread the final result around a little more. Winning meant taking something away from these other talented people. Even the newspaper reporter that wrote about it for the next day’s edition was a really nice guy who was generous to me in his articles. It seems contradictory that a contest can be a warm memory, but Seattle was.
Buoyed by my victory, I took out a big ad in the Fox’s comedy newspaper and it was sweet when that big ego stroke hit the streets. I headlined more clubs after winning, although I have a good friend who firmly believes that being the middle act is the best job in club comedy. Your results may vary, but I think he’s right.
After Seattle, comic (and later “Seinfeld” writer) Carol Leifer contacted me about coming to New York to write content for a show she was hosting on VH-1. Dude, I was now a TV writer living in Manhattan! Allow Grandpa to effuse that it was totally cool. As I said, you can land in some wonderful places. Writing eventually led to Los Angeles and cable led to network… and I’m happy to say that, for the most part, I could keep the jobs coming back-to-back. A year on the staff of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” caused me to think that there might be a third act for me that was somehow more literary. That led to my current phase of writing for theater and contributing an op-ed column to the Santa Monica Mirror every week since 2002.
As I said earlier, I don’t think you ever really quit being a stand-up. Like me, you can stop doing ‘sets’ in clubs. But the urge will manifest itself at any time: You do a tight five at the Thanksgiving dinner table, then the pie comes out and closes.
What can go away at some point, assuming that everything on board your psychological boat is properly fastened down… is the need to do stand-up. For me, stand-up was a wonderful way to get paid to write comedy. When I found ways to accomplish that without three sets on Saturday night, I moved in that direction. For others, performing live may be the ultimate buzz and I can easily understand that addiction.
I loved stand-up and enjoy seeing someone new on late night TV who is sharp and interesting. But my theater experiences have caused me to look for some new form of stand-up presentation that avoids the usual business of mugging and making funny gestures and having the audience accept your physical presence. Right now I’m exploring some way of doing stand-up where I’m never seen by the audience, without putting a paper bag on my head. I’m interested in what happens if you just present the material without having to run it through the filter of how much the audience likes your face or your personality. Of course not wanting to face the audience probably speaks volumes about my “personality”… don’t you think, Dr. Phil?
But none of that--if it works--will alter the fact that even after a nuclear or ozone-related flattening of the earth’s surface, there will still be somebody trying to do time in front of a group of raggedy and starving people who likely got into the fire circle with “twofer” passes handed out by the fire circle manager. Hopefully, the Fire Circle Comedy Competition will leave everyone involved with great memories of the kind I have from Seattle in 1988.