Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Personal Insult



Tuesday April 22nd, 2014 – Island Lake, IL

   I’m not all that great at a lot of things in life, and that can be a downer sometimes. Everybody has individual strengths and weaknesses, and it’s human nature to gravitate toward what we are naturally good at. I have never been good at typical ‘manly things’ like building stuff or hunting and fishing. Had I been born back in pioneer days, my family and I likely would have starved. 

   One subject I know quite a bit about is standup comedy. I happen to be pretty good at not only doing it, but teaching others how to do it and/or how to improve what they already do. I’ve done it my entire adult life, and I was a fan of it before that. I’ve been teaching since 1994, and have a long list of people that have taken my class that have nothing but flattering things to say about it.

   I greatly appreciate the nice things those former students say, and many of them have grown to become personal friends. I love to be around standup comedy from a technical standpoint, as I’m constantly learning myself so I can be a better teacher. I put in a lot of time and effort to study it.

   As far as charging goes, my classes have always been an unbeatable bargain because I make it a mission to give all my students ten times whatever they happen to pay for the class at whatever venue they happen to be available. I’ve taught them at comedy clubs, colleges and in a corporate setting. I personally tailor each class to those particular students’ needs, and I work super hard.

   When I started teaching classes in 1994 there wasn’t a standup comedy class within 1000 miles of Chicago. Actually, I started teaching in Milwaukee but moved them to Chicago for Zanies not long after. The Zanies classes were a lot of fun, and we had a steady stream of students lined up.

   Other classes started popping up in time, and that’s going to happen in any business. What still infuriates me is that those ‘teachers’ have never done what they’re teaching. I’m out there in the trenches week after week slaying the dragons, and that qualifies me to be a teacher. I earned it.

   Some wannabe looks at what I do and thinks it’s a source of free money so they start their own “class” and people take it because they don’t know any better. I’ve seen them come and go, and I get more frustrated by the day because those people are stealing money from students, and telling them things that are completely wrong. It’s the equivalent of a man teaching a pregnancy course.

   I have no problem if another competent comedian teaches a class, and in fact I’d recommend it if I knew the person. Bill Gorgo is a perfect example, and he’s terrific. Our teaching styles are as polarly opposite as our acts, but that’s ok. Both of us have the same goals and that’s teaching our students the craft of standup comedy. Bill and I teach together often, and it’s good for everyone.

   Lately I’ve been getting some former students asking me if they should take one of the classes available. What am I supposed to say? “Sure, give your money to someone that hasn’t done what they’re teaching while I’m busting my hump to stay afloat with gas at $4 a gallon.” It’s an insult, and I can’t believe how many people don’t get that. What, am I holding out some magic secret of success I’m not telling you but some other genius will? I just don’t get how some people think. 

Would you pay top dollar to take a course on pregnancy taught by a man? If so, you deserve what you get.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My Magnificent Mentor


Monday April 21st, 2014 – Island Lake, IL

   I can’t let this time of year pass without paying true heartfelt tribute to my number one comedy mentor C. Cardell Willis. I’ve had influences and partial mentors along the way, but Cardell was “the man” right from day one. He was a father figure on stage and off, and I’ll love him forever.

   For whatever reason, he used to celebrate his birthday on August 3rd. For years, I thought that’s when it was. I’m usually pretty good at remembering people’s birthdays – at least getting it close enough to be respectable. If I don’t hit it the exact day, I’ll usually get it at least within a couple.

   This has been a lifetime thing, WAY before Facebook made it so easy for us all. It has always been important to me to acknowledge someone’s birthday whenever I can and at least give them the respect of letting them know I remembered. Birthdays are one’s personal holiday, and I find nothing at all wrong with celebrating one’s existence despite what the Jehovah’s Witnesses say.

   My mother apparently joined them shortly after she abandoned our family when I was a baby, and that was the excuse she used the few times I’ve seen her for not sending any birthday cards to any of her three children or even acknowledging our existence. I can’t begin to put into words how painful it is to be ignored by one’s own mother in life, so birthdays are a soft spot with me.

