Comedian Bill Bushart was the first to be interviewed for the Oakland Press’s Oakland’s Last Laugh. This is part two of two that didn’t make it to the paper.
What was your success rate when you did stand-up in the beginning?
How about 6%! It really was, but the good thing that I felt when first starting out was, you know you’re doing something right when the wait staff comes out to watch. I had that happen a few times in Lansing and at Connections in Toledo. I remember when I first started headlining I was a maniac. I was all over the stage. And I looked back and the cook, the bartender, the waitresses were standing in the back watching and I thought, I must be doing something right here. They kept having me back. So, those are the moments that I remember the most. The wait staff sees it all.
How do you handle bombing now?
I don’t carry it with me; before, it would take me weeks to recover from a shitty set. Now it’s just, “Well, I’m going up next week. Get over it.” Admitting it is hard, though. This whole business is built to make you want to quit. It’s always, well, J Chris Newberg is a good example. He went out to Hollywood and it’s like starting all over again out there. You’re not who you were back home. Here I’m a big fish in a little pond. I go out to L.A. and I’m just another shlub trying to tell jokes and get on a TV show.
Plus, I enjoy the people around here. I enjoy the people that do comedy here. I’ve made a lot of great friends, life long friends, and it’s changed me. It’s changed the way I meet people and deal with people. That’s always a plus.
How do you approach a joke?
It’s different now. I’ll work stuff out on stage, where before I would sit down and write. Now, of course, I get more stage time, so I have that luxury. Now whenever I notice something, the first thing that pops in my head is, “What am I going to say about it on stage?” Then I’ll develop it from there. I don’t sit and craft. I don’t think a lot of comedians sit and craft, well, maybe they do. I don’t sit and toil over it. I’ll try it on stage in an improvised moment and if it gets a laugh, I’ll see where I can tweak it and place it in my act.
Do you try it out on people before you say it on stage?
Um, yeah. I make the mistake of trying it out on my wife, which she always responds with, “I don’t get it.” But if she doesn’t laugh then I think it’s going to do pretty well. She’ll always tell me not to do something and then I do it on stage and get a big laugh. So, she’s my barometer.
One of my friends is Bob Phillips, I usually send him some stuff, and he’ll let me know what he thinks, so there’s a lot of that, too. I think doing it on stage and running it by other comics is how I do it now. I don’t freak out as much if it doesn’t work, either.
How has political correctness changed comedy today?
I think a lot guys buy into it. I don’t buy into it so much.
Is there room for political correctness in stand-up comedy?
I think if people come into a comedy club and they’re shocked by something a comic says then what the hell are they doing there. This should be one of the last places where you should be able to say whatever you want, but there are people out there trying to take that away, too.
I can see it from a club owner’s perspective, too. Mark [Ridley], when he’s having a fundraiser, likes certain types of comedians. I understand that from a business point of view. But on a Saturday show when you’re plopping down money at the Holly Hotel or the Comedy Castle, or Joey’s, you get it all. I mean, the show isn’t just for you; it’s for everybody. So, sit back and relax and enjoy the show. Don’t let your morality get in the way of someone trying to tell a joke. You’re not going to go to hell because you heard someone tell a dick joke. That doesn’t happen. At least, I don’t think it does.
Have you ever experienced another comedian jumping down the throat of another comedian because of political correctness?
You know what I see happening a lot. When a new guy starts out in comedy, comics will always tell him what he can and cannot say on stage. “You can’t say that! You can’t do that!” I’ll never do that. Who the hell are you to tell somebody what they can’t say? You don’t know.
I had people doing that when I started. I’d talk about my dog and having him put to sleep, but then say, “Well, that’s not exactly true. He was taking a nap in the driveway and I backed over him.” I had people tell me, “You can’t say that joke.” I tell that joke now and it gets a laugh every time. It’s just a silly joke. “Well, you’ll lose the dog people!” The dog people? Now I have to worry about the dog people? This is something I have to think about? I don’t need anything else, Gary. I’ve got enough problems! What’s next, the cat people?
