By Leo Goodman
If you’ve made yourself a regular at any number of clubs in New York, odds are you’ve seen Bob Dibuono a few times. With a talent for voices and impersonations that has also earned him regular airtime on a number of radio and tv shows, this hard-working comic has been in a fixture in the New York circuit. On a stoop half a block from Stand-up New York, where Bob regularly produces shows, the hard-working comic sat down to talk about producing show, creating impressions, and what not to do when peeing before a big gig.
BCT: So how long have you been doing comedy, and did you come to New York specifically for that?
BD: I did. I started about 14 years ago, and you know the first couple years of being a comic you’re just trying to get on stage. The first couple of years it’s almost like it doesn’t count, because you’re not even getting stage time, I was getting up maybe twice a month for like five minutes at New York Comedy Club. But I came to New York to get into comedy and break into the business. For the first six years I had a day job, cause obviously you can’t survive on it, it wasn’t until about six and a half years ago I went full time as a comic, and now I’m working on the circuit.
BCT: I know you also do a lot of work for various tv and radio shows.
BCT: What sort of stuff do they have you doing?
BD: Well, I do a lot of voice work, characters. It’s like everybody has their strength. As a stand-up I started out as a sketch guy, working over at Caroline’s Comedy Club, doing walk-around impersonations.
BCT: Walk-around impersonations?
BD: Yeah, it was a place called Comedy Nation, it was a restaurant where they would have walk-around entertainment. I was one of the entertainers in this troupe where we would just walk around while people were eating. We’d do sketches, and improv, and I would put on all these characters and come out and do impersonations.
BCT: Some diners have people singing, and some …
BCT: So you weren’t a waiter, you were just –
BD: An entertainer, yeah. It was right above Caroline’s, where Ruby Foo’s is. I would come out as Bill Clinton, full outfit, a wig, makeup, come out at Jack Nicholson, Ralph Cramden, all these wacky characters. Our shifts were six or seven hours, and it was exhausting. It was a long shift, you’d just be entertaining people the whole time while they’re eating.
BCT: Would you be a number of different characters in a shift, or would you just be Bill Clinton all day?
BD: I would be Bill Clinton for, let’s say two hours. Then I would go downstairs, change, come up fifteen minutes later and I’m Ralph Cramdon.
BCT: The characters that you ended up doing in that, do you still do those same characters in your stand-up?
BD: Some of them. If I’m working an older audience then I’ll do older impersonations, if it’s a younger audience … you know, it’s all predicated on how big the demographic is in the audience.
BCT: Gonna bring Bill Clinton back, since he’s now kinda in again?
BD: Yeah, now it’s relevant, so maybe
BCT: Do you have a particular method of building an impression of someone?
BD: I feel like characters are developed where sometimes you’ll take things from a bunch of different people you know and suddenly it morphs into one person. Like, I might know this guy, and there’s something quirky about him … you just pick up on different things; this guy has a weird way of talking, this guy has a funny cadence, this guy always says this funny terminology when he’s talking to you, and before you know it you’ve put it all in one and made your own little person out of it. That’s how the most original characters are created. Like my dad is an original character, he doesn’t think it’s funny. I do my dad all the time on stage, and he doesn’t … usually the most funny people in the world are not comedians. There are people that don’t know they’re funny. I think comedians, we’re the reporters, we’re the messenger. We’re the ones saying “look how insane and hilarious these people are.” The most hilarious people are never comedians. I can’t ever be funnier than my dad, and he doesn’t know he’s funny. That’s the difference.
BCT: Does he get pissed that you do him on stage?
BD: Yeah, yeah, he’s like (Bob’s voice morphs into a nasel wine that wouldn’t flatter me either) “I like when you do these celebrities on stage, but when you do me it’s not funny.” “But dad, the audience is laughing.” “No, they’re laughing because they’re nervous. That’s why. Don’t do me, do the Bill Clinton.” He gets outraged, to this day. He hates it.
BCT: They’re laughing because they’re nervous.
