Drew Frees’ experience on the stage spans well over 10 years. He started performing in plays back in school, then he moved on to doing improvisation with people like T.J. Miller at the iO Theatre and Second City, and then Frees graduated to stand up where he now performs all around the Midwest and all the top clubs & showcases right here in Chicago. Frees headlined at The World Famous Laugh Factory this past weekend, and was awesome enough to talk shop before the show, giving advice on how to properly construct an act, what it takes to be consistent, and why bombing isn't as bad as you think.
COC: How did you get into comedy?
Drew Frees: When I was in high school, I did this sketch show and someone from Indianapolis saw me and asked me to be in this comedy play that they did. I was 17 years old, I decided to do it. We went to all these high schools and did this play. I got to be “The Funny Guy” and everybody was laughing at me! I was just like, “Wow this is AWESOME! I wanna do comedy!” [laughs]
COC: You’re originally from Indiana. What was it like performing in Indiana versus performing in Chicago? Were the people you grew up with welcoming of you doing something so out of the ordinary?
DF: Our community embraced us! They were proud of us! We would sell out shows thinkin’ we were real cool! And then getting to Chicago I was like, “Oh, I’m not NEARLY as funny as I thought I was!” [laughs] Which is awesome, though. It’s a real humble experience when you realize, “Wow, these people are REALLY GOOD.”
COC: What was that like going from being the best in your town to being a “nobody” in a big city like Chicago?
DF: It’s like Division-One ball. You just gotta get on the bench and put your time in.
COC: What about comics who just show up, and they’re great right away? How do you explain that phenomenon?
DF: I mean, some people come in and they’re just freaks! It just clicks. There were SO many legendary comics who were late in their game when they started—Joan Rivers...Lewis Black didn’t get big until he was in his 50s! For some people, it just hits later, while other people it hits immediately—Eddie Murphy was 19 when he got on SNL! That’s insane!! He was just immediately awesome. With music too, there’s music prodigies—Hendrix DIED at 27! Some people are just meant to do what they do, they’re prodigies at it. Then there’s other people that are really good, but it just takes them time to develop their voice. And really, all it is in stand up is: Here’s my point of view and my voice, and it’s funny.
COC: What exactly does “Finding Your Voice” mean to you?
DF: I think it’s your comfort, your timing, and being funny. It’s when you go on stage and people believe that that’s YOU. Whether it’s a character or just you being REALLY comfortable on stage, people are like, “Yep, that’s definitely them as a person AND it’s hysterical!” OR...some people are such a big character, that people love that character—Steven Wright, (Mitch) Hedberg... But then, there are people like (Marc) Maron or Louis C.K. that make you go, “Wow, he’s talking about his life, and that’s probably who he is even when he leaves the stage.” You like THEM.
COC: You’re a regular at The Laugh Factory. It’s tough getting into a place like that. What was the process like for you?
DF: It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. That really is true. Which is why you have to get out a lot. Some people might come here ONE time and they go, “Wow, that guy’s incredible!” But, how it worked for me was, I was in the scene doing comedy and The Laugh Factory had just opened, and they were looking for comics. A group of my friends: Aaron Weaver, Mike Stanley, Kenny DeForest, and Joe Kilgallon all started a show called The Wind Up, and it only ran for about a month, but that was our door for getting to perform here at The Laugh Factory. We were fortunate enough to be here when it first opened when they were really trying to get comics, as opposed to having to go through the open mic process.
COC; Performing in bars is much different than performing in clubs. How do you craft a suitable act for the clubs?
DF: Everybody has a different method, but for me, I try to build time. I would try to build 5 minutes, and once I got a really tight and good 5 minutes, I’d try to get it to 8 minutes. I just kept breaking it down. At an open mic, you get anywhere from 3-5 minutes. So, really craft that 3 minutes and get it really good, then move on to crafting 5 minutes, and so on. When you start hosting or doing showcases, you work on 8-10 minutes. Then, once you start featuring, you’re working on a good 25 minutes. And then headlining, you want at least a good 45 minutes. It’s a progression. I think it’s a good way of approaching it. When I first started, I really tried to hone each period of time.
COC; Wow. Amazingly well put.
DF: You also want to get to a place where you want to add time. That’s what open mics are great for, because once you have that REALLY GOOD 5 minutes, you can get comfortable and now work on an all new 3 minutes. And you just keep building. You are always trying to add more time to a set.
COC: What is your writing process like? Do you have a writing schedule?
DF: Especially on weekends, I try to block out maybe three hours to sit, listen to music, drink coffee, and just chill and think. Then, out of that, I’ll just start writing. I think journaling is also a good way to simply remember things. You don’t have to necessarily write funny stuff, just write what happened to you during the day or throughout that week. And when you go back, you can be like, “Oh, THIS was funny!” Or, “Hmm, what could have happened if THIS happened?”
COC: Did you ever run a room? If so, any advice on running your own room?
