Most of the time when I request interviews with stand-up comedians, I ask for 10 or 15 minutes even though I’m secretly hoping to talk to them for much longer if they have the time.
Luckily for me, and you, dear reader, Sean Patton and Big Jay Oakerson made time.
My conversations with Patton and Oakerson each lasted close to 30 minutes and while I cut some of Patton’s answers because I needed them for another story I was writing, this Tuesday afternoon phone interview with Oakerson is presented to you in its entirety. We discussed “The Bonfire,” his satellite radio show with Dan Soder, getting bumped up to four days a week, what made roasting Rich Vos so special, how to do crowd work without having the crowd take over the show and much more.
Enjoy the interview, follow Oakerson on Twitter, go see him at the Dead Crow Comedy Room in Wilmington this weekend and don’t forget The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes at the end.
Tony Castleberry: Congrats on “The Bonfire” moving to four days a week. Was that something you and Dan pitched or did Comedy Central come to you guys asking for more shows?
Big Jay Oakerson: Before we even got the show officially, there was some talk about doing four a week, but after all the contract discussion and stipulations and things like that, what made the most sense for us was two days a week.
Then once we got in the rhythm of it and understood how it works, we both kind of agreed that we could do (four shows a week). We’d record one during the week and do three live and I was so excited that the demand of it would be so big.
Radio and podcasting are both interesting things because you’re not really sure what’s making people find it. … Because it’s on Sirius/XM, it’s kind of neat. Everyday people buy new cars and Sirius/XM comes with it. You get in the car and you see the name Comedy Central. People recognize the name and we’re the only show that isn’t (taped) comedy on the network and we picked a time, I think, that was good. This way, we’re not competing against Stern, who I still listen to every day.
TC: Me too.
BJO: I’m still a die-hard Stern fan. It’s always on in the background. It’s funny. I’ve been very careful to constantly pay my homage because I don’t want to be one of those, “Oh, another copycat radio show.” I know how Stern gets so I’ll always be like, “Howard said this morning…” I give my nods to him properly. I’m like, “Let’s never fight please because I think you’re the best that ever did it.” I’m just trying to carry the torch when he leaves.
TC: It seems to me as a fan of both of you guys that you and Dan made a pretty seamless transition into radio. Was it that? Was it pretty easy for you guys to get into it and realize that something clicked?
BJO: With Dan, what happened was, we’d see each other at comedy clubs nightly out and about in New York City. We were friends and we just had a very unique, interesting connective beat. Sometimes we’d see each other out and about and not even say any words before we started like doing voices or characters. My girlfriend kind of suggested at the time, she said, “It’s so fun to just sit and watch you guys yammer on about whatever. You should really think about doing a podcast or something.” We were like, “You know what? Yeah, let’s do it.”
Dan had some new equipment, so I went to his house and we recorded over the course of a month or two nine hours of just me and him bullshitting into the microphone. My manager said, “I’d like to hear what you guys have done. Don’t release it.” We gave him the nine hours, he made a sizzle reel out of it and sent it over the Sirius. They wound up talking to Dan first and they worked out kind of a six-show test run. … We did the six episodes together and after that, it was just business, kind of figuring it all out.
We had the luxury that some people don’t have in that I’m affiliated with the comics who are on “Opie and Anthony” and I’ve done the show a handful of times. Dan was on “Opie and Anthony” a lot, or “Opie and Jim.” I became kind of a regular person on “The Bennington Show” and I’ve just done everything I can for years to weave myself, before I even thought about doing radio, into that Stern world whether it’s being friends with Shuli (Egar) or Sal and Richard and those guys. I’ve done some of those Ronnie’s Block Party shows. What a fucking debacle. [interviewer laughs] So I was able to connect with some of those fans. I’ve always been very vocal about how important Stern is to me. We were able to kind of come in with a base of people who were like, “Let’s see what these guys do.” When I go out on the road, it’s almost heartwarming to see people yelling out things from “The Bonfire” and how much it connects to them.
TC: Crackle, crackle1 all the way, right?
BJO: Yeah, that’s so insane to me. I love it.
