Tonight on Comedy Central, “The Comedy Jam” makes its series debut. The Jam, which in its live incarnation goes by the name “The Goddamn Comedy Jam” has been a sensation in LA clubs and across the country (and yes, internationally too) since creator Josh Adam Meyers started the show back in 2008 at the Unknown Theater. The Comedy Jam brings stand up comedians to the stage to perform like rock stars with an ass-kicking house band. Before they do, they share a short story about why they chose their song with the audience, and the experience is electric, and it’s the most fun you can possibly imagine having at a live show.
Comedy Central ran the show as a special in August 2016, and soon after gave a series order. Starting tonight, the network will air eight episodes starting every Wednesday, but don’t expect to see the same show that you watched back in August. After seeing the special air, the show’s creative team realized they wanted a different feel for the series and fine-tuned the show to get the results they were looking for. I spoke with producers Mike and Tim Duffy from Ugly Brother Studios and series creator Josh Adam Meyers about the new look and feel of the show. (I also talked extensively with Josh about the history of the show, check back next week for more on that).
“When we did the special, the special was great. I loved it, but it was missing something,” Josh said. “It just didn’t look like my show. It was missing the grittiness and the rawness.”
“It kind of inspired all of us to get back to our roots,” Tim Duffy explained. “Mike and I are documentary storytellers, that’s what we do, we make unscripted television and so what we really wanted to do was take a fresh position on a performance based show. This is not So You Think You Can Dance, this is not Lip Sync Battle, this is the Comedy Jam.”
The new series has indeed recaptured the grittiness, the rawness and the energy of the live shows. “That was what I wanted,” Josh said. “I remember when we pitched it to Comedy Central, I explained it. This should be like a Comedy Central’s Last Waltz. Like a documentary about this thing that’s going down in Los Angeles. Doesn’t look produced and just a real event. I really feel like we did that.”
To make that happen, Mike and Tim used their experience in documentary storytelling to showcase the Comedy Jam from the point of view of the comedians, rather than from the audience’s perspective. “What we wanted to do was make the viewer feel like they got a backstage pass to something that is happening already, so it doesn’t feel contrived. In making that choice it also allowed us to deliver the truth of the experience of the participants themselves,” Mike said. It works. “It’s a simple twist on a variety show, you know, what if you had three great performances per episode, but instead of spending time on the exposition and the introduction of these performances you get right into it.”
He continued. “The heart of great storytelling lives in the heart of the storytellers. We were able to position the story through the lens of the performers themselves. That’s the part of the story that is grand and unique and fascinating so that’s where we always go, in our business, in what we do, is we go straight to the thing that fascinates us the most. And the thing that kept coming back to us over and over again that started with Josh Adam Meyers and ultimately kind of finished with the network was this notion of, ‘Well what’s it like for these heroes that you know pretty well to go up there and be as vulnerable as they need to be?'”
It was an interesting move and one which ultimately pays off beautifully, but at a cost. Telling the story from the vantage point of the comedians meant the disappearance of a familiar and vital component of the show– creator Josh Adam Meyers is not seen on screen in the series. It may not seem significant if you’re unfamiliar with the show, but Meyers and his road crew are the lifeblood of the live shows. Mike Duffy acknowledged Josh’s importance to the show. “Josh created this whole thing and one of the things that Josh has created is the amazing energy of the live show. That’s Josh.” It’s also Meyers who has created the environment that brings an incredible roster of comedians to the table. “He has such good will in the comedy community because these comics come on and they’re doing something they’re very uncomfortable with, but because of the show that he put together and the band, who are the unsung heroes of this entire series.”
The decision also helped to tighten up the timing. “In the half-hour format, we knew that we had to really truncate so we decided to cut out any of the conventions of event television and instead tell the whole story through the perspective of the comedians and the comedic actors and musicians,” Mike explained. “That meant we are backstage or we’re on the side of the stage instead of on stage right before these comics are announced. So what you saw from the live show was Josh doing his thing, he comes in and out in between performers, he warms up the crowd, he does his thing with the Comedy Jam Band, but really it’s about using the half-hour format to really showcase the performers themselves and not make this feel like it’s been eventized for a television show because the raw nature of it, is the thing we wanted to deliver.
