Mike Lebovitz is hilarious. His wildly energetic, off-beat yet "classic comedy" style has made him a well deserved Chicago favorite. One of the founding members of the popular Chicago-based collective, Comedians You Should Know, Mike is recording his debut album in his home town/club this weekend (Fri at 9PM & Sat at 8:30PM & 10PM), at Timothy O'Toole's. We sat down with Mike inside the showroom of Timothy O'Toole's (the very home of CYSK) to get the low down on his new album recording.
COMEDY OF CHICAGO: What are your thoughts about your set going into this album recording?
MIKE LEBOVITZ: I don’t want it to be TOO polished, ya know what I mean? Like, I want to be able to be strong and hard hitting and have the material work, but I still want to be able to make a connection with the people in the room. When you listen to it, I want you to feel like you’re part of the crowd.
COC: Is there any particular theme for the album?
ML: Eh, basically I just kinda wanna put it all down. I want to make an imprint and say, “This is where the act was at on October, 2014.” And that will be there forever. I feel like I have an hour that I like and I won’t always have that hour. So, I feel like it’s time to put it on record—literally!
COC: When should a comic record an album? Is it when they’ve built up a certain number of minutes in their act, or a certain number of accomplishments, etc?
ML: Ya know, it’s interesting...I always told myself, “I’m gonna hold off on my first record. ‘Cause I want my first record to be ‘Nevermind’ ya know what I mean??” [moment of laughter] But then I was thinking, “Well, Nirvana’s first album wasn’t even ‘Nevermind’ so why should my first album have to be?” My first album can be ‘Bleach’ and that’s fine! [laughs]
COC: Is there a right time to record an album?
COC: It’s all very exciting!
ML: It is, and I said this in the press release but it really is true: The material that I have is sort of like a love letter to Chicago. It’s not necessarily about Chicago, but almost everything I’ll do on the album is material that I worked out and developed on this stage.
COC: You’re extremely animated on stage. You have a funny look, you make funny faces, you take your shirt off, etc. How do you think that will translate onto an audio-only CD?
ML: I’m interested to see what it’s like in that format. I think it will translate well. I think the material is gonna speak for itself, maybe even more. I think that there is actual material under there that sometimes people don’t notice because I’m spinning in so many places at once. Who knows, we’ll see!
COC: You love to feed off the energy in the room. But being a CD recording, do you think you’ll stay away from doing crowd work?
ML: Eh na, I mean one thing I am a little worried about is whenever I’m here closing a show, I have a tendency to not do any jokes. [moment of laughter] And I can’t do that! So I am gonna try and do mostly material. But I am also not gonna be an uptight dickhead about it.
COC: You were in clown school as a kid. Care to elaborate?
ML: Yeah, my parents wanted me to have activities for after school and based on what they learned about me they went, “Maybe this kid should do clown classes!” [laughs]
COC: So you know how to juggle and do all that?
ML: I was maybe six or eight years old. But what I remember is that they taught us how to trip and fall as if you just slipped on a banana peel. [Mike then does a wonderful demonstration, followed by an insane moment of laughter] They also taught us how to fall and roll into a somersault, and pick up your hat while you’re kickin’ it. So you could really trip, fall, roll into a somersault, and have your hat land on your head. That’s the routine that I remember learning. But, I didn’t learn how to juggle—still can’t juggle.
COC: After that experience, how long until you discovered stand up comedy?
ML: Super late! The first time I did stand up, I didn’t know SHIT! I had been doing improv in this town for five years, and I just kinda hit this wall with it, so I decided to try an open mic. Like, the first time I did stand up, I didn’t realize Bill Cosby had been a stand up! [laughs] I didn’t realize Steve Martin was a stand up! I thought George Carlin was just Rufus from the Bill & Ted movies! I didn’t know a goddamn thing! [moment of laughter] So my education about stand up comedy was concurrent with me first starting to do it. Which is different from a lot of people—a lot of people are fans and have always wanted to do it. It never even occurred to me to do it!
COC: ‘Comedians You Should Know’ gets a lot of regulars. Does that mean you have to perform a brand new set every time you come back?
ML: No. But I have felt pressure. I’m here about twice a month—well, I don’t know exactly. Danny (Kallas) has it worked out like, [doing Danny Kallas’ voice] “We’re on a 13 week schedule and everyone goes up six times per 13 weeks! And they all host twice! And there’s a leap week in February!” [laughter] Na, but I’m probably here about every other week. And there are regulars so I feel pressured.
COC: What would be worse in front of these regulars: Doing the same joke that they’ve already heard, or doing a new joke that totally tanks?
ML: Well see, that’s one of the benefits of these regulars—WHY are they regulars? Because they like us. So, they’re not gonna let you totally bomb. And not everything is gonna be new every single time, but I do feel like there ought to be something there—whether it’s a few tags or a whole new premise or bit. But I don’t wanna give the wrong impression to the young comics out there. The first time you get booked for CYSK, do your A-Shit! [moment of laughter]
COC: A lot of stand up comedy has become storytelling-based. What are your thoughts on the storytelling style of comedy?
ML: I think you should learn how to write and tell jokes first. Then, use those skills to tell your stories. I love storytelling, in fact I’ve been telling more and more stories lately. Sometimes I’ll do storytelling shows...which as a stand up, you’re almost cheating because your story’s filled with punchlines while the other storytellers don’t know how to find the punchlines in their stories... [moment of laughter]
COC: Should the goal to be to “kill it” every time you perform?