Ron Bennington literally saved our asses because me and Dan both have hectic schedules aside from radio. We took Ron out to lunch to kind of pick his brain and he was like, “How are you guys looking at doing it?” We were like, “We’ll come in Monday. Do it live. Come in Tuesday and do a full pre-record for Thursday, then we’ll Tuesday live and Wednesday live.” Somewhere in there, I’m trying to see my daughter. [interviewer laughs] We’ve all got a zillion things and then every weekend, we’re going away (to do stand-up).
Ron Bennington said, “Yeah, you guys are gonna burn yourselves out and you’re not gonna want to do (radio). Every week, you’re gonna wind up hating the show by Wednesday. Why don’t you guys come in half an hour early every day and just record a half hour before you go live and Thursday, you just play those three half-hour segments.” I was like, “Yep.”
Me and Dan went back to everybody kind of mad at ourselves and them, sort of like, “No one else thought of this?”
TC: [laughs] I heard Bennington describe the Rich Vos roast as the best one he’s ever seen. Did that one stand out to you as well and if so, what made it so good?
BJO: Most of these roasts are trying to get star power versus a genuine gathering of friends and I think this one was very much a gathering of friends who know each other. When you see those ones on TV, it’s like everyone’s taking a shit on Ann Coulter. No one knows Ann Coulter. [interviewer laughs] What’s Ann Coulter’s connection to Rob Lowe? Everyone there was not making fun of Rob Lowe. It’s just making fun of generalizations that we all know whereas we were able to make it a lot more personal on (the Vos roast), which made it a lot more fun. There was a lot of love involved in it. It was amazing.
I went last. I followed Colin Quinn. We just did our big comedy festival, Skankfest, for my podcast last weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. It was an amazing success. It was so fun, but it was a lot. To go into that Monday being that roast, it was…watching my girlfriend, Christine, go through the production of Skankfest, I kind of know what it’s like to put together these live events. I told Bonnie McFarlane (an outstanding comedian and Vos’ wife), “Hey, I’m sure you’re getting it from 20 angles about ‘I wanna go here in the lineup.’” I go, “Just to make it easy on you, put me wherever you wanna put me.” Nobody wanted to go last so it ended up me being last after Colin Quinn, who murdered. I was happy I was able to just kind of hold my own. Hopefully I did it a little bit different than everybody, which is the only way you can make that happen because I was, you know, the eighth comic to go on.
TC: When I heard Rich on The Bennington Show being humble and self-deprecating after the roasts, I knew that you guys must have done something special.
BJO: [laughs] Yeah, he was great. Me and him were talking at Skankfest all weekend. We were sitting there going, “I don’t think I have enough jokes.” Vos goes, “Yeah, I think I’m gonna end my career tomorrow. When I’m finished with the roast, I’m just gonna walk off stage and just keep walking out of the building.” [interviewer laughs] I kind of felt the same way, but it was great. It was an amazing night.
TC: Is there a secret to finding the balance between doing crowd work and being in danger of a crowd getting too involved in a show?
BJO: (The late) Patrice O’Neal gave me advice a long time ago about going on stage with the confidence you had when you were funny with your friends. You didn’t over-prepare for that. You weren’t like, “My friends are coming over so let me think. I’ll probably make fun of so and so’s beard and I’ll make fun of this guy’s shirt.” You know what I mean? You were just kind of confident that you’ll say the funniest shit.
It’s almost like, if you control the pace, you can control the show and by that I mean, it’s like not being thrown. If somebody in the audience says something funny, (do not get) that thing in your head of, “Oh no, they said something funny. I’ve got to say something funnier.” You don’t always have to make it funnier. If it’s that funny, I’ll repeat what the guy said in the audience. …. You’re just kind of conducting it, but keeping it at my pace. People can’t speed up the pace if you don’t let them. If I don’t get frantic, then (the people in the venue) don’t get frantic.
Most people who yell things out do that because they want to be engaged with (the comedian). What ends up happening at a lot of shows is someone yells out something from the back and me kind of stopping what I’m doing to ask what he said. How many times they don’t answer back is kind of interesting. The aggressor becomes the most meek person in the room because it didn’t go the way they thought it was gonna go. They thought they were gonna stir up some shit.
