Joel Fragomeni is a familiar face to anybody who’s seen a show at the legendary Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Royal Oak. He spends a lot of time ensuring that the shows there run smoothly. He also teaches the club’s Advanced Comedy Class, and is credited with being the first comedian in the country to launch a podcast. I asked him a few questions…
1. How do you describe your comedy?
It’s mostly self-effacing material about my sex life. It’s short, quick jokes — no pun intended. Lots of punch lines and they come fast — again, no pun.
2. How did you get started in comedy?
In late 1999, I was in college studying filmmaking mostly short comedy pieces. I knew that Woody Allen had gotten his start as a filmmaker by making a name in stand-up. I always considered it, but it wasn’t until I heard the late, great, Robert Schimmel’s comedy CDs that I thought I had found a modern comic who really spoke to my sensibilities. So I started writing some jokes in his style without knowing when I’d ever have a chance to perform them. Around the same time, I read an article in the Detroit News about the open mic comedy scene in Detroit. The article was about housewives and young office workers who were hanging out a place called Club Bart in Ferndale on Thursdays. I took my jokes down there and just watched the show from the back. There were some funny guys on that show and some not-so-funny people, too. I figured I couldn’t do worse than some of them, so I asked for a spot on the next show.
I went up the following Thursday and bombed pretty bad. I spilled a pint of beer all over the stage and the bartender made me clean it up with a rag — right in the middle of my set! Most people would have quit right there, but the only thing that saved me was my last bit. It got a decent laugh, so I was encouraged by that. I wrote a bunch of new jokes and saved that first show’s closer, which became my opener, and went back the following week. That show and the following shows were much better. After a half-dozen Bart’s shows, I got on the Comedy Castle open mic and did well enough to become a regular there. I’d say the “the rest is history” but nobody’s really cared — until you, Seth!
3. You are the first comedian to host a podcast. How has podcasting affected your stand-up comedy career?
The show is called Joel Radio and you can find it at www.joelradio.net as well as iTunes and Google Play. It’s a free-form conversational show with myself and another comedian, Corey Hall, who I met on that very first open mic show. The show can be whatever I want it to be. We discuss comedy, pop culture, politics, movies, whatever. We’ve done live shows from various venues, interviewed celebrities; we’ve hosted a Fantasy Football league and a Death Pool. We were roasted by the Detroit comedy community at the Comedy Castle one night, and every year we do annual list of the worst people of the year called “The Assholes of the Year” awards. That’s a fun show to do.
As for how much the podcast has helped my comedy career? I really don’t know. I’ve definitely said some funny stuff on the podcast that has made it into my stage act — so that’s a help. And there are fans of the podcast that will come to a live performance, but I think both things are very hard to find an audience with if you’re an unknown. I think television is still the best way to get exposure if you’re a comic. There are comedians with way more successful podcasts than mine, but they all had lots of television exposure before hand. Guys like Marc Maron, Gilbert Gottfried, Adam Carolla, and Joe Rogan come to mind here. Still, I think my show is quite funny, it’s not for everybody, but if you try it, you just might like it.
4. You book the Wednesday open mic night at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle. Tell us how you do that.
Comedians call the club on Wednesdays between 10am and 6pm to get on the following week’s open mic. We can only take thirteen comics a week, and usually at least 60 have called in, so it can be tough. We try to rotate the comics in and out, so if you’ve just done the show you may not get back on right away. People think that they were passed over because we don’t think they’re funny or something, but that’s really not the case. It’s a numbers game. We don’t choose the thirteen acts whom we think are the “best.” We like to use a mixture of veterans and brand new comics to the club. Mr. Ridley like to see fresh acts every week — at least some of them.
The biggest mistake people make is not calling at all. If you are available to do the show, please call. We really don’t care if you bomb up there. We know that’s part of the business. We’re just looking for people who try hard on stage and get their set done in six minutes.
5. What’s the key to running a successful open mic?
You have to be a very good emcee to make the show successful. That’s the key. If the emcee is keeping the sets tight, and is presenting the show well, people will stick around — even if the comics aren’t great. I ended up running that Club Bart open mic that I debuted at for over 10 years, and I learned that new comics are the lifeblood of any open mic. Most open mics should just be show up and go up (I wish the Comedy Castle’s open mic could be this way, but the sheer number of comics and the overhead of the club prevents it). The guy at the office who thinks he’s funny will bring a dozen of his friends to the open mic to watch him eat shit. If you’re hosting, just put those kind of guys at the end of the show. Let Bob from Accounting and all his friends eat and drink for two hours while the good, young comics are making people laugh. The owner of the venue will appreciate the business, and what’s the worst that could happen? So what if Bob sucks and people leave? Who cares? The show was pretty much over anyway. All the good comics already went on. Just tell Bob “come back next week,” and if he does, just give him another short set at the end. Either Bob will get good or he’ll quit. That’s how these things work.
