“I dunno…barking?” If you dare to ask another comedian how to produce a good comedy show, this is the type of response you’ll get: vague or completely misguided. Our frustration with unhelpful responses to straightforward questions about comedy is what inspired my co-host, Jake, and I to create Green, a podcast where us green comedians talk to much better comedians about stuff they’re really good at.
Jo Firestone has produced dozens of beloved New York City comedy institutions such as Punderdome 3000, a contestant-based show that squares off pun-o-meter-rated pun-slingers that has been adapted into its own board game, The Inner Beauty Pageant, a talent, swimsuit, and interview competition for loveable oddballs, and the Unexpectashow, a show that changes format every iteration to bring you something completely new and chaotic every month. And Firestone has parlayed her hosting and producing expertise into writing/producing for television shows like The Special Without Brett Davis, The Chris Gethard Show, and, currently, The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. If there’s anyone who knows about producing independent comedy shows, it’s Jo Firestone.
But let’s say you’re not Jo. How do you produce a comedy show? Jo sat Jake and I down to tell us exactly how, step-by-step, along with a few crazy stories too.
A giddy Jo Firestone sits across the table from me, delighted with the memory of a comedy show she once produced here in New York, one that went so awfully wrong that it evolved into perfect chaos. It’s all she can do to keep from laughing as she sets the scene: “I did this one show when it was still called The Treehouse—the PIT Loft—they needed programming, like really bad,” she recalls.
So Firestone asked for a five hour block of stage time and they readily agreed. Her idea was a Hands-on-a-Hardbody-inspired show called “Last To Leave” the worst ever five-hour comedy show where the performers were told to deliver the most boring, excruciating material possible. The last to leave “without checking their phone or leaving to go to the bathroom or going to sleep would win $100!”
“And people came in knowing it would be a bad show?” My co-host, Jake, jumps in to ask. “Excruciating, yes!” Jo smirks.
Excruciating: an accurate description of hundreds of dilapidated New York City comedy shows that transpire each week. And those are shows that aren’t even trying to be painful. Jake and I were meeting with Jo to record a podcast episode about learning how to produce a comedy show the right way—to avoid the pain and discomfort so many people associate with alternative comedy. As we’d discover, you can learn a lot from failing, too.
When it comes to comedy, Jo operates on chaos. “I think chaos is really funny,” she says. “I just like the idea that somebody asked somebody out on Tinder like, ‘Do you want to go to this comedy show?’ expecting just straight stand up or just tittering of laughter and then they show up and feel like ‘WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON!?’”
There’s such a sensory overload, just so many comedy shows in NYC that you see and you’re like, “Okay, moving on.” But chaos leaves you with something to think about. This is why Jo establishes a crazy set of rules for each of her smorgasbord of shows – rules like: “Every time a fan goes off, everybody has to scream and run out!” Excitement generated by an environment of controlled chaos. “I love rules because it gives people license to act crazy!” Jo says. “I feel like our world is so chaotic that to have chaos without consequences is a little bit refreshing. A little relief.” If you create a structure that allows for chaos, that’s what ultimately makes a good show, “Whereas actual chaos is not super—it doesn’t leave everyone feeling great.”
The razor-sharp edge between controlled and uncontrolled chaos is quite familiar to Firestone, and sometimes not everyone does leave feeling happy. Jo tells the story of how one of her Unexpectashows went horribly wrong when she staged an adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs and hired the comedian J.D. Amato to stop her from putting on the production as part of the show. The night before the show, Amato smashed all the props and Jo had to write an abridged script. From an email account that was one letter different from Jo’s, Amato messaged all the performers the day of the show saying it was off: “Don’t show up, the show is cancelled.” Many of the performers didn’t show up or only showed at the last minute. Amato had one of the performers kidnapped and put in handcuffs on the rest. There was also an undercover spy on “The Silence of the Lambs” side that was telling Amato all of Jo’s plans. And then when the show actually did commence, J.D. brought MMA fighters to come in and physically stop the show. And it got really violent… “I had to send eleven emails apologizing to people. It was not good.”
Jo categorizes countless shows like this as “failures,” but she also says those failures have taught her lessons about the location of the line between controlled and uncontrolled chaos. It’s all about failing, and failing big: “I would say, based on my experience, that you can do a lot of really bad shows and you can do a lot of poorly executed ideas and it only makes you better. Because people, sure, will remember your failures, but only for so long.”
Five hours into “Last To Leave,” Jo is struggling to make it through her own purposely-worst-comedy-show-of-all-time and wondering if this show is doomed to be one of those “failures.” Jo is stressing that there are still six people left in the audience when she only has one $100 prize to give out. Total. As the show comes to an end, Jo tries to tell them the show is over and it’s time to head home, but this only makes the remaining audience members want to stay more. The audience thinks this is all still part of the show and Jo is just trying to yank their chains…besides, why would they leave NOW when they’re so close to winning that $100!?
Over the span of a couple more hours, one person is like, “I gotta change my tampon, I’m leaving,” and then the manager of the comedy club finally erupts, “Get the fuck out! I’ll give you $40 to get out!” So he pays one of them $40 and another one $60 to just leave the theater. Finally, it’s down to just two men who refuse to leave. The lights are up in the club and the theater has been cleaned and everybody just wants to go home. The performers plead with the two remaining audience members, “Come on—let’s just go get a beer—we’ll get you a beer.” They don’t fall for it.
Then Jo comes up with an idea: “So then we’re like, ‘Okay, it comes down to a wrestling match. You each get to choose a performer to represent you and whoever wins the arm wrestling match wins the $100!’” Ultimately, the two remaining audience members agree!
