Tell me about your first choice, I’m Dying Up Here by William Knoedelseder.
This is a book about the Comedy Store, which is a famous comedy club in Los Angeles, and the main story revolves around the comedians’ strike that happened in 1979. Some of the comedians weren’t getting paid to perform, because the owner of the club, Mitzi Shore, who is still the owner of the club, saw the Original Room as a place for younger comedians to work out their material and grow, so she didn’t think they should be paid for that.
Her theory was that this isn’t considered a professional room, these were young comedians still working on becoming professionals. Also, she wanted people to be free to try stuff out, because with some clubs there was a lot of pressure about who was going to be at the club, which made more inexperienced people nervous.
The problem was that all the comedians were asking for was ten dollars to cover their gas. And she kept saying no, no, no, so the comics went on strike. And some of the comics that were striking were people like Jay Leno and David Letterman. Leno and Letterman were actually part of the group of comics that did get paid because they performed in the Main Room, which was considered a professional room. Still, they went on strike to support the other comics who were not getting paid. So Mitzi ended up giving in. And to this day if you are performing in that room you work for 15 minutes and get 15 dollars. The idea being that it’s a place to work out, not a place to get rich.
You’re a regular there – what’s the atmosphere like these days?
It’s great. The Original Room really maintains that experimental vibe that Mitzi wanted for it. Definitely Tuesday, Wednesday, sometimes Thursday, you feel like, ‘OK, this is where I am going to experiment with my material and try new stuff,’ and on the weekends you tend to go a little more with your regular material. I have been a regular there for 11 years and ever since I became a regular my comedy grew exponentially.
How about your next book, The Comedy Bible by Judy Carter?
I took Judy Carter’s stand-up comedy class when I finally decided to get into stand-up comedy. And this book is more for people who want to do stand-up comedy or maybe someone who is going to be speaking in front of an audience and wants to have some jokes for a business presentation. The main thing I learned was that the secret of stand-up is simple: you need to get on stage as much as possible and write as much as possible.
Another thing I learned from this book and her class was that every comedian has a point of view. She says every comedian is either saying, ‘It is hard to…’ or they are saying, ‘I love being…’ and you need to fill in the blanks. And breaking it down like that really helps you to write because you have some kind of structure to follow. So if you want some guidance for this kind of thing it’s not a bad place to start.
When you did your big tour, The Axis of Evil, what kind of reaction did you get to that kind of stand-up, which at the time was new to the States?
Well, the Comedy Store’s owner, Mitzi Shore, actually had put me and a couple of other of the Middle Eastern comedians together, and she called us ‘The Arabian Knights’, and then in 2005 me and a couple of the guys [Ahmed Ahmed and Aron Kader] changed our name to ‘The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour’ and started touring.
“The main thing I learned was that the secret of stand-up is simple: you need to get on stage as much as possible and write as much as possible.”
At the time it was during the Iraq war and we figured that the people that got it were going to love it and those that didn’t would stay away. It was received very well and it really was a big step for all of us in our careers. It premiered on Comedy Central and then people started putting clips on You Tube and that is when I started getting recognised as Maz Jobrani the comedian.
What about the reaction outside the States?
We took that tour to the Middle East in 2007 and it was amazing. We did five countries with it, 27 shows in 30 days and the rooms were packed. In Jordan the king came to the show. All the audiences understood and got the jokes because, first of all, those attending spoke English very well and secondly, with the internet, they got the references. The world is much smaller nowadays, so if something happened in Los Angeles you could talk about it in Cairo and they would have heard about it. What was interesting to me was if someone had asked when our Comedy Central Special came out, ‘Where do you think you will be performing in a year from now,’ I would say somewhere like Australia, Canada or England – English-speaking countries. I never would have dreamed that we would have been touring the Middle East. I had no idea we would be in places like Kuwait and Dubai, and on top of that we were received so well. It really ignited a whole new movement of comics from that region, which is something I was really pleased about but not something I intended. It just fell into place, which was cool.
Your next book is David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day.