DF: I had a showcase with Will Miles and Clark Jones who are in New York now, along with Kenny. It is very tough to run a successful weekly showcase. If you’re going to run a showcase or an open mic, be prepared to put the time in. It is VERY time consuming to have a good room. Location is CRUCIAL. In the first months that you start, you’ve got to work REALLY hard to get people to come. You can’t just expect people to show up ‘cause there’s too much going on.
COC: Were you ever a road comic?
DF: I do road gigs, but I also teach, so that allows me to have money. The road gigs that I do, I’m very selective of them. They’re in places that I like to perform. I’m not playing small towns or local pubs—and I did those shows when I first started. When I was trying to have 25 minutes of material, I would go to places outside of Chicago that would allowing me to do 25 minutes. So, I did those kinds of shows and built my 25. I liked going to those places, but I also liked being here. At Just For Laughs, I got to open up for Pete Holmes and he told me, “The best advice I can give to any comedian is to be a comedian where you’re at. Be a Chicago comedian.” He really invested his time in the cities that he lived in.
COC: When you first started stand up, who did you look up to?
DF: When James Fritz was here, I LOVED James Fritz. He was my favorite comic here in Chicago. James went out EVERY NIGHT. He did ALL the showcases, he did ALL the open mics, he was out every night hustling. I remember one time at an open mic, I went up after James, and I could hear him laughing during my set! Afterwards, he came up to me and said, “Hey man, that was really funny!” And that was it! It was all I wanted. When I went to open mics, I did it to the best of my ability. I wanted to be in clubs. That’s always been my focus. I’ve always wanted to get paid to do comedy! [laughs] So I always put out my best effort.
COC; You mentioned coming up with names like Mike Stanley, Aaron Weaver, Kenny DeForest, & Joe Kilgallon. What was it like being around those guys?
DF: Mike Stanley’s a national headliner, he’s incredible! Aaron Weaver is hysterical. Joe Kilgallon was SO Chicago! You couldn’t help but love him. He’s himself, and he’s brilliant. Kenny DeForest was one of the best hustling comedians I had been around. He was likeable, he was out every night, and if you had a show, Kenny was there to support it or perform at it. He was so ingrained in the scene. Kenny started Parlour Car with Matty Ryan and Adam Burke—which is one of the best showcases in the city. That one and Comedians You Should Know are at the top. You feel pretty good when you get put on those shows. Everyone was incredible and worked really hard.
COC: Did you get the chance to meet other names of that caliber before they left Chicago?
DF: I did improv at iO Theater with T.J. (Miller). We both started improv at the same time. He definitely worked harder than everybody! Like, you would do improv shows, and afterward you would go drinking—that’s what you did! [laughs] Not T.J. Instead, he would go hit mics. He was the hardest workin’ guy. Like, he was doing Jokes & Notes before anybody ever thought about going to the south side for comedy!
COC; What does it take to be consistently funny no matter where you perform?
DF: Just do the shows. Do all the shows. Get to where you are comfortable being YOU in EVERY room. When I go on stage I don’t care who the audience is, I’m gonna be me and they’re gonna like me because I’m not gonna be anything else. I’m just gonna be myself. I’m a goofy guy! I’m goofy with whoever the audience is. You’ve just gotta be “The Man”. You’ve gotta own the room. And that comes from performing in many different places. ‘Cause now, everybody’s performing everywhere. South side people are performing on the north side; north side people are performing on the south side. It’s really merged.
COC: What if you don’t do well in certain rooms?
DF: Just because you bombed somewhere doesn't mean you’re not good there. It just means you were nervous! Especially if you’re doing that venue for the first time, it’s like doing new material. You’re nervous every time you do it, so you just keep doing it. You can’t worry about bombing. It’s either gonna happen or it’s not. You just have to go out there with a mindset of, “I’m gonna kill it!” You HAVE to have that mind set no matter what! And if you don’t kill it, then you need to figure out how to do it.
DF: I never think that it’s the audience’s fault. I think if you have the mentality of them being a bad audience or that they’re tired or anything like that, you’re not going to improve. You have to look at it like, “How can I do my material to THAT audience?” Maybe I change something, maybe I deliver it just a little bit differently, but I’m still doing my material. I’m not compromising. I’m just making sure that when they leave they’re like, “That dude’s hilarious!” That’s why I’m a comic. I want to be funny! [laughs] So, with every audience, I just try to figure out a way that they like me to where I’m still me.
COC: Final thoughts / words of wisdom?
DF: Have no fear. Just have no fear. Go up there fearless! And always do the best that you can do. I have a friend who used to do motivational speaking, but he got sick and he can’t do it anymore. He once told me, “When you perform, perform like it’s your last time because one day you’re gonna be right.” I take that to heart every time I hit the stage. Because there will be a time where it is your last show. And you don’t know when that will be! Anything can happen. [laughs]
COC: But what if it’s like a really bad show, or a really bad open mic?
Contributing Writer: David Gavri
David Gavri is a stand-up comedian, writer and founder of the online comedy sites Gonzo Fame and Comedy Scene in Houston.