Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interview with Jeff Steinbrunner

Jeff Steinbrunner is more than just a familiar name floating around the Chicago comedy scene. He is a go-to favorite comedian, and is easily becoming a city staple. One of the producers of the Chicago Underground Comedy showcase, and also an associate producer of the popular showcase Comedians You Should Know, Steinbrenner has performed in the Limestone Comedy Festival in Indiana, he was named “Best of the Fest” at the Accidental Comedy Festival in Ohio, and he performs regularly at The Laugh Factory. He also runs a brand new open mic called "Trigger Warning" on Monday nights at The Drop Lounge, a 4AM bar in Lincoln Park next door to Bricks Pizza.

This interview took place at Chicago’s historic burger joint, Kuma’s Korner, where we talked about comedy, writing, and annoying mistakes that comics should try to avoid.


You started in Ohio. What was it like moving to Chicago for comedy?

I came here right after Hannibal (Buress) had just started making national headlines, T.J. (Miller) had already been in a couple movies, and Kyle (Kinane) had just gotten his first special. Me and a ton of other people showed up at the same time, so comics already in the scene were like, “Who the fuck are all these people?!” [laughs]

Did you have to start all over?

Ohhh yeah. And the worst part is, you’re a rookie for at least the first three years. And I used to feel like, “I wish I moved here sooner!” or “I wish I had started in my teens!” but now I’ve realized you can start at anytime. The extra years are nice, but then you have the different challenges of being the young shithead that nobody wants to listen to. [laughs]


How do you think comedians evolve from joking about ordinary observations to topics they truly care about?

When they start to see actual angles that people haven’t noticed before. Also, I think it comes from actual experience. When you consume a TON of comedy, you get burned out on easy bits. I like to follow “Open Mic Comic” on Twitter, who posts the most currently hacky topics. The joke is basically, “Don’t do these jokes, everyone is doing the easiest bit!” So, when you’re around the scene long enough, you start to notice all of that. You almost derive your own perspective just based on what all the other people aren’t talking about. 

How do you handle bombing?

I do not want to romanticize bombing. New comics do that too much ‘cause they want to make themselves feel better. If you are bombing CONSISTENTLY, you are a terrible comic! [laughs](Danny) Kallas and C.J. (Sullivan) would say that you CRUSH-crush maybe 1 in every 20 sets. And a BOMB-bomb hopefully happens 1 in 50 sets. It happens to everybody, but you better learn from it and get better.

Why do you think stand up doesn’t get more respect?

Let’s face it, stand up is not a respected art form outside of stand ups. [laughs] You can’t listen to it passively like you can with music. Also, people are exposed to it in so many bad ways. But, the secret is that stand ups know how great it can be. Of all performances, when you see the perfect room and everything aligns, it feels like nothing else! But, then you see SO much bad stand up... [laughs]


What are your goals when you hit the stage?

My first thing is always: Funny over everything. But then, you see what other people find funny and the longer you go, the more it doesn’t even make sense. I mean, you could walk on stage and just taser your nuts and get laughs, but it’s like, “I don’t want them laughing at just anything, I want them laughing at what I think is funny.” And that becomes the goal.

Do you have any plans on leaving for one of the coasts?

Well, I came to Chicago with the expressed goal of: I just want to get good while no one knows me or sees me. I definitely said I’d move by the time I’m 30, but at this point I’d be happy with another year or longer! I mean, I fell in love with this city, so that’s hurts! [laughs] I really feel like THIS is where I started my life.


When a joke doesn’t work, do you throw it away after a certain number of tries?

I used to, but now I don’t. Now, I keep most things in a large vault and think about what has and hasn't worked, and why. That way, once you start working on new bits, you find how the old stuff works into new material. I've bolstered so many new jokes with stuff I’ve said three years ago that I thought I’d never say again.

Advice on constructing an act?

I know a lot of comics that are all about getting that perfect 15 minute set, and then taking that to where people will put you on TV. But, I kind of like the idea of taking on different topics and just working on them intermittently, and then building a whole act all across the board.

Being around so much comedy, what still impresses you when watching other comedians?

I have become more enamored with the idea of doing stand up that connects with people. There is no better feeling than when you hear a joke and go, “How have I never thought of that angle before?!”


What are some mistakes you see new comics making?

I think a problem with most open-mikers is they think, “I’ll get SO funny that someone will pick me up and provide everything for me, and I’ll just handle the funny!” That is impossible. What’s REAL is cultivating your own audience and using that as leverage for the rest of your career.

What is a mistake you see new comics making on stage?

A trap people fall into unfortunately is a lot of comics try to strike a chord and be confrontational, without any jokes. And, that’s not stand up. No one wants to see that. You’re just being a loud dick.

What annoys you about younger comics:

Comics who don't LOVE comedy! There are people who do comedy, but they don't love it, and it drives me crazy! Like, how are you not interested in seeing other comedians? Watch comedy not just to see what you like, but also to see what you DON’T like. There is comedy that I can recognize as good that I will never like, which is okay. And I feel like less people in the scene own that sentiment. When you close yourself off to only the things that you like, then you’re annexing other tools that you could be adding to your repertoire.
What advice do you have on dealing with hecklers?

It’s hard to watch sometimes, but a lot of hecklers think they’re helping. They want to be part of the show, and you can almost make them a constructive part—unless they’re completely obliterated and just being obnoxious, then they’re too far gone. But no matter what, you need to stay in control. If you fall apart, then the heckler won.


You and Justin Golak have a new mic on Mondays called ‘Trigger Warning’ at The Drop Lounge. Where did that name come from?

I named it ‘Trigger Warning’ because I want it to be a safe place for comics to come in and feel comfortable talking about whatever. And, I want comics to feel comfortable with being ripped on. I want it to be an environment where you’re funny, but also LOOSE. Where you realize it isn’t that serious, we’re all here because of the same passion.

What made you want to start an open mic?

Honestly, I don’t feel very connected to the scene right now, which is a bummer because I want to know the new batch of comics that are coming up. I want to know the new talent within the scene, and see who’s “bringing it” and constantly growing. I feel like I don’t know enough, so I’m hoping to reconnect with the scene.

Why an open mic instead of another showcase?

I’m already spread a little thin as it is with CYSK and ChuC. I’d have to invest SO much time and energy for something like that. And, I actually miss running an open mic. My friends are like, “You’re crazy! You’re gonna hate it in two weeks!” [laughs] But, it gives me an opportunity to play around on stage. Plus, there is a comradery that I lost, that I hope to regain from doing an open mic again.

The Drop Lounge is a 4AM bar, which means we could potentially be doing comedy until 4AM?

As long as it goes! I don’t imagine it going THAT late, but who knows? [laughs]


What can comics do to get the most out of an open mic?

Remember that open mics are there for YOU. Work on what you want to work on. Don’t get into your head because then you think, “I can’t do old stuff!” or “I have to bring something new that’s killer!” but the open mic is there for you to work on the things you want to work on. If it doesn’t go well, who gives a shit? It really doesn’t matter.

Final thoughts / words of wisdom?

My biggest advice to anyone is: Fail faster. If you can present something that isn’t going to work, find out as fast as possible, so you can learn from it that much quicker. It's a very weird thing to feel social pain, it’s like a physical trauma. And it is very real. So I understand the fear. But, if you realize that it is fleeting, and it isn’t the end of the world, then you’re bullet proof.

Staff 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.