Through her failures, Jo’s learned how to make some pretty amazing shows. “How do you get into show business?” she asks herself. “Okay! First you gotta sleep with someone, then you gotta do your work!” She thinks for a second. “Don’t sleep with anyone—that was a sarcasm.” She pauses again, before retracting her statement: “Sleep with people if you want to, but be good about it.”
Jo’s rules for producing a comedy show are just as involved as those she invents to control the chaos of a live show:
There are a few other points she considers just as important, but didn’t really go with her initial list. “And really get a venue that you think you can fill. If you think you can get seven people to a show, do a show in a minivan. But if you think you can get forty people to a show, get a space that holds thirty.” Getting a big crowd, relative to the size of the room, is important to making everyone feel good about the show. A small space that feels packed is more important than a big space that isn’t full.
Also, “If you email them and no one responds, go to the bar—go to the venue and talk to someone. It’s way easier to talk to someone in person than it is to email.” Pondering the complexities of human interaction, Jo corrects herself: “It’s not as easy to talk in person,” she says. But it is in terms of “getting something done.” Jo also says an important rule for any show to follow is if you charge money for the show, that’s great, but you have to pay the comedians. And finally, “Don’t even fucking print the poster. Make a cool poster, but just put it online.”
Why even put on a comedy show in the first place? “I think ultimately what you want to do is not put on live shows in basements. You’re trying to get somewhere else. Right?” Jo suggests. “So what are you trying to get out of it? Are you trying to get out of it the fact that you can try something and fail and keep going? Are you trying to get out of it that you can execute an idea? There are things you can take out of it regardless of the success of one show.”
The most important part of hosting a show is that you’re getting something out of it as a producer. Yes, you certainly need to be appreciative of the other comedians who are helping you put on a fun show, but you’re the party host. The anchor. The one who’s making it run smoothly. If you’re not using the show to help yourself grow as a comedian, then you’re wasting your time. “So don’t put on a show because you feel like you have to because everyone else is. Put some thought into what you really wanna do on stage and use that time.”
For instance, Jo likes the idea of transporting an audience—taking them other places from where they started. She finds ways to transform shows into scavenger hunts or races or other performances during the middle of the show. She creates something that she thinks is fun, worthwhile, and a cool throwback to the comedic stylings of Steve Martin.
The only thing that’s preventing you from putting on a cool show and making something worthwhile is laziness. “Everyone’s lazy. I’m lazy—we’re all lazy,” Jo laments. “And everyone is trying to figure out what everyone else is doing ‘cause that seems like the right thing. Nobody knows what they’re doing! Just do what you wanna do. If you don’t want to put on a show, you don’t have to put on a show. You never have to do anything. You don’t have to do stand up if you don’t want to. You can do weird characters in the subway.”
Jo boils her advice down to one simple idea: “Just go see stuff—see what you like and make stuff like that.”
At this point, “Last To Leave” isn’t turning out to be “the stuff” Jo had originally envisioned. The two remaining audience contestants choose one of the performers to represent them in an epic arm wrestling contest. Suddenly, the energy that had been wrung out of the room throughout the mythically unbearable show surges back at the thought of finally being able to close down the club and go home. The two arm wrestlers rip off their shirts and pull out a table as everyone starts chanting. “It’s very exciting and people are like, ‘Ooh, what’s gonna happen!?’”
The two arm wrestlers battle back and forth. At any moment, either could win. Finally, there’s a winner and the performers erupt! The audience champion, ecstatic, is crowned, while the other guy sits alone, incredibly bummed. “And it was so exciting,” Jo tells, “Because it had been five hours of excruciating comedy and everyone was so happy to be done with it…they lifted up this guy who won and had him on their shoulders, chanting his name, very exciting, his name was Lorenzo and everyone was chanting, ‘Lorenzo! Lorenzo! Lorenzo!’”
Having hoisted Lorenzo up in the air in triumph, all these people start heading out of the theater with him on their shoulders. At which point, Lorenzo slowly begins to realize that, if he leaves the theater first, he’s actually not going to be the winner at all. “So he starts clawing at the seats and the walls! And then the performers realize that he will lose, so they’re pulling harder! And he’s screaming ‘No! No!’ and then the other guy realizes that he will actually win and he’s like ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ He was so excited…”
And so, with one big yank, Lorenzo was lurched out of the theater and out of his shot at $100, turning the loser-by-proxy into winner-by-default!.
Jo couldn’t have foreseen this particular variety of chaos when she birthed “Last To Leave” into the world. But it turned out to be something so chaotic and memorable that, at the same time, it’s hard to imagine how it couldn’t have happened that way. Jo’s stories prove to us that some shows are going to be hits and others will be misses; it’s just the nature of the game we play. The important thing is that we keep creating and trying. And failing. Because you can’t make anything worthwhile if you don’t do the work.
“It just takes a while,” Jo sympathizes. “And I know that’s not great advice, but it does. It’s just the thing where, on the flip-side, you can work really, really hard and nothing will happen overnight and that’s kind of almost comforting. Where you’re like, ‘Oh—I can keep messing up and I can keep failing and it’s okay because everybody fails for a really long time.’ Nobody has expectations for you.”
This article was written by Stu Melton, creator of the blog A Comedian’s Notebook and producer/co-host of the seasonal podcast Green, where this conversation with Jo Firestone happened. If you want to hear the rest of Jo Firestone’s fantastic producing advice, along with tips from many other great comedians on subjects like writing for television and performing on late night, you can subscribe to Green on SoundCloud or iTunes today. Episodes 1-3 are out today and subsequent episodes of the first season will be released every Monday.