By David Gavri
Slade Ham is an established veteran in the comedy scene, with a wrap sheet of achievements. Averaging more than two hundred shows a year, Slade has performed in twenty-two countries across the world on four different continents.
A seasoned headliner at comedy clubs all across the United States, Slade also toured extensively as a feature act for both Ralphie May and Christopher Titus, having the opportunity to open for Titus’s 5th Annual End of the World Tour at the South Beach Comedy Festival for Comedy Central. He has also headlined for XM/Sirius’s two hour long, Best of Texas special in 2006, and all three of his full length albums are played daily on both the Raw Dog and the Blue Collar Comedy stations. He is also a regular on the nationally syndicated Bob & Tom Show, co-host of The Outlaw Dave Show in Houston, and host of the wildly popular bi-weekly Whiskey Brothers Podcast, which boasts more than 25,000 subscribers.
Slade Ham is on the verge of something huge. As comics, we are all lucky enough to learn from him. He’s here today to set us straight. Slade gets serious about being funny, sharing his insight and advice as he pushes us in the right direction.
First things first, tell us about yourself as a person and as a comic. How’d you get into comedy?
I think every comedian’s story is similar and it’s always usually bullshit. Whatever “origin story” we publicly come up with to justify why we do this, the truth is that we do this because we are horribly damaged human beings. Nobody normal chooses this path.
Public speaking with no guarantee of a financial payoff? Guaranteed failure in the initial stages? I get why lots of people try it once or twice, but those that stick with it are scary people. I am motivated by a very masochistic sense of adventure. That, and it’s powerful to have a microphone and everybody’s attention.
Everybody likes to call themselves a “comedian”. But when can one truly have that title?
Clearly, any time they choose to if you look at the state of “comedy” today. When should they? When people start consistently paying you to do it. If you’re a waiter that pops up at open mic once a week, you’re not a comedian. You’re a waiter that wants to be a comedian.
People are so focused on labels and titles though. Call yourself whatever you want, the audience will see straight through it if it’s bullshit. I’ve driven a tank before, but I don’t consider myself “Slade the Tank Driver.” That was a super shitty analogy, but I’m too lazy to come up with a better one. That, and I just wanted to point out that I DROVE A TANK. A FUCKING TANK. Anyway, you get the point.
A tank driver is a real job, but most people don’t believe being a comedian is a “real” job. How do you deal with the pressure from family members and close friends who may not approve of, or maybe just don’t understand this profession?
Fuck ‘em. This isn’t about them. My family is actually very supportive. My mom has never wanted anything other than for me and my brothers to be happy. This makes me happy, end of story. I have lots of friends that don’t get it, but they don’t really have time to bitch about it because their bosses have them locked in cubicles handcuffed to spreadsheets.
Many open mics out here separate the lists by pros and amateurs. What constitutes a pro comic versus an amateur comic out here?
If you’ve been paid to do comedy, you’re a pro. Let me clarify that. If you’ve been paid by a legitimate comedy club to do comedy, you’re a pro. It means someone who understands comedy has given you their blessing in the form of a check.
Getting paid at a self-produced, dive bar show because you made a pretty flyer and you tricked eight people into paying five bucks doesn’t count. Also, a pro doesn’t tag fifty other comics on that stupid little flyer either. For the love of Christ, stop that. Seriously.
That’s my official distinction anyway. On a deeper level, pro versus amateur is a mindset. It’s the way you carry yourself, your dedication, the way you approach failure, and how you personally handle negative situations. A pro accepts that all of this is part of the game. An amateur cries about it and uses it as an excuse.
How do you define success in the comedy world? Is it defined by the number of fans you have, the amount of money you make, the amount of bookings, contest wins, etc?
Success in comedy is totally subjective. There are guys with movie credits that will tell you they haven’t “made it” yet. To me, it’s doing this for a living—getting to travel the world and not be at the whim of a boss. Comedy has taken me to twenty-two countries and I haven’t paid a dime for any of it. If it never gets any better than this, I’ve already won.
