Dave Coulier is one of the most famous comedians to have ever emerged from the metro Detroit area. He grew up in St. Clair Shores and cut his teeth at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle before moving out to Los Angeles. Dave, whose family-friendly stand-up is built around his incredible ability to do impressions, performed voice work for a number of TV shows, including Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters, Muppet Babies, Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo, and The Jetsons.
Dave became a household name when he played Joey Gladstone on the hit ABC sitcom Full House from 1987 to 1995, a role which he is currently reprising on Netflix’ Fuller House. Over the years, Dave has used his comedy skills to build a successful career which has given him the opportunity to act, voice act, host, direct, produce, and even compose.
We wanted to know more about Dave’s stand-up comedy roots, and he was kind enough to answer our questions…
1. You started stand-up comedy in St. Clair Shores at a young age. Tell us how you first got into it.
I was born a poor, black child. No, wait! That’s Steve Martin’s line from The Jerk.
I was lucky to have a partner in crime. Actually, two of them: Mark Cendrowski and Tom Keenan. We’ve known each other since we were 9 years old. We hit it off immediately and remain best friends even today. We went to grades three through eight at St. Isaac Jogues, and then through senior year at Notre Dame High School in Harper Woods. We played hockey on the same teams, against each other and then together on Notre Dame for three years.
We started in third grade writing scatalogical song parodies — really, any reason to infuse the words poop, fart, crap, boobs, ass and booger in to any song. It was Catholic grade school so we couldn’t use any of the George Carlin words.
The three of us would make up characters and do shows at the hockey banquets, friend’s parties, or anywhere where there was an audience willing to listen to our shenanigans. Mark had two older brothers so we’d listen to their George Carlin albums at full volume to see if our parents would pickup on the swear words. Mark’s dad gave us an 8 millimeter film camera. It wasn’t long before we were writing comedy scripts and shooting comedy shorts titled, “The Coke (a Cola) Addict” and “Les Walloping Wallendoes.”
By senior year, we put a sketch group together called Linus Pauling and The Band, and did shows at Regina High School and Dominican High School. We wrote everything, made our own sets, posters and promoted by word of mouth. We charged $1.00 for admission, and actually made about $600.00, split between the players. In those shows I would do my first stand-up in front of a paying audience. I was seventeen years old. We graduated and Mark and Tom went to college. I got a job at WABX (now defunct) writing and voicing commercials. That was 1977.
And Mark Cendrowski, he’s gone on to become the biggest director in television, and has directed every episode of The Big Bang Theory and MANY other highly regarded sitcoms including Fuller House. Tom Keenan, he owns several auto dealerships in Texas and raises cattle on his ranch.
2. Who were your comedic influences and mentors?
My biggest comedic influences as a kid were television comedians. I loved Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners. I would also watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus on the CBC Network every night at 11:30pm. Or I would watch to see which comedian was going to be on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I would hurry home between school and hockey practice to watch The Mike Douglas Show, Merv Griffin, and The Dinah Shore Show to watch the comedians do stand-up and/or panel. There were no VCRs or DVRs back then, so if you wanted to see a program, you had to be in front of your TV. I also loved watching Make Me Laugh which featured young comedians in Los Angeles. Those guys all turned out to be my peers.
Mark Ridley — biggest mentor of my career. I can’t thank him enough or say enough great things about what he did for me. When I was just eighteen, Mark saw something in me that I thought was only ‘living’ in my head. He encouraged me, pushed me, critiqued my material and my sets, and tried to point me toward a career path. Mark once drove me and fellow Detroit comedian, Joe Nipote, to Toronto to audition for Yuk Yuks. Jim Carrey, Mike McDonald, and Howie Mandel were all onstage that night.
The owner, Mark Breslin, loved Joe’s set but told me that he didn’t think I had what it takes. I was crushed. Years later, at our 100th episode party for Full House, Mark Breslin walked up and said, “Congratulations, Dave. What an accomplishment.” Needless to say, I took the highroad and thanked him.
What I really wanted to say was: “Fuck you, Breslin. You miserable little prick!” I really don’t think he remembered me auditioning all those years earlier.
3. What was the Michigan stand-up comedy scene like during your early days?
It was spectacular! Looking back, it really wasn’t, but when you’re a fledgling 18-year-old stand-up and suddenly have a comedy club to go to…it’s a godsend. I started performing at a bar called The Delta Lady on Nine Mile and Woodward. They had a comedy night there hosted by a Chicago comedian named Mark Kornhauser. The first night, I went and just watched the comedians and was determined to come back the next week and perform.
And I did. I got one of the last slots, but got big laughs. I did cartoon voices and talked about going shopping with my mom, and wearing braces (which I was wearing at the time).
