August 20, 2014

Interview with C.J. Sullivan

C.J. Sullivan has been a staple in the Chicago comedy scene for many years. He was chosen as one of the “Top 12 Rising Stars to Look Out For” by Chicago Magazine and he won the “Comics Choice” award for ‘Best Comic in Chicago’ and for the past five years he’s been the host and writer of “Visitor’s Locker Room” sports comedy radio show. You can also listen to him on Sirius Radio's - Blue Collar Radio show. He’s done commercials for Old Style Beer, Mickeys, and Jose Cuervo, and most recently, C.J. appeared on “Mash Up” for Comedy Central.

What makes C.J. so unique is that he is a comedian AND a poker player—and not some wanna-be schmuck who tries to hustle you and your buddies at your Sunday night house game. C.J. has a World Series of Poker 3rd place title to his name.

BEFORE WE GET STARTED...

Although we've published scores of interviews with comedians from all around the country, the C.J. Sullivan interview was bit different then any previous Comedy Of Chicago piece done thus far. Rather than a comedy club, C.J. requested that this interview take place at Richard’s Bar—a bar C.J. calls the best dive in Chicago. And after my experience there, I couldn’t agree more.

Richard’s Bar is a special place. They’ve got Sinatra on the jukebox. The walls are decorated with Rat Pack memorabilia, Goodfellas stills, and portraits of Al Capone. Not to mention, it is the only place where you can still smoke indoors.

PRE-INTERVIEW MEAL

COMEDY OF CHICAGO: Does this place have food specials? Maybe get a plate of nachos before we start?

[get a confused stare from both C.J. & the bartender]

C.J. SULLIVAN: Nachos?? They don’t do nachos. They got a hard boiled egg for 75 cents. They’re known for ‘em. We’ll get a couple o’those.

COC: [laughing] Hard boiled egg? Seriously? What’s so special about that?

[Now getting angry stares from everyone around the bar]

Random Bar Patron: I’ll tell ya what! It’s da best damn hard boiled egg in all o’Chicago!!

COC: [I get my hard boiled egg with a side of salt & pepper and Tabasco sauce. I dip it, take a bite, and wash it down with an ice cold beer.] Damn! That’s a really good hard boiled egg!

CS: [laughs] What’d I tell ya?! Have another!

[Everybody at the bar smiles]

COMEDIAN/POKER PLAYER

COC: So you’re a comic AND a poker player. How do you balance the two?

CS: It’s hard to do both. It’s a lot of time and work to be on top of both games. But poker really started takin’ away from my comedy, though. Just puttin’ way too many hours into it.

COC: What was that like, being a poker player?

CS: It’s tough, it’s a GRIND. But that’s what I would do, I was a grinder. I’d do a lot of online stuff back when it was legal and I’d go to the casino five days a week like it was a job—brick ‘n mortar as they’d call it—and grind. And in the city there’s all kinds of underground games you can go to and literally play anytime.

COC: What was your schedule like? Poker from 9AM-5PM and then comedy at night?

CS: That would be best case scenario... [laughs]

COC: Except comedy and poker are right in the middle of ALL the big vices...

CS: Absolutely. Drinking, drugs, late nights—it’s a bad combination. ‘Cause you can go do shows, but then there’s games runnin’ ALL night so you can literally jump in at 4AM and go all day till the next show or whatever.

COC: Some comics like to drink and loosen up before they perform. That can’t be good for poker, right?

CS: Combining alcohol and gambling is VERY bad. It’s bad ‘cause sometimes you’ll do REALLY well on it and WIN, and now you think it’s good! You fool yourself into thinkin’, “Whoa! I’m better this way!” Ya know? It’s like people thinkin’ they’re better drivers when they’re drunk. It’s like, “NO! You just didn’t die or get pulled over!” [laughs] You’re NOT better.

BACKSTORY

COC: You’re originally from Philly. How’d you end up in Chicago?

CS: I knew I wanted to do comedy, so I came to Chicago. And I read about Second City and that whole pipe dream thing... [laughs] And I did it. I did like, a year or so of improv. It was all right, but I realized it wasn’t really my thing.

COC: Why not?

CS: It was tough. Especially your first year when you don’t really know anything or anybody. You’re up there improvising with some 45 year old house wife, passin’ a fake red ball around... [laughs] And I’m just like, “What am I doing?! What is going on here?!”

COC: [laughs] For you, how does stand up differ from improv?

CS: Improv was definitely a different vibe. It can still be fun, I guess. You gotta be good. I’d be terrible at it now, but when I was doin’ it, I was actually decent at it. But like anything, it’s somethin’ you gotta do all the time in order to be good at it. And they both help each other out. There’s nothin’ wrong with doin’ both.

