Joe Bartnick is a 17 year veteran out of Los Angeles who frequently travels to perform with Paul Virzi, Jason Lawhead, Kevin Shea, and Bill Burr. He is one of the original members of the Bill Burr Presents: The All In Comedy Tour. Joe hosts the Puck Off hockey podcast with Frazer Smith, and is also the host of the Insensitivity Training comedy show with Cort McCown at the Ice House in Pasadena, California. Joe was great to talk to and left behind some really valuable advice on moving up in the comedy world, making the right friends, performing in theaters VS clubs, and what it was like to go on the road with Mitch Hedberg. Enjoy!
Where did you get your start in comedy?
I started in San Francisco, which was a very warm comedy community. But of course, everybody’s always nice to you when you start. It’s when you start getting GOOD, they start getting jealous. [laughs] But no, there’s very few places that are great to START comedy, and San Francisco is one of them.
What was it like when you started?
I started off in coffee shops and laundromats—in fact, I came in third in a laundromat comedy competition! [laughs] And Al Madrigal won the competition! But hey, that’s how we started. You just have to play EVERYWHERE. When you’re starting out, the only way to get better is if you do something like 7-10 sets a week.
Networking is a big part of this business. But do you think people sometimes focus too much on networking, and not enough on their act?
Networking is a big part of it, but if you’re NOT funny, then all your networking goes by the wake. You’ll just be known as the guy who’s full of SHIT…who can network. [laughs] You want to be GOOD on stage—that’s the most important thing.
Getting on stage is important, but it’s just as important to see shows. How do you balance it out?
You just do. You want to be in the A-rooms and the A-clubs on a night where there’s a chance of getting up. And maybe take one night a week to see the pros that are in town. But in general, if you’re JUST hanging out at the A-rooms, you’re not getting better on your act. And hangin’ around talking is good sometimes, but in general you should just let your set speak for your set. Because if they like you, they’ll find you. You’re never gonna talk anyone into thinking you’re funny.
FRIENDSHIPS & COMEDY
Stand up is a very lonely, one man sport. Did you find it hard making friends at first?
You run the whole gammit of people when you’re around open mics—people who have nothing better to do, people who think they’re comics, wanna-be comics, drunks, people who just can’t afford psychiatrists… But after a while, the cream rises to the top, and the good comics stick together—those are kind of your fraternity brothers, or the guys you’ve been to war with. And believe me, ALL of the guys you started with, those are all your best friends in comedy.
How did friendships at the open mic level differ at the showcase level?
The minute you graduate from the open mic scene to the bar/paid gigs/showcase scene, those are the people who will be your friends. I mean, at the open mics out of the 40-or-so people there, I might have been friends with five of ‘em. But once I was doing bar shows and getting up at The Punchline ‘n stuff, then EVERYONE there was my friend. You think you’re competing with these guys, but you’re not really competing because you’re all in the same boat.
Once you all have each others’ respect, then you’re all kind of equal and trying to get everyone gigs, passing gigs along, etc. And THEN, you’re competing against the bookers, the agents, the stage managers, the bartenders… [laughs]. It becomes an Us vs Them, rather than a You vs The Community. It becomes a thing where it’s like The Offense vs The Defense. The comics are all on the same team.
What about old friends that you grew up with, who say things like, “So, are you still doing that comedy thing?”
People will still do that. People come up to me that I’d seen 10 years ago like, “Ohh you’re still doin’ that? Oh okay…” But then, I have friends that I went to college with that totally ask me for my autograph! And I’m like, “Hey, it’s ME! What are you doin’?!” [laughs]
Why can something be SO funny to you and your friends, yet it completely bombs in front of an audience?
I try to think everything’s always going to kill, but sometimes the jokes that never work actually work, and sometimes the jokes that always work don’t work so well. I never blame the crowd though. If a joke doesn’t work, I don’t think it isn’t funny, I just think, “Eh, I need to work on it and make it funnier.” It’s not that it isn’t funny, it just doesn’t connect with people. It might be funny to YOU or your best friend, but it just isn’t funny to groups of strangers.
And that’s the Darwinism of comedy. My whole act that I just now did featuring for (Bill) Burr, none of those jokes would have worked when I first started out, because I didn’t have the charisma and the balls to tell them right. But you just learn after all these years how to tell these jokes right. Everything just gets better. Your act evolves.
When is the right time for a comedian to put out an album?
If you have 45 minutes to an hour of material that you think people will buy and you think will sell, then you should definitely put out an album.
When is the right time to move to L.A. or New York for stand up?
It’s hard to get much better in L.A. And obviously the longer you do comedy, the better you’re gonna get at it, but if you’re gonna move to L.A. or New York, you should pretty much be as good as you think you’re gonna be for a while. Because you’re not gonna get as much LONG stage time. You’re gonna be doing the same sets for a while.
How long did it take before you became a road comic?
I’d say 3-4 years in. Once you get yourself maybe a solid half hour, you can start booking yourself in places a couple hours outside of your town. And then maybe by say, year 5-6 you can start doing clubs all over the country. You need at least a half hour—a solid half hour.
Do audiences differ from city to city? Can you accurately judge a crowd based on the city you’re performing in?
