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Monday, June 1, 2009

The Buck stops at the Tonight Show

After 17 years, the Jay Leno era has ended. At least as far as the Tonight Show is concerned. He'll be back in the fall with a new nightly primetime series.

I was a huge fan of Leno back when he was a standup and appearing monthly on David Letterman's old Late Night series. It's hard to believe all these years later, but those appearances were must-see TV. Any serious fan of comedy wouldn't miss them.

What happened? I think not only did he alter his style somewhat for the venerable chat show, but the style, either way, didn't mesh with the show. Too grating, perhaps. Too whiny. I wasn't a fan.

So now it's Conan O'Brien's turn. His tenure begins tonight. Can't say I'm a big fan of his, either. His recorded comedy segments where he goes in the field are unbelievably great, I'll grant you. But I just can't take his mugging and constant interruptions. Still, I'll give him a shot. Hell, I keep giving Jimmy Fallon a shot and Conan is about a million times better than Fallon.

Anyway, I noticed with great interest that Conan's new stand-up comedy booker for the Tonight Show will be J.P. Buck. Buck has a bit of a local angle. He helped out Will Davis a couple years at the Vancouver comedy festival.

I interviewed Buck for a story I wrote in Vancouver magazine back in 2005. You can read the whole thing here. But as always there were tons of quotes I simply couldn't squeeze in so I dug 'em up for the blog. Here's the new Tonight Show comedy booker talking about, among other things, the level of talent here in Vancouver. But first, he gives us his resumé:
“I’m a freelance producer. I started out working for various networks in Los Angeles. I did a show for Fox. It was called 30 Seconds to Fame, which was a variety show. It didn’t last too long. It was kinda like a Gong Show. But I’ve always had a love for comedy. It’s been what I’ve always wanted to do. I saw Bill Cosby at the age of 11. I saw him live at Radio City Music Hall. I even heckled him at one point. And he actually responded to me, but I soon realized what I had done. I just slumped under my chair. But I’ve always loved comedy. That gave me my first foray into actually going out and scouting. And after that my next job was booking talent for Star Search. The Arsenio one, which was on CBS. And then I did two years of syndicated programs, two of which were for the Showtime at the Apollo people. And after that I moved over to the US Comedy Arts Festival, which is run by HBO, and went over there to run their talent department... geared towards finding the best up-and-coming and also current comedians and sketch troupes and theatre shows.”

“In every one of these jobs I’ve been travelling around the country and going to one-horse towns and see their best comedians. I would have open calls, I’d set up showcases. So over my travels I’ve seen probably about 8000 comedians.”

“I’m looking for comedic ability. My job is not to close the door to somebody because of the way they look. That comes further down the line in terms of the networks. I’m looking for the next comic genius. That’s what I’m expected to do. Further down the road they can become writers, they can become stars on sitcoms. I think that if you’ve got enough personality, it certainly gets you over the hump. There are plenty of leading men out there on TV nowadays that aren’t that good-looking. I think men get away with it moreso than women.”
Now the part about the relative quality of Vancouver comics in the greater North American market:
“I was scouting for the US Comedy Arts Festival. I’d chosen my cities originally. The cities I wanted to go to and the cities where I knew had the best comics. We were based in New York. We were going to New York, LA, Chicago, San Fransisco, Seattle, Austin Texas, and Atlanta and Toronto. Those are the cities that we had mapped out that we were going to go see. So in my discussions with my various scouts around the country, I got referred to Will Davis and got in a conversation with him. And he said, ‘I would love to show you my guys up here.’ And I said, ‘Well, great. I’d love to have you come down to Seattle and see the guys there.’ And so he came down to Seattle and then picked me up and we drove back up to Vancouver, and he put up three shows for me of, like, 36 guys, maybe. And I was really, really impressed with the depth of talent there and just the variety of performers, of material, and how original a lot of the comics were. Because usually whenever I go to a city, I’ll maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll find two or three out of thirty that I’m impressed with. And when I came back from Vancouver, I probably had on my list at least eleven guys that I had no fear of recommending for the festival. And actually two of them got in, which is still a great rate.”

“We were lucky to get one out of every city that we went to. So two out of Vancouver was great.”
I asked Buck if Vancouver was an untapped market:
“Absolutely. Ever since I’ve been there I’ve just been singing its praises to everybody down here. I’m just telling everyone how amazing the talent is up there and how much people are missing out on. I think there’s maybe been a bias. I don’t know enough about Canadian culture enough to say that there’s an east coast bias. But I think Toronto, Montreal, those cities are getting so overworked. But I think the years that Vancouver’s been neglected by the rest of the country I think has been beneficial because it’s created this community of comics that... It fosters an environment where they can write their own material, think differently, work on their sets and their skills, and become much better comics for it, and not get overexposed too soon.”
He even offers an assessment of us, the Vancouver audience, and how we've helped the comics without even knowing it:
“Another great thing about Vancouver is that Vancouver has possibly one of the most discerning, and also toughest crowds, I’ve ever seen. You’ve got these amazing comics on stage... And it’s funny, if you see these comics in other cities, I think you’d get audiences that are flocking to them. But the toughness of winning the crowds over makes the comics work even that much harder here.”
I suggested, maybe ignorantly in hindsight, that Vancouver's scene was better than Seattle's just because we're just one of three major markets in the country, while the U.S. has so many:
“I agree [Vancouver’s better than Seattle]... Boston used to be a mecca for comedy. San Francisco was that as well. But I think both of those cities had their moments and now they kind of need to recharge. And at that moment while they’re down, Vancouver’s the one that’s come up. I don’t want to forecast anything that’s horrible but I think what you’ll see is you’ll see all these Vancouver comedians that come up, become big and move on, and then there’ll maybe be like a little bit of a lull of years before the next wave comes. But I definitely think right now that there’s such a wealth of comics. The audiences are almost spoiled.”