BD: Yeah, really, that’s why? They’re nervous so they laugh? Cause, again, that’s how people usually are, they just don’t see how funny they are. Comedians, we’re just the reporters of what’s funny.
BCT: And you still produce shows at Stand-up New York?
BD: Yeah. For comics to make a living in this business we all do things on the side, you know, within the craft, to make extra money. Obviously making a living in this business … there’s no middle class, you’re either doing really really well and you’re a big household name, or you’re a guy who’s on the circuit with a tv show, or you’re just a grunt. You’re hustling to make your money, you’re doing shows in the middle of Pennsylvania at a firehouse on a Saturday night for $300 just because you don’t have anything else, and you’re not doing the Improv that weekend. So a lot of us, until you get to that place, they either teach classes or they write blogs to get paid. For me, I started producing shows because I was just trying to get stage time. What I did was, all the shows in the city that were new talent shows were horrible, because they were all new talent. (Bob is speaking here of what are called “bringer” shows, where new comics can get stage time by bringing enough paying audience members) Your friends would come out cause you’ve dragged them all out to see you and then the show is all new comedians like yourself, and your friends are like “Jesus, we spent a lot of money, what a waste. We want to support you but we don’t want to sit through that.” And then you feel like you’re guilting them to come see you, you feel bad cause you’re know you’re kinda scamming them cause there’s nothing in it for them, you just need people there to get on stage. And I was just frustrated and thinking there’s gotta be a better way. I was a marketing guy for a long time for Clearchannel, and I thought you know what, I wanna create something where my friends can come out and there’s no pressure for me to be funny. I’ll just be a little sidebar. You know, I’m gonna put on a pro show, like they would see on a Saturday night at the Comedy Cellar, and then I’ll put myself on. So they get to see me, unfortunately, but either way they’re gonna see Caroline Rhea or Dave Attell or Jim Norton, some really good headliners. And then the show blew up, it branded itself, at first it was one show a month, now it’s six shows a month, I’m doing it for 12 years and it still goes on to this day. It’s probably the most high-profile show in New York City.
BCT: You do six of those a month?
BD: Six a month, yeah. It kind of runs itself like a machine, I don’t advertise. It’s all word of mouth, people tell each other.
BCT: I do remember, the times I did your show, that it wasn’t just a night of amateur comics. It was five of us who had to bring audience, five or eight real pros, and I remember in the middle of it Dave Chapple just wandered in and got on stage. It was like “oh, everyone got a good show tonight.”
BD: Yeah, and that was great for all of us comics, no matter what level we were on, because then when we invite people we know there’s something for everybody.
BCT: So obviously you work at Stand-up New York mostly, what’s your second favorite club in the city?
BD: I perform at a lot of clubs, I perform at Dangerfield’s, Broadway Comedy Club, Caroline’s, Stand-up New York. This has been my home club, where I started, but I work probably four or five clubs in the city, and then on the road I work around the country. I like all the New York clubs, I think New York has such a great vibe. The people here are intelligent, they’re young, they’re hip, and you can tell a joke that’s a bit edgy and know that they’re smart enough to get it. They know you’re being edgy, being a bit ridiculous, and not get offended.
BCT: Do you prefer when there’s more locals in the audience or do you like having an audience that’s full of tourists?
BD: I like locals. Well, I don’t know, tourists that are from outside the country are very difficult because their sensibility is a lot different from ours. They watch comedy the way they watch theatre. You know? You might as well hand them a Playbill because it’s like they’re just watching a presentation. They’re not as much audience-participatory as people who are from the United States. So I like working in front of local New Yorkers or a national audience, but international … it’s tougher.
BCT: You don’t think that’s just a language thing?
BD: Yeah, but it’s also a cultural thing. You could have a guy in the audience who’s from India, his disposition is a lot different, or an Asian man, than an American. Just the way they handle themselves. They tend to be a lot more inward when they respond. They’re not gonna be laughing in the aisles. It’s the same as if you go to a black show, or a Hispanic show, and then go to an all white audience. It’s totally a different energy. It’s really the way you’re raised, where you come from, your culture.
