Barry Katz: Turning Nos Into Yes

Barry Katz Interviewed & Written by Al Bahmani Edited by: Magee Miller

What do Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, Dane Cook, Jim Breuer, Nick Swardson, Tracy Morgan, Bill Bellamy, Bill Burr, Jeffrey Ross, Bert Kreischer, Darrell Hammond, Whitney Cummings, Bobcat Goldthwait, Jay Mohr, and Louis CK have in common? Other than being funny, they were all managed by Barry Katz.

Most folks remember seeing Barry giving Orny Adams sound advice in Jerry Seinfeld’s  “Comedian” or more recently bumping into Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Richards in a recent episode of  “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Like a later day Swifty Lazar, Barry Katz has signed over 100 television deals with his clients and produced over 50 different TV stand-up specials, (INCLUDING ONES With DANE COOK, JAY MOHR, NICK CANNON, SINBAD & EDDIE GRIFFIN), documentaries, and multiple television series including “Whitney,” “Mr. Box Office,” “Action,” “Mohr Sports,” “Frank TV,” and seven (7) seasons of “Last Comic Standing.” Barry was also instrumental in helping Dave Chappelle, Jim Breuer and Neal Brennan sell “Half Baked” to Universal.

His “Industry Standard” podcast debuted at Number 3 on the iTunes charts. The podcast is recommended listening for anyone wanting to get involved in the entertainment industry. Not only are the episodes inspirational, but you find yourself cheering for and learning from people you’ve probably cursed at or vilified at one point in time or another. Without any further delay, here’s a most candid interview with manager/producer/podcaster Barry Katz.

Like every comic, you started your journey on the ground floor of an open mic. What made you decide to shift your focus from performing stand up to managing stand up comedy and ultimately producing comedy?

I actually originally came from, not only, the ground floor but the basement floor. I had a basement apartment in Boston. It was so funny. I got it from an open micer I saw in Boston. This guy, he brought a parasail into the comedy club and he’s doing a five minute routine with a parasail. Oh my god! Talk about a commitment to an open mic. He also happened to be a real estate agent, and I asked him if he had anything. He said, “I have this one place for you to look at.” It was one hundred and fifty bucks a month. No hot water charges, no electricity charges and it was a basement apartment that stretched the whole length of the building. I went there and it was a bomb shelter. That’s where I had my offices. I renovated everything. That’s where I started.

One of the things I realized, I loved stand-up. I wanted to do stand-up and started doing stand-up. There was Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait, Denis Leary and Lenny Clarke, Jonathan Katz, Paula Poundstone. There were these people that had these comedy acts that were so unbelievably unique and special. I knew I could make people laugh and be funny. I just didn’t feel like I had the writing style to be able to put something like that together. It was sorta not coming off the pen that way.

I saw these people and I saw others in Boston. Not just those, but other comics were drinking and doing drugs and fucking around. It was never my mantra. It seemed like a big part of their life, it was more like “How do I get that next line of coke?” or “How do I toke that next joint” or you know “How do I fuck the next waitress?” I wanted to feel more in control and more in power. I started booking people and booking rooms and selling the concept of booking comedians. l was more in control. I liked that.

It was more annoying, in the sense that, you know just booking these shows, I just didn’t see an end to it. I didn’t see anyway to move up. Even if you were at the top agency in the world… you were doing the same thing getting on the phone and just booking things for the Eagles, which would of been a great living for somebody. Just getting on the phone and booking things, I just didn’t feel right. I wanted to be more creative, so I decided I wanted to be a manager. I met with Jason Solomon, Denis Leary’s manager at the time, and I realized what I wanted to do.

Barry Katz with clients Jeffrey Ross, Jordan Rubin, and Dave Chappelle at the Olive Tree Cafe above the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village in New York City.

Barry Katz with clients Jeffrey Ross, Jordan Rubin, and Dave Chappelle at the Olive Tree Cafe above the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village in New York City. Circa 1997.

I took my car and I drove to New York, got an apartment. I went to a comedy club I knew that was closing in the village on West 3rd street. The owner gave me the shot to turn it into the  Boston Comedy Club. I started bringing people on stage like Chappelle, Jay Mohr, people like that… and I started managing them. At that level no one was managing them and they weren’t making any money. I had money from the comedy club in New York and the ones I had in Boston, so I had a little bit to sustain myself. So that’s when I went on from there.

