Recently AmericasComedy.Com sat down with the very talented comedian Joe Klocek. Gracious enough to give us a second interview, the comedian talked about his hopes of performing on the Craig Ferguson show, his new CD, and how he became one of the most gifted off-the-cusp performers on the comedy circuit.
TB: How did you come to decide you would do comedy for a living?
JK: It was all an accident, honestly. I was working as a cook for a restaurant, living with my girlfriend. She cheated on me, and I was heartbroken. People would ask me at the restaurant, “How are you doing?” I would start to tell them, and they would start to laugh. I couldn’t figure out why they were laughing! I felt like I was dying!
There was a waiter there who said: “Hey, I’m a stand-up comic, you should come do an open mike with me.” I went, it was the Holy City Zoo in San Francisco. I didn’t know what to talk about, and he said: “Talk about what you’re feeling,” which was pretty good advice to take to heart early on.
I talked about my girlfriend and people laughed. It was bizarre. I told people “I’m heartbroken, and here’s why,” and they were laughing. It was also a high. It was like: “That’s cool, look what I made happen. I made people laugh.” Early on, it felt like I got all the best advice, by accident, not by design. “Talk about what you’re feeling, be honest, and even if you feel like shit and they laugh, smile like you meant it.”
I think that’s pretty common for most comics. When I was young I never thought I wanted to be a stand-up comic – it never occurred to me.
TB: Even if you weren’t a comedy nerd from infancy, there must be some comedians whom you like what they did and how they did it. Are there any names we would know that you admire?
JK: There were a lot of local guys I remember watching. Some have moved on to bigger and better things, some aren’t around anymore. For me, I feel like it was backward. I can remember watching my dad, laughing at Johnny Carson’s monologue and the comics. I remember thinking: “Wow, that’s really cool.” I wouldn’t get some of the jokes because I was way too young, but still, the fact that these guys kept making my dad laugh – wow, that’s power, that’s control, that’s cool. I remembered that. I really didn’t have stand-up comics as idols. But when I got into it, it was a crash course, as far as, “What are people doing?”
When I started, the comedy scene had just completely fallen apart. I started around 1992, 1993, and that was the end. The 80′s had come and gone, and comedy was shrinking, rapidly! The people I started with were telling me: “You guys are really coming on to a sinking ship.” But we didn’t know – that was something we had going for us, we were really innocent. We had no idea how amazing it once was.
Now I’m looking around at people who are there. Johnny Steel was a guy I remember watching and thinking, “Oh my God, that guy is incredibly strong,” and just how good the show is. He would go up and suddenly, it’s ten times better! I remember being in awe of that guy’s ability to do that. There were guys that were just leaving L.A. There were guys like Tom Rhodes – Dana Gould went on to be a writer for The Simpsons. He was very theatrical in his approach. I remember watching him thinking, “This guy really stands out. He’s really strong and centered. And crazy!” Greg Proops I thought was pretty incredible; the guy was just so smug and so smart, and he would lay into the crowd for not getting stuff!
TB: How do you guide your comedy ship, artistically? What do you try to achieve, is it self-expression? Is it just for the girls?
JK: That is “the question!” I imagine if you could answer any of those big questions, that’s the day when you doing stop stand-up comedy, because that’s really what it’s about, is trying to figure out, “Where are the boundaries here? What can I do, what can’t I do? What am I interested in?” What I talk about now is different than what I talked about when I got started. How I talk about it is different too, I think.
What interests me is what I want to talk about on stage. You have to balance that between “what is the crowd’s expectation?” I find that lately, when I’m myself onstage, when I really feel like I can do what I want to do and the crowd is with me, generally, that’s happening at Previously Secret Information. Because I’ve set up all the parameters of what I do and how I do it. I get to talk about what I want to talk about, and sometimes it can be a little self-indulgent. But remember, with a theater crowd, they will listen as long as you’re saying it well. You don’t have to give them immediate payoff. Comedy clubs I still love going to, but I feel like there’s an expectation that you have to work with. There’s a more narrow idea about what stand-up comedy is there.
