From the Working Comedian: Interview with Will Durst

Comedian Will Durst paid a visit to Pandora HQ in Oakland and brought the funny with his Emmy-nominated political satire. He has appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, Comedy Central, HBO and Showtime. Will has also been featured alongside some of the statesmen who have tickled his funny bone over the years — Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Al Gore. After his performance, Will sat down with me to discuss his first open mic, the charms of terrible comedy venues and what he’d be doing if he wasn’t skewering leaders on both sides of America’s political divide.willdurst

What do you remember about your very first open mic or the first time you did comedy?

WD: A friend of mine told me about an audition for a comic to perform in between musical comedy acts at an airport lounge. I was writing a humor column for the underground newspaper in Milwaukee at the time, so I cobbled some funny bits from that and I put together a seven minute act…and I died a horrible death. There were five  people at 5 PM in an office, running this comedy audition, sitting in comfy chairs with coffee cups full of scotch. It was awful, it was just awful.

But I had a seven minute act, so I went down to the open mic at a place called The Rusty Nail to practice. It was also a bar that was part of the Milwaukee School of Engineering and so we’d have these guys playing foosball and pinball and watching Monday Night Football. The bar turned everything off for the comedy, and they hated us for that. They would try to yell out people’s punch lines and screw with the comics. So it made me learn to bob and weave, to come up with additional punch lines or pace it differently.

Did you get into comedy because you wanted to engage politically?

WD: In ’74, we had just pulled out of Vietnam, Nixon had just resigned, and everything was political. Blue jeans were political, haircuts were political, the dinner table was political.  And then I came to San Francisco and just caught that wave, because in the 80s, the phrase was “comedy is the new rock ‘n roll.” We were alternative compared to the guys wearing tuxedos, doing mother-in-law jokes on The Johnny Carson Show. We had the language of rock ‘n roll and the 60’s generation. The audiences were people who would go to concerts, but they wanted to sit down and hear the lyrics. That’s one of the reasons that comedy just took off – that along with cable. Cable TV discovered that comedy was a cheap product. You didn’t have to pay music fees or writers. Clubs started sprouting up all over the country, and you could tell which cities were the last to get cable because they were the last to get comedy clubs.

Were there any comedians who inspired you to get into standup?

WD: There was a guy named Albert Leonard Schneider, commonly known as Lenny Bruce. He probably inspired me the most. I also admired Carlin, but I really, really wanted to be Lenny Bruce. Mort Sahl a little bit, too.

Are there people who have come up recently that you’re a fan of?

WD: Patton Oswalt, Greg Proops, there’s a couple kids in New York — Lee Camp.  Lee Camp is very brave. Alonzo Bodden and Baratunde Thurston. And then the old guys, Barry Crimmins, Randy Credico, Jamie Kilstein, and Barry Weintraub. There’s only about 20 full-time political comics in the entire country.  Club owners don’t want political comedy, they want something that will make the audience drink beer.

Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 9.54.56 AMWho have been your top three favorite political targets?

WD: Reagan, George W. Bush, and Quayle. Clinton was good, too, but in 1998, it was “Oh, Monica Lewinsky!” Suddenly every two-bit hack was a political comic, even though there was more to it. A similar thing happened with Bush because there were comics who’d never done any political material, but they got onstage and they couldn’t help themselves. It just spewed out of them and you had people actually branching into the political comedy world, which was great.

What do you think you would do if you weren’t a comedian?

WD: Lawyer. Captive audience.

What’s been your favorite performance?

WD: Every comic has had that one performance where every syllable and every gesture is perfect. The crowd was with you and you fed off that energy and they gave it back — so from then on you judge every performance on that one. And I haven’t had that one yet.  I’m looking forward to it.

What was your worst performance?

WD: So many of those. It was the second week of a paid showcase and I was headlining. I get there and it’s the “Country Showcase.” There’s a paper plate Scotch-taped to the door and the back of the paper plate has the dress code. There’s seven things for the dress code. Number five is “all knives must be sheathed,” but “sheathed” was spelled wrong, with three Es — “sheethed.” And you look at the stage, and it’s this rough-hewn corral, like for horses, in a weird-shaped room with a 22-seat bar that leads to a bowling alley with swinging doors at the end of the bar. You could hear the bowling pins during the show. There were about four people in the audience. It was hysterical and perfectly hideous.

What can Pandora listeners expect when they create a Will Durst comedy station?

WD: A Will Durst station will take you back to a frozen moment in time. I have stuff from ’82, from ’90, from ’96. The jokes are always funny and they’re always true. That’s what I promise, funny and true.

Kelly Anneken

Comedy Analyst http://www.pandora.com/profile/kanneken

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