The Columbus Comedy Festival this weekend is a great chance to catch up with some of the city’s most talented standup comedians. So I had a wildly hilarious discussion with Chris Coen, Justin Golak and Laura Sanders at Wild Goose Creative where I just asked a couple questions and let the experts do their thing. The conversation is offers insight into the evolving Columbus comedy scene, how these three have grown as comedians and just a little bit of fun had by a group that considers each other friends as well as professional peers.
So what’s new in Columbus standup since last year’s Columbus Comedy Festival?
Laura Sanders: We have the “15 and Killin’ It” show [a monthly standup show where comics perform 15 minutes of new material every time] that didn’t exist a year ago. And because of that show I’ve written more in the last year than I have in a long time. I moved to this end of town, but that doesn’t really matter much.
Justin Golak: Dude, she has a half-hour on Clintonville — that’s great.
LS: Old North, Justin.
JG: I would say it’s similar, that I write more now. But the longer you do it, the easier it is to write and the easier it is to write for yourself. When you start off, you probably have the voice of someone else and then after a couple years you have your own voice, but it’s s----y. So you have the s----y voice and then around about year four or five — especially five where you realize oh, this is how I want to talk about stuff — is when it’s natural. It’s part me, part act, but the act part is based on me so it’s a lot easier to write.
Chris Coen: Yeah, I agree with you. I remember when I’d won Funniest Person in Columbus … but a year later I went back and watched the tape of my set around that time. I had to turn it off because I was embarrassed. I feel like you feel that way for the first four years — ah, I wrote this killer set, I got this great new five minutes — and six months later you watch it and think, “Jesus what the hell was I doing?” But that was your best s--- back then.
LS: You didn’t even know. “Why aren’t I on Comedy Central with this gold?”
CC: That’s every new comic. You always say, “Thank god I’m not where that guy is.” Meanwhile you look at the next person and think, “God, I wish I was where she is.” You’re always comparing yourself to other people and yourself. It’s a weird thing.
LS: I think I’m super experienced, and then I listen to a comic being interviewed who’s been doing it 20 years. That freaks me out, but is also calming because it’s like, “All right you got another 14 years to get to that level.”
CC: Right. I was going to write some new jokes, but now I’m going to get drunk for a week. I got plenty of time.
JG: I was just talking to Laura about how there are tons of these. A specific one I remember hearing was a Bill Burr interview. He didn’t get his first HBO special until going into his 10th year. That same year he did an afternoon college show in a college show in a cafeteria. That still happens. Even if you’re doing cafeteria shows in the afternoon, you might still be in for something good.
What would you like to improve with your comedy?
LS: I’ve written a lot more this year, but I wish my stuff was more polished. I’d like to have a polished feature set because I would like to travel more. I feel really satisfied the amount I preform in Columbus, but there are other places I’d like to preform, too.
CC: I think I’d like to write a wider range of jokes so I could hit more crowds. I guess you can read that as cleaner humor. I just got an email, “Hey want to do a show?” Sure. “Oh, by the way there will be kids there.” That’s sounds awful. If you want me to be completely clean, I can do maybe 15 [minutes], but it’s something I’d have to actually sit down and work at. Right now, you could wake me up out of bed and say do 15 minutes — no problem. Then you say there’s going to be five year olds there, and I’m out.
JG: I was doing a show and there were going to be 13 year-old kids there, and they asked if I can be kind of clean. I was like, yeah definitely. Then when you’re actually in front of them and they’re looking at you, it’s like, “I cannot; I don’t want to say anything.”
LS: Thirteen is tricky because they want the dirty jokes, but you’re just not supposed to give them that. I was once told to be clean at a police fundraiser. Yeah, all these cops really want some good, clean humor. They thought one priest was going to be there. And he didn’t show up.
JG: One priest will ruin a whole show.
LS: And he didn’t even show up, and he ruined the whole show.
CC: That’s how it goes. I love when a headliner says they want a clean feature. Then they go up there and won’t say the f-word, but they’ll talk about every hole in your body in relation to some sex act.
JG: Clean is the most overused, generic term in comedy booking, ever. It means literally nothing. Some people don’t want you to talk about sex. Some people are against drug stuff. You can [talk about sex] but don’t mention getting high.
LS: Yeah, you just don’t know what they mean.
JG: And sometimes swearing isn’t even a part of it. What was the original question of this?
LS: What are trying to get better at?
CC: You’ve got to work on interviews.
