I have two regrets in life. One is that I never got to see Michael Jordan play basketball for the Chicago Bulls and the other is that I didn’t make it to the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in time to see Bobby Slayton in his 20 plus year run as host of “The Nasty Show.” Bobby Slayton is a legendary comedian and talented actor with a reputation for being a very bawdy boy. I arrived to Zanies in Chicago and headed up to the green room for this much anticipated interview. Bobby walked in a few moments later with a chilled bottle of sake in tow. He cracked it open and offered me a drink. This friendly gesture made all of my nervousness go right out the window. I may have missed my chance to see him host one of the most iconic comedy shows in the world but I was lucky enough to sit down with “The Pitbull of Comedy” and have one of the most exciting conversations I’ve ever had with anyone about comedy.
The Interrobang: You grew up in New York but you’re a West Coast comedian. Starting your comedy career in San Francisco is so cool! There’s such an incredible history of art, music and comedy there back when comedians were opening acts at folk music concerts in the 50’s and 60’s. What was the comedy scene like when you were starting out there in the 70’s and 80’s?
Bobby Slayton: I was born in the Bronx but started doing comedy in San Francisco about 40 years ago. I’ve pretty much made a home for myself in San Francisco. Show business is a lot of luck and the only thing I’ve ever been really lucky with was that I started out at the right place at the right time. There was a big comedy scene in New York. There was The Improv, Catch a Rising Star and The Comic Strip and there were all of these comedians like Paul Reiser, Richard Belzer, Elayne Boosler and Richard Lewis who came out of New York. Los Angeles of course had The Comedy Store and The Improv and then there were a few satellite scenes in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. Those satellite cities were great to start out in because back then there weren’t a lot of comics so if you were good, they needed you almost as much as you needed them. That’s about when the comedy boom hit. All of a sudden there were comedy clubs opening in every town. There was an old joke, “If you have a microphone and a brick wall you can be a comedy club.”
The Interrobang: And so the road comic was born. So many more time slots to fill and so many more opportunities for work.
Bobby Slayton: Right. There were towns that had these great little clubs like the Funny Bone in Columbus, Ohio and Zanies in Chicago that I would love traveling to them but the great part about being in San Francisco was that when the comedy boom hit, The Punch Line opened. They used me as their house emcee and that’s how I got my start. After that there were comedy nights all around the Bay Area and all of the suburbs so a comic could really work a lot… and even after all of the pilots and all of the little movie roles, I still end up in Chicago playing Zanies Comedy Club!
The Interrobang: Do you have a long history with this club?
Bobby Slayton: Yeah. I wrote something on Facebook the other day where I called them “My second home away from home.” I’ve been playing Zanies for 35 years. When I first got into this club, I think they had been open five years and I had been dying to get in here but could never get the owner, Rick on the phone. But back then Jay Leno was a regular here. He was the king of this club and he put a call in for me.
The Interrobang: That is so cool! Jay Leno vouched for you. I love that!
Bobby Slayton: Jay was the kind of guy that would say, “I’ll call Rick for you” and he did! Rick Uchwat started booking me and we actually became good friends. So, what I learned from Leno is that now, I’ll do that for comics and I’ve done it for a few.
The Interrobang: You must have had some pretty epic hangs.
Bobby Slayton: Robin Williams came out of San Francisco. He got “Mork and Mindy” pretty quickly and went on to become a superstar but he hung out a lot when he wasn’t in Los Angeles. It was usually me, Will Durst, Paula Poundstone, Dana Carvey, Kevin Pollak, and Jake Johannsen. They were really talented people and everybody was working. In New York I would hear there were all of these guys like Reiser and Seinfeld who worked at Catch, then they’d go to this diner down the street, which is still there, and they would sit and talk until 4 in the morning. I never really did that but I’ll tell you where I did have some epic hangs was here in Chicago with the late Rick Uchwat who owned this club. This whole street, Wells Street was really cool. I love it but it’s very bitter sweet because there are so many people I knew that have died and so many places that just aren’t here anymore.
The Interrobang: Did you ever hang out with Jeff Garlin? He has a long history at Zanies as well. He was the house emcee at Zanies the way you were for The Punchline back in the day.