Eh, every town has a Safeway and cable, they’re all about the same. [laughs] Everything is pretty much homoginized. It’s not like it’s the ‘40s where things are completely different everywhere you go. I mean, every town has a Starbucks, ya know?
What is the key to consistently bringing your A-Game in comedy?
I think that when people PAY to see you, you HAVE TO bring your A-Game. If not, you’re not a professional. And that’s not to say that you might take chances, or sometimes things go awry, but always try to be presentable. And it’s okay to take chances, I’m not saying be safe, but when people are paying to see YOU, I don’t think there’s any way around bringing your A-Game.
Once people are paying to see you and you constantly have to have your A-Game material, how do you try out new material? Do you just go back to open mics?
You just pick your spots. I like to try new things and work on stuff whenever I’m doing a local bar show. If I’m doing a half an hour in a theater for someone like say, Lisa Lampanelli, I know I only have maybe five minutes to screw around and try something new—and of course not at the beginning and not at the end. There’s minutes where I can try something new depending on where I’m at. If you don’t do that, you just end up dead inside. [laughs] You just end up doing the same exact stuff over and over again—there’s no energy in that. Your energy comes from changin’ it up and trying new stuff.
THEATERS vs CLUBS
What’s it like making the transition to theaters from performing in clubs?
Eh, you have to wait a little bit because the venue is bigger and there’s way more people, but playing theaters is the best! There’s no waiters & waitresses, these people paid a lot of money so they’re listening completely, and everyone’s there to see the show. As opposed to just listening to you kill time while they eat and order more drinks. The vibe is much cooler.
Is there a downside to doing comedy in theaters?
The one thing though is that when the place is SO big, they’ll put up big screens on either side of the stage, and with those, you really have to wait a second or two. You’ll be surprised at how close people will sit to the stage, yet they’ll still watch the screen. You can see them looking at you on the screen! [laughs] It’s still the best, though. It’s the cream of the crop, it’s what everyone’s working towards.
THE ALL IN TOUR
You have recently been part of the Bill Burr Presents: The All In Comedy Tour. How did that come about?
Me, Paul Virzi, and Jason Lawhead are all great friends, and we’ve all opened for Bill Burr and Bill loves us, so we figured, “Hey we should all go on tour together!” And Bill put his name on it. We did a five month tour this summer in 18-19 cities, doing 50-60 shows, and it ends in New York, which is a great thing. And then it will start back up again at the beginning of the new year.
That’s gotta be so much fun touring and performing with your friends like that!
It’s really great to be able to go out with some of your best friends and do a tour. It doesn’t get any better than that. And then we all get better because you end up following each other when the other person absolutely kills! It forces you to get better. You’re having fun AND you’re getting better. It’s great!
When you were coming up, who were your comedy mentors?
The comedy scene in San Francisco was a really loving community and everyone pretty much helped everybody, so I would have to name like, 100 people! [laughs] The famous people who have helped me out were Dave Attell, Lisa Lampanelli, and Bill Burr. And also, Mitch Hedberg took me on the road—that gave me a lot of “street cred”.
Wow. What was that like being able to hang and work with Mitch Hedberg?
He was just the nicest guy in the world. He was like a saint. Just so nice, and he would do anything for you. He was such a good person. Such a good soul.
It’s nice to hear that. Seems like a lot of older comics try to act cocky toward the younger comics, the way a Senior in high school tries to harass a Freshman. What’s up with that?
What I’ve found is that the GREATEST comics are the NICEST people. All of the funniest, greatest comics—the geniuses—are the nicest people. ‘Cause they have nothing to sweat. They’re not sweating you. They not fearing you. It’s only the people who are worried about their place and their rank, those are the dicks.
Do you find it difficult to separate comedy life from your personal life?
What you’re gonna find is that one day, it’s ALL gonna be the same. There isn’t a separation anymore. One day, you’re gonna look up and you’re not gonna have any civilian friends—or very few. [laughs] And your whole life will be like a bit! [laughs]
Is there ever a level in a comic’s career where they don’t have to do open mics anymore?
I don’t think that ever ends if you don’t want it to end. I’ve seen some GREAT people stop in the shit holes, ya know? Never let your ego get in the way of your talent. I’ll stop in an open mic at a diner—where else am I gonna try out jokes? And not be seen… [laughs] You have to find places to take a good shit. [laughs]
Final thoughts / words of wisdom for other comics?
Get on stage as much as you can. Buy yourself a tape recorder and listen to all your sets—that’s really how you get better. And, be nice to everybody. Because really, it’s the comics who’ve helped me out. Bookers and agents and all those people in the industry, they’re never gonna help you out—they’re weasels. The people that go on stage are the people who are gonna help you out and have your back. You’re gonna get more from those guys than anybody else. And I’m talking about REAL comics. Not the weekend warriors, and not the hobbyists. Those people are in the way of people who are trying their best to make it in this business.
And, never worry about other people because no one’s standing in your way. The only way somebody is actually standing in your way is if you always audition for like a “Fat Guy” role and it’s always down to just you and the same one guy, and he gets EVERY role and you don’t. [laughs] Just create your own thing, don’t worry about anybody else, and just do your thing.
INTERVIEWED & WRITTEN BY David Gavri