BCT: Do you like to do a lot of crowd work?
BD: When you get so sick of doing your own material … right? Like when you’re thinking “I’m just so sick of doing these jokes,” and you haven’t written anything, so I’m just gonna go talk to this bald guy in the front and see what goes from there.
BCT: And just hope that he hasn’t been picked on by every other comic that night.
BD: I think you can naturally do crowd work and do it creatively and actually create something organic, if you’re willing to take a risk and be creative and think outside the box. Keep it within your own perspective, your individuality. If you’re a guy who’s just like “oh, a table of chicks, it’s the lesbians,” that’s stock crowd work. And then there’s relating to the crowd as though we were at a party and just having a conversation. You know what I mean?
BCT: Actually making it seem like they can get in on it, even though you don’t really want them to talk very much.
BD: Right, right. And also what I’m saying is, people think crowd work is stocky, like oh, anyone can do it. Well, anyone can do a stock joke, too. A hacky joke or a hacky bit, and anyone can do stock crowd work, too. Anything you do on stage can be organic, if you choose to take the risk it can be unique. So I like to do crowd work when I’m tired of what I’ve been doing, and I find that I can actually create and find new bits and material from talking to this guy. Cause he’s gonna give me information and that information can give me an idea that I can improv off of, and from that I might write a whole routine on it. I do like crowd work a lot.
BCT: And what you were saying about being unique with it … for myself, I find that there’s nothing more irritating than seeing every single comic hit on the same girl in the front row.
BD: Yeah, yeah.
BCT: And every time someone goes up she knows she’s about to get hit on again.
BD: That’s why if I see everyone hitting on that girl, when I go up I wanna make her cry.
BCT: Oh, you don’t wanna change it around, you wanna go further?
BD: If everyone’s hitting on her, I’m like good, now I wanna change it up and I wanna hurt her feelings. Why should we all make her feel like she’s important? You know what I mean?
BCT: So you wouldn’t just ignore her?
BD: No, I wanna break her down.
BCT: Oh, poor hot girl.
BD: Because I’m threatened by her beauty and I feel like I’m not good enough, so now I wanna hurt you. Because my parents are divorced.
BD: So I don’t feel worth it.
BCT: The lesson being: if you’re hot, don’t sit in the front row, no matter what.
BD: Yeah. Hide in the back. Cause you’re gonna get hurt. It’s coming.
BCT: Now, as you said you’ve been working in New York for the past fourteen years, full-time the past six years. Are there trends that you’ve noticed in the type of new comics that start up? Or anything that you see new comics do that they should all know not to?
BD: Well, I think most comics … being original in anything takes a tremendous amount of courage. With any type of vocation there’s very few pioneers, and everyone else follows. You know? There’s always gonna be one eagle and then fifty flocking behind that eagle. It’s kinda that way in comedy. There’s new comics that are all emulating their favorite comedians. If you’re in the Alt scene there’s a few comics that are alt favorites, like Louis C.K., and those people are all trying to be that guy. When Dave Attell was huge, and he still is, there’s that group of guys that are trying to be the edgy Dave Attell. They’re all trying to find their voice, and they don’t have one, so they’re all just emulating someone they love. Which is irritating, because a lot of them walk around and they go “look at me, look how funny I am,” but it’s like you’re not original, you’re just copying someone. I don’t know if it’s a trend, it’s just a lot of comics spending a lot of time emulating other people.
BCT: You’re an impressionist!
BD: Yeah, I know. You’re right. What does that say about me? You’re right. But you know what I mean.
BCT: Yeah, I know, you’re trying to make your own brand.
BD: I’m saying I impersonate people but that’s not my persona. My persona on stage is Bob Dibuono, and part of my arsenal is the fact that I do good voices, I can impersonate people out there that I wanna make fun of, and that gives the audience a little more, something that they can experience.
BCT: Are there any characters, any celebrities that’s you’re working with a lot right now?
