Mapping the Road from Jokes to Success

Mike Stanley is a fearless and captivating performer. He’s definitely a comedian who offers an entertaining and rewarding show for audiences; and a show all comedians can appreciate and observe his craft of storytelling. 

Milwaukee Comedy had the chance to correspond with Mike Stanley before he hits the stage this weekend at The Comedy Cafe (Tickets can be found at this link or make a reservation by calling (414) 271-JOKE). He offers some valuable advice for comedians just getting their feet wet with experience.


Milwaukee Comedy: Tell us a little about your experiences starting out in Detroit; your transitionto Chicago; and life in LA.

stanleyMike Stanley: I still consider Detroit my home. When I first started, I got lucky because a lot of really good comics also started around the same time I did.  The crop of guys I came up with there have all gone on to do some really good things and have made a name for themselves in the world of comedy.  They're still some of my closest friends.  The "market" was very small and most of the mics were in comedy clubs and there wasn't really an "indie" scene, but you could get seven minutes once or twice a night. We would carpool and just try and get as much stage time as possible.  Everybody wanted to be good. We would all hang out late after mics in diners or bars, talk about bits and premises, smoke cigarettes, drink, give each other feedback, crash on someone's couch — all the stuff you do when you're young and get hooked. I look back on it now as some of the best times of my life.

As far as moving to Chicago and then to LA, its really just a matter of reestablishing yourself.  Its like coming from a shitty community college: Your credits don't transfer, no matter where you're from.  If you haven't been on TV, you're benched.  It's not easy being the "new comic." Those scenes are already in place and no one knows who you are. You just have to suck it up and start over. Just write and do your best with the stage time you do get.  Things will happen eventually. It sucks, but it does make you a better comic. Be cool to the new guy, he might end up being one of your best friends. 

You’re definitely a comedian known for his hard work as a performer on the road. Many comedians spend tons of time in the city working on their craft, but you seemed to hit the road early in your career—what drove you to the road? 

- I'm flattered that you just said that I'm  "known"… for anything.  I have this discussion a lot. Road vs. Staying in a City.  There's no right or wrong way to go about it. It's whatever feels comfortable to you. I try to maintain a balance of both a presence in a scene and performing elsewhere.  I don't like being in one place for too long.  It feels repetitive. Same shows with the same comics over and over again, you look at the line up and think "oh, there's probably a poster for this show in existence already, that's convenient."  It's like groundhogs day.  I don't work that way.  That's just me.  Some comedians do well in that type of setting. I don't.  Scenes have a way of having their head up their own ass sometimes and I like being able to walk away from it and still do what I love.  The road can be a nightmare too though, don't get me wrong but nothing is more fun than doing a string of shows, good or fucking awful, with one of your best friends.  It's the best. 

You’ve built up a career by sharpening your comedy skills everyday, but you also practice developing a sense of self-promotion—how has promoting yourself helped build your career? What is the importance of communicating with your audiences before and after you perform a show?

- I actually don't do much in the way of promotion these days. I recently let my website lapse. It's pretty much pointless because I'm not a big name. Maybe when something big happens with my career I'll launch another one, but right now I'm not interested in that. I'd rather spend my time writing. Trying to get people to leave Facebook and look at your website for five minutes is like trying to get them to leave the bar to do cardio.  Two people have noticed its gone.  I'll post where I am on Facebook, and it helps, but I'd honestly rather write jokes on there. When people share my status, I end up getting friend requests in different cities and sometimes those people end up coming out. I like that. 

stanley2I post every show I do on there and usually the people interested in seeing me show up.  Those "invites" people send out are the fucking worst, though. Nothing is more annoying. People go over board with that. Its just white noise.  I never do that. I'm a sucker for a rad poster.  I've always liked rock posters and pop art.  Whenever someone takes the time to make a cool poster, I always get excited and thank them . It means they're excited about it. You know there is a sense of pride in the show you're about to do.  You owe it to the people booking you to help get the word out, though. It's part of your job.

I don't usually talk to people before shows, but ill always stick around and talk after. I used to drink. I would do this thing where I'd roll into a city, and after the Wednesday show,  I would find a dive bar that I liked. I'd befriend the owner or bartender then come fri/sat late show (from stage), and I would invite the entire crowd to that bar.  