Kornhauser said to me, “How old are you?” I told him I was 18. He didn’t know if I was old enough to be in the bar. He told me not to tell the owner, Tony Volpe, and that he’d put me on one of the early time slots the following week.
That following week, immediately following my set, I got to see Bob Saget for the first time. He was doing a Comedy Store Young Comedians tour with Jeff Dehart and Fred Raker. All three of them went onstage and killed. It was the signal that I was exactly where I needed to be. I talked with Bob after the show, neither of us knowing that someday we’d end up acting together on one of the most successful sitcoms in TV history.
A couple weeks later, feeling somewhat confident, I auditioned at the Comedy Castle and never looked back. At that same time, comedy clubs were sprouting up wherever there was a banquet room or a place where a bar or restaurant could plop a stage down and hang a couple lights from the ceiling. I played them all: Petker’s, The Country Palace, Roberto’s, Laugh Track at The University Of Michigan campus. There were also some established clubs and lounges: I opened for headline comedy acts Jim Freeman at The Pour Devil, Marv Welch at Gino’s Surf, and blues man Corky Seigel at The Raven Gallery.
4. Tell us about your first performance at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle. What is the significance of that club for stand-up comedians?
I was somewhat hesitant to audition at The Comedy Castle. There were some local comics who told me that if you played at The Delta Lady you couldn’t also play at the Castle. At the time, comedians were on strike in Los Angeles at The Comedy Store and The Improv, lobbying to be paid for their performances. So I considered (briefly) how it might affect me at the local level. And what I discovered was…it wouldn’t! So I made my way to the Comedy Castle and Mark put me onstage. I remember doing well that first night and Mark couldn’t have been more welcoming. Back then, the comedians would do improv together after our sets. It was like comedy college and I couldn’t have been happier.
The Comedy Castle has really become an iconic comedy club. When you look at the roster of comedians who’ve played there over the past decades, it’s a ‘who’s who’ of comedy greats. There’s lots of clubs that call their main act a headliner, but if you headline at the Castle, well, you’re a true comedy headliner.
5. You eventually moved out to Los Angeles for your comedy career. Tell us about that decision.
I moved to Los Angeles on August 8, 1979. I had played locally in Detroit for nine months. It was time to leave. I finished a blistering set one night and Mark Ridley said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” My first thought was, “Uh oh. I said or did something onstage that pissed off Mark or an audience member.” But Mark told me something to the effect that I was now a big fish in a small pond, and that I really needed to move to L.A. So I did.
6. You are known for your impressions. Tell us about your writing process. What advice would you give to aspiring impressionists?
I like doing obscure impressions like Joe Pesci, Albert Brooks, and Bob Einstein. Or my favorites are when I imitate friends, colleagues, or family members. I’ve been a professional copycat in TV, animation, and the movies. I’ve copied Tom Hanks, Bill Murray, Richard Pryor and Chris Rock, to name a few. I think ‘looping’ Richard Pryor’s voice (voicing over the filthy words with clean) is my favorite.
A lot of the impressions and voices I do are already written for me, like in cartoons or the old Full House episodes there’s a script. And most of the time, I’ll add something to the script that makes the writers and/or producers laugh. I did that a lot when I was doing the voices of Animal, Bunsen Honeydew, Waldorf and Statler, and Bean Bunny on The Muppet Babies.
Advice? First, the voice has to be dead-on. Like Kevin Pollak, Darrell Hammond, Frank Caliendo dead-on. After that, you have to nail the physical and grammatical idiosyncrasies. Oh, and it should be funny!
7. You’ve had a lot of success branching into acting and voice acting. What advice would you give to other comics looking to do the same?
Learn how to act. Study. Study. Study. A lot of comedians know how to deliver their own lines, but when someone hands you a script and wants you to make their material funny, well, that’s a different skill set.
I studied with Gordon Hunt (Helen Hunt’s father) at The School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. I first met Gordon while he was directing me on The Jetsons at Hanna-Barbera studios. I had to learn how to interact with other actors and how to listen and react to them. Comedians, we’re only listening to our inner voice and the laughs that we get from an audience. Now throw cameras and sound in to the mix and having to say a specific line on a specific ‘mark’ and, well, hopefully you get the picture.
Of course, you have to audition and get the job first!
8. We’re excited to see that Fuller House is returning for a third season. What’s the biggest difference between working on this show and the original Full House?
There’s not really much difference other than some new characters have been added. The writing style and sensibilities of the show have remained the same. The show has never been off the air since we premiered on ABC in 1987, so we didn’t want to change the formula. We’re even on the same stage (24) at Warner Bros. where we shot the original show.
EXTRA CREDIT: Have you ever saved an elderly woman while riding your bike in Michigan?
I have not. That is a rumor. But if I ever see an elderly woman in distress, I will save her.
Top photo: ©Melissa Bring. Special thanks to Mark Ridley.