But all these stats don’t matter though. Success is a guy that can rock any crowd, anytime, anywhere. Having put enough into the game to have a set that crushes is a feather in the cap that you cannot forge. In that sense, not having my lights turned off is just a very happy bonus.
You used to own a comedy club. Tell us about that experience. How has it made you a better comedian?
I owned my club for five years, and they were probably the most formative five years of my career. I was in a comedy club literally fifty-two weeks a year. If I wasn’t on the road I was going up in my room. Stage time is everything and I had access to it.
More than that though, I got to watch amazing acts four shows a weekend. I don’t think this new batch of comedian gets that. They don’t watch comedy. I don’t mean whatever crap act Comedy Central has decided is the hip thing this week, but real, working comics on a live stage.
Watch a pro work both shows on a Friday. Pay attention to the details, what’s improvised and what’s scripted, how they handle hecklers or waitresses dropping trays, how they rearrange their act, what bits they drop, and what stays the same. It’s stuff you can’t ever pick up on watching an edited down stand up special. It’s fascinating to me how many comedians don’t hang out at The Comedy Showcase or The Improv on the weekends.
Comedy is a one man sport. But how important is it for comics to come together rather than rip each other apart?
Tricky question, with the scene fragmented the way it is. Comedy is built for the lone wolf. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t get more done as a pack. Look, you have to be confident and comfortable standing alone to do comedy. All the friends or supportive scenes in the world don’t mean a thing when it’s just you in a room full of strangers.
You don’t get that until you get outside the loop, that first night in some small town one-nighter with another comic you’ve never met along with a hostile crowd. The lions will eat you, and you can’t make them stop with hugs. You need a thick skin, and you only get that from learning to stand on your own. Being overly-coddled at home is actually counterproductive.
I think comics need a group of people that can be objective with each other. You don’t need smoke blown up your ass, you need legitimate support and you need to hear the truth. That’s how you improve. But negativity just for the negativity’s sake of it is wrong, and I think there’s a lot of that going on right now. It’s unhealthy.
Let’s talk about Houston’s Funniest Person Contest for a bit. First of all, WHY DIDN’T YOU WIN?! But seriously, talk about the contest and how you felt overall.
I haaaaaate contests. Hate. Passionately. With that said, I entered with every intention of winning. Contests trigger something different in me though. It’s hard to explain, but I don’t do well. Whether it’s shorter sets than I’m used to, or the fact that it’s not just a regular crowd, I don’t really possess that muscle.
Barrett (Goldsmith) and Matthew (Broussard) both kicked ass in the finals. I had no problem losing to those two. I think Barrett is one of the sharpest writers this scene has seen in a long time.
I think contests are great for younger comics though because they force them to develop a ten minute set in a structured environment instead of flinging stuff haphazardly against the wall like open mic does. Matthew really figured it out somewhere around the beginning of the contest. He got the math of it all, the formula behind ten minutes worth of jokes. It’s up to him where he takes it from here, but it’s good to see something like that come from a contest.
Being a seasoned veteran to the Houston scene, what can the Houston comedy scene do to improve overall?
Write some jokes. Andy Huggins and I talked about this the other night. Certainly the scene needs to come together, but I think that if everyone simply worked on their acts, things would sort themselves out. Gimmicky shows and playing to the back of the room is so pointless. And anyone that asks anyone to choose one stage over another should be slapped, open-handed, like a bitch.
The Houston scene was the most fun (and beneficial) to me when it was unified. It will be again, just because the comedy gods tend to spit out the chaff. But regardless of what room is what, the act is the thing that matters. There’s a huge gap in the scene between opener and headliner.
No one is really hungry. There’s no middle class. There are maybe three guys in Houston that can pull off a feature set? That’s absurd. Nobody is pushing to actually develop a functional show. It’s all about cracking up their peers on a Monday. I can’t take those idiots on the road with me.