You have to fake (effective crowd work) until you can actually do it. I think at this point I actually feel it. I don’t feel any sense of nervousness on stage on the general level. Obviously if I’m doing an hour special, I have that thing of, “All right. Let’s hope this goes great.” … But on the daily, headlining on the road, stuff like that, I’m genuinely not nervous. I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years so it’s a genuine lack of nerves and more like, “I hope somebody in the crowd says something.” It’s worse when people don’t answer you and I have to revert to doing more material than I would have generally. It’s like, “I guess I’ll do more jokes. This crowd isn’t giving me anything” but there’s nothing frazzled about it anymore.
What I love about the crowd work show, “What’s Your Fucking Deal?” (on Seeso) is how many comics have been nervous to do it the first time and how many comics I love and respect that have turned it down. Being like, “I’m so bad at crowd work.” I’ve gotten a few of them to do it and they’ve done amazing. Some people just flat out refused to do it and it’s because they feel like they’re out of control. I’ve gotten a few of them to do it by telling them, “I promise you you’ve had 30-minute stretches on stage where you’re just talking to the crowd, but you went into the zone of it. … If you just embrace that that’s the world you’re jumping into, you’ll be great.” So many people who seemed more nervous have done amazing jobs at it.
It seems like an out of control situation, but it’s very controlled.
TC: Last week, Sean Patton talked about how visiting Wilmington provides a nice respite from the go-go-go of New York City. Do you like going to places like Wilmington that are a little more laid back?
BJO: I do. When I go on the road, that’s the time when I hole up anyway. I try to exercise because my days aren’t completely consumed (with work). I bring my video games still at 39 years old. I play NBA or Madden depending on the season. [interviewer laughs] When I went to Amsterdam, the only thing I looked at was the red light district. I walked through it just to see all the hookers. They were like, “You want to go to the Heineken brewery? You want to go to the Anne Frank thing or Van Gogh?” I’m like, “No.”
My Sunday night through Thursday morning is just non-stop. Four Bonfire broadcasts, two podcasts, seeing my daughter for dinner and staying sharp and doing stand-up. Also, I judge the Roast Battle at The Stand every Tuesday and it’s fun and keeps you relevant, (but) when I get to a place for the weekend, I try to wake up and exercise early. As dumb as it sounds, then I might just order lunch and play five straight games of NBA2K because I can’t do that anywhere else.
With the Dead Crow club and (owner) Timmy (Sherrill), I hope I’ve been able to be any kind of help to him because it’s a small club that’s off the map a little bit and yet I was so impressed the first time I went there. One reason, and you see this rarely, is how good he treats his local comics. The fact that he switches them up over the course of a weekend. The comics change day to day. He uses one as the host and he splits feature (acts). It’s one of the clubs where I don’t even ask to bring an opening act because I really like what he does with that.
I’ve had the conversation (with club owners), if you fuck over your local talent, you make them buy tickets to come watch the weekend show and you never give guest spots? You want these comics, when they go on to bigger and better things, to always say the name of your club. “This was the place that got me going. This was the club that really treated me good and let me work and helped facilitate me getting better at this.” A lot of local clubs don’t do that, especially the corporate ones. I bring an opener with me a lot, but I tell every club, “Hey, if you wanna put up one or two guest spots, seven minutes each before the show, please, go for it.” That was so big to me when I first started, to be able to get those moments. Some clubs are just flat out, “Yeah, we don’t do guest spots on Friday-Saturday.” I’m like, “How do you reward your local guys for getting better?” And they’re like, “That’s not our problem.”
When people leave a town like Wilmington, you want people to be like, “Oh, that club.” You want to make people want to go there, and I think Timmy gets that.
Here it is, The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes:
Pence looked left. Then right. Mother wasn't anywhere around. He smiled to himself. He would touch pic.twitter.com/3WHJ3sGkvh
— Jason Miller (@longwall26) July 7, 2017
- Crackle, crackle is the sound a fire makes, and what callers say when they phone in to Oakerson and Soder’s show. ↩