“The only style I can maybe put it under is unapologetic. That’s the beauty of the comics that were out there -- they weren’t all of the same mould. I think maybe when you go to some of these other cities like Boston or San Francisco or LA or New York, there are comics that are so successful that they kind of almost unfortunately influence all the other ones. But I think everybody in Vancouver is working so hard they’ve had time to kind of form their own styles.”
Buck ended up taking both Simon King and Dave Nystrom to the HBO Festival in Aspen:
“That was kinda why we took both of them because there was a little bit of something for everybody that came to our festival. Like, here’s a sample of one guy from Vancouver; here’s another style from Vancouver.”

“That’s something that we’re really trying to make sure we have. What we’re doing is having one group of shows called Rising Stars, which is the guys we’re thinking that over the next few years will do really well. Right now we’re looking at different groups, and in each one of those groups, we want to have one Vancouver guy. There are plenty of comics that deserve to be on it. We want to find a way to kinda get them in to almost every type of show that we have. We have these TV sets that we’re doing where guys will do five minutes of TV-clean material for the industry people that are coming in. We’ll also try to get them to host other shows so whenever people from LA and out of town are driven to see these big names, they’re also getting a taste of what Vancouver is. We want to make sure that the Vancouver comedians are sprinkled throughout the festival.”

“What helps to draw people up there are some of the American names. We’re trying to say to the LA and New York executives and industry and agents and managers, ‘Come on up here and see Leno perform on this show, see Jake Johannsen perform here, Jim Gaffigan. And Zach Galifianakis is a huge Vancouver name that will attract attention. But on top of that, while you’re there we’re hoping that we can kind of influence them with all the great Vancouver comics and say, ‘Hey, this is actually a comedy Mecca and you should come here a lot more often.’”
Interesting that at the time Buck thought Galifianakis was a Vancouverite. Maybe that informed his opinion of the scene. Zach was filming up here and playing all the local rooms.
“Believe me, you can say that about comics in just about any city outside of New York, LA, Toronto and Montreal. Because none of those comics understand what goes into getting a deal or getting on a show or getting in a film or being able to perform standup on Comedy Now or any of those shows. It comes with experiencing, unfortunately, rejection or having someone from the industry tell you what the industry’s looking for. Because a lot of times it doesn’t always go to the funniest person, unfortunately.”

“It certainly helps to be in LA of all the US cities. But you don’t want to come here too early. You want to be able to come here so that people can see you and they know who you are, but at the same time if you come here too soon, if they see you too early, and you don’t do well, they’re going to write you off and never want to see you again. That’s the unfortunate thing. A lot of guys in the States make the mistake of ‘Okay, I’m the biggest fish in this pond so it’s my turn to go to LA’. And they go to LA maybe after performing stand-up for two years, which is the wrong thing to do. You almost want it to come to the point where you’ve got an agent or manager calling you to come to LA: ‘We need you here because I’ve got stuff that I want you to do.’”

“Vancouver’s such a perfect city for us to hold this festival. You want to get the people coming from LA and there’s no sense in flying all the way to Montreal when you can just go to Vancouver and see these comics.”

“I definitely see it becoming a major player, absolutely. And I think the timing is perfect because I think there’s been a lull over the past few years. Unfortunately it’s hard to sustain a festival for so long. I think people maybe are looking for something different. I definitely think it can become one of the top international festivals. We’ve definitely booked some great international acts this year. So I’m excited about that, too.”
And some advice for all comics:
“The worst thing a comic can do for himself when he’s peforming in front of a bunch of people from the industry is to actually comment on how bad the crowd is. You’ve probably seen it a lot where comics will be like, ‘Wow, you guys aren’t getting this stuff.’ If they could just plow through. It’s a lot easier said than done, but if they can make it through that often can speak volumes about them.”
So will this lofty impression of the city's talent translate to a Tonight Show appearance for one (or some) of them? It should, but we'll have to wait and see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'll never forget the time I saw Leno perform on Letterman years and years ago. It blew me away, he was going berzerk over something to do with anthrax clowns in a 7-11 and it was hilarious! Of course he can't get away with that when he's hosting a network show, but it was controversy over Leno blacklisting guests on Dennis Miller's show that made me give up on the guy. Who knows, if Dennis hadn't had his show cancelled after that maybe he wouldn't have turned into a right wing freakazoid.