JG: I really think writing more because that goes along with what we were talking about before. I feel the CD I put out was about an hour of total time — the 40 minutes that we recorded and I put another 20 minute set on as bonus tracks, or whatever. That took about five years, and it’s OK. I feel now I could get another 45 to an hour in a year-and-a-half to two years. This April was a year of not using any of [the material on the CD]. I have a feature set, a half an hour that’s really good that I’ve gotten since then. Next April I should have an hour. Then I could get on that generic, every year is a new hour track.
Are there things you don’t like about standup?
CC: The thing I find annoying about it is whenever I talk to another comedian there’s always something you’re supposed to be doing. You got to tweet 72 times an hour or you’re not going to get any followers. Then you start tweeting. Then you gotta have a website, but wait a website is wasting your time — you’ve got to get in front of the bookers.
JG: Comedy is like when running into a bunch of uncles with money-making schemes. It’s like that one holiday party where he’s like, “You got to get in on toilet paper. I know a guy …”
CC: I just ordered beer Koozies to sell because my T-shirts suck.
CC: I hate selling merchandise after shows, that’s the No. 1 thing I hate.
LS: Oh yeah, merchandise is the most awkward.
CC: It reminds me of when I was 10 with that canister outside asking for money for a baseball. Oh don’t even try; you’re not going to buy anything. It’s not like I just entertained you for 40 minutes.
How often do you guys go on the road? Would you like to do it more?
CC: Everybody wants to get out on the road. But everyone’s definition of it is different. I just did a show with a guy who’s clearly not a professional at any level. I saw his act, and he’s not good. But he said he did this tour — he called it a tour. I asked who he got this tour through. He said he just got in his car, started in Chicago and then drove south. That sounds horrible — just go into a bar and tell some jokes? Where did he get the money for his magical tour? He had to pay for his own tour.
LS: [He] only lost $600 on that tour.
CC: Yeah, it was a great experience. [He] slept in [his] car three nights.
JG: I think “on the road” is like “clean” in that it’s so vague. I think Coen is the best example of comedians at our level doing it smart. If you’re going to leave your city — there’s money to be gotten here and there’s restrictions because there’s a limited base of people — you need to get opportunities or money. You can take a loss or an even if you’re getting in with someone, or it might lead to other shows. I think we’re all at the point where we’re looking at a five-, six-hour radius at the average rate. Otherwise you’re just not making money.
CC: One of the keys is getting gigs that are strung together. That’s the key to getting road work. Most of the offers you get when you’re doing paid work are what’s called one-nighters. It’s, “Hey want to go to BFE, do a show and get this amount”? You map it, figure in the price of gas and, “All right I’m going to make $27 if I take this gig and sell nothing after the show.”
LS: that’s not even including the hourly rate, spending three hours driving there and back.
CC: So if they can string stuff together you’ll take a lot more. But the other part is if you have a job, you got to take time off work. That’s why for road [work] everyone would love to do a club because you go there, sit, gas isn’t a factor.
LS: And you get a bunch of nights right in a row.
Have you considered moving to a larger city with more opportunity?
LS: As far as moving to New York, if someone decides to I totally support them. For me now, I feel like the scene here is riper. I don’t think I’m funny enough yet. There’s a lot of growing in writing and performing that can be done here. There’s more opportunity here to perform and hone that. For me now … I’m still learning from this scene so I don’t see myself moving away [soon].
JG: I think you 100 percent have to move. You definitely have to leave here, but I don’t know what the trajectory is. My plan would be to move to a second-tier city like Chicago, maybe Austin or San Francisco. A place where they have a lot of shows and clubs, and maybe you can get credits to get into a festival. If you want to leave, it’s doable. It’s just a little harder, and you have to get a little lucky and put your time in. The people who’ve done it, I wish them luck and the people I know are usually funny enough that I think they could do it.
CC: I see people who aren’t getting a lot of paid work — moving doesn’t change the fact that your act still needs work. That’s the No. 1 thing I see. There are people who move all the time and take off, but they were getting work before.
LS: Yeah, they timed their move with getting the work.
JG: I would say it’s kind of like baseball where I think a city like this will always be a single A team. Like Laura said, that’s good because you can get better. But if you’re the best, you should definitely move up to a bigger team. But just going, “I’m going to try out for the Yankees”? Well, lots of people try out for the Yankees. If you’re really good and you get lucky, maybe there are some injuries, you could maybe get in. Most likely you’re not. That’s why I think the second-tier cities are better for a move. If it’s just because you think this city is too small — if you’re s----y here, you’re going to even s----ier there. You should be the best before you move.
LS: It’s timing the move with your momentum, not just thinking [a move] will make it better.
JG: It’s like having a kid to make your marriage better. It’s just going to complicate things and cost a lot of money.
What has improved or changed about the comedy scene?
