Words of Wisdom from Brother Wags: Joe Wagner’s Savage Henry Interview

You’ve seen Joe Wagner road tripping with Zach Galafianakis in Live at the Purple Onion and watched the product of his writing talents on shows like Brody Stevens: Enjoy It! His production credits are all over the TV map, including Comedy Central, MTV, VH1 and FX. He’s also the director of The Midnight Show, an acclaimed monthly sketch show at UCB LA. And we would be foolish not to mention that Wagner will be performing at this month’s 3rd Annual Savage Henry Magazine Comedy Festival. Get to know Joe, why don’t you?

Isaac Kozell: You’re headlining the 3rd Annual Savage Henry Magazine Comedy Festival. How does it feel to be selected for such an incredible honor?
Joe Wagner: I’m headlining?! Oh shit. I feel very humbled and very self-conscious about not deserving such an esteemed position. But seriously…I do feel very humbled and very self-conscious. I don’t consider myself a formal “stand-up comedian.” More a comic bon vivant. I will try my best to entertain.

IK: How do you plan on spending your time in Humboldt between shows?
JW: Seeing other comedians, eating steak with Dr. Foxmeat and lots…of…weed.

IK: Where do you hail from?
JW: From the ages of 5 – 17, I grew up in a resort town called Sarasota, in Florida. It’s on the Gulf Coast, about an hour south of Tampa. It’s a beautiful miniaturized version of LA. There are dazzling white-sand beaches, a vibrant arts scene and some super-rich residents. The town’s “claims-to-fames” include the first beaches in the country to allow thong bathing suits, the movie theatre where Paul Reubens was busted for masturbating and the site of George W. Bush reading a storybook to children on 9/11.

IK: *In my best psychiatrist’s voice* Tell me about your childhood.
JW: I had a very nice, bucolic, pleasant childhood, full of love and support. No joke. Only child, no siblings. I was raised by my mom, my aunt and my grandma. They all came to this country from Colombia and became residents in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. They spoiled me and always encouraged my creativity. Like many comics, I grew up without a dad in the house, so I looked to superheroes as “father figures.” Now I look to guys like Marc Maron for that.

IK: The theme of this month’s issue is Choose Your Own Adventure. What books were you into as a kid?
JW: I read every Hardy Boys book. The Piers Anthony fantasy novels gave me some of my first boners. When “How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way” came out, I was incredibly excited, until I realized I wasn’t a good enough illustrator. I also religiously read a book I got about ninjas that was written by an actual ninja. However, in high school, I read less and less because movies stole me away from the written word.

IK: What brought you to LA?
JW: I was in my junior year of college on the East Coast. My friends, who I had met doing sketch comedy on campus, were a couple years older and had already moved out to LA to pursue sketch. They really wanted me to come out and live with them and would call me every other week, urging me to do it. Finally, I said yes. In 1993, I left school before graduating and moved into a huge house from the 1920s, near USC. The rent for my room was $220.

IK: Which came first: Stand-up, writer, producer, director…am I missing anything?
JW: My first five years in LA, I was in a sketch comedy group with my friends from college. We had people come and go but we kept plugging away at it, on and off, all through the ‘90s. While that was going on I started going to some of the alternative stand-up shows that were beginning, like the UnCabaret, the Diamond club shows and other coffeehouse shows that would eventually become the Largo and M-Bar shows. When the sketch group took a break, I really didn’t know what I was going to do. My roommate at the time went to some open mics around ’96 and I tagged along. The stand-up was so good, I remember thinking I wasn’t sure if I was up to trying it, since sketch acting had been my only mode of performance until then. So I just went to watch – and learn – for the better part of a year. Then after seeing Zach Galifianakis make it seem so easy one night at a mic in a coffeehouse called Peterson’s, I got mad and jealous and decided to take the leap. I really only performed in LA for about 4 years regularly, while still doing sketch. Eventually, my sketch group got a little development deal, we had some meetings and out of that I got my first writing job for a Comedy Central game-show called “Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush” about 7 years after getting to LA. Also, the first big dot-com craze was happening, and I paired up with a good friend, Aaron Lee, now a writer for Family Guy, so we could pitch flash-animation shows to some of the early comedy sites. From there, we got some writing jobs for a bunch of Viacom cable shows. That experience led to producing and developing shows.

Directing The Midnight Show came about because I was at the UCB LA all the time when it opened. I made friends with a lot of the first wave of performers taking classes, including some of the early sketch groups that went up there. One day, while hanging out, Michael Busch, one of the creators of the original ensemble, asked me if I would direct the first show. I enthusiastically accepted and today we’re still going strong as one of the signature shows of the theatre. In fact, this August’s installment is our six year anniversary!

