“The Comedy Jam” series airs its third episode tonight, starring Big Jay Oakerson, Mark Duplass and Jim Breuer set to bring down the house. Each week, the rock and roll comedy docu-series features three comedians performing songs that mean something to them, with a live band, and sharing a story about why they chose that song.
But before there was “The Comedy Jam,” there was (and still is) its live theater equivalent– “The Goddamn Comedy Jam.” The GDCJ has been a sensation in LA clubs and across North America since creator Josh Adam Meyers started the show back in 2014. I talked extensively with Josh about the history of the show, and it’s a story he was more than proud to share. Meyers’ love for the show is evident in every sentence, and in the live show versions, his stage contributions are essential- he is the heart of the Goddamn Comedy Jam.
The roots of the show actually go way back to 2008, when Meyers- a stand up comedian with a love for performing music, started to casually combine his interests, hanging around a place called the Unknown Theater in the Hollywood theater district. After the comedy show, the owner of the theater used to open up the bar and let everyone party and have a good time. “We had musical instruments laying around and we would all start jamming after the show. I wasn’t very good at stand-up at the time, but I was as a musician when I was younger, it just kind of- I became the ring leader of it,” Josh explained.
This led to a sort of precursor to the show, that took place at that same theater. The formatting was loose- not all of the comedians sang. The band would be on the stage, and comedians who wanted to do a song could. When that theater shut down, Meyers moved everyone to a cafe in Sherman Oaks, where Adam DeVine’s performance gave him an idea. “I booked Adam DeVine on the show. It was a fun crowd, but he just didn’t feel like doing stand up and he just did this song with the audience that was like a cover, but he changed it to work for him and the audience went bananas. That was back in 2010, and that was when I was like, “Okay, this is what the format of the show should be.”
Meyers sat on the concept for a bit, needing to focus on other things in his life, but in 2014 he found himself at a bit of a crossroads. “I had done New Faces at Montreal. Everybody else that I went to Montreal with was kind of blowing by me. I was still working a day job and I was like, “I don’t know what to do anymore.” I wasn’t having fun.” Meyers was considering a move to New York to shake things up, but before he did, he wanted to try to formalize the show he had played around with years earlier; not because he thought it would lead somewhere, but because it would be fun. The idea became the Goddamn Comedy Jam. It’s new home, the Roxy.
“In 2014, when I was ready as a performer and, like I said, there was that stalling point in my career, I was just like, I want to try it with that format. Where the comedians all have to sing a song.” He shared the idea with a few comedian friends including one very popular comedian who he looked up to (he declined to name names) who told him it wouldn’t work as a show, and another who advised him that he needed a through line to connect the show. That gave Josh the idea to have the comics tell a story about the song before singing. “I never expected it to be these long super funny stories. I just wanted them to give the reason behind it. From that first show, the stories became so important, and it really brings the connection between the comedians. On the live show, we’ve had some comedians talk about growing up gay, and not being able to tell anybody so that’s why they want to sing “Rocket Man” by Elton John. This song reminds them of this person that passed away, and then we also have the super funny ones. It just really brings the heart behind why they’re covering Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’.”
If Meyers is the heart of the show, the soul is the band that plays every song, every genre, with an energy and a ferocity as if they were born to do this. Everyone involved in either incarnation of the show — live or televised– agrees that the show would be nothing without them. But finding them, Josh told me, was the easiest thing in the world. He met Joel Rutkowski and Nick Liberatore, who were in a band called Elemenopy back when he was at those jam parties at the Unknown Theater. “They were so talented, and I immediately hit it off with them.” They kept in touch, and would jam together occasionally, and when Meyers had the idea for the GDCJ, he brought it right to them. “They immediately were receptive to it and were like, “Oh yeah of course. We just want to find another reason just to play with you.” It was very, very easy to get them.”
The show thrived immediately because it was fun, had a ton of energy, and was completely original. “Right from the jump, it was just a hit,” Meyers said. The first show sold out in about an hour. It’s been sold out ever since. “It wasn’t about where it was going, it was just about how much fun it was. Everyone was like, this is insane. This is so good.”
And it didn’t hurt that Bill Burr did the first show. Burr and Meyers had become friends back in the days of the jam sessions and parties at the Unknown. “I hadn’t seen him for a few years, and right when I had this big idea where I’m going to do the show, I ran into him at the Comedy Store and he came right up to me and he’s like, ‘Dude. We should start jamming again,’ and then I said, ‘Well, I got this idea.’ I pitched it to him and he was so excited about it,” Josh said. “Once I had Bill, that was when I knew I had to do the show. I found a venue, and Bill did the first show and told everybody.”