Bobby Slayton: I know Jeff very well. I just did Curb Your Enthusiasm. Jeff may have already moved to Los Angeles when I started here but I used to play Zanies twice a year so I’m sure I’d run into him while I was here. I always knew a ton of people in this city but now because there are so many comics and Netflix, there’s almost too much entertainment. People don’t want to leave their houses anymore.And people don’t want to drink and drive, or deal with traffic, and millennials, and the college kids. There’s a million reasons why I never leave my house. I don’t really go on the road that much but I’ll go to The Improv and the Comedy Store once in a while but by the time I leave my house, it’s a 30 to 40 minute drive to do 15 minutes and I’m not doing drugs any more or trying to sleep with any of the waitresses and none of my friends are there. I’m past it.
The Interrobang: All that’s left is 15 minutes of stage time. Has comedy lost its appeal to you?
Bobby Slayton: Yeah, kind of. I used to do 9 shows every year here at Zanies over Memorial Day weekend, then go out after with Rick Uchwat and whoever else was there. We’d stay out until 3:00am. Now, after my show, I have all these friends who will call me and I just don’t want to do anything. I’ll just walk around by myself. After the show tonight I want to go eat sushi in a corner and drink sake. I don’t want to talk to anybody.
The Interrobang: You have spent a lot of time with a lot of impressive people throughout your career.
Bobby Slayton: Most of it is really small stuff. There’s nothing on my website that’s really that impressive.
The Interrobang: You’ve worked with Woody Allen.
Bobby Slayton: Three times. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.
The Interrobang: What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?
Bobby Slayton: My favorite of all time? Annie Hall. His body of work is so intense. He’s a great guy. I don’t want to get into it but it’s a shame that there are so many misconceptions about him. I’ve been friends with Woody for a while now.
The Interrobang: What?! Friends?! How did you become friends with Woody Allen?
Bobby Slayton: It’s a funny story. There was somebody who used to come see me and he was friends with Woody. One night he says to me that Woody was coming over to his house for dinner in New York. So I said, “Can I come?” and he goes, “Yeah, I think he’s a fan of yours.” I guess Woody told him that he liked a routine I did, but it turns out, he had me mixed up with someone else. I had just gotten home to California and had been traveling a lot so I told my wife that I just got this invitation to have dinner at my friend’s house with Woody Allen in New York and she was like, “You’ve got to go!” I remember calling Dana Carvey and Kevin Pollack and being excited about it. I mean dinner with Woody Allen was a big deal for comics. It was a really interesting hang. I flew to New York and I had dinner at my friend’s house. It was him, me, Woody and his wife. One thing about me is that I can sit and talk to just about anyone. I prefer to talk with people in music or show business but I’m good at talking to people. I knew I wasn’t going to talk to Woody about his movies. I knew he was a big basketball fan but I’m not a big sports guy. I knew he likes jazz, especially New Orleans jazz and I’m a big fan of the blues so I figured I would talk to Woody about music.
The Interrobang: Did you ever see him play at The Carlyle?
Bobby Slayton: Yeah. He’s good. You know the night he won the Oscar for Annie Hall, he was playing at Michael’s Pub in New York on a Monday night. He didn’t watch The Oscars. He didn’t care. He just played his gig. I thought that was so cool. I loved him ever since then. So we have dinner and my friend doesn’t talk much and Woody’s wife doesn’t talk much but Woody and I talked the entire dinner. We talked a lot about the fact that I came up in the comedy scene in San Francisco and Woody was the generation of comics before me. Even though Woody was a New York guy like me he spent a lot of time in San Francisco at The Hungry Eye and The Purple Onion.
The Interrobang: I remember hearing that. What a cool connection to have with him.
Bobby Slayton: Besides Vegas, if there was one place where comedy blossomed in the 50’s and 60’s it was San Francisco. You had Jonathan Winters, The Smothers Brothers, Phyllis Diller, Lenny Bruce of course, Woody Allen and Mort Sahl and even if they didn’t live there, they played there constantly.
