Dustin Chafin Interview
By Leo Goodman
Not everybody in New York City can rock a cowboy hat but those who do rock it hard. If you’ve seen one in a comedy club, chances are you were looking at Dustin Chafin. The Texan-turned-New Yorker has been making his presence felt at clubs throughout the city and throughout the world for years. He appeared in Showtime’s White Boys in the Hood, won “Best of Fest,” in the Chicago and Las Vegas Comedy Festivals, traveled with USO tours, been a contributing writer to Chappele’s Show and the Chris Rock Show, to name a couple, and produces the Stand-up 360 Festival here in New York (which starts this week, by the way, go check out http://www.standup360comedyfestival.com/). He’s also taken on a mentoring role to a number of young comics, having a great talent in helping others find their own personal funny.
In a back room of the new Greenwich Comedy Club, the self-styled “Comic Whisperer” sat down to talk about comedy, rebelling through religion, and why college kids just need to lighten up.
BCT: Before you got into stand-up, you did something for a while that not a lot of comics have done, you went to Chile as a missionary.
DC: Yes, I had a spiritual journey at kind of a turning point in my young life, around 19, 20 years old. I think kind of to rebel against my family I joined the Mormon Church. They were kind of crazy, drinking, very rock and roll, so the only way to rebel was to go in the opposite direction, and there was this girl in high school who was Mormon. We broke up and I think maybe to spite her I joined the Church, next thing I know I’m in Santiago Chile with a name tag and a bicycle, speaking Spanish and trying to baptize people.
BCT: And is that kind of world experience something that informs your comedy, your style?
DC: It does. I think if I hadn’t done something like that it would have sheltered me a bit as far as the world in general. Just being in front of people all the time, something like that makes you lose your insecurities about talking to people, talking in front of people. Knocking on doors and trying to talk to people about the Mormon Church is definitely a challenge that later on helped me get people to laugh at dick jokes. Like, if I can convince someone that the Mormon way is something to follow, I think I can get them to follow my comedy. Definitely helped in that challenge.
BCT: Ever try to convert someone from the stage?
DC: I feel like I’m always converting people when I’m on stage. That’s part of my process. Especially if I go in a direction that’s kind of edgy. A lot of the time at the beginning of my sets the audience will be groaning, you can tell they’re uptight about where I’m going and that’s one of my things where I feel I can win them over, that’s kind of a conversion. You know, get them on my side where they realize I’m kidding, I’m playing around, get them over to my kind of thinking. Sometimes crowds are uptight and it is a conversion process.
BCT: Why did you come to New York, as opposed to LA?
DC: I came here for school, the Parsons School of Design. Went to BYU for one year then transferred here. I wanted to be an artist. Didn’t know what kind of artist, just figured that was a good school. So I went to Parsons and just kinda went from there. I was a busboy at New York Comedy Club and that peaked my interest in stand-up comedy.
BCT: You work at clubs all over the city but not just as a performer, you also have something of a managing role.
DC: I’ve produced at a lot of clubs, that was one way of getting stage time when I was getting started. You know, it’s hard to break into the rooms, people wouldn’t put you up until you had credits, and before I had the tv credits I just started producing my own shows. A lot of showcases. You can put yourself on, give yourself a little more time, as opposed to the five minutes you usually get when you’re a young comic. It was a way for me to meet other comedians who were at a higher level, get to know them, networking and all that. It was something that just kind of broke me in to different levels of stand-up.
BCT: Who would you say were some of your bigger influences from that time?
DC: When I first started at New York Comedy Club as a busboy I talked to the guys there, Marc Maron, Dave Attell, Todd Barry, a lot of guys like that. I remember one time Dave Attell was out front of New York Comedy Club, this was when he was just starting to peak, and a lot of guys were asking “can you give us advice?” And he said “acting school. You wanna be a big comic? Acting school.” And you could tell that wasn’t what guys were expecting to here, he’s this guy known more for stand-up, but he’d seen a lot of his friends, Ray Romano, getting tv shows. And you could tell that was something that stuck with people, that was the last thing we expected him to say. He’s not really known for acting, maybe a cameo in Pootie Tang. We were expecting “write every day,” or “think outside the box,” but no, acting school. We were all puzzled, “what does that mean?” And then we all took acting classes. (laughs)
BCT: That’s interesting, because another time I spoke to you, you didn’t seem much into actors who were comics.