TB: One of the things that come mind when people think of you is your ability to just go off topic, ditch the prepared material, and riff, and talk to the crowd, and it’s every bit as entertaining as the prepared material. Is that something that you’ve always been able to do? Or is it something you’ve had to put a lot of effort into developing?
JK: I think it was a necessity when I started going on the road. Booking myself into these horrible one-nighter gigs, and I’m going in as the opener. I didn’t know it, but the opener is required to do thirty minutes in a two-man show. I’m like “Oh shit, I have about fifteen minutes of okay stuff,” so I would have to cover that by talking to them. In the beginning, my riffing was better than my material, because I was desperate, and I had that manic energy and desire to be liked. My head would just spin and spin and spin, I would spit this stuff out. Half the time the crowd was laughing at whatever weird crap that was coming out of my mouth.
After a while, that became more and more of my show. For along period of time I felt like my riffing was far better than my material. I felt bad about that, I felt like I’m not a very good comedian with just these abilities. Most comics don’t develop that riffing skill until later on. I just took really shitty gigs, where you have to talk to them; you don’t really have a choice. That helped me develop that. Basically, it was a defense mechanism.
TB: You’ve got many videos on YouTube, but one of the most popular is you taking a heckler, giving him all the room he wants, and you still dismantle him like a new bicycle.
JK: (Laughing) I have so many feelings about that. I don’t think I watch that and get the same feelings anybody else does. Because to me it’s sort of nostalgic. I mean, there’s (George W.) Bush references in there, which dates it right away. Plus, I have longer hair.
When that video happened, it was the perfect confluence of a whole bunch of things. And the fact that there was a camera running, that camera wasn’t mine. Somebody was recording comics that night. When I went on, they saw what was happening, and had the presence of mind to really focus the camera in. At the end when I got off stage, the guys asked me if I wanted a copy of that. I said “Yeah I want a copy of that!” That is lightning in a bottle, because you never capture anything like that on camera. But I also felt like that was the height of my abilities, in terms of riffing, I felt like I was indestructible at the time. I felt like whatever was going to happen at the show, there was no possible way it was gonna phase me.
All those instances just came together on that one night. You look at that guy, he’s skinnier than I am (which is rare), so I thought, “If this really goes bad, he’s not really gonna be able to beat me up. I’m gonna be okay.” He was really, really drunk. I get a lot of credit for that, but it was like stealing candy from a baby. He wanted to come on stage and I realized, “Wait, the Punchline always has a second microphone.” I was cocky, he was really drunk – sure, why not? Let’s do this! It just became one of those moments that’s really cool. I’m glad I got in on tape. I get e-mails from people all over the world about that clip.
TB: It seems like when I grew up, there was sort of a vertical procession of success as a comedian. You start out locally, you work regionally, you get on the Carson show, you get a sitcom, and die rich and famous. It seems like with modern times that changed. You seem to have to be you’re own press agent. There are these whole different types of media that didn’t exist, much less were in use back then. What’s your take on social media?
JK: It’s good and bad. On one hand, without YouTube, there are many comedians that never would have gotten the exposure that they’ve gotten. They never would’ve been deemed right for Leno or Carson or Letterman. They never would have made it on network or cable T.V. One person said to me that YouTube and the Internet have democratized our ability to connect with fans. And that is true. People will find that clip and suddenly I’ve got a fan. I’ve sold CDs on the basis of that, I’ve had people come to shows on the basis of that. That is really really cool. And it’s incredibly cheap and easy marketing that I can control. All of that stuff is good.
The downside is that there is so much of it now! Everybody’s got a YouTube channel. Everybody’s trying to figure out how to get their link posted on such-and-such a website, so they can drive traffic to this and that. There’s so much of it you have to learn how to jump over the noise. I don’t know that anyone’s really figured that out. The way you jump over that noise, ironically, is network television! They’ve made it easier to get attention, but people still – I’ve been trying to get on Craig Ferguson’s show. They keep telling me that I’m in the loop, they like me, I’m approved – this has been going on now for almost a year!