So we had that dinner and then we had another dinner, which I brought a couple other comedians to. I don’t want to mention their names but after we had dinner with Woody one of them said to me, “Woody’s going to put you in something!” I knew Woody for five years, we had maybe five dinners, then one night we went to a restaurant with my friend who was having a party. We had a private room in an Italian restaurant in New York and there were about 20 people. I was seated next to Woody and Soon-Yi and every time I’d get up someone would take my chair to try and talk to him but Woody was talking to me the whole night about comedy in San Francisco. Eventually I said to him, “Don’t you want to talk to your wife?” and he said something to me I’ll never forget. He goes, “What do I want to talk to my wife for? I always talk to my wife. I want to talk to you.”
It turned out that we had many mutual friends in common, including Mort Sahl, and he finally put me in something. He put me in his Amazon series, “Crisis in Six Scenes.” Amazon contracted Woody to do a TV show but he didn’t want to do it so he wrote it like a movie and broke it into six scenes. I love it… and not just because I’m in it! Miley Cyrus was in it and she was great. She played kind of a Patty Hearst type of character, Woody’s playing Woody, and Elaine May of Nichols and May came out of retirement for the project. I thought everyone was great. Judy Gold did a scene and I thought she was great and Lewis Black did a couple of scenes at a marriage counselor with his wife that were hilarious. Then Woody gives me a scene. It was the first time he called me and I’m not good at memorizing stuff. I really don’t like acting. I’m not good at this but in “Crisis in Six Scenes” Woody gave me a seven-page scene that was just me and Woody sitting in a diner. As an actor, you’re supposed to talk to somebody so you don’t exactly have to memorize your lines, you can anticipate the conversation but in this series, Woody was playing this paranoid character who was saying some really crazy stuff so there really wasn’t any interaction. He was just babbling so it was more like I just had to talk to him for seven pages.
The Interrobang: That is a lot of dialogue to remember! How’d you do it?
Bobby Slayton: I went to two different acting coaches and they both said to me, “You know, Bobby, this would be difficult for a real actor to do. I’m not sure how you’re gonna pull this off.” They weren’t very diplomatic. Usually you have one week to work on your scene but I got the script and I had two months. I was like how am I going to memorize seven pages?! It was almost like a monologue.
The Interrobang: Did they shoot it in different takes to segment it for you?
Bobby Slayton: I just memorized it. I went to two different coaches, called up some actors I know, put it on tape, I called up Richard Lewis who gave me some great advice…. I forgot what it was but he was thrilled that I was working with Woody. Richard’s a really great actor. Did you see him in Drunks?
The Interrobang: No, but now I wish I did. Tell me about it.
Bobby Slayton: It’s a movie he made called “Drunks.” Richard was an alcoholic for a long time and he played a drunk really well.
The Interrobang: Richard was 25 years sober this past August.
Bobby Slayton: Really? That’s great. He’s a great guy. So, I get the script for “Crisis in Six Scenes” and two weeks later, my wife dies. We were married for 30 years and now I have a dead wife, a grown daughter who is freaking out that her mom is gone and on top of that I had to memorize this seven-page scene. The one silver lining of my wife’s death was that I was in a house all by myself.
The Interrobang: This job was the perfect distraction from what you were going through.
Bobby Slayton: And I had nothing but time to work on it. I worked on that script everyday like I was shooting it the next day. I woke up in the middle of the night. I wrote it forwards. I wrote it backwards. I made myself crazy. The day of the shoot, I walked around the block in New York City 20 times working on it. I knew it inside and out but I was still afraid my mind was going to go blank. I finally sat there with Woody and I said, “Do you know how hard I’ve been working on this?” and he goes, “What are you worried about? If you fuck it up, you fuck it up. We’ll just shoot it until we get it. Let’s have fun.”
The Interrobang: Woody said that to you? That was the absolute perfect thing for him to say to you in that moment.
Bobby Slayton: He’s really easy to work with. Then he put me in another movie he did called, “Wonder Wheel.” The colors were beautiful. They recreated Coney Island from the 1950’s. It was pretty astounding. Here’s the best part. My manager calls me last summer and said that Woody wanted to know if I would do another movie with him in July. I was like, “Let me see if Zanies wants me. Let me see if I’m playing the Jukebox in Peoria, Illinois. Let me see if I can fit Woody in.” LOL… Then they said that he was going to be shooting in Spain and I was like, I would love to go to Spain!