   Cardell is far ahead of both my natural parents on my memory list. He did much more good for me than both of them ever did, so I felt a need to honor him out of respect. It wasn’t until the end of his life I found out his real birthday was April 20th. That’s also Hitler’s birthday, so maybe he was embarrassed or something. It doesn’t matter to me what the day is, as long as I pay respect.

   In the entertainment business, it’s a common mistake to assume that if someone is famous they are the best at what they do and a good person, but nothing could be further from the truth. Some famous people are all that, but others are flat out scoundrels. Fame and measure of character are not and never have been intermingled. Some total pukes make it through for reasons unknown.

   Cardell was never famous – and unbelievably few ever are - but he was absolutely loaded with character. Not only did he make time to mentor a city full of wayward comedians, he also helped inner city kids as a scoutmaster for Boy Scouts for years. I’m sure there are adults now that recall him with the same deep fondness and respect for the kindness he showed them years ago as I do.

   What is often the saddest turn of events is that we never get to pay back those that did the most good for us. He always told us to “pay it forward” - and that’s what I have tried to do for as long as I’ve been a full time comedian. There have been literally hundreds of meals bought for young comedians through the years that were a direct result of Cardell’s mentoring. He lives on in me.

   Mentorship is a skill by itself, and too often those that are best at it don’t get recognized for the effort it takes. It’s not just a one day thing and that’s it. It’s a constant process over a time period that can range from years to decades to a lifetime. Cardell was with me for decades at a time that I really needed his help. Not only is he still with me, through me his wisdom has been passed on.

   It rarely takes much at the time, and there frequently isn’t much fanfare. It’s often just a matter of knowing what to say and when to say it. My grandfather was a terrific mentor also, and he and Cardell shared similar traits. Both knew precisely when and how to say what needed to be said.

   The first big deal I can remember as a comedian – which sounds so laughable now – was when I was going to host a show for the first time. I had only been around a short time and was greener than a bag of $20 bills. Why any idiot would trust me to host a comedy show then is beyond me.

   Some idiot did, and I was both thrilled and scared to death at the same time. I had no idea what to do, but Cardell sat me down and give me several much needed pointers. He told me what I had to know, and walked me through it in a few minutes. He said he knew I could handle it, and even if that was a fib it was exactly what I needed to hear at that time. His kind words were medicine.

   Time and time again he’d cheer me as I climbed steps up the comedy ladder. They seem so tiny now, but back then it felt like I was climbing Mt. Everest each time. Having a friendly face in my corner through those intimidating steps was SO inspiring, and the face I saw continually was his. 

   What felt even better was hearing second and third hand from others how he thought out of the local comics in Milwaukee at the time I was the one he thought would go the farthest. “That boy is GOING someplace, you watch!” he’d say. “I hope he takes me with him. I might need a job.”

   I heard this back from numerous sources through the years - and he eventually told me himself. He said I had the natural gift and the drive it took to get out and take my swings on a bigger field than Milwaukee. Comedy clubs were just starting to explode then, and he was adamant about me getting out and taking my shot. “You’ll never get anywhere staying here. Move on.” And I did.

   Milwaukee was my home town and I wanted to prove to some people – mainly my father – that I wasn’t the loser he always told me I would be. Cardell could see that was the raw source of my pain, and tried to get me to focus on building a career. I was an angry kid, and needed guidance.

   It’s the classic tale of the old bull and young bull, and looking back he said all the right stuff at all the right times and I love him dearly for it. It didn’t always hit me at the time, but I needed to hear exactly what he said. Youth always thinks it knows better, but wisdom only comes with age.

   Probably the sweetest of so many sweet memories was Cardell and his manager Shirley Schaak taking me out for dinner before I went on my first road trip. They were proud of me, and both of them beamed through our meal. Cardell gave me time tested tips on road survival, and at the end of the night they gave me a card with $25 in it “for a flat tire”. I’m weeping in thanks even now.