Tim added that right from the first time he met Josh, Meyers was adamant that the show was not about him. “It’s about the guest stars. It’s about the people who come in every week and bravely go where most comics don’t want to go. Which is to the very, the front edge of their greatest kind of fears,” he told Tim. “These comics are coming into this environment having mastered the craft and they’re in front of a big audience, in front of a microphone in a very familiar scenario, in a very familiar setting, but a completely unfamiliar scenario which is all of a sudden they are raw and real and vulnerable again as they try to display this kind of talent that the audience never thought they had, in most cases.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the glorious wonderful Comedy Jam Band. “It’s all about the band,” Meyers told me. “That band, I love those guys so much. Just to see those guys go from these small bar shows to playing the main stage, that is just the most beautiful thing in the world.” Meyers met the band back in 2008, when he would hang around after shows at the Unknown Theater. “I met Nick Liberatore and Joel Rutkowski, who were in a band called Elemenopy. They were so talented, and I immediately hit it off with them.” The band, Mike Duffy agreed, makes everything possible. “Our band, they are the most amazing musicians, certainly I’ve ever worked with. I mean you’ve seen the show and I know you were at the tapings and all, they’re just unbelievably talented and that cannot be overstated. These guys, without them, this show doesn’t have the range that it has in terms of musical genres,” he said. “The ability for these comics who are not trained musicians to step in and perform with this band at an unbelievably high level, that all has everything to do with who this band is.”
Another key component to achieving the rawness they were looking for, was the choice to shoot the series as a live event this time. No pickups. No do-overs to disrupt the energy of the performance. This time, Mike said, they embraced the flaws. “There were mistakes and we wanted to make sure that we delivered an honest performance, not something that felt like it had been recorded multiple times.”
Josh said that change really captured the energy they were looking for. “When we did the taping of the series, it was doing an actual jam with me, Razorblade, mosh pit, just like doing the show like we normally would. That’s what I know the executives wanted. They really wanted to make sure that they kept all of that energy and that love that we have for the show. Give that to the audience and the comics performing. I couldn’t be happier with what we did. It’s so great.”
Tim also credited director Joel Gallen for creating the flow and authenticity of the performances. “He’s a virtuoso. He’s a master in the chair as a director, as a showrunner. We identified this desire to keep things moving and keep things real and not stop down and the man is an absolute genius. He was meticulous in how the show was shot, how the pacing of the show was going. He did everything he possibly could to ensure that the audience in the theater would walk away from an evening of two episodes back-to-back going, “That just wasn’t a great TV show, that was one of the best live events that I’ve ever been to.” That really comes through in the shows themselves.”
And of course, the show doesn’t happen at all, without the comedians performing, and they all worked hard to give the best performance not only comedically, but musically. Mike pointed right away to Bobby Lee, who worked so hard to make his song great in the two weeks of rehearsals. “He had never sung like that before in front of a big audience and of course he gets up there and he sees how hard work it was and Tiffany Haddish and these are people that already had great voices, but Bobby Lee has to follow that, how’s he supposed to do that, right?”
Tim brought up Jim Breuer whose performance, he promised is one going to blow your mind. “When you see a legend like Jim Breuer get up on stage and honestly tell the audience that this is one of the best moments of his life, you get chills,” he said. “He got up on stage and he’s like a hero of ours as a stand-up comic, right and the opportunity to work with him was fantastic, but he gets up on stage and tells this incredible story about his love of a particular type of music that basically leads to the reveal of him singing with Rob Halford. To witness a man of his skills be humbled in the face of being able to perform alongside one of his heroes was a breathtaking moment for us as producers. To hear this rock metal god come out and sing alongside Jim Breuer who by the way, sings his ass off, it was just a breathtaking experience.”
Mark Duplass gave what Tim called “probably the most unique of all our performances in season one.” He said because Mark is an actor, writer, and director, he is a tremendous storyteller, but he’s not a stand-up comic, so that presented different challenges. “He basically got up there and did eight minutes straight of this unbelievably heartfelt well choreographed multi-faceted performance that was unlike any other performance.” He described Busy Philipps channeling Courtney Love as “an alternate universe”, and Mike said that seeing Tiffany Haddish in an amazing gold dress channeling Tina Turner was “one of the most amazing moments I’ve ever had as a friend and as a producer.”
The entire series is truly special, and Meyers said he can’t wait to share it. “I’m so excited for the world to see this show. I’m so proud of it, I’m so proud of what Comedy Central did, and the Duffys, and Joel Gallen. They really crushed it and I just hope it keeps going because I would love to be doing this for the rest of my life.”
You can see all these moments and more starting tonight, Wednesday, March 22nd at 10pm on Comedy Central when season one of The Comedy Jam makes it debut! And if you love the series, make sure you get a chance to see the guys live. They are going to be touring the country starting in April.
“We have the Wild West Comedy Festival, April 18th and 19th then the 20th and the 22nd, we’re at Moontower, and then we’ve got Clusterfest in June in San Francisco, and a whole bunch more we can’t really announce yet. We’re going to keep touring until my knees give out,” Meyers said. “Six-year old Josh wanted to be a comic and wanted to be a rock star and couldn’t make up his mind of what he was going to do for his life. Even at 14. If you would’ve told a 14-year old me, I’d be doing both, I’d be the happiest person in the world leading up to this. From now on, it’s just enjoying everything. There’s nothing that makes me happier than doing the show.”
Watch The Comedy Jam every Wednesday on Comedy Central at 10pm! Tonight’s episode features Bobby Lee, Tiffany Haddish, and Chris Hardwick performing with Richie Sambora.