People would say, "you're really going to that place? It's a shit hole! I guess we'll see you there!"

Sometimes the entire crowd would show up and it would be  hilarious.  The bartender/owners loved me for bringing in a shit load of business, and the crowd loved it because we were all hanging out and shit would get ridiculous. 

I would never pay for a drink.  Some of those nights got real rough though and I woke up in some seedy places.  Those days are in my past, but they're fun to think about. At least the parts I remember. I've done some living. 

What about relating to audiences while on stage?

-You have to be aware of where you are.  I don't tailor my act at all, but I'm also not going to waste your time talking about something that's too specific to one thing or place. 

As an audience member,  you have a responsibility to do some thinking as well, so if you grab your phone 10 seconds into the set up of a joke because you have the attention span of a gold fish, and I'm not dancing around like a cartoon character for your amusement, you should probably just see a movie instead. 

Networking has a lot to do with achieving a successful career in comedy. How has networking help build your career? How does networking in a city scene, like LA or Chicago, differ from networking on the road? 

- There's really not much networking to be done on the road. I like to meet the local comics,  and if its possible, hit their mics… but there usually isn't time.  I just go in, do my job, TIP THE WAITSTAFF, thank people for coming out, and thank the owner/booker for having me.   

Bigger cities (Chicago/NY/LA), yeah, it is important for you to meet people.  It can be a bit uncomfortable introducing yourself, but what else do you have to do? You're there, and if you want to get booked, you're going to have to talk to some people.  You would have to talk to someone to get a job at Arby's and that's just as uncomfortable, so why wouldn't you do it for something you actually care about?

What sort of advice could you offer a comedian looking to book a road tour?

-Just write. Keep writing. Keep going up and get good.  All that stuff falls into place.  There are companies that book road stuff if you feel like you're ready.  You can submit your stuff online.  Take a road trip with a few friends to a neighboring city and line up a bunch of open mics or guest spots at their club. Make friends with local comics. Help each other. There are people just like you at the same level trying to do the same thing. You're better off working together.  Swap info. I would say festivals because they're a great way to meet a lot of comedians from all over (but I honestly think they're too expensive and some are a crock of shit).

You’ve got remarkable storytelling abilities; can you tell us a little about your writing process—were you always a storyteller? How do you filter your material into crisp dialogue dealing with your subject matter?

- Thanks for saying that. I appreciate it. I can't stress this enough: just put pen to paper. Even if you hate what you're writing, it's for you. No one is going to see it.  Even if its just two words you think sound funny together. Write it down.  All of these fragmented ideas can eventually be put to use. You'll find a home for them. It's weird talking about your own process because there is no way to not feel like a pretentious A-hole. I'll rewrite the same bit 10 times (handwritten, not on a computer, because I'm dumb and it helps me remember). Then, I'll read it into my phone and listen to it while i'm driving to see if there is a spot for another tag or if the wording sounds a little off. I'll do the joke that night, try and tag it while I'm on stage, tape it, then listen to it back in my hotel. I'll throw out the part that doesn't work, then add something else. This will happen for weeks with the same joke. I obsess over it. You'd think I'd be a better comic by now.  I need to have every part of the joke memorized that way I can forget it and it comes out more naturally.  Most new bits of mine are really dry at first because I just want to make sure I'm nailing all of the punchlines. I'm not looking for a reaction; I'm trying not to forget the important parts of the story or bit.  Cadence plays a huge factor so I have to make sure things aren't too wordy.

I'll bullet point premises on paper with different punchline ideas and tack them up my walls in my apartment. I live alone. My place looks like a detective lives there.  There's scraps of paper tacked all over place. In all honesty, it looks a little crazy. It's a little embarrassing, but I don't care. I like it. It keeps me focused. I don't ever have company.  This is what I do, I like being buried in my own ideas.  

And last question, why did you choose to pursue a career in comedy and do you have encouraging advice for young comedians taking their first steps onto the stage?    

For me it was a no brainier.  I remember telling my guidance counselor in high school that it's what I wanted to do. He just laughed and thought I was crazy.  I just never had any guidance as far as what it took to do it.  I'm glad I did.