   Kindness like that endures forever – especially for a dented can like me that wasn’t used to that from anybody. Cardell and Shirley were my comedy parents, and I love and appreciate them now more than ever. I never took them for granted, but in hindsight all those good things they did not only for me but for all the comedians in Milwaukee shine even brighter. I try to pass on the love they passed to me, but I always fall so far short. Thank you Cardell! Shirley too! I love you both.

My magnificent mentor in comedy C. Cardell Willis. A kinder soul and more competent mentor has never lived. I owe this man SO much.

Just because someone isn't famous doesn't mean they don't have talent. Cardell's reach went WAY past entertainment. He touched the lives of many, and I want to keep his memory alive. What a fantastic human being.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Flea Flicking



Sunday April 20th, 2014 – Wilmot, WI/Caledonia, WI

   I was up early this morning, but not to look for Easter eggs. The weather was perfect and this is the unofficial start of flea market season. The one I went through yesterday was a small one close to where I live. It was indoors and not that great. Today I ventured farther north to Wisconsin for a run through an outdoor one in Wilmot and then north to Milwaukee for an indoor/outdoor mix.

   I have to say, I was sadly disappointed with both but I did learn a lot. I shut my mouth and tried to observe as much as I could on every level. I watched the sellers and the buyers to see how the interaction took place, and I also made a point to see everything that was for sale and how it was presented. Most of it was displayed poorly, and that alone was an important lesson immediately. 

   I showed up dressed in a pair of jeans and a short sleeve button down shirt with a pocket full of ‘I (heart) Uranus’ book marks to give to anyone who may have noticed my ‘King of Uranus’ ball cap. I’ve worn one in public before, and throughout the day a few people usually laugh and make a comment like “Hey, I love your hat!” I figured this would be a good place to practice my pitch.

   Sure enough, I wasn’t in the place more than thirty seconds and one of the vendors laughed out loud and pointed it out to everyone around her. I smiled and gave her a book mark, and I saw her face light up as if she’d just won the lottery. She made a big deal of it, I could tell she meant it.

   That made me feel like my day wasn’t wasted, and I kept on walking. It happened a few times more, but not more than ten. Still, I’ll count that as a big win and I’m glad I was prepared with a giveaway item. I don’t have a website up yet, but I did tell everyone about my @UranusTweets Twitter account which is also printed on the book mark. It was a great way to spread the word.

   Other than that, I just wanted to see who the winners were that looked like they were actually making a buck. There was a Middle Eastern guy with a turban that had a big display of colognes and perfumes. He looked like a pro, and had a tent set up with sturdy tables holding all his wares.

   There was also some family selling produce, and I’d seen them last year. They looked like they were moving some merchandise also. Unfortunately, I don’t want to push produce or perfume if I have anything to say about it. I want to develop a display of Uranus items to sell in character.

   It would obviously have to be the right flea market in the right area, but I could see myself with a professional looking display of merchandise doing a well presented slick and funny pitch every half hour to an hour as a crowd gathered. Adding showmanship to the mix would blow the doors off of anyone I saw today. Most of those I saw were desperate looking sorts hawking pure junk. 

   A few people had some interesting setups, and there were some specialty booths that I thought were well presented as a whole. Other than that, it was a bunch of toothless mooks wasting their time with a mish mash of mostly garbage I couldn’t see anyone paying for. Maybe they do a lot better than I think, but if they do they sure don’t spend their profits on clothing, soap or a dental plan. None of them would be my competitors in the least. I don’t want to do what they’re doing.

   I want to SELL, but be entertaining doing it. I didn’t see much entertainment going on at all in Wilmot, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth my trip. I also saw how poorly most booth people treated potential customers, and that blew my mind. Didn’t anybody want to make any money?

   One guy had some old slot car racing sets from the ‘70s. I used to love those when I was a kid, and he had some still in the original box. The box was a bit tattered, but it was the original. I was patient far longer than I should have been, but I wanted to find out what he was asking for them.

  I had no intention of buying, but I wanted to strike up a conversation and see how much he was able to tell me about what he had. For all he knew, I could have just won the lottery and wanted a price on everything he had. Instead, he kept on blabbing with some other goof, and he never even acknowledged my presence. I hate to say it, but no wonder he’s making a living at a flea market.