ML: I don’t think that the goal is to “kill it” every night. I think that people get into trouble with that. I think that’s when comics stop writing, because they get addicted to killing. I think it’s a disease and an addiction. And it’s easy to give into that temptation. There have been times where I wasn’t writing as much as I should because I was more into doing very well. But, you have to be willing to swing and miss a few pitches. I think it is important for your growth to accept not doing well sometimes. You have to try new things, and new things don’t always work.
COC: If the goal isn’t to always “kill it” then what is a more constructive way to evaluate your sets?
ML: One thing I’ve always tried to do is to set a goal for myself before each set so I can objectively evaluate how well I have achieved that goal. And it usually doesn’t have to do with how well I do. So, I might say something like, “Tonight I am going to experiment with pauses.” Or, “I just wanna try to connect with the audience.” Whatever it is, just something very simple that I can evaluate. And then I can listen back to the set and ask myself, “Did I do that? Yes or no?”
COC: What is your advice on ‘Finding Your Voice’?
ML: Everybody always talks about how you’re supposed to find your voice and find your character. My view of it was always just, “Tell a joke that you think is funny.” And then tell another joke that you think is funny, and keep doing that. If you’re really being truthful about telling jokes that YOU think are funny—not what you think THEY think is funny—a character will sort of emerge naturally through that. It’s something that I don’t think you really have control over. I think a lot of comedians set a trap for themselves when they go, “What’s my character? What’s my perspective?” It’s almost not really for you to choose. Just write a joke!
COC: It’s like they pigeonhole themselves.
ML: Yeah! Like you’re trying to write a character for yourself. There was an interview with Woody Allen where he said, “One of the great tragedies of being Groucho Marx, is you never really understand what’s so funny about Groucho Marx.” [laughs] You don’t get to choose your comic character, just be free. And then, people will watch it and THEY will put you in these boxes. I can tell you when I first found my comic persona if you want me to...
COC: Yeah, of course!
ML: I don’t think of it this way anymore, but I did at the time. I had been out all night drinking, went to sleep, and I woke up VERY early after being out VERY late. And I was just being fuckin’ hilarious! [laughs] Just no inhibition. I was still drunk, but I was rested. I wasn’t sloppy drunk ‘cause I had just taken a four hour nap. So it wasn’t ‘Drunk Mike’ it was more like ‘Still Drunk From Last Night Mike’. And that’s how I thought of it for a while. I don’t think of it that way anymore, but it kind of helped me get into the zone where I felt like I was at my funniest.
ML: One thing that took me a while to learn was...when you’re wreckin’ it, you’re getting laughs from your punchlines, but the real work of comedy is in the premise. So, if you spend your time in the trenches working out the premises, you might not get as many laughs as you could have gotten that night, but you’re laying a stronger foundation to get more laughs later. Because yeah, you find the punch, but it’s all about finding a good premise.
COC: What is the key to writing original material?
ML: I think the job is to do what you think is funny. BUT...of course the job is to make them laugh. So, you have to figure out a way to make them see that, and make it useful to them. For instance, Steve Jobs never did focus groups. He said, “It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want. It’s MY job to show them what they didn’t even know they wanted.” And I think that’s the comic’s job, too. If you’re just giving them what they want, you’re pandering, and they could have written it themselves.
COC: What do you do with a joke that you think is funny, but the audience doesn’t?
ML: If you think it’s funny, I think you have to trust that. And if you don’t get the laugh on it, then you need to adjust the way that you are presenting it until it works. And then maybe it never works, and you were wrong—but most of the time you are right. You just might not be good enough to make it work them, and that’s a skill—translating it into a joke that will work for an audience.
COC: Advice for open-mikers who are trying to be real comedians?
ML: 80% of the people at the open mics are not actually comedians. They are out because they don’t have any friends and they’re weird, so there’s a lot of cliquish weird shit and all this social stuff going on. But if you’re really a comic, just don’t fuckin’ worry about it. Because you will be there to do the work. You’re there to work out, they’re there to hang out. And eventually, the people who are working out get strong, and the people who are hanging out just get drunk. So there will be all this weird social stuff, and you’ll feel like people are hazing you, but you just gotta suck it up and deal with it. But, most of those people you won’t even know in two years.
COC: Comedians You Should Know is one of the most successful comedian-run rooms in the city. What is some advice for younger comics who are trying to start their own rooms?
ML: In general, there have been a number of good articles here about this topic. There’s a few things that are key: TVs off, separate room. Make sure to find a space where people are there to see the show. Make sure you’re not hijacking a bar room with your comedy. Book yourselves, and book the BEST comics. Go tell your friends to go fuck themselves, because they’re not funny, and the show will be bad. YOU’RE not funny either, but it’s YOUR room so you get to go up! [laughs] It’s gotta be a good show, you gotta get people to come back.
COC: What are your thoughts on using your room to get booked at other rooms?
ML: I would resist the temptation to trade spots. Keep your room pure. Keep your room booked on the merit. Because then, you have a good room—and you get to go up there every week. So, you don’t need to trade spots ‘cause that’ll only make your room lousy, and then you’re trading spots with other peoples’ lousy rooms. But if you have a really good room that you can go up in every week, then you’re gonna grow in that room. And then, you’re gonna get really good—and then people will book you because you’re GOOD. That’s what you want.
Contributing Writers: David Gavri & James Allen Kamp
David Gavri is a stand up comic, writer and founder of the online comedy sites Gonzo Fame and Comedy Scene in Houston