BD: I do a lot on Jim Breuer’s radio show on Sirius, and I’ve been doing Matt Dillon a lot. I go on the show as Matt Dillon. I’m not doing Bob Dibuono doing Matt Dillon, it’s actually like I’m Matt Dillon calling up. And that’s part of the fun of it, you have people listening and not really knowing if that’s the guy or not. People actually call in and go “Matt Dillon’s a dick!”
BCT: Did you have to get permission from Matt Dillon to do that?
BD: No. And I love doing that, and Jim Breuer does all these voices, so I’ll go on there and we’ll be able to do all these voices together. The fact that we never come out of character, it makes it more exciting radio. Cause they don’t even know who’s in there. “Who’s in that room right now?”
BCT: So if you listen to Jim Breuer’s show, it’s all bullshit.
BD: Right. Jim does Tracy Morgan, and there are people that think Tracy Morgan’s in the room, they don’t even know that he’s doing Tracy Morgan. So that’s been popular lately, and I’m always trying to work on new ones. And then, you know, in every day life I’m working on characters, the hard part is bringing the character to the stage. When you’re in stand-up, everything’s like joke, joke, joke, joke, and when you’re up there you don’t have a lot of time to develop the character and the nuances of the character and try to be funny at the same time.
BCT: If you’re on stage for a five or an eight minute set, and you’re trying to fit your own jokes in and also a number of characters, you don’t just wanna say “okay, now I’m gonna be Bill Clinton. Now I’m gonna be this guy.”
BD: Right. Like I just auditioned for In Living Color, about six months ago. I had to do an eight minute set and do as many original characters as I can, in front of a regular audience. And that’s just like, how do you present that? Just to explain what you’re doing, already it takes a minute.
BCT: Was that just in front of a panel of auditioners, or at a comedy club?
BD: It was at a comedy club in front of Keenan and Ivory Wayans.
BCT: Right, but was it a full club and they were in the audience, or was it just them sitting there?
BD: No, no, a full club.
BCT: Okay, cause that would just be cruel if it was just them.
BD: Oh, yeah. It was still cruel, cause it was like “go up there,” and I felt the urge to do some stand-up, just to break the audience in a little bit and then go into them, and that’s what I did. Right or wrong, to go up there and be like “here’s my dad, now here’s Bill Clinton,” there’s no context.
BCT: Do you always try to find a way to tell the audience who it is, or if it’s somebody recognizable just figure they’re gonna know?
BD: You always wanna find a way to tell them who it is. Sometimes they don’t know, and it’s always better to tell them. But now I’m sometimes fooling around and I’ll do a scene and be like “name that actor.” I did that the other night on stage, fooling around, and it was a lot of fun.
BCT: If you do Sean Connery and they don’t know that’s who you’re doing, then it’s really more on you.
BCT: Just to wrap up, can you give me one good heckler story?
BD: I’ve got two really horrible stories as a stand-up comedian. One, I was invited, I was auditioning at the Borgotta Comedy Club in Atlantic City. I was still pretty new, and this guy said “come down, lemme see what you do,” this guy is real Brooklyn. He’s like “come down, lemme see what youse do, I’ll give you six minutes.”
BCT: Did he say “youse?”
BD: He said “youse.” I said “you’re a scumbag,” he said “watchoo say?” I said “nothing, I’ll be down there tomorrow.” So then that day I had an audition in the city and then I raced down to the Borgatta, there was traffic and I was running late. I got there literally ten minutes before the show started, I hadn’t changed, it was stupid. I should’ve gone down early, changed, ate, relaxed, cause comedy is about being relaxed, about being focused. I went down there, wasn’t even changed, I had khakis on, and I had to run to the Music Box theatre. I run in, I see this guy, I’m all disheveled, going over my set list, and I tell him “I’m here,” he’s like “good, I’m glad you’re here.” So I ask when I’m going on, he tells me I’m up first.
BCT: Oh, no.
