Norm Stulz launched his stand-up comedy career at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in 1981. His storytelling style has made him one of the top shows in the country. Norm has been seen on HBO, Comedy Central, Showtime, and comedy specials on NBC and ABC. Norm’s comedy material can be heard on The Bob and Tom Show, Johnny Burke and the Morning Crew, and XM Comedy radio. I asked him a few questions…
1. How do you describe your comedy?
I wrote and performed my first comedy on second grade, and I never looked back. Laughter is more addictive than crack. I am a storyteller by trade. My genre would be described as “long form comedy.” I would consider my work a combination of Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, and Red Skelton. All old comics, but being old myself, they are my mentors.
2. Music played a large role in the beginning of your comedy career. Tell us about that.
In college as I studied more and my high school friends partied more, I was soon left off the “Let’s call Norm” list. In my free time, I bought and taught myself guitar. I sang for myself, then others, then at parties and clubs. Between songs, I would recall something that had happened on my life and got laughs. Soon the show was 50/50… real songs and real funny.
After a show in 1981, someone approached me and asked, “Have you ever been to the Comedy Castle in Detroit?” I responded, “No,” but I decided to contact the Castle and find out about their club.
When I called, the nice lady asked, “Would you like a slot?” I did not know what a slot was, but I said, “Sure!” She said, “You go on Monday night at 11:20, you get 10 minutes.”
I arrived at the comedy club Monday night walked downstairs, and met Tim Allen, Hey Hey Danny Gray, and numerous other comics from Detroit: Tim Lily, Willie Tyler, and Lester Lowell Sanders.
My name was announced, I took the stage, got ten minutes worth of laughs telling little stories about my family, and I was completely hooked. So bye-bye music, hello comedy!
3. You are known for your storytelling style. For new comedians, storytelling can be challenging if it’s too heavy on exposition. How do you refine a story to make it work on stage?
I have never written anything. I take an idea to the stage, start to talk, what gets laughs stays in the show, and what fails falls away. My routines — and I have a couple hours of material — all came from trial and error on stage. Every stage gesture, starter, drink of water, has been trialed, errored, and refined to what you see today.
4. What are some common mistakes you see younger comedians make when they attempt storytelling? How can they avoid those?
A common error newbie story tellers make is attempting to make every line funny. A story has to weave its way along. Take the audience with you on a journey. When it’s funny, they laugh; when it’s sad, they listen. I see young comics attempting to make it like a sitcom — every line funny. Life is only funny in spurts, go ahead and spurt your audience. They’ll love you for it.
5. You’ve mined many of the life challenges you’ve faced for laughs. Tell us about some of them. How do you figure out the right way to talk about these things on stage?
I think my comedy crosses all age and race barriers because it’s true to all human experiences. Children, death, confusion, men and general, everything that makes me me. As many artists do, I see the world through different glasses. I can take anything and make it fun, it’s a blessing and a curse at the same time.
6. You’re involved with a lot of charities. Tell us about your work in this area.
Helping to raise millions of dollars for charity throughout my long career is a very important aspect of my life. Some shows you do for your pocketbook, and some shows you do for your heart. I’ve done numerous shows for Children’s Miracle Network, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Rainbow Wish Connection, breast cancer, all cancers, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, the VA, all branches of the military, numerous, numerous showings. If a charity calls you and all they’re asking for is you to do what you do for fun, and that’s make people laugh, then you do it. How can you not?
7. How has the Michigan comedy scene changed during your career?
Starting in the early 80s — as I was blessed to do — the Detroit scene has changed quite simply by the number of clubs available to perform in. I can remember riding with Tim Allen as we drove to open mic nights. I remember opening B’s Comedy Kitchen in Detroit. There were clubs in Ann Arbor, Royal Oak, Three Chaplains in Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Saginaw, Traverse City — my goodness, there were full weeks I could work half the year and drive home and be in my own bed all through the 80s in the 90s.
When Comedy Central started putting people on TV for free, clubs started to fail and they’ve failed to this day. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been doing corporate shows, theater shows, fundraisers; I’ve kept busy as much as I want, and sometimes more than I want, and I love every minute of it. Comedy’s making a resurgence. I may be too old to grab the last line in the water but I’m reaching for it.
8. What projects are you currently working on?
I’m now booking the first quarter 2017 and my wife and I plan to do the majority of that in Florida. At my age, I’ve decided to become a snowbird and entertain the people my age and above. Get them to laugh just like the kids do in Ann Arbor and at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle and the other clubs I’ve been at in Detroit. We’re old, but we’re not dead!
There will come I’m sure soon enough a time when I’m no longer requested but my good friend Dobie Maxwell just saw Don Rickles at a venue in Milwaukee that I still do and he’s 93 and got a standing ovation, so I’ve got a few years to go. If you’re into comed,y get out and see live comedy support it take part in it love it. I do.
Smile when you can, my friends. Enjoy the moments.