I know that once I get on there, realistically the viewership is about a million people. If ten percent watch me, that’s about a hundred thousand people. If ten percent of them go to my YouTube clip, that’s ten thousand people. That means that I’ve spent a whole lot of energy and effort to get one percent of one percent of one percent of people to watch my clip.
TB: What is your next goal, or breakthrough moment that you hope to see?
JK: Like every comic, I hope that “this is the year” that something happens. But I also know that IF something happens, I have to create it. That’s a big reason why PSI had happened. I thought, “Okay – I need to create something that is mine, that I artistically control, and respect, and can turn into something that is a commercial success.” That is the goal for PSI. I’m talking to all kinds of different people, we’re going to start a podcast soon. Hopefully that becomes the Joe Klocek vehicle. Short of that, I’m still making trips down to L.A. every now and again. Hopefully I get on the Ferguson show this year, that would be a nice feather in my cap. To have something that’s more recent – I look at my Comedy Central clip and it’s so dated to me. I think, “Wow, I’m not that same person anymore. It’s a good clip, but I need something a little more modern.”
TB: You mention Comedy Central, you had a very funny clip on Live at Gotham. Also last year you released your first CD, Life is a Joke. What was it like to put together your first CD?
JK: Um, daunting. And yeah, I used the word “daunting.” There were technical aspects I was completely clueless about. I did it because I talked to all these other comedians who had CDs, who were telling me, “When I’m on the road, I’m doubling my money.” I’m just like, “Wow, I need to just slap something together.” My artistic side won’t let me just slap something together! I saw a comic just the other night with something he had just burned by himself and in marker wrote on the CD – selling them for three or four bucks.
It was a cool experience. I rented a theater at night, I did an hour and a half. Long story short, it was a lot of fun, it was scary. You’ve got all these moving parts going on, you’re not sure how it’s gonna turn out. The guy I hired to record was awesome, but it’s a little scary. What’s it gonna sound like? I don’t know any comic who likes the sound of their own voice.
TB: Are you doubling your money on the road with your CD?
JK: Some nights I am, it’s true! People see you , they like you, they want to buy your CD. I think it makes being on the road, for a comic, a good investment. Make a CD and put it together, because even if you drive an hour away, and you sell one CD for ten bucks, you have now paid for your gas. If I’m in a club for a week, and I’m selling ten CDs a night, and we’ve got four or five shows, you do the math. It ends up being lucrative. That’s also why the club, the assholes that they are, they sometimes enforce a “we need to charge you ten percent of what you made.” I think, “We wouldn’t be doing this if you guys just paid us. You’re making money off of us, now?” You’re taxing twice.
TB: Did you have to scrap all the material that you used for the CD, do you still keep it fresh?
JK: It’s weird – the people who came to the CD show were my uber-fans. So the material that worked the best in front of every crows didn’t work so great in front of that crowd, because they had heard it. So what ended up on the CD was stuff that I don’t do that often. [The sound technician] talked to me and said, “We could ‘sweeten it,’” and I didn’t want to do that, it feels like cheating. I don’t want to go that route. It ended being this interesting collection of material. Some of it is stories that I do with PSI. That’s the other great thing about PSI, it’s like, “Oh, I’m getting to do more storytelling on stage as a comic.”
It’s a very eclectic mix. There are jokes on there that I’ll do if I’m in a really good mod and I think the crowd is really with me. And there are jokes on there from earlier in my career that used to be my favorite mainstays, and now I don’t do that often. And I also realized this the other night: if you’re on stage and you have your CD to promote and you feel like you’ve done everything, it also ends up being a nice set list. The most expensive set list I’ve ever made!
TB: Thanks for your time Joe. Hope to talk with you again soon.
JK: No problem.
About the Author: Tom Bickle is a stand up comedy writer and performer. He has loved comedy since he was too young to be exposed to it. When not enjoying comedy, Tom can be found enjoying any number of life's other pleasures.