BD: I’m like “I’m up first?” Meanwhile there’s 1000 people in this audience, it’s a Tuesday night, maybe 500 people then, on a Tuesday, but 500 people, and they’re all old. 500 people, the average age is like 99 years old, some of these people they can’t laugh cause they can’t breathe, there’s no air going in their body. One lady came in on a gurney, the show was over she wasn’t there so I assume she died. So I’m going up first, I ask who’s the MC, he goes “there is no MC.” So now I’m freaking out. I’m like “I have to go warm up the audience? I’m auditioning for you!” Nothing like setting the table for me, Jesus. So I go in the bathroom, I’m so nervous cause I don’t have any time, they’re all on headsets, “you’re on in five minutes,” and I’m in the bathroom, I’m standing in front of the toilet, peeing. I’m looking around, trying to figure out what I’m doing in my set, and after about fifteen seconds I realize I’m not hearing any sound from the toilet. I look down, I’m peeing into my own pants. My belt buckle is in the way, diverting the stream into my trousers.
BCT: (trying not to laugh too hard)
BD: And when I say to you I was peeing in my pants, it wasn’t like “oh, whoops, drippy drippy, there’s a spot,” I mean I’ve been peeing into my pants for twelve seconds. I was drenched.
BCT: You didn’t notice the wetness?
BD: No, cause my pants were down. I wasn’t peeing on my leg, I was peeing into the pants. So now my pants are sopping wet all the way down to my shoes, you could’ve wrung my pants out. I’m mortified, I’m thinking what do I do, do I lie and tell them I leaned up against the sink? But it was so clear. You couldn’t even lie and go “the sink did it.” “Really, Bob? Then why are your pants wet all the way down to your shoe? Is that from leaning on the sink?” So I was honest. The booker says “what the hell happened to you?” I said “I accidentally peed in my pants.” He says “what, are you nervous?” I said “no, I don’t hold my dick when I pee.” He tells me I have to go on stage, I’m like “I can’t change?” He says “no, you’re on in two minutes.” And then all of a sudden I hear “From New York City, here he is, Bobby Pee Pee Dibuono!” That’s how he brought me up.
BCT: What a dick.
BD: It was so bad, cause the whole time I was self-conscious about my pants. And I had khakis on. You could see, it looked like I got thrown into a swimming pool.
BCT: The moral of the story is: always hold your dick when you pee.
BD: Yeah, or wear black. So that was the one, the other one was I did a show, I was the middle guy. I go on stage and there was a magic act. There’s all this stuff on the stage, like a magician had been there and left all his stuff, I’m thinking “oh, there must have been a kids show here today. Don’t they move this stuff before we do a show?” Here at this crappy Ramada Inn, why would they leave all this stuff on the stage? The headliner’s not worried, he’s there, all dressed up in a suit. Host goes on, bombs, they hate him. So then I gotta go up and I gotta get the crowd going. I’m an improv guy, I figure I’m gonna have some fun with my improv background, have some fun. I go up there, I figure I’ll use this hat that’s just sitting there on stage, I pick the hat up, a bird flies out, I put the hat on, I’m telling some jokes …
BCT: Wait, wait, so whoever the magician had been had left the bird on stage under the hat? Were you making that up or did that happen?
BD: All happened. So now the bird’s flying around the room, I got the cape on, I’m doing impressions, I do Jack Nicholson as Dracula, the crowd’s going nuts. Nuts. They love it. I’m killing, I’m up there for 30 minutes. I get off the stage thinking “man, this headliner’s gonna be happy cause I set him up so well. This crowd was horrible, now they’re amazing.” I get off and I go up to him, the guy’s purple. Like, literally. I go “what’s wrong, did I go over (time)?” He goes “go over? You fucking idiot, you scumbag!” I go “what?” He goes “That’s my shit!” Then they bring him up, just at that moment we hear “here he is, the magic of” whatever his name was. And he goes up, there’s no bird, the manager comes up to me and goes “well, you just did the last ten minutes of his closing bit.” And he bombed. True story.
BCT: Gotta communicate with the other performers.
BD: Yeah. He got off, I was like “sorry, man. But you know, that bird bit really worked.” He didn’t like that.