DC: That was more about the actor who gets into stand-up just to get into movies or tv, as opposed to … I think Jamie Foxx is a pretty decent stand-up, Eddie Murphy, obviously. Richard Pryor was a good actor, a lot of people don’t think about his acting, they just think about him as a stand-up, Robin Williams, eh, his stand-up a lot of people might say has some borrowed material, but a hell of a performer on stage. I think Sam Kinison would have been a great actor, you see a couple of roles that he did, like in Back To School. I just see guys who want to be actors and just use stand-up as a vehicle and some for whom stand-up is a passion that they love, and I think that’s the difference. There are some very good actor/stand-ups, and then there are some that are just obviously doing it to get on tv.
BCT: Speaking of young stand-ups, you’ve made yourself into something of a mentoring role to a lot of young comics. You actually have your own school, the Comic Whisperer.
BCT: What made you get into that?
DC: I felt like I was looking around … when you start getting older in comedy and seeing different people doing things like that, a lot of comedy schools, comedy classes – and I took a few when I first started, cause I didn’t really know what was going on in the business. Now I’ve been in it a while and I saw a lot of people who were teaching but they didn’t really have the comedy wisdom to pass on. Sometimes people are just doing it for a quick buck, sometimes people are really passionate and want to give back. I personally feel like I have a gift for finding things in comedians that maybe they don’t real see in themselves when they’re on stage. I’ve enjoyed through the years, when I worked at Boston Comedy Club, I managed there and booked, currently I’m booking at Greenwhich Comedy Club, and you see somebody that has it and just needs to be nurtured. I enjoy exploring that with a comedian, a young guy who really wants to be a good stand-up. After a while you learn to see and really help people, that’s just something I really enjoy doing. Helping comics grow. It might be something as simple as the way they’re holding the microphone, or the disconnect that they have on stage, or they just need to pause occasionally instead of rushing through the material, it might be the material that they’re using that somebody else has done because they’re not aware of comedy history. It’s good to have somebody to point that stuff out to you. Chris Rock had Eddie Murphy, Seinfeld had all these guys, a group of comedian. Comics needs each other, and if you don’t have that group of good comic friends to help you out, people you can write with, then it’s good to find somebody who can do that with you. What I provide is kind of that older comic thing that you might not have when you first start in comedy just because you don’t have relationships, so it’s an opportunity to get a relationship with somebody who really knows the business. Every aspect of it, from performing to booking.
BCT: I think that’s such an interesting aspect of comedy, because in one way stand-up is such a loner thing. It’s all about you on stage by yourself, writing your own stuff, directing and performing your own stuff. But at the same time you really have to develop this community.
DC: Yeah, there’s not one famous comic that doesn’t have kind of a six degrees thing to another comic. Everybody has to help each other. There’s a lot of guys that a bigger comic will have them open for him on the road, things like that. Usually how that happens is an older comic will see a younger comic at a club and they’ll form this older/younger relationship, and then that person gets stronger and hopefully then passes that on to another comic. So it is a loner thing but as far as getting there it’s very important to create a team around you.
BCT: You mentioned before that you’re booking the Greenwich Comedy Club, which is just a couple months old. There’s a lot of clubs in the city, a lot down here in the Village, the Comedy Cellar is right around the corner. Is there anything that sets this club apart from those? Anything that made you say “you know what, there should be another comedy club around here?”
DC: I passed the Cellar last year (meaning the bookers approved him for regular stage time) and I was working there for a while. Al Martin, who owns Broadway Comedy Club and New York Comedy Club, he wanted to do something downtown. He has a love for the Village because as a young man he was down here all the time. I used to work with him when I worked at Boston Comedy Club, which he eventually took over. I also was the first one to do stand-up comedy shows at the Village Lantern. When I first went there they were doing shows one night a week, and that was music. I turned that into a seven-nights-a-week comedy club, with Jim Norton, Patrice O’neil, all these big comics, and I was also running Boston at the same time. I had a real good feel for the Village, and I knew had to create teams for the street to bring people in. So Al felt that I would be the best fit for this. Also he knows that I’m good at finding who the next big comic is. The other clubs being in the area was a bit of a concern, but at the same time it’s like Bourbon Street out there. The Village is full of people, and clubs fill up and they want comedy. There’s enough for everybody. What makes us different has a little bit to do with just nurturing the young guys. We have our vets, we have our Mike Britts, and our Russ Meneves, Vanessa Hollingsheads, people like that, but we also have people coming up, real good comics that I feel are gonna be the next wave. I feel that’s what we’re doing here, as opposed to the Cellar, which I feel is sometimes about comics who already have status, where I feel here at Greenwhich we might take a chance on a new comic. We can help people develop here, a little more so than places like the Cellar.