   Maybe he’s not making a living at all. I should talk, as I’m looking into setting up myself. I am not going to be one of the people I saw today though. If I do it, it’s going to be a SHOW, and it’s going to turn some heads. None of what I saw go on today would happen in what I was doing.

   Milwaukee was a lot different than Wilmot. Seven Mile Fair is the largest flea market in all of Wisconsin, or at least that’s what their advertising says. I have been going there most of my life, but it’s really changed over the years. It’s a lot slicker now, and there isn’t as much older stuff.

   One thing that really turned me off was a $2 admission charge. Wilmot was $1, as are most of the admissions I’ve ever seen. $2 is a potential deal breaker, and it will be for me because I don’t see myself going back there any time soon. It just wasn’t the place that would fit what I’m doing.

   For one thing, very few of either the vendors or shoppers spoke English. That’s fine, but it isn’t the audience that would buy what I would be selling. I’d sell funny Uranus t-shirts at first, along with anything else I could think of that was related. How could I make a sales pitch if they didn’t know what I was talking about? That would be a major problem, but again I just went to observe.

   I did see the typical guy selling kitchen knives and wearing the headset microphone, but he was between presentations so I couldn’t see him work. He had a pleasing display, and was elevated to make sure he could be seen by a larger crowd. Eventually, I could see myself doing exactly that.

   I’m not kidding myself though. Putting together a presentation like that would cost BIG money to get started. I’d need display tables, banners to say who I am, a supply of merchandise ready to be sold, and probably a sound system of some sort eventually. I am not looking to put on the suit and stand in the sun to sell the typical flea market fare. I would want to take it a whole lot higher. 

   If nothing else, I can’t believe any other comedian is thinking of this. If they are, I doubt if they could pull it off. I think I’ve got it all to myself, but in the right scenario I could see merchandise selling like crazy. Maybe it wouldn’t be a flea market but rather an art fair or something like that. I’m going to keep tweaking this idea, and come up with a line of products to test out sooner than later somewhere. It won’t be where I went today, but it wasn’t a waste. I learned by showing up.

 
I went to some flea markets today to observe what and how to market myself better. www.7milefair.com.

Would you purchase a bauble, trinket or doodad from this man?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Exploring Marketing Options



Saturday April 19th, 2014 – McHenry, IL/Volo, IL

   Improving my marketing skills from the ground up is my mission not only this year but every other  year that I am lucky enough to experience from here on out. It’s something all businesses need to succeed, but especially entertainers. We are our own product, and marketing is a must.

   I have been lucky enough to have squeaked by for decades, mostly because I was in the correct place at an opportune time. I rode the wave of the comedy club boom of the 1980s, and was able to make enough to at least survive from late 1985 on. Some years were better than others, but my primary source of income other than a few scattered years doing radio has always been comedy.

   That’s good and bad, but most people can’t see the bad. “You make your LIVING standing on a stage telling JOKES. How bad can life be?” Well, in a lot of ways that’s true. I always enjoyed the performing part of it, and I was never motivated by money. If I could squeak by, that was ok.

   As it turns out, I could have more than squeaked by and it was my fault for not doing it. By all accounts, I should have had at least one recording a full ten years before I did. I actually thought about it, but nobody else I knew had one and I thought it may appear egotistical. What a dummy. Ego shmego. It would have been some financial security I could have used to further my career.

   It probably would have been a cassette, but the form doesn’t matter. Maybe it would have been a vinyl record album. Or both. The point is, I would have been able to sell them every week and even at low numbers I could have hauled in a nice chunk of change over a ten year time window.

   I was averaging at least 45 weeks of work then, and quite a few years I worked 50-52. It wasn’t always the best work in the best clubs, but say I could have averaged ten units a week sold over a ten year period. That’s 450-500 units per year at what likely would have been a $10 retail price.

   On the conservative side, say that’s $45,000 over ten years minus say $2 per unit to make. That still leaves me $36,000 had I not touched any of that money – and knowing me I would not have. I’d have saved it for some kind of stunt nobody else would have done. It may have been a flop of epic stature, but that’s me as well. I’ve never been afraid to go all in. I have tasted defeat often.