Every comic has their own unique creative writing process. Some write in their notebook or talk in their tape recorder, while others simply like to free flow on stage. Describe your own unique process.
I’m still pretty methodical about things, but not like I used to be. I keep a notebook in my backpack, Post-Its on my desk, and Evernote on my phone so I don’t lose anything, but most of it happens organicly on stage. The podcast is a huge breeding ground for ideas, too.
Ultimately I just work it all out on stage though. I write a lot performing live. Loose ideas and a punchline or two are enough to go up with, and then I tweak it from there, sandwiched between two bits that I know work. The process is pretty pointless though. It’s the results that matter.
For all comics out there, what is the best overall advice you can give?
(Doug) Stanhope once said to me, “Don’t give advice to comics. You’re only telling them how to be more like you.” I’ve learned to agree with that. Just get on stage, man. The stage works it all out.
How about some advice on what NOT to do?
Don’t listen to anything anyone says unless you really, really think it will help you. Do what feels right. If you’re wrong, you’ll know. And don’t listen to people that obviously don’t know.
There are a handful of people in the Houston scene that I honestly believe are poisonous. Either they have only been on stage a handful of times themselves, or they have been doing this for a decade plus and still only have seven minutes of stuff that doesn’t work, but they are the first ones leaping in and filling young kids’ heads with whatever drivel they think they deem important.
Don’t listen to anyone that isn’t three or four steps ahead of where you’re trying to get. They don’t know how to get there or else they’d be there already.
Comedy can be frustrating and depressing at times. How do you stay motivated to keep grinding day in and day out?
We’re back to that masochism thing. I’m used to hearing the word “no”. Club bookers don’t return emails. Publishers send rejection letters. Girls shoot you down (I’m kidding about that last part. I’ve never experienced that.). You just have to trust that the yes’s will come too.
Stephen Pressfield says, “Do the work.” It’s that simple. Google “Pressfield” if you’ve never heard of him. The grind every day pays off. My office at home sees me every single morning whether I want to be there or not. It’s typical risk versus reward for me. I’m willing to chance that it is in fact worth the effort, and so far it has been.
Speaking of hard work paying off, let’s talk about the Whiskey Brothers and the podcast. Anything you’d like to tell us?
We’re amazing. Bow before us. Seriously, haha, BOW. Actually, it feels very good to be part of something so amazing. We’re developing a cartoon around the concept right now. The first script is written and we’re talking to animators. We’re tiptoeing up to the 150th episode. We’ve had over a million total downloads. A fucking MILLION.
It’s become a point of pride that we don’t ever actually talk “comedy” on the podcast and that we just try to be as funny as possible. A lot of ‘casts are the standard fare “So how’d you get into comedy?” sort of interviews, and we shy away from that as often as possible. A ton of people were already doing that earlier and better than we ever could have.
We had a moment on a recent episode where (Christopher) Titus and I dipped into a conversation that sort of became this sanctimonious ramble about how I address tragedy, and Johnny interrupted me with a simple, “Yes. Please. Tell us more about your craft.” It was relieving to get called on it, and we were able to go back to being funny again.
We rarely talk as seriously about it as we should, but I think all four of us are really, really proud of what we’ve created.
Talk about your future as a comedian. Everybody has their own goals in comedy. What are yours? What is the greatest achievement that you wish to accomplish in the future?
I’m pretty simple, really. I don’t like to look too far into the distance because I think it takes away focus from what’s happening in the now. Up and forward though. I want to find a publisher for my book, get the cartoon off the ground, finish a particular movie script, and work better rooms each year.
Oh, and replace my entire act with a new one. Past that, we’ll just have to see. I do know that every time I accomplish one thing, the next goal gets bigger. I trust myself to head into the right direction.
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Interviewed and written by: David Gavri