CC: I think the scene has really improved since I started in terms of shows. When I first started there were your standards like Surly Girl, the Funny Bone and Scarlet & Grey [open mics] that have been around forever. There’s starting to become a loyal following to Columbus comedy for the first time ever, a few venues where there’s a regular crowd that aren’t the same people.
JG: We’ve had a lot of people who come out multiple months to “15 and Killin’ It” shows, a sort of dedicated base. I feel like I say this every time, but I probably lied a little bit, or lied to myself. Now the scene is really worth coming and checking out. I think when I said that I might have been lying before. It wasn’t on purpose. It was like three years ago when I said my act was awesome — that kind of lie. I genuinely believed it. Now …
LS: I really believe it.
JG: Now I can prove that I’m not lying. People like us, three and about three other people, which not a lot. But I would put them in any city and they may not be the best, but they will hang — at minimum. And [one night] they might have the best set. It’s nice to be able to say come out because this is a show on par with something you will see anywhere.
CC: The biggest improvement that I’ve seen in Columbus comedy is that comedians are setting up their own shows. It used to be a comic would set up a show and it was a guaranteed to be one guy and his two buddies. Now there are more long-format shows and good comics have a chance to show what they’ve got. It’s almost harder to do a five minute set once you’ve done it for a while, than it is to do a 15 minute or 30 minute set because you’re going to set this up and go into this. I’m not a big callback guy, but you want to set a theme and a tone and get people going in one direction.
JG: I need about five minutes just to …
LS: Prove you’re not a creep?
LS: No, [you’re] like everyone’s buddy that says creepy jokes.
JG: That’s the thing about [the “15 & Killin’ It”] show, where we have to do 15 new minutes [every time]. I know the audience is going to turn on me at some point one show. And I’m going to be like, “Look all the material that makes you like me is dead. I can’t do it anymore.” I’m just going to get right into this stuff that makes you hate me. So just buckle up.
LS: At open mics I already feel that way. The jokes I get to pad with 10 minutes of “I’m a likable gal.” Instead I’m just like, “All right, yeah this is what I believe, I’m a terrible person.”
CC: The other thing about longer shows is if I have a newer joke that I think is good, I can sandwich around stuff that you know works. It’s tough when you’re doing a five minute set is that you have two great new jokes and the first one bombs. Well, I’m not doing that second piece of s--- joke if the first one didn’t work. You go back to the old reliable and you just wasted four minutes.
JG: I feel like the scene has pushed up a class of folk that are really good. And not just funny — yes, they’re funny — but also take it seriously … that professional attitude to go out and sell it to the public at large. We have that now. If you look at shows put on by people who aren’t experienced enough to put on shows — they shouldn’t be doing that much time on a show — it’s the same group of people. It’s because they’re all friends, and it’s not like we’re not, but I would book Coen even if I hated him because he’s so goddamn funny.
CC: This is probably because I’m not very likable.
JG: That’s Chris, which makes him more likable. Whenever people are too happy or I like them too much, I don’t trust it.
LS: When I started comedy and how the scene was, whenever I’d ask someone to come out to a show it was like I was asking them to do me a favor. Will you please be here for me? Now, with the level of shows, I feel like we’re producing a good product where I don’t feel guilty if someone shows up. I want them to show up because they will have a good time. Before it felt like I was asking them to go to church or something — spend an hour of your time listening to this thing you don’t want to listen to because your family is here.
CC: I almost feel like a recovering alcoholic. I need to go back five years and apologize to all the people who came to my 2008 show. I’m really sorry; those seven sexual assault jokes were too much.
JG: It was very dense in sexual assault. I think it’s nice to see the comics and the fans climb up with each other. It seems most shows that are worth going to are one the weekend, at a reasonable time and at venues that are solid in both reputation and physical set up.
LS: Like Wild Goose Creative.
JG: Exactly. It’s usually on a Friday at 8 p.m. or Saturday at 9 p.m. at a good venue. Now it’s [part of the city’s best] entertainment. Now it’s just an option. Before, if you did get a weekend show it was super early — come out to this before you do your real thing — or do it at 11 where it’s stumble to this after you have your fun times.
CC: When the Columbus Comedy Fest first started I think I did a set at three in the afternoon.
JG: That sounds about right.
LS: Yeah, and it was like 10 hours long. Not your set, but the whole show.
CC: Right, I’m not giving up this microphone. I remember it was three in the afternoon, I didn’t want to be there and there were seven people and a kid in the crowd. It was a horrible experience. Now it’s really set up well and it showcases comics.
