I wrote a series for the Oakland Press called Oakland’s Last Laugh. It was a seven part series showcasing stand-up comedians and clubs in Oakland County, Michigan. Comedian Bill Bushart was the first to be interviewed. We sat down at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Royal Oak where he had just finished teaching a stand-up class to some comedy hopefuls. This is part one of what didn’t make it to the paper.
How did you break into comedy?
I sort of threw myself into it one hundred percent. I quit my job and drove over to Joey’s Comedy Club and they hired me to manage their open mics and do their marketing. It gave me the opportunity to travel and work other clubs, because they were really flexible with that.
You have to throw yourself into it, don’t you?
To some extent, yes. I wanted to be associated with comedy as much as I could. I learned a lot watching Mark here at the Comedy Castle. My ultimate goal is to have a place like this someday.
There are a lot of small clubs, or rooms popping up around here now.
Yeah, I feel like there are. From what I’ve seen around here, it’s really busy. More people are trying it. New people constantly come in at Joey’s every week for open mic. A lot of them split their time between Joey’s open mic and New Waves. Then there’s open mics here at the Castle on Wednesday and in Ann Arbor on Wednesday. Laff Tracks is going to start one. O’Mara’s does theirs on Thursday nights. So, there are a lot of places to do comedy. The scene is big. It’s bigger and there are more people coming into the scene.
The philosophy over at Laff Tracks is that it’s a place for local comics to work their material. It’s all local. The Comedy Castle brings in the big names; a lot of national comics come through here. Joey’s is an in-betweener. Every-now-and-then, they have a national name, but most are local or regional. Ann Arbor does a few national acts, too.
How do you like the Ann Arbor Showcase?
I would have to say that it’s one of my favorite rooms ever. It’s in the basement of a vegetarian restaurant. It’s smelly. It’s sticky. It has a flavor. It’s old school and Roger, over there, is a great guy, too. He runs it.
There’s the Holly Hotel, too. People show-up every week, they never put money into the club, the sound system is shitty, it’s freezing down there, yet, the room is packed with people. It’s a great room. I’m there this weekend and last night they had my name up on the chalkboard and it was spelled wrong. I love that. I talked about it for ten minutes.
What was your name?
Do you remember your first time on stage?
Yeah, it was here at the Comedy Castle. It was exciting. My whole family and friends came out. I watched the tape a few years back. I don’t have it now. But, I was so nervous and it was a complete mess, but it was a great experience. It was a very positive experience. Now that I’ve done it for 15 years, it’s not the same euphoric buzz. I mean, I still feel good after a show and upbeat, but my head isn’t up in the clouds so much anymore.
Is it because you just know how to do stand-up now?
Yeah, it’s not as big as a mystery as it used to be. I think, also, you just get older and it’s repetition, repetition, and it just doesn’t have the same shine to it anymore. A lot of guys will see that as being bitter. There was a comedian, Carl Johnson, that said how he loves to listen to podcasts of other comedians talking about comedy and I said, “That will fade.” You’re not always going to be excited about these guys you see on TV. You’ll even work with them and you’ll realize that they just caught some breaks and that they’re normal guys.
This business is a lot about breaks. So, I wouldn’t call it bitterness so much as I would call it experience. I’ve been through it. It’s what I do. I tell these jokes, I get these laughs, I go home to my wife, turn on the TV set and watch the news just like everyone else. Everything is pretty normal, but for those two hours I work at a club.
Are you always working?
I’m working more consistently now than I ever have. Now, I’m not doing the Improvs or anything, but I’m definitely on the local scene and in the Midwest scene. Still good clubs and a lot of fun.
Do you have any aspirations to go to Hollywood or New York?
No, when I started doing this, I never had the intention of doing it full time. It just sort of developed into that. I was supplementing my income in the beginning then it kind of took off. Then I got married and settled down and slowed down. My wife travels with me to this day and I can still hear her laugh in the back of the room. She enjoys it. She likes to travel. She’s gone on some really tough road trips with me. Now, it is what it is.
You always seem to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown on stage.
Yeah, that’s me. That’s true. My act kind of naturally took on that persona. I’ve seen a lot of guys have real nervous breakdowns on stage, though. I’ve had my share. I did a show with my sister-in-law. She used to be a comedian, too. We did a show in Houghton Lake, MI one time, and I had a classic meltdown on stage. I was yelling at the audience, “Do not applaud me when I leave this stage! I don’t want your sympathy! I don’t want your bullshit! Do not applaud!” And I’m screaming at them and she’s in the back. I walk off stage and you could hear a pin drop. And they had a spotlight follow me as I walked off stage and to the back of the room. I see her and she says, “That was awesome!” Those poor people didn’t know what to do. The booker called me the next day and said, “What the hell happened there?” I told him, “Sorry, I lost my shit, man. It happens.” And he said, “I know.” Then he booked me again. It happens.
How has your act evolved since your first started?
Confidence. I know how to read a room better. I think my jokes are stronger. Jokes I told before, I’ve learned how to emphasize certain parts now. I also know how to soften things that may be abrasive. When I first started doing this, I wanted to be rock-n-roll; I wanted to be in your face. Now, the way I do my act, the way I have fun with it, how I make everything over the top, it’s easier for people to take and enjoy.
I think my percentage of failing has gone down quite a bit, too. I’m probably at a 96% success rate now when I’m on stage. I think a lot of comics think they have a bad set even when they don’t, though. The bar is set really high by comics.
Since you brought it up, let’s talk about bombing.
Okay, what do you want to know about it? I’m an expert.
You remember the first time you bombed?
Yeah, it was here at the Comedy Castle. I went up on the stage and was telling jokes and nobody was laughing. All I heard from the back of the room was this voice: “This guy sucks.” That’s all anyone could hear in the whole room. I was dripping sweat and it was just six minutes, but it seemed like an hour. That taught me a lot about failure, because I thought, “Fuck this. I’m done.” But the next week, I was up on the stage again and I got the laughs. Same jokes, different crowd. I started to learn that it’s part of the game.