Guidance for new comedians… Write.  Like I said earlier, do it for you. Don't write what you think the crowd is going to like. Write about the things you think are funny.  Know what you're going to say before you go up there. The most insulting thing you can do is waste someone’s time.  If you're not putting the work in before you get on stage you're going to annoy a lot of people. Hang around other comics and talk about comedy.  Help each other out. 

Whether you’re a comedian or comedy lover, Mike Stanley is a must see this Thursday through Saturday at The Comedy Café (with Matty Ryan and Shawn Shelnutt). Tickets can be found at this link or make a reservation by calling (414) 271-JOKE.

Movie and a show

As previously reported, Milwaukee has a plethora of standup comedy to choose from this week. But if you're more in the mood for a movie, you can find some standup comedy there, too.

Because Ryan Lowe is presenting another Stand-Up Cinema. That's why.

At 10 p.m., Friday, April 4, the Times Cinema is showing the "The Goonies." But it's not just the classic 1985 prepubescent adventure movie. Live comedians will be enhancing your movie-watching experience. It's called value-added.

From Facebook (imbedded links added):

"Stand-Up Cinema, inspired by things like MST3K and Cinematic Titanic, takes the tried and true 'make fun of the movie while you watch it' to the next level.

Along with the hilarious commentary, you'll see things like fake "deleted scenes" shot just for the event, live 'director' and 'actor' commentary during the film, live character dialogue and effects over-dubbing, we may even have a "missing reel" which requires our comedians to re-enact their own version of a scene live."

The Times Cinema is at 5906 W. Vliet St., Wauwatosa. Admission is $10.

You can ask the comedians, "How long have you guys been standing there?"

Jason Hillman's COK

If you think back to 2010, It may not seem that long ago. But when you look at where the comedy scene was 4 years ago versus now, you may notice a big difference.  One of those reasons is Jason Hillman and the Caste of Killers Comedy Collective.  They just so happen to be celebrating the 4 year anniversary this week: April 2nd , 8pm at Karma Bar and Grill. The show title is about as long as the list of comics they have worked with over the years: Caste of Killers presents: Anniversary Part IV: The Reckoning:The Remix: Unplugged


Jason Hillman had a few words on the subject of the last few years. Enjoy! COKannivIV

"It's a good idea but just so you know, these things never last more than a year."

I will never forget those words. They came from a comic immediately following my explanation of what this fledgling organization was going to attempt.

"It's a good idea but just so you know, these things never last more than a year."

The phrase I used in our first interview, and one that my partner would taunt me with for years to come, was "socialist utopian paradise." Though, in hindsight, that is a bit hyperbolic, I stand by it. We envisioned a scene that wasn't filled with random pockets of people trying to make a buck in a wasteland, all separated by a competitive desire to be more, have more, make sure that the guy across town had less people at his show. Taking that to mean more people would come to yours. Take the money and fund another singular show with singular desire and singular payout.

"It's a good idea but just so you know, these things never last more than a year."

That is not a sustainable model for something as delicate as stand up comedy. There is a distinct vulnerability that drives the raging soul to take the stage in the first place, to grasp the microphone and let loose their insecurities, their secrets, their lives, splayed for the world to see. But that cannot be used to try and plant a lone flag of intention.
One must seek out the like minded and create an army.
Our goal was to unite the city's talent under one banner so that we may, as an assembled contingent, make ourselves known. If we could, together, raise the profile of stand up in Milwaukee, then opportunities would spring forth like an Eden born spring. We could stop being Chicago's sad bipolar little brother, trying hard but ultimately being consumed by its own self loathing and inability to look in the mirror.

"It's a good idea but just so you know, these things never last more than a year."

It was a struggle. The road was harder, more laced with obstacles than we could have ever anticipated. Shaking this city to its core, attempting to get it to WAKE UP and see that there was worth in shining a light on those that toiled in its shadows with their brilliance, bright and ignored, shuffling about on its streets, waiting patiently, was a labor. Seeing flyers tossed or ripped down. Dealing with bar owners that treated us like shtick up men, a bunch of jokey hobos. Leaving the TVs on. Not telling anyone there was a show. Trying to shirk off the obligations they took on. It was a demoralizing thing. The line up changed. The parameters shifted. The goals seemed to be liquid for a minute there. We almost made a prophet out of that doubting comic.

"It's a good idea but just so you know, these things never last more than a year."