When I went to Los Angeles, I found out I wanted to be producer of a television show at that stage. I aligned myself with talent where I could be an executive producer of shows. I realized I could create some shows. From there, that’s what I wanted to do. I liked making an impact on artists. Later on, I realized that it was frustrating making an impact one artist at a time and that’s how the podcast evolved.

When you managed your first artists’ careers, was this on the job training or did learn something that taught you that earlier?

I had a degree in some sort of psychological stuff from Sargent College at Boston University. I worked with disabled kids and adults for five years before I got there when I was a teenager. I was always a calm, methodical and a creative guy. I think part of representing someone is letting them know you’re persistent and you’re a go getter and you’re also going to be able to handle every situation when you’re in the thick of things in a war you know.

In your podcast you talk about managers turn “No’s” into “Yeses.” What can an entertainer do to stand out and turn a “No” in a “Yes”?

When I say it, it sounds simple, I realize it’s not. Lets face it, the first time Steven Wright walked onstage and said, “I have the oldest typewriter in the world, it types pencil.” I mean there’s no fucking doubt that there’s something special happening. “I used to work at a place that manufactured fire hydrants. You couldn’t park anywhere near the place.” “I went to a store I knew was open 24-hours and it was closing. I asked the manager “Why are you closing up? The sign says you’re open 24 hours. He looks at me and says, “Not in a row.’” You see three jokes like that right in a row and you know. How is that guy not going to be on television? Will he make it as an actor or any other areas in his life? Will he want that? Who knows? In his case, he lives on Block Island by Martha’s Vineyard. He tours theaters, he’s never gone up or and never gone down since he’s broken. He’s like a car moving steadily at 65 miles per hour.

My god, when you watch Jim Jefferies do a set. Is there anybody that watches the guy and goes “Nah! This guy is so derivative, I’ve seen this before. The way he acts out the guy with no legs killing his model girlfriend for 15 minutes and drags himself across to the stage. I’ve seen that a hundred times!” Nobody ever says that. You’re watching a true original. You tell me, you’re a comic… you tell me… has there ever been a comedian that you’ve ever seen that doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink, doesn’t chase pussy that is a complete and utter original that has not made it? Can you name anybody?

No, I can’t.

So if your content blows people the fuck away, how can you fail?

I just did four one-hour specials in Santa Barbara with Jay Mohr, Kirk Fox, Brad Williams and Ben Gleib. For instance. Brad Williams is a little person. Do you know of any little person headlining theaters? Right away there’s a reason this guy’s doing well because there is nobody doing it. You still have to get the laughs. Now if he were an able bodied comic doing the kind of material he is doing, would he be as big as he is now? The answer is no. Because the act is a novelty, about a guy who is 3 feet tall. It’s powerful stand-up… the material that he does. Would he say, “I am equal to a Jim Jefferies? Or Richard Pryor or Bill Cosby?” No, he wouldn’t. He’d say he is working really hard towards that and hopefully, like Carlin, he’ll evolve into something from the Hippie Dippy Weather Man to something even more relevant. You can be on the path to that.

Kirk Fox is an incredibly original comedian. You can’t get the guy to leave Los Angeles to do a gig. I think he’s been doing comedy for ten years. I bet you can count on half a hand the amount of comedy clubs he’s worked outside of a thirty-mile radius of LA. He just doesn’t want to leave. The guy would rather make less money, work on acting jobs and do whatever. He’s an incredible storyteller and when he tells the story of how he married Clint Eastwood’s daughter and it was annulled after three days. He’s on the golf course with Clint Eastwood and Clint looks at him as says, “Listen, if you just wanted to play golf with me, all you had to do is ask. You didn’t have to marry my daughter… you son of a bitch.” And Kirk says, “Thank you! I’ve always wanted you to call me son.” He’s an original.