By the second show, industry was showing up- managers, agents, and people from networks, including Comedy Central. Josh’s buddy Byron Bowers saw what was happening, and brought up the buzz to Josh. “I go, ‘dude, it’s not about that. It’s just to have fun with it. I don’t want to get my hopes up like I did with Montreal. I just want to have a good time.'” Even now, Josh attributes the success of the show to not caring about the success of the show. “I never put the success of the show in front of, or the success of me in front of what the show was. Like I said, it’s just such a good time. If I’m having the time of my life, then the audience must be really enjoying themselves. It’s just beautiful. It really is. It’s just this magical little event that goes on.”
Another component of the fun, especially for the audience, is the presence of the show’s roadies. Johnny Skourtis and Jeremiah Watkins work non-stop to involve the audience in the show, encouraging everyone to dial up the energy way past ten. If you see people dancing on tables, jumping on the stage, or causing any kind of mayhem, it’s probably because the roadies goaded them into it. The inspiration for the roadies came from a friend of Meyers who passed away, Angelo Bowers. “He was such a good person and his whole thing was just about having fun and enjoying himself. We used to riff and make fun of each other. He kind of had this very cocky character that he would do to me because he always used to think that I was very full of myself when I was early in the game, and Angelo played this character,” he said. “When we were getting to start the show, I would have made him the roadie because I wanted him to be a part of it if. A friend of ours, Johnny Skourtis, who’s this overweight, chubby, I don’t even know what he is. He’s so racially ambiguous you can’t tell. I went up to him and I said, ‘would you want to play like a roadie character on the show just to kind of keep the energy up?’ He was into it and I said, ‘just do a blatant Angelo Bowers rip off.”
“At the beginning, he wasn’t so much getting the crowd pumped up; he was just getting drunk and the audience loved him.” Josh added. One week, Johnny couldn’t make it and Josh asked Jeremiah Watkins to fill in. “Jeremiah just brings such a different energy than Johnny, and they work so well together that it just stuck and now we have the two of them. I love them so much.”
Josh admits that he can’t fully explain why the show works. “When you read the premise on paper, you’re like, ‘oh God. This sounds horrible, but there’s something so beautiful about it.’ It’s not just the comics opening up and the comics performing because you want to root for them. You want to root for these comedians. If you go see your favorite band, you know they’re going to blow you away.”
He continued, “comics are going out of their element. The fact that they’re kind of baring themselves and showing you a different side you’re so behind that. You get excited, and then you see how hard they’re committing to it. Because they’re committing, and then you look over at the band and the band is just rocking or playing as hard as they can. You see me going– dude, I’m like crowd surfing and throwing my body around, and then you see these two — this heavy, overweight, Mexican guy roadie and this skinny, long haired, whatever Jeremiah is spastic dude gyrating. You get behind that and you see how much fun we’re having and it just creates this super fun, nobody’s being judged, just a good time.”
Meyers might not know exactly why it works, but the structure he set up for the show has a lot to do with it. Yes, it’s a fantasy for many comedians to get up on stage and play rock star, but it’s not as easy as you might think for them to do it. Even though they are all seasoned performers, for most of them it’s terrifying. Bill Burr did the GDCJ at the Gramercy Theatre in New York City the night before playing Madison Square Garden, and said he was more nervous to play the Gramercy than MSG. Josh said that for many of the comics, when they’re on stage at the Jam, they’re telling their story and all the while, there is a clock in their head, that’s thinking ‘”Oh my God, as soon as I’m done with this I have to sing my song.” “Unless you’re like Matteo Lane that is just so, so talented, I mean most of these people are just afraid. They’re just so afraid of having to sing,” he said. But from the minute he hits the stage to warm up the audience, Meyers is working that room, getting the crowd ready to love every performer, telling the crowd they need to commit to the show to make it all work and throwing himself in at full speed, showing the audience rather than telling them how to enjoy the show. And when the comics see how supportive the audience is, they relax. “Nobody wants to see anybody fail and nobody ever has failed.’
The Comedy Jam television show and the Goddamn Comedy Jam are two sides of the same format. The live organic experience at the Roxy, and the documentary about this real event that’s going on in Los Angeles. The documentary experience continues tonight on Comedy Central, with three amazing comedians, three celebrity guests, and three songs you won’t want to miss. Tune in at 10pm to watch Big Jay Oakerson and Lukas Rossi performing “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol, Mark Duplass and Kevin Cronin performing “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon, and Jim Breuer and Rob Halford performing “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” by Judas Priest.