BCT: Aside from Stand-up, you also have been a contributing writer on a number of different tv shows. How did you get into that, was it through the comics you knew?
DC: Yeah, you know, I’ve done everything in comedy (chuckles). I have done everything. And that’s the thing with it, I just enjoy every aspect of it. I’ve written for Bob Ballebon, the guy who’s been in all those Christopher Guest movies, I’ve written for him when he does personal appearances. Writing is another aspect I enjoy. I write a treatment about every month, have an idea for a new sit-com or something. It used to be a lot easier to write for shows, you could just fax things in to the Chris Rock Show, a lot of comedians could just submit to them. Certain jobs I’d get from the stage. I was on stage one night at Gotham Comedy Club and there were some guys from sci-fi in the crowd, I did some weed jokes or something and they said “oh, that’s really good for this character we’re developing,” and they gave me a staff job. For about a year I had it. You never know who’s gonna be in the crowd. Writing opportunities, some of those I got from comedians who’d have me write for their shows and some I’d get from just some guy in the crowd coming and giving me a card afterward.
BCT: What was the Sci-fi show?
DC: Barbarian Moron, this animated series they were developing. It didn’t go very far. I ended up getting fired because there some liberal females on the staff, I don’t want to get into this too much, but they thought some of my material was a bit misogynistic. It was this one line I wrote, I’d just seen Fight Club, and it was “bitch tits.” That’s why I got fired. That line, “bitch tits.”
BCT: You got fired from a line that’s in Fight Club, that probably everyone reading this immediately knows what part of the movie you’re talking about?
DC: Yeah! It was like making fun of this guy who had bitch tits and they just went crazy. It was this big back and forth, I was like “really?” they were mad and then I got pissed off, like “I can’t say bitch tits, fuck you!” That’s always something, censorship in this business just kills me. You know, the essence of comedy is being uncensored. My favorite thing to do is watch somebody that is normally uncensored on a late night show, just watch them sweat trying to get that clean set out. One of my favorite things, to watch Lewis Black, or Attell, or Norton, Marc Maron, doing these clean sets and you know they’re just hating themselves inside. They’re just dying inside as they’re doing that six minutes clean.
BCT: Something interesting to know, most comics, if you’re watching them on Fallon are hating it.
DC: Yes, hate every second of it. I was blessed, my first tv appearance was on a Showtime show called White Boys in the Hood. It was beautiful, because I basically got to do the set that they saw in the club, I was able to take that exact set and do it, exactly like I would in a comedy club, on the air. That’s the beauty of cable. It was so cool because I didn’t have to censor anything! Nobody came to me with a notepad saying “you can’t say this,” all those network things they totally run you through all these things that you can’t say. It was such a blessing, I wish there were more shows like that. Rodney Dangerfield’s special was the best, the Young Comedians Specials. It’s unfortunate we don’t have enough of those anymore. They tried to do Jim Norton’s Down and Dirty, that flopped, I don’t know why, I thought the comics were good. I don’t know, I just really wish there more shows where comics can basically just do what they’re doing in the clubs, because people love it. They just strip it down, and I hate it.
BCT: Is that the type of thing you tried to do with the festival you put on, stand-up 360?
DC: Yeah. To back up a little, I developed a show that I’ve been producing and running, I still produce it at Broadway Comedy Club, called The Uncensored Comedy Show. Basically what it is – cause there’s a lot of clubs, people don’t realize, where the owner will come up and be like “hey, you gotta keep it clean,” or you’re opening for somebody and they’ll say you can’t talk about this and that, you can’t be blue. I would never go up to a comic, and there’s been occasions where I’ve cringed a bit and thought “oh, I wouldn’t have said that,” but I’ll never go up to a comic and say “you can’t talk about this. You can’t be dirty.” Even though, and I’m gonna go off on a tangent here, but in my personal opinion to be blue you need more experience. When you first start doing stand-up comedy, I think you should try to be a little cleaner. You should come out of the gate a little broad and try to get your bearings. Even when you look at Richard Pryor, he was very clean in the beginning, Lenny Bruce was very clean in the beginning. Bill Hicks, even, was very clean in the beginning compared to where he got to.