He is a very funny writer. As a stand-up comedian I feel I am a stronger performer than writer. Having done this for 12 years my writing has gotten stronger as well. But I have always been impressed by people who can make you laugh just with their writing – things where you can just read it and laugh. Because with performing you can make things funny by the way you perform them, but to write funny is a talent and Sedaris has got it.
I remember picking up this book, and I then started buying all his books because it is amazing how funny he makes these short stories about himself. He’s not a stand-up comedian or anything like that, but his stories are hilarious. One story that comes to mind is when he took a job one Christmas at Macy’s where he was a Christmas elf for Santa Claus. The way he tells the story is truly hilarious – I can’t do it justice, you just have to read it!
A bigger lesson to take from this book and Sedaris’s writing is how he sees the comedy in every situation. My whole life I have tried to see comedy in any circumstance. You read his stories and see the things that are happening to him. And if you view the world as glass half empty you might not see the comedy of it, but he does. I think that is an important thing to have in life.
Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler is the fourth book on your list.
She is a stand-up comedian with her own show and is very well known. As a stand-up comedian, often your agents or managers want you to write a book about your life and for you to turn your material into a book. This has been suggested to me so I thought I would look around and see what’s out there.
She actually does a great job of it. This is her view of the world. It is a simple and fun read. One of the stories that comes to mind was how she was driving to go to the airport to pick up a friend and some teenage punks crossed in front of her car, she cussed at them and actually ended up getting beaten up. It doesn’t sound funny but the way she tells it is hilarious.
And again what is great about these stories is that when you read them you realise that we all have crazy stuff and silly things happen to us. It’s nice to read these stories from celebrities on TV where you think that nothing bad ever happens to them and then you realise they are human too.
Your last choice is Too Fat to Fish by Artie Lange.
Artie Lange is another book I read to find out what other comedians were writing about. He is known in America as Howard Stern’s sidekick and he also has done a lot of film and TV. But he has also been addicted to drugs. So there’s sad stuff in there. Many times you hear people talking about how comedians get depressed and this is one of those situations.
He tells the story of one of the reasons he got so deep into drugs is because his father was a roofer who fell off a ladder and was paralysed. So you see how it all unravels. He is very critical of himself and many of the opportunities that he has blown. And you are amazed that he keeps going. He is in and out of rehab. When he worked with Howard Stern he was back doing heroin again. I think the most recent drama with him was when he tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself, and then you turn on the TV and he is doing a Comedy Central Special and he looks normal.
And is it true that there are a lot of comedians with depressive natures?
I would say that 30 years ago or more, when the cocaine lifestyle was full on and there was lots of drinking and smoking as well, it was worse than now. You have people like Freddie Prinze who committed suicide at the age of 21 or something and was at the height of his career. Eddie Murphy says he was inspired by Freddie Prinze. More recently, Richard Jeni was another one who committed suicide.
But nowadays I think that drugs continue to be there but a lot less. You are at the club and there are guys drinking water and making sure they work out. I think that helps people to balance themselves a little bit. But sometimes there are guys that you can’t have conversations with because they are still in character and they can’t turn it off. I think many of them would say that they got into comedy because they want to be loved. They didn’t have it growing up.
But that doesn’t sound like it was the case with you?
Well, people say I am pretty balanced in many ways. But if I had to go back and psychoanalyse myself I would say that my desire to be funny came when my family moved to America from Iran when I was six and being funny probably helped me feel less of an outsider and make friends. So I’m sure I’m not fully balanced either and I’m doing it because I need the love like other comics.
Also, I became a fan of comedy early on. When I came to America I watched TV and really liked the stand-ups who were on there. I also enjoyed hanging around with the funny guys at school and I got into going to comedy clubs so it all started from that. I wanted to be on stage and finally it all came together 12 years ago. Too Fat to Fish touches on these types of issues and all the books that I have listed really are for anyone to enjoy. The only one that might be more specific for someone who wants to get into comedy or wants to improve their ability to be funny as a public speaker is The Comedy Bible. That’s more of a ‘how to’ book.
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