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.
Mike 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.
I 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.
"WE'RE ALL GOING TO SCOOTERS!!"
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.