But we realigned. We were, luckily enough, supported by a rather steady number of Chicago comics. Our out of town shows were successful. We made the right connections. More importantly, we created an environment where new comics wouldn't feel as though they are being judged. That their material and their presence was important. Where ideas were shared and goals were achieved. A place to call home instead of a place to be while you think about going to some other city.
Through these efforts, a new wave of young comics emerged. Driven, talented, motivated in the same way that we were. Some joined our group. Some didn't. It didn't matter.
Everyone supported each other's efforts.
In the end, all that mattered was the jokes. Not the egos. Not the money. Not the brief promise of a moment's minor metropolitan area fame.

We had become the cliche. A fully functioning ecosystem wherein all were welcome and all were given their due time and respect. There was inspiration. Independent shows began to dot the landscape. Mics appeared. Instead of having to try and convince bar owners that comedy was a good idea, the bar owners now seek out comics. Now find themselves wondering why they didn't jump on this opportunity sooner. Milwaukee is beginning to understand what is going on. It is beginning to open its eyes.

"It's a good idea but just so you know, these things never last more than a year."

Caste of Killers are proud to have contributed to this movement, to the expansion of this scene. We now have some of the best comedy showcases and open mics in the Midwest. Our reach has expanded to spots all over Wisconsin and our comics have made their way all over the US. Ours is a name that has become synonymous with great talent and warm receptions.
This is all well and good.
But what I see around me makes me even prouder. When I see people raise each other up, contribute to each other's projects and shows and mics and whatever is happening. This moves me the most. This makes me heave a bit in those steely heart parts of mine

A drunken 3 am phone call. A spiteful friend. Some willing volunteers. Guinea pigs for a movement. A curious bar owner. These are the ingredients of a new era in Milwaukee comedy.

There are too many names to name and thank in this kind of fashion. You know you helped if you did. You know you didn't if you didn't. For those that did, it cannot be expressed how grateful I am for your assistance. For those that didn't, I hope it was because you were too busy producing your own contributions to this city's legacy. And if not that, I hope you at least enjoy the shows.

Here's to another year of great shows, great blows to the idea that comics have to burn and bite and claw over each other to make an impact.


Caste of Killers, reasons to crow

Milwaukee has a slew of open mic sessions and standup comedy showcases this week. That's appropriate because this week also marks a celebration of the Caste of Killers Comedy Collective, which for the last four years has been fostering standup artists and performances in Milwaukee and beyond. As founders Damon Millard and Jason Hillman told Third Coast Digest in 2010, their designs for building up Milwaukee's standup scene came from "socialist-Utopian-ideals" – also appropriate in a city with a history of embracing socialist politicians.

But on Wednesday, April 2, the Caste of Killers stresses the "social" part of socialist with an open mic and party. The event page on Facebook promises "cake, compliments and confusion." (It's invitation-only, but Facebook invitations have gone out to some 1,200 people, so check your account to see if you're among the chosen.)

Meanwhile, the Caste of Killers legacy is on public display through a bevy of standup shows. Some are direct results of the Caste of Killers work, others are not, but there's no denying the influence the Caste of Killers has had in opening venues and encouraging talent. Among the shows:

Monday, March 31

  • 8 p.m., Comedy Show Comedy Show Open Mic, Bremen Cafe, 901 E. Clarke St.
  • 8 p.m., Seriously, Comedy Open Mic, Fire on Water, 518 N. Water St.

​Tuesday, April 1 (April Fool's Day)

  • 7 p.m., Comedy Open Mic, Theatre Unchained, 1024 S. 5th St.
  • 9 p.m., Down and Over Comedy Open Mic, Down and Over Pub, 2535 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. (Including release of the CD recording made of the Jan. 31 Comedic Release Show)

Thursday, April 3

  • 7:30 p.m., Brew Ha Ha! Comedy and Craft Beer, Big Head Brewing Company, 6204 W. State St., Wauwatosa

Friday, April 4

  • 8:30 p.m., The Caste of Killers Presents: The Milwaukee Stand Up Comedy Showcase, Karma Bar & Lounge, 600 E. Ogden Ave.
  • 10 p.m., Stand-Up Cinema: The Goonies, Times Cinema, 5906 W. Vliet St., Wauwatosa






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