   What if I had spent that $36,000 on TV commercials somewhere or a full page ad in one of the trade papers? When was the last time you saw a comedian or performer of any kind spend money on self promotion? It just doesn’t happen – at least not without management or a recording deal. 

   There are obviously taxes in there too, and I realize that. I would report every last penny, as it’s just not worth trying to screw the government. I’d rather have a clear conscience and just pay my fair share. Whatever was left would have still been a nice bit of cash to use on some promo stunt.

   I wasn’t forced to think that way then, as work was plentiful and nobody was selling anything other than their comedy act. We were ‘artistes’, and that’s great on paper but most of us are now certified vagrant caliber broke and wish we would have had our marketing chops on the way up. 

   Too late now, but it’s not too late to change. One thing I have that the newbies don’t is a whole lot of experience in front of audiences coast to coast, and a backlog of polished material that I am able to use whenever I need it. That’s part of what paying dues is about, and I’ve put in my time.

   Now I’m looking to sell what I’ve been able to create, but in other ways than just saying it on a stage somewhere. What else can I do to get paid? I suppose I could write columns, and I’ve been doing that for the past few months in a publication called “Scene Magazine” in Fond du Lac, WI. My friend Silk Casper asked me to do it, and he’s been making sure I get a check every month.

   It’s not huge, but it’s been steady and I guess I can say I’m a published author. I think. I’m not anywhere close to being a professional, but it’s a solid start and I am grateful for the opportunity. Branching out and creating a new stream of income for being funny comes in very handy now.

   But I know there’s more – a LOT more. There’s both a flea market and an antique mall within an easy drive from where I live, and I took a lap in both today just to check out that scene. I have been going to thrift stores, flea markets and rummage sales for decades, but now I’m seeing them all with fresh eyes. I used to go there looking to score treasures. Now I’m looking to be a seller.

   The marketing skills of the sellers at flea markets and antique malls are all over the place. Most are very poor from my experience, and have little to no people skills. Just a friendly hello when I walk past their display should be the bare minimum, but I’d guess maybe 10% or less will do it.

   I went today just to observe, and I learned a lot. I went to the flea market first, and looked at all the displays to see which ones I liked and which ones I didn’t. Most of the stuff was thrown in an unorganized pile, and was difficult to look at. It took work to sort through all of the clutter to see if there was anything I’d want to buy. They made it hard for people to spend money. Not smart.

   Even little things like business cards were missing. What if I was looking to sell something one of the dealers specialized in? Maybe I had a relative pass away that was a big collector, and I was looking for someone to help me appraise the collection. Whatever the case, 99% of these mutants didn’t even say hello and maybe strike up a conversation that could have led to a business deal.

   One guy there had some old toys, and his display was a bit sloppy but still interesting. He had a pair of old Schlitz salt and pepper shakers that I bought for $10 and an old pair of Schlitz patches from the ‘60s or ‘70s that their drivers used to wear. I can use all of that for “Schlitz Happened!” 

   The antique mall was a little better, but not much. Most of the vendors that were there were not very talkative, and I found that appalling. They didn’t have to pester me like the stereotype of an old time used car salesman, but a friendly smile and a hello would have been nice. I didn’t get it.

   I ended up buying a collection of 50 old ‘Fate’ magazines from the ‘50s through the ‘70s for $1 each, and that was a steal. They’re a great read, packed with tales of UFOs and the paranormal of all kinds. I’ll scour them for King of Uranus ideas, and keep exercising my marketing muscles to use in the future. I want to go out past Uranus, and find ways to make money when I’m sleeping.

I found some old Schlitz salt and pepper shakers at a flea market today. I can use them for 'Schlitz Happened! An Old Milwaukee Blatz From The Pabst'. www.schlitzhappened.com.

I also found a pair of cloth patches Schlitz drivers used to wear in the '60s. Hadn't seen them before.

At an antique mall, I found some old FATE magazines from the '50s through early '70s. The cover art alone was worth the $1 each I paid for them all. Still, I eventually look to be a seller at places like this.