THE POKER LIFE

COC: Do poker players travel the road the way comics work the road?

CS: I know alotta poker players that are on the road just like comics. They’re tournament players that are backed by people and that’s what they do—and they’re good at it. But, it’s a tough life, man. Ya know? Comedy, poker, they’re both tough lives.

COC: When playing poker, how do you know when you’re good enough to move up to the higher limit tables?

CS: It’s all in your bankroll, really. The skill level between 1/2 No Limit, 5/10NL, and 10/20NL, there’s really not that much of a difference. It’s just bank rolls, and the way people are. And sometimes, the higher the bankroll, the worse the player is.

COC: Easy money then, right?

CS: BUT...the problem is, they have SO much money that they’ll just keep shovelin’ money into the pot and eventually they’ll catch you, and they’ll empty you. Now you’re emptied out like, “Well now what do I do?? Back to the fuckin’ 25 cent tables!” [laughs]

COMEDY ADVICE

COC: What do comics need to know to get booked in a showcase?

CS: Well, when I started, you’d go to the showcase rooms and you just show up. That was half the battle—just showin’ up. You do that so they recognize you. And it’d take you like, MONTHS for the staff to know you’ve been showin’ up. EVERY NIGHT, you just gotta show up to the room and support. Basically, what all these showcase rooms want is support, ya know? I always hear from these open-mikers like, “How come I never get booked?! It’s a clique!” And it’s like, “No! You hafta show up!” You can’t just send an email saying, “Book me!” Ya know? You just can’t do that.

COC: I hear hosting is just as tough as headlining. How do you feel about hosting? And how important is it?

CS: Hosting’s not fun, I’ll say that. But the thing is, eventually the crowd doesn’t remember what you said. When you’re hosting at a comedy club, where it’s a host, feature, and a headliner, they don’t give a shit about your set up top. They just want you to get the energy goin’, ya know? Do your material, but if it does bad, whatever. It really doesn’t matter. ‘Cause they’re not there for that. They only remember five or six jokes on the way home—if that. They’ll forget you by the time they fill up their gas tank. Hosting SEEMS hard. And yes, it sucks because you gotta keep goin’ back there ‘n you gotta do announcements and talk about whatever’s goin’ on next week. It’s a pain in the ass, but it is what it is. You still gotta do it.

COMEDY INSPIRATION

COC: Who are the comedians you looked up to?

CS: I came up with a buncha people—an insane amount of people who are successful right now, like T.J. (Miller), Hannibal (Buress), (Matt) Braunger, (Kyle) Kinane, Pete Holmes, Kumail (Nanjiani)...and the list goes down the line. When I came here, I remember Dwayne Kennedy being the guy I thought was amazing. He’s a brilliant stand up. He’s hilarious. And he was always cool. And he had a Showtime special ‘n shit, he was destroying! But if you talked to him, he was always super cool.

COC: What style of comedy inspired you?

CS: I’ve always liked all kinds of comedy. And idiots will come up to me and be like, “Hey! You remind me of (Sam) Kinison! Why don’t you do his material? You should do his material!” And it’s like, “Uhh, that’s not how comedy works! You can’t just cover somebody’s jokes!” [laughs] Ya know? And I love Sam Kinison, he was great. Colin Quinn is probably still my favorite. He inspired me. ‘Cause he mumbles a lot like me. I mumble, too. [laughs] Plus, his jokes are fuckin’ brilliant.

COC: Let’s talk more about poker.

CS: Ah well, before we get into more poker, let’s take an intermission. [laughs]

[We take a beer break and then we return]

POKER PLAYER

COC: Are you more of a tournament player or more of a cash game player?

CS: I played mainly cash games, but I’m actually a pretty good tournament player. I’d win like bullshit small tournaments for five grand or somethin’ like that. But I never really toured and did the scene with tournaments or fully dedicated myself to tournaments. Or get someone to back me—which you NEED, ‘cause you lose so many. Like, people don’t understand that yeah, you win a big payday, but you’re payin’ off HALF to the people that fuckin’ backed you ‘cause for a YEAR you’ve been losin’ money for ‘em, ya know?

COC: How do you get these backers to invest SO MUCH money for somebody else to risk it in a poker tournament?

CS: It’s a business, man. But you hafta prove yourself with a record. And they’ll drop you, just like anything. If you’re not earning, they drop you.

COC: Like how in ‘The Sopranos’ they say “You’re only as good as your last envelope.”

CS: Basically. It’s not too far off.

CS: Would you say comedy and poker are similar?

CS: Definitely. They’re both lone wolves. They don’t like bosses, that kinda thing. Scumbag people elements, ya know. [laughs] BUT...they have good hearts.

BALANCING RELATIONSHIPS

COC: Speaking of good hearts, you’re engaged! How did you and your fiance’ meet?