The Interrobang: That is so cool, Bobby! You have no idea… My dream for the past few years has been to turn 40 in Spain this July and you got to go to Spain last July…. And shoot a Woody Allen movie!!!! That is thee coolest experience ever. Hands down. You win!
Bobby Slayton: We went to the Basque Country to a town called San Sebastian.It was a beautiful town. I didn’t make a lot of money but they flew me first class and put me up in a nice hotel. The money was not important. Woody pays pretty much everyone the same, scale, because everyone wants to be in a Woody Allen movie. So, I get the script and there is one line. I called up my agent and asked for the rest of my lines. Woody doesn’t give you the whole script. He’s like Larry David, he only gives you your scenes so I thought they forgot to send me the whole thing. Then they go, “That is your scene” and I was like, Woody is flying me to Spain for one line?!
My girlfriend couldn’t go because she has a business to run in L.A. and I wanted her to go but there was something great about going to Spain by myself. I got there two days early and stayed two days late and spent five days eating and drinking my way through San Sebastian. The food there is so good. They’re right on the water so the sea food is amazing and I love wine so it was pretty great.
The Interrobang: What a dream! What was your one line? Are you allowed to say it?
Bobby Slayton: I can’t say it. It was one line and we did it a few times. Then Woody says to me, “Do you want to try it another way?” and I was like, “No. It’s your movie. If you like it, I’m fine with it.” Then I took off my makeup and went to go eat and drink. That was great! It’s called “Rifkin’s Festival.” So that’s my Woody Allen story. Now I have “Curb Your Enthusiasm” coming out on HBO.
The Interrobang: How did you get “Curb”?! Who made the phone call this time and said, “Larry, I recommend this guy”? Was it Richard Lewis?
Bobby Slayton: No, actually a friend of mine, Jon Hayman is one of the producers on the show for the last couple of years. Jon grew up down the street from me in New York but we weren’t really friends because he was three years older than me. He was a big kid. I’d buy firecrackers from him. Then he moved to Washington DC and started doing stand-up and I moved to San Francisco. Eventually Jon would open for me because he’s a big foodie like me so we spent a lot of time together. Then he started working on “Curb” and there was one scene that came up and he said to Larry David, “Bobby Slayton would be perfect for this part.” Usually Larry always has to audition people but this time he was like, Bobby would be great and he gave me the scene.
The Interrobang: You didn’t have to audition? Send a video? Nothing?
Bobby Slayton: Nope. Nothing. When I saw Susie Essman, who I love, she said the same thing I had been saying. She loves working on the show so much because she hates auditioning and she hates learning lines. With “Curb” they give you a scene, they give you a couple of ideas, maybe they’ll throw you a line or two but they hired you because they know that you’re funny. When you watch that show every single person, every star, every guest star is hilarious. Have you been watching this season?
The Interrobang: I never miss it. A spite coffee shop?! How funny is that?!
Bobby Slayton: Right?! Mocha Joe! [laughing] I had always heard how they work so it was great getting to actually see it. They really have a great comeraderie because they’re all friends and I’m sure they’ve all figured out how to work together and ad-lib. I spent two days working with them. It was me, Jeff Garlin, Richard Lewis and Larry David. It was so much fun that it was actually depressing when it was over. I just sat there like, I wish I was doing this for the last nine seasons. It’s the greatest thing ever. They have fun and I think it shows when you watch it.
The Interrobang: Riffing with those guys must have been unreal. I’ve seen you improvise and kill with crowd work as well as with your joke writing ability. Which do think you’re stronger at?
Bobby Slayton: If I had to pick a branch? Well I like doing my jokes but I also go off on tangents and I do talk to the audience a lot. I think talking to the audience is a tight rope act and you want to walk that line. If you work without a net you’re going to fall sometimes but what I think I do that other comics don’t is I know how to move the audience in a certain direction. When you’ve been doing something for as long as I have you figure out a few tricks and if I’m talking to the audience and it’s not working, I go back to my act and make it look seamless.