Interview with standup comic Mick Berry

Posted: September 7, 2015 in Humor, Interviews
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


Mick Berry head shotMulti-talented, San Francisco-based Mick Berry was a professional standup comic for a decade in the 1980s and 1990s. He’s also been a professional drummer for over four decades, and has written and performed three critically acclaimed one-man shows. His new one-man show, Keith Moon: The Real Me, will go into second-stage production in 2016, and he’ll be performing another of his one-man shows, Dad Fought Hitler, at the national World War II Museum in New Orleans this coming Spring.

He has co-authored two books, (with Jason Gianni) The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco (very probably the best-selling drum book of the last decade, with over 20,000 sold), and (with Michael Edelstein) Stage Fright: How You Can Beat America’s #1 Fear.

He’s currently working on a new standup act, and will be appearing on Bay Area comedy stages later this Fall.

S&P:  You did standup professionally for a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, and are just getting back into it now. What’s changed in the standup scene between then and now?

MB: Back in the ’80s, the roof was blowing off with opportunities. In the mid-90s they started going away. It’s not as explosive in terms of novelty now. But I see just as many people going after it. I think the biggest change that I can put my finger on is that a Tonight Show set under Johnny Carson used to guarantee a career. That was the one showcase that could put you head and shoulders above everyone. Now, one TV appearance on The Tonight Show helps a great deal. But up to the end of the 1980s, it was a guarantee. Comics are no longer gunning for that one slot like they used to.

S&P: What was a typical road trip like when you were doing standup, traveling from town to town?

MB: After I did it a few times, I realized that it mattered a great deal with whom I worked. If I was performing with a comic I didn’t particularly like, the show itself wasn’t as much fun, and traveling was quite lonely. I quickly started partnering up with comics that were close friends. It made the traveling so much easier. You only work an hour and a half, and split between the two acts. If you don’t like the act you’re with, and you don’t like the personality you’re with, it’s a major drag. The one nighters are spread out from town to town, without (hopefully) too much distance in between. You pull into town and check out the bar/restaurant where you’re performing. If the sight lines aren’t good (pillars in the way if it’s a restaurant or bar and not designed as a place for performing) and the sound system is lousy, you could immediately tell it would be a challenging night. Likewise, when the place set it up so there was a stage (even a portable one) with adequate lighting and sound, it was much easier to pull off. You never knew until you got there what you were in for, although, word would spread among comics about what the best rooms were. I remember hearing about a comedy club in Wichita (Slapsticks) that everyone said had one of the best audiences in the country. I made sure to get booked there. Sure enough, the laughter was deafening. I also remember working in a place in the deep south (I won’t mention the name) where the bartender asked me if I knew a certain comic (name withheld), and how great his act was. I won’t say his name, but the stage name alone that he used made me realize this was a “hell-room.” The name of the comic the bartender mentioned was something like “General Smut Mouth.” Not a good sign.

S&P: How did you get started doing standup?

MB: It looked like loads of fun. Plus, you’re in charge of the whole show. As a drummer, how often to you get to say that? Never.

S&P: What do you like best about doing standup?

MB: I remember the first really big laugh I got. It hooked me. This is the same as every stand-up I’ve ever heard interviewed. When you get that huge laugh, not a little chuckle, or even a decent size laugh, but a HUGE laugh, there’s nothing like it. And when you string together laughs so you find out what it’s like to be on a roll, it’s a massive charge. Great great fun. The energy between you and the audience just bounces off the charts.
S&P:What else do you like?

MB: When I can surprise myself and make myself laugh along with the audience, that’s when it’s extra special. When’s the last time you laughed so much you had to beg for mercy? Who doesn’t want that?

S&P:What do you like least about doing standup?

MB: The traveling is terrible when you’re alone. And if you have to resort to dick jokes to go over, because you’re playing to a crowd that doesn’t really care to be there anyway, or the venue has  super low standards of acceptable behavior, such as fighting in bars, is when it’s terrible. You go through much of that, and you see start seeing it as just not worth doing.

S&P:What else do you dislike?