CS: She was actually my first manager’s sister. That’s the 10% I got outta that manager relationship. [laughs]

COC: How do you balance a steady relationship when you’re in a profession that calls for a crazy schedule?

CS: Yeah, especially with her ‘cause she has a normal 9-5. She contributes to society. And especially with poker too, poker would have even later nights than comedy. She didn’t like it, but she got used to it. She’s definitely great for that. Ya know, there’s a poker saying, “Lucky in cards, unlucky in love.” It’s tough to deal with both. It’s not easy.

BOMBING & BAD BEATS

COC: How do you handle the days where in poker you get bad cards and then in comedy, your jokes don’t hit? That’s gotta be a super depressing day...

CS: [laughing] That’s a bad day! [laughs] That’s ultra stuck! [laughs] Well...that’s the thing with both of it. With cards, sometimes it’s best to just step away. When you lose, you wanna keep playing more. You wanna keep chasing till you get it back—which is the WRONG thing to do. You’re supposed to only keep playing when you’re WINNING. When you’re losing, you don’t understand why it’s happening, you’re supposed to step off.

CS: And comedy, you have a bad set—and it’s a horrible feeling too—but the next day at least you have a better chance of turning that around, I think. Just do it again. Sometimes it’s the audience or whatever, sometimes it’s just the way you are. With cards, it can REALLY get into your head. ‘Cause you have that pressure on you of “I NEED to fuckin’ win!” And that’ll make you hold back and then you’re not aggressive. And it’s just a bad way to go about it.

POKER & WRITING JOKES

COC: Does poker help you come up with material for comedy?

CS: Ya know, I don’t talk enough about gambling on stage. But there’s SO many good stories and you meet SO many hilarious characters. SO many funny people, where you can’t believe they exist!

COC: Like those dudes with the sunglasses and the crazy headphones...

CS: Some of these people are SO annoying! In the Chicago poker scene, we call ‘em “Mops”. Like,”Ahh these mops!” With their Dr. Dre Beats headphones, and their hoodies...they’re fuckin’ takin’ 40 seconds to make EVERY decision... And it’s like, “It’s 12 DOLLARS, dude! There’s no pocket cams! Normand Chad is NOT here announcing your hand, buddy!” [laughs]

COC: Is the poker table a good place to write jokes when you’re not in a hand?

CS: Eh, I would always keep a notebook on me; I’d sometimes write some things down, but you really can’t do that—you’re not paying attention to the game. ‘Cause you really learn more in poker when you’re NOT in a hand than when you’re playing a hand. When you’re playin’, you’re worried about your hand. But when you’re NOT playin’ a hand and you’re totally free of thought, you can watch everyone play THEIR hands. That’s how you pick up information for later on. So no, I’d never do that ‘cause once you do that, your head’s outta the game and you shouldn’t be playing the game. If you’re gonna write, you should be somewhere separately writing.

SULLIVAN WISDOM

COC: Does comedy actually have levels? Like, first you do open mic, then you do showcases, then clubs, and so on ‘n so forth?

CS: I don’t think there’s any set of rules or anything like that. I think any time you get on stage is a good time. Ya know? Just get on stage, and that’s how you’ll figure anything out. Especially early on, you wanna get up as much as possible. And no matter what level you’re at, you can STILL go to open mics and try out new stuff—it’s still stage time. No matter WHO you are, stage time is still stage time. That’s where you work out your jokes.

COC: It’s not a straight, set path like any “normal” profession...

CS: There’s not like a set of rules where you go, “OK! Hey! You’ve only been doing showcases for three months, so you can’t go to a club yet!” NO! If you can get a club gig, get a fuckin’ club gig! And don’t be afraid to fail. You’re gonna fail. You always fail. Who cares? Ya know? But the thing is, you KEEP goin’ back. ‘Cause you’re never as bad as your worst set, and you’re never as good as you’re best set. You’re always in between somewhere, and you just hafta keep doin’ it. Just try to get on stage as much as possible, be polite, and it’ll work.

COC: Final thoughts / words of wisdom?

CS: Ya know, you see shit like comics teaching stand up comedy classes, and those are just comics tryin’ to make money. There is no stand up comedy class. You learn on stage. Just go on stage as much as you can. Write/rewrite as much as you can. And just stay in your lane, like a swimming lane. You don’t worry about what’s goin’ on to your right and your left. If someone’s doin’ better or doin’ worse—you don’t worry about it. You can only control what YOU do. So just do YOU.

Check Out C.J.'s Latest Performance on Comedy Central!

Contributing Writer: David Gavri
David Gavri is a stand up comic, writer and founder of the online comedy sites Gonzo Fame and Comedy Scene in Houston