Ben Gleib, he’s highly original! He’s been doing stand-up a long time and he finally got his shot. There are a lot of nos. A lot of years making no money, and if he was making money, it was shitty money. So to be honest with you, you have to stay true to your voice and do great stuff. And if you’re kicking ass as a comedian… I think I said it in the podcast, if you’re a musician and you’re getting standing ovations every night in Peoria, Illinois, you may never “make it”..  even though there are so many singers who are amazing. But if you’re a comedian who is doing material like Carlin, Pryor or Cosby and you are doing comedy every night in Thailand and it’s in a strip club and it gets recorded. People will find you on the internet and chase you like your ass is on fire. You WILL make it. How many comedians do you know that get standing ovations every night that haven’t made it?

Good point. What can a comic do to keep themselves from self destructing?

The trouble is comedians are broken people. That’s what makes them comedians. And that’s what makes them so great. The pain comes from the hole that’s blown through them. The tough thing is almost every comedian’s foundation is cracked. That’s what makes them brilliant. I don’t think Robin Williams could do what he did being completely able-bodied and mentally sound.

Self destruction is the big thing in comedy and in any profession, to get to that next level you need is mental toughness. Mental toughness is at the top of the umbrella chart. Mental toughness keeps you from smoking that joint with that friend who’s a comic. Mental toughness keeps you from getting too drunk after the show. It keeps you from gossiping. It keeps you from chasing pussy and staying up all hours of the night.

Look, what guy in their right mind after a show, if a girl from the audience who is beautiful and charismatic says, “ Listen I want to spend time with you,”, takes you home with her and you’re up till five in the morning with her. What guy in their right mind is not going to be excited by that and be happy? That’s not to say that shouldn’t happen in your life. Why aspire to do anything? If you want to smoke a joint with a friend once a month, who cares? The point being, those people do things to excess and can’t do a little bit. They can’t do it. They can’t just chase one girl. They just can’t have one joint. They’re addicts. They’re addictive personalities and that’s why they need the laughter. I’ll give you an example and I don’t know this about you. How long have you done stand up?

13 years.

Honestly per week, how many hours per week “I’m just fucking around, I’m either just hanging with friends, having a drink, surfing the web?” How many hours a week are you not going to enhance your life in any way?

(Pause.) Ten hours.

Are you ready for this? This is going to blow you away. You’re going to need to sit down for this. An average of ten hours a week, and lets just round it off to five hundred hours a year, times thirteen years is sixty five hundred hours divided by a regular forty hour work week is a hundred fifty-two and half weeks divided by fifty two weeks a year. That’s over three years of your thirteen years has been spent being non-productive. If you just spent those hours for what you love in life, what your passion is, you would have had another three years of experience under your belt. People don’t realize that.

So you waste those extra hours, the way you’ve been doing it, don’t apply yourself. In essence, you’ve actually only been doing it for ten years… not thirteen years. You, personally, fucked around for three of those years. I think that’s what holds a lot of comics back.

Recently Warner Bros. Studios announced 9,000 Layoffs across the board. What words of wisdom do you have for anyone who has lost their job?

If you’re doing extraordinary work and you’re working harder and smarter than everybody else and the content of your work is at a higher level than everyone else, you’re not going to get fired.

If, by chance, you do get fired… like Kevin Reilly did at NBC after having six hit shows on the air and they let him go… guess what? Somebody is going to call you. And the Fox Network called him within 3 to 6 months and he became president. If you do great work, it doesn’t matter if you get the shit kicked out of you. Look at me. I’ve been fired more times than you can count. It’s crazy. It’s what’s happened to me and I know my part. What it is and I have to look at myself. The thing is love or hate me, I hope people realize I have something to say that’s valuable. Even the people who have fired me have recommended me to people all the time. It’s the craziest thing in the world! I get emails every week, recommending me. Why did people that let me go recommend me? It’s a nice feeling. It would be nicer if I was still working with all of them. Shit happens all the time. Look at Basketball. Do you think Mark Jackson, the recently fired coach of the Golden State Warriors, is going be without a job that long? Do you think John Gruden wouldn’t be able to get another one? John Farrell won a world championship last year in Boston. This year the Boston Red Socks are one of the worst teams in the league. You think if he gets fired, he’s not going to find another job? He won a championship. People have off years. You’ve got to be the best representation to yourself and aspire to be at the highest level. Once you do that, it’s impossible to fail. 1045241_407277639388651_1605153128_n Every Monday You Can Listen To Barry Katz’s Industry Standard Podcast on iTunes and Where Ever Fine Podcasts Are Found.

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