MB: I remember driving to Cheyenne, Wyoming from San Francisco. Just after I left SF, I learned that Donner Pass was snowed in, so I wasn’t going to make it by showtime the next night. (I’d given myself enough travel time to sleep at a rest stop on the drive to the gig.) So, since I was so desperate for any work I could get and wanted to impress the booking agent, I made a U-turn south at Vallejo (about an hour northeast of SF) and headed down I-5 to Bakersfield, and essentially drove around the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I slept one hour at a gas station parking lot in Las Vegas, went up through Utah, and got to the gig at 6 PM for an 8 PM show. I put in a 7 PM wake up call at the hotel desk, slept for an hour, took a shower, and did my show. But none of that was the bummer (if you can believe it). The biggest downer was I was working with some comic in his mid-sixties who obviously had no life outstide of the dumpy town-to-town routine. I realized I could never resign myself to playing seedy or lackluster one-nighters across the western United States for the next 30 years. Finding something more rewarding was imperative, and I started thinking about other ways to make a living. [Editor’s note: Prior to working full time as a comic, Mick had spent years as a drummer touring the U.S. and Canada with second- and third-tier musical acts.]

S&P: How do you handle it when you bomb?

MB: Sometimes you don’t handle it. In fact, I’d say that’s the most common reaction. Comics blame the crowd, get depressed, think their life is horrible. And until they have another good set, they are quite down. Now, that’s the worst reaction. The best reaction is to remember one set (especially in a minor venue) doesn’t make much difference. And if you can learn from it, then you’re moving forward, because the crowd can often be right. So you need to ask yourself, even if you can’t find the answer, “What can I do differently?” Once in a while you have a bad set where you can’t learn anything. When that happens, you have to remember that the sun is still going to rise, and if you don’t over-react, you’ll be OK. If you remember that stand-up is a choice, it lightens the load considerably when you bomb.

S&P: How do you deal with hecklers?

MB: Ignoring them often works really well. If they persist, there are some stock put down lines, such as “I don’t show up where you work and knock the dicks out of your mouth.”  [Editor’s note: A few years ago I heard Kathy Griffin use that one live on CNN during the lead-up to the New Year’s Eve dropping of the ball in Times Square.] But the best way is if you can come back with a topper on their comment. I remember one time in Reno, somebody was talking loudly in the back and disrupting the show. So I said something like, “You want me to give you the mike to share your conversation?” The heckler shouted “He’s talking about your dick.” I responded, “He’s talking about it and you’re thinking about it.” That was the end of the heckling.

S&P: How do you deal with near-empty venues?

MB: If the people are into the show, it can be great fun. I remember a club in Corpus Christie Texas, where there were about six people. But they were really into the show. It was as much fun as having a full house. The risk is, with only six people, you might get the wrong six, and it can be deadly.
S&P: Why did you stop doing standup?

MB: I did a one-man show that was so personal, and meant so much more to be that, I enjoyed it much more than I  do on a stand-up stage. The laughs had so much meaning for me. And the whole experience made me feel so close to the audience, it was so much more rewarding than stand-up. So I just stuck with the one man shows.

S&P: So, why are you going back to it now?

MB: The thing about stand-up that makes it different than any other type of performing is that the audience knows immediately if it’s working or not. They’re laughing or they’re not. It’s hands down the most immediate form of performing art. With music, or dance, or theater, you can dig into the material and make that work even if the audience isn’t with you. But the immediacy of stand-up makes it the fastest way to succeed or fail. Stand-up comics stand out, literally. They know what it’s like to bomb, and to risk bombing every time they get up. If the audience isn’t with you, everyone knows it. All you can do is keep trying. When you can gracefully weather bombing, and even work with it, you can handle whatever’s thrown at you (not literally). I once saw Will Durst take the stage, after everyone before him had gone down in flames. And he was the headliner, so he had to do 45 minutes. Just like everyone else that night, he bombed horribly (for the first 30 minutes of his set). By then, all the comics were thinking, “This is a night to write off. Nothing worth keeping. The only thing left is to have Will do 15 more minutes, and then we all go home.” And then Will Durst, somehow, brought the crowd around for the last 15 minutes of the night. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a comic make that transformation from a lousy first 30 minutes to killing. It was the last 15 minutes of a two hour show, and Will pulled it off. There’s a reason he’s been around forever. So, to encapsulate an answer: Why am I going back to it now? Stand-up comedy is immediate!

S&P: What will you be changing about your approach to it, and why?