BCT: George Carlin started off in a suit and tie.
DC: Yes! Tie, the Hippy Dippy Weatherman, it was all silly stuff, characters and stuff. Then he got to where, you know. So I do the stand-up 360 festival, it’s a festival designed to give young comics opportunity. We do the New Guns Stand-up 360 contest, that’s part of the festival. Comedians submit from all over the world, a lot of them right here in New York City, we had live auditions. It’s an opportunity for them to compete against each other. There’s three rounds of competition, actually starting this week, the 5th, at Broadway Comedy Club, and then the 7th and 8th at Greenwich Village Comedy Club. The winner gets work at Foxwoods Casino, management meetings, a weekend and Joker’s Wile in Connecticut, paid spots at Broadway, Greenwich, all this stuff, it’s kind of a package deal. Last year the winner, Giulio Gallarotti, he won and we did a full week in London, England, we paid for him to go out there. So it’s a really cool thing for me to be involved with. I just felt that there’s not that many festivals here in New York. There’s one in November, and a couple people try to do some things, New York Underground, but that just comes and goes. I just thought it would be cool, like I’ve done everything else in comedy, I might as well run a festival. We also do a special show called the Wounded Warriors show. That’s on Monday the 10th, and it’s a show for wounded veterans returning. They come back, sometimes they’re disoriented with their lives, so we do this show to kind of get the moral back up and get some money to the organization. This year we’ve got Amy Schumer, Judah Friedlander, Pete Dominick, Dave Attell. It’s gonna be a really good show. Some high-end comics for a great cause, that’s how we kick off the festival.
BCT: Finally, can you give me one good heckler story?
DC: A good heckler story. Okay. I had a performance at MIT. They were trying to do an all African American show, and they wanted to have just like a token white guy. It was MIT, and all these Black organizations that were there, these elite schools, Harvard and stuff, it was basically a lot of Obamas in the crowd. High end kind of thing. A lot of good comics, Will Savence Artie Fuqua, a guy named Sugarbear, which you can tell what he does just by his name, a guy named Harris Stanton. It was a great show, everybody’s killing. I go on stage, and about 15 minutes in I do this one joke, it was kind of my signature joke where I talk about how the Native Americans got it worse than black people. They got killed, their land stolen from them, at least black people got to travel. By the time I got to the “L” of “travel” it was just a sea of boos. 3000 people freaking out, everybody’s going crazy, just booing and booing. It was one of those situations where I’m looking out at the crowd – and I’ve never experienced anything like that. It started with this one girl, then a few more people, then it just multiplied and the entire auditorium was booing me, and was just kinda having fun with it, honestly. I was doing Elvis kung-fu moves, trying to be silly, and those boos are just happening. I tried to save it, got mad at them, trying to explain like “you’re not understanding the joke, you’re just hearing the word slavery,” blah blah blah. It didn’t end up well but I did save myself. I was able to pull it off. 3000 people booing me, probably my worst heckling story.
BCT: Had you done that joke for black audiences before?
DC: I had. I did it on White Boys in the Hood, an all black audience, and it killed. They loved it.
BCT: Just something about that particular audience.
DC: I hate college kids, sometimes. I really do. I mean, I don’t hate college kids, but I hate the mentality of thinking you know everything, or that you have to be so PC all the time. If they would just listen to what the joke was about they wouldn’t get offended. But that’s the thing, people only hear buzz words. They only here “gay,” they only hear “slavery,” they only hear race. They don’t actually listen to the whole joke sometimes, just buzz words that freak people out. And that’s the situation where they just heard me comparing traveling to slavery … every other crowd has enjoyed that joke. It’s definitely one of my favorite jokes. That’s the joke that’s gonna go on my tombstone. It’s edgy and fun and I enjoy it. College kids, I don’t know, they just don’t get it, sometimes. They need to live life a little longer before they start freaking out.
BCT: So the moral is, before you’re gonna get pissed off, listen to the whole joke.
DC: Yes! It’s true! Just like with Tracy Morgan, Daniel Tosh, all these things, Amy Schumer, they get in trouble for the things they say. A lot of people don’t hear the whole joke, they just hear a word and just respond. I feel like that really hurts stand-up comedy, when people just get automatically get offended. It is a comedy club, no matter if it’s an auditorium in a college or whatever, it’s still meant to be light. Even if it’s kind of heavy material. It’s meant to make you laugh, just lighten up already. Seriously.