I had the same experience with my black Jesus joke.
You can’t say black Jesus. First of all, Jesus wasn’t black, Gary. Not in my house he wasn’t! Not in the pictures I saw!
I think I made a pretty good case in my act.
I did a joke one time. I don’t even do this joke anymore because it pisses people off, but before the war it got a good laugh.
I read in Time Magazine that there are over a million landmines in Afghanistan. That’ll screw up a picnic. They have the world’s loudest potato sack races. It takes four guys to have a three-legged race.
Now, I say that joke and you can hear a pin drop. Before the war started, people were slapping their knees laughing. I try to sneak it nowadays by saying, “You know there are jokes I can’t tell now, because people think they’re offensive.” Then somebody will beg me to tell the jokes. I try to lead them that way and even then, it doesn’t do too well.
I had a guy during a show once, he was drinking, and he stood up in the middle of my act and just stared at me after I told that joke. He set his drink down, turned and left, because I offended him so much. Come on, it’s a joke. There’s no meaning behind it.
Well, the truth is that we all have sensibilities and we get offended, but a comedy club is not a place for sensibilities.
You have to let it go. Comedians are not those people you see on stage. I mean they are, but they aren’t It’s an act. I worked with Greg Giraldo, obviously, before he died. He was such a great comic, but he was a great guy, too. I took him over to Club Bart for open mic and we had a great time. They’re just people trying to make other people laugh.
Who influences you?
Dennis Miller. Steve Martin. Don Rickles. I’d say those are the tree biggest ones. I remember the first comedy album I ever listened to was “Let’s Get Small”. I remember playing that over and over again. That was the first time I ever heard stand-up before. The first time I ever did comedy was when I was thirty. I wanted to do it since I was sixteen. I just didn’t know how or where. I didn’t even know this place [Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle] existed until I saw an ad for a comedy class.
I didn’t know a lot about stand-up comedy. I always thought it happened out in L.A. That was my belief for a time. When I started playing clubs around here, I realized that there was a great stand-up scene. There were like six or seven clubs at the time. Some of them are no longer around, of course. Chaplin’s is no longer around. That guy wasn’t paying his taxes, apparently. Too bad. That was a great club for local guys. The place is a museum for comedy. If anybody wants a turn key club, all they have to do is pay the back taxes. I headlined that place five or six times a year.
How do you view the audience?
I used to view them as the enemy. Now, I really bring the audience in when I do a show. I view the audience as part of the show, my show. I view them as the second part of my act.
I used to have disdain for the audience. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s part of the process, I don’t know. I learned to love them over the years. I like to have them in on the joke now. Before, I was just telling them jokes.
You have to remember that the audience doesn’t know each other. They’re all strangers. They’re not conspiring against you. One of my pet peeves is to watch a comedian plow through his jokes and continue dying on the stage. I have to address it. I have to acknowledge it and I learned that by doing that, you can change the energy in the room sometimes. I like to do comedy in the moment.
“I’m eating shit up here” can do wonders for the moment. An audience will usually laugh at that.
Building rapport is important. Bill Burr is good at it. He’s the best at it: one of the best.
Isn’t it ironic that comedy is place where you should not be afraid of failing, but understand that you are going to fail a lot, and that most people that are doing stand-up have a track record of failing?
Oh, yeah. Stand-up comedy is usually a place where you are fired into. I’ve had a lot of people come into a class here at the Castle and tell me some of the biggest sob stories about how their wives left them, their lives suck, or lost their jobs. And they’re going to do comedy! But I’ve seen it help people, too. You have to have a level of passion to do this, though.
A lot of engineers take the comedy class at the Castle because they have no outlet in their lives.
Because they’re engineers.
Yeah, and they’re the worst engineers, too. I want to ask them what bridges they’ve built, because if they’re here then they obviously fucked up something. This doesn’t pay what an engineer job pays.