MB: I’ve gotta make this personal now. I had an act that worked really well, but it meant nothing to me. The jokes got laughs almost all of the time, but nothing was rewarding about it. No one in the audience was getting to know me. I wasn’t sharing anything about myself that mattered to me. I was quite lonely as a performer. I remember killing in Milwaukee, getting back to my hotel room, and pounding the bed shouting “I hate my life! I hate my life!” When I did my first one man show, about attempting to attain spiritual enlightenment along with attempting to levitate, through 14 years of Transcendental Meditation, and graduating from Maharishi International University, that loneliness of performing disappeared; there was no possibility of it existing with that material. Embarrassment, yes; lonliness–only from people not being into the show, but not from a void of substance on my part. So, I want to have much more guts now to do what I want on a stand-up stage. It’s going to be outrageous in many ways, because I’ve got some ideas that scare me. [Editor’s note:  I’ve heard parts of the new act–it’s hilarious and shocking.]

S&P: What’s the funniest thing you ever witnessed while doing standup?

MB: Sometimes the audience is funnier than the performer. I remember Mark Curry (Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper star) doing an open mike in Oakland. He was warming up the crowd and talking to an audience member who was complaining about his job. Mark asked, “Is your boss white?” The guy shot back, “Everybody’s boss is white!” Every comic in the place split a gut. Another time I was doing a show in Tahoe. And the guy who followed me (Paul Lyons–great comic) got on stage doing some stupid looking dance move. Some woman in the audience started doing it, too. He invited her on stage, they went behind the curtain, and started throwing out their articles of clothing. All impromptu. Best opening I’ve seen, and that was 20 years ago. I met Paul that night, and he’s now one of my closest friends.

S&P: What’s the strangest thing you ever witnessed while doing standup?

MB: Two people, at a table, having full on sex during the middle of a show. (I’m kidding, but I’m sorry it didn’t happen.) I can tell you the dumbest thing I ever did. I was hired by a movie theater to do stand-up for their employees (all teenage high school students) before their Saturday morning meeting. I should have turned down the gig, because it screamed of failure. But I had only been doing stand-up about two years, and I figured I should take every gig that came my way. Some kid heckled me, and I should have said “I don’t show up where you work and knock the popcorn out of your hand.” It would have been the perfect comeback, because it was literally true, and right in front of me to use. But instead I used the standard comeback about knocking dicks out of his mouth. The management couldn’t believe I said that in front of teenagers. They never mentioned anything, but I didn’t get rehired there.

S&P: Who are some of your favorite comics, and why?

MB: Woody Allen, George Carlin, Mitch Hedberg, Wendy Liebman. With these people, you come to really feel you know them, with the possible exception of Mitch Hedberg. But he was so out there that I didn’t care if I knew him or not. His jokes were so fall-on-the-floor outstanding. I’m still mad at the guy for having such lousy personal habits that he killed himself accidentally with drugs. He was headed for one of the biggest careers in the history of the genre, and there was no one else even remotely like him. I just saw Wendy a little over a week ago. And she was personable, hysterical, warm, inviting, charming, and several other adjectives I could dream up.  I was swept into her world, absolutely thrilled to be there. That’s when it’s brilliant. It doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does, the audience and the performer know they’ve experienced something unique. It makes life worth living. I haven’t experienced that on a stand-up stage yet; with one man shows yes, but with stand-up, not yet.

S&P: Other than “Don’t,” what advice would you have for people who want to get into standup?

MB: It’s such a sacrifice that the only reason to do it is to have the time of your life. Remember what it is about stand-up comedy that makes you want to do it. Ask yourself what is it that will make it the most fun for you? That’s what you need to hold onto, and strive to return to when it’s elusive. And it is going to be elusive, whether it’s one night of bombing, or two years of trying to find your voice. We mess up our lives in remarkably similar ways (drug/alcohol abuse, depression, fear of attempting to achieve our most cherished goals, etc.) But the ways in which we can enjoy ourselves are infinitely varied: mountain climbing (I’d never want to do that) parachuting (not for me, I throw-up at the thought) horseback riding, swimming, writing, playing music, or whatever the hell it is that turns you on. What is it that would make stand-up thrilling for you? That’s what you need to go after. And don’t sell yourself short by doing what you’re supposed to do. You’ve got the microphone; you can say or do anything on the stage you want short of physically harming yourself or anyone else). So do it! Say and do whatever you really want. If it doesn’t go the way you’d like (and it probably won’t), listen to the audience’s reaction, and learn from it, and try again. Use your head, and eventually you’ll figure it out. In everyday living, impulses are often best kept in check. On stage, they should be unleashed.

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