JG: [Standup] has been included in a lot of new stuff and that’s important. We were at Agora and at Independents’ Day last year. We’re doing [Independents’ Day] again this coming year. There was the Brew Ha Ha through Shadowbox Live, which was an all comedy festival. And the Columbus Comedy Festival here was great last year. It will be a similar format this year. It worked well.
CC: And you guys get a lot of credit for [setting up new comedy events]. You’d hear about other festivals in all these other cities. No one here for three years thought, “Hey, we could do that in Columbus.” Shut up you, we’re going to Des Moines god dammit!
LS: Didn’t we even get one submission from out of town this year?
JG: We did, but it was so bad.
LS: That’s still flattering, like getting hit on by a weirdo.
JG: You got hit on by a weirdo?
LS: No, I wasn’t telling a random story, I was saying it was …
JG: Oh, you were making an analogy. I was like, someone hit on you?! That’s bizarre.
LS: Yup. By the way guys — still got it. I’m glad you can mention that in the interview.
CC: Laura gets hit on, says it’s about f---ing time and drops the mic. “I quit, this was all I wanted!”
JG: “I Developed a New Personality So people Will Tell Me I’m Pretty” should be the title for your next album, if it wasn’t too long.
LS: “I Developed a New Personality So people Will Tell Me I’m Pretty”? I think it should be, “So I Don’t Have to Be Pretty.”
JG: No, it’s definitely the first one.
LS: Fair enough.
Do you have any good stories from doing standup?
JG: Chris told me he thought about doing a show where comics get on stage and we all tell stories. I said that is the worst idea ever. You should just do a show where you tell stories for an hour and a half and I will pay $20 to see that even though I’ve probably already heard them all on road trips.
CC: Honestly, there’s a ton a stories …
LS: All right, everyone buckle in.
CC: My favorite is interacting with people after a show. To me you could almost do a whole set about it, if it wasn’t so arrogant to do comedy about doing comedy.
JG: It’s such a tough thing to explain to people who aren’t in it. When you say talking to people after the show is horrible, it sounds like you’re saying you’re better than them. No, it’s just that people don’t know what it is like to be treated like not a person, but a piece of just meat. And you go to any city and you have the same conversations with people who think that it’s the first time they’re telling you the thing they’re telling you.
LS: And we’re all just naturally bad at interacting with other human beings.
JG: Right, that person on stage who’s been talking for an hour to hundreds of people. They must be so socially confident and aware. Nah, that’s why we’re up there — it’s that we’re so socially awkward.
CC: I get all the time, “Oh you’re a comedian” and they wait for you to do something funny. It doesn’t happen like that. Yeah I’m pretty angry for a comic. I had a guy in Georgia say to me, “I swear to god, every comic I’ve ever met is the most miserable mother f---er I’ve ever seen.” That’s the best description of a comedian I’ve ever heard.
JG: I can’t remember who, but one comic said, “Doing comedy is so weird because for an hour you talk to hundreds of people and then for the rest of the time you talk to no people.” Your day is an hour of talking to hundreds of people and 23 hours of isolation — nothing.
CC: I had a lady tell me why she hated my act and then bought my T-shirt and DVD afterwards. I’ll have that conversation anytime. People always tell you every joke they’ve ever heard at a truck stop and say, “You ever heard that one? You can use that.” Thank you Milton Berle for letting me use that extremely racist joke I heard back in seventh grade. I’ll take that on the road with me.
JG: I think you should also do a one man show of jokes people have given you. Also, every person thinks that their life is wildly interesting and they usually tell you you’re going to get a lot of comedy out of it.
CC: A lady said that — “Have you talked to a pharmacist lately? They have the best stories.” I said, “Oh that sounds terrific” and grabbed my hip like my phone was buzzing and just walked outside and smoked a cigarette.
JG: I opened for an architecture awards banquet and they wanted me to do some jokes from my act, but they wanted me to do some architecture jokes too. I thought that’s fine. They said, “Well you probably know all the stereotypes about architects right”? I thought, no. They said, “Feel free to use them because we all think they’re a hoot. Don’t worry about offending us if you use stereotypes about architects.” I’d never heard one architect joke in my life.
CC: When you type “stereotypes” into Google, architects is like the 4,000th thing down the list.
JG: And they really didn’t give me any. They just told me about misconceptions. I opened with, “It’s cool that we’re honoring people in the architecture profession. I recently recorded a CD and vowed never to do any of that material again.” Then they all clapped and I said, “Which is a bummer because I had 15 minutes of T-square material that I can’t use.” I got a decent chuckle.
CC: And one of them gets up and spikes their T-Square on the ground — booo!
LS: Your next album should be called “I Got a Decent Chuckle.”
CC: I want to make one that’s called, “That’s Great. Now Buy My S---.”