The biggest mistake I see with open mics is guys want to turn open mics into some sort of showcase show where everybody’s “good” and there’s no room for acts just starting out. When I talk to audiences, what they really enjoy seeing at the open mic is diversity — not just in gender or race, but they want to see some funny acts and they want to see some people bomb. The bombs are usually more memorable, believe it or not. Not to mention that it’s hard to have “good” comics on a show without someone bombing to make those guys look good. A line-up of fifteen “killer” open mic-ers is pretty boring to most people. And, as I said before, it’s the new acts that bring their friends to the show. Ultimately, the venue cares much more about their bottom line that the fact that “Johnny Open Mic” got to do his killer twenty minute bit about Snapchat to an empty room at 1:30 AM. I love guys with the fortitude to hit up five open mics a week, but those guys aren’t bringing anyone to the show. A good mix of veterans and noobs will usually keep the show stronger than a killer, pre-booked line-up will over time.
Let the weirdos and the puppet acts on the show. The drunken magicians and unfunny housewives, put them on too. Yeah, it’s a pain to deal with them as a host, but it’s your job to make it a good show. You’re getting paid for this, right? A good host can make any line-up entertaining by doing a decent opening set, keeping the acts tight on time and not doing time in between acts.
That’s a big one — don’t do material between acts. If it’s a joke about the last act, or a funny intro for the next guy that’s okay, but audiences bore quickly of an emcee who’s doing jokes in-between the other comics. It makes the show feel so much longer. You had your opening set to show off your great material. So you didn’t get to perform when the audience was hot? Too bad. Take your money for hosting the show and come back next week. I know a lot of emcees would prefer to wait until after the seventh comedian to tell the audience about how Planet Fitness has pizza night, but people don’t care about you at that point. Your job is too keep it moving. No matter how good the show is, people ultimately just want to go home. Since most open mics are during the week, if the emcee can keep it moving, the audience will love you much more for getting them an extra half-hour of sleep than they will for you telling them that Donald Trump’s hair looks like cotton candy.
6. You also teach the Advanced Comedy Class at the Comedy Castle. Tell us about that.
The Advanced Comedy class is for comics with some experience who want to do stand up comedy in a professional environment. Each week has a theme around a different aspect of the business, like writing, performance, networking and marketing, booking and running your own comedy show, being a good emcee, etc. I talk about those things with notes prepared by myself and Mr. Ridley, and answer any questions that the students have. The last 90 minutes of the class is a workshop for the students’ comedy sets where they can practice their acts on stage and try to incorporate the lessons learned in the class lectures. Everybody is welcome to give their feedback. It’s a very helpful process to make your act better, and a very valuable part of the class.
We also arrange for the students to perform at open mics both at the Comedy Castle and other places, so I can see them in front of an audience. That’s very helpful for me to see how audiences – no matter how small – react to the jokes. I have good instincts after being in comedy for seventeen years, but I’m not 100% right about what will work and what won’t. If the audience is laughing, that’s the best test.
Basically, the Advanced Class is for anyone who wants to be a working comedian. There’s a beginner class at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle for people who want to try something fun, or knock stand-up comedy off their bucket list, but if you have an act and want to take a run at making some money doing this, then the Advanced Comedy Class is for you.
I’ve been very proud to watch many of my students get weekend bookings at the Comedy Castle. I can’t promise you anything if you take it, but for most people, it has made them a better comedian. If anything, knowing how stand-up comedy works both on and off the stage is the best possible education you can have when you’re trying to be successful at it.
7. What’s the biggest mistake that you see new comedians make off-stage?
Don’t write for the comics. Maybe that’s a little more of an on-stage tip, but trying to make the other comics laugh at the expense of any actual patrons at the show is always a mistake. I get that it’s more fun to goof around and do edgy, inappropriate material, but if you’re on stage at an open mic, you should be using that as a dress rehearsal for the “real” comedy shows. Make a set and stick to it. Always tell your best jokes every time you’re on stage. You can do some new stuff up there, but put it around the stuff that you know already works. I realize that same ten guys that are at every open mic won’t laugh at a joke they’ve heard a million times, but doing jokes over and over can really help your timing and make you better so much faster. It’s called a comedy routine for a reason. Do you want to be the “King of the Open Mics” or paid, working comedian? I’ve seen guys come to Comedy Castle open mic and try to do the “real” set after getting high and insulting everybody every Monday night at the New Way Bar. I can see right through that. Those guys are wasting precious stage time on inside jokes that they’ll never be able to do on any other stage on any other night. I get that some open mics aren’t a lot of fun, but of you’re not getting anything out of them, just stop going and stay home and write. Or find a better show to do, or start your own show.
Most of all, get up as much as you can. Your first “year” of comedy is your first 100 shows. By that point, you should have a competent seven minutes and be able to host a show. If you’re going out only once a week, it’s going to take that much longer to get good. Even the bad shows can have upsides – maybe you meet a comic you’ve never met that can help you, or you’ll find a new tag for an old joke (another reason to do the best jokes every time on stage). It’s hard to get better sitting in your house.
8. What projects are you working on now?
Teaching and the podcast are main focuses right now. I’ve got eleven years of podcasts up at joelradio.net, so even though I’m only doing two shows a month or whatever, there’s days and days of funny stuff up there. I am basically retired as a road comic, but if anyone’s got a fun, good paying gig (or an awful, good paying gig) I’m always up to do that as well.
I also spend much of my week at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle making sure that the club runs well for both the audiences and the comedians. There’s always new things Mr. Ridley is doing to improve that club so if you haven’t seen a weekend show at the Comedy Castle recently, please come out soon. I’m very proud of helping to put on the best comedy shows in the country – even if I’m not on them!