IK: For those who haven’t seen you perform, how would you describe your comedy style?
JW: Erratic, spontaneous, meandering, with long silent pauses. Some jokes, some rants. Occasionally, performance-artish. Always captivating.

IK: Can you recall the best show you’ve ever had?
JW: Yeah, for one specific reason. It was at a stand-up show at the Alterknit Lounge, which was a smaller room connected to the music club The Knitting Room in LA. It was packed and there was a great vibe in the room. I killed and got off to massive applause. Then I went and crouched in a nook where Sarah Silverman and Nick Swardson were hanging. Sarah looked at me and said, “Your lips are so beautiful. I bet they’re great to kiss.” Luckily, my momma didn’t raise no dummy, so I said, “Yeah, they are. Wanna see?” So we kissed right there – TWICE! – in front of Nick. Only later did I realize that, beyond my animal magnetism, Sarah was getting a rise out of Nick, who had a small crush on me, because he was into bears.

IK: Worst show?
JW: Easy. I did a sports bar in a strip mall in Phoenix called Chili Bombers. My friend booked me. I was nervous but had just read Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up and was full of creative courage. I went up second and ate hot, shit-filled death. For the rest of the show, every other comic made fun of me. I felt awful and afterwards spent an hour walking through a Walgreens, while speaking to a friend over the phone who assured me I was ok and that what happened was like “if you went into a punk club and played Belle & Sebastian songs.” I’ll never forget that.

IK: As the Director of The Midnight Show, do you think it’s beneficial for stand-ups to diversify their performance efforts by adding sketch or improv? Or do you think it’s best to pick one thing and master it?
JW: If you are a stand-up, do stand-up. If you are a sketch person, stick with sketch. However, if you wanna see if you are both, try it. Some tools of sketch acting can be very beneficial to act-outs and characters in routines. I don’t think anyone should feel any pressure to master multiple forms of comedy. But if you’re curious, go for it. And let the diversity of your talents carry you organically into different performing scenarios. Don’t necessarily push it.

IK: Last year you made a personal, formal push for more diversity at comedy shows. You specifically advocated for more female comics on show lineups but the conversation eventually expanded to diversity in general, i.e., more than just white dudes. Have you seen a noticeable change?
JW: I have several female friends in stand-up and I’ve been around female comics for almost 20 years. I’ve heard them talk about how it sucks, how it was worse, how it’s gotten a little better and how it could still improve drastically. Overall, I think it’s a relatively better time for female comedians but that means the door has creaked open just a slight bit. Look at live line-ups, festival announcements, comedy specials, TV showcases. Commonly, women still only make up about 10-15% of those, which in my opinion, is not a fair representation of all the amazing female talent out there right now.

I’m not demanding specific quotas, or ignoring minorities as well. I just personally like seeing people I normally wouldn’t see on a stage. Like a woman. Or a black gay guy. Or a transgender prop act. I think more diverse booking can lead to more interesting, informative and ultimately, satisfying stand-up shows. I believe it’s good for comedy as an art form that should provoke thought and broaden an exposure to what is “not like you.” Comedy is built on the “unexpected.” The 17th white guy is what I expect. As an audience member and fan, I’m asking bookers to change it up and surprise me.

As I see it, the biggest game-changer for women in comedy right now is Twitter because women are getting their voices out there, unfiltered and not screwed up by years of sexist club guys telling them “how to be funny.” Twitter is already generating new female TV writers and stand-ups. It’s a great equalizer like that.
IK: What other cool projects are you working on right now?
JW: I’m very excited about a single-camera sitcom pilot script that Paul Danke and I just completed. It’s funny and real and has heart and all those other buzzwords. Paul and I are getting feedback on it now, tweaking it and preparing to take it out as a pitch later this year. I’m committed to giving it the best “producer push” I can and that feels very cool.

IK: I’m listening to Big KRIT ‘s “Something” as I type this and he just said, “Protect yourself from AIDS.” That’s good advice. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
JW: “Relax about comedy. It’s supposed to be fun.” Something Chris Hardwick said to me backstage once when I was going on and on about being tortured over what my “comedic voice” was. It stopped all my bitchin’-and-moanin’ instantly.

Follow Joe Wagner on Twitter @Brotherwags

About Isaac Kozell

Isaac Kozell is a New Orleans based Writer and Standup Comedian. He spends his spare time skateboarding, gardening, and reminiscing about that one time back in '99 when he was invited onstage to perform with the band Sugar Ray.

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