By Leo Goodman
Most people think the only way to be a success as a comic is to be a household name. Comics know the truth, which is that if you can support yourself doing what you love, without needing a day job, you’ve pretty much made it and anything after that is icing on the cake. Towards that end, Jeff Lawrence has carved himself a place in the New York comedy scene . Along with performing regularly at clubs throughout the city and beyond, he also is the owner and the Director of Laughing Buddha Comedy, which encompasses the productions as well as the school giving many rising comics a chance to be seen and develop.
Both gritty and fabulous at the same time, the tall, tough, gay Jew who takes no prisoners looks right at home at the New York Comedy Club, where he sat down with me for a few minutes. As the Tuesday night show that he produces went on in the next room, Jeff spoke about comedy, producing, and seizing any opportunity to grow.
BCT: So how many clubs do you run shows at?
JL: We currently produce at three clubs. We have a regular show at New York Comedy Club, we have club auditions at Broadway Comedy Club, and we have an early show at the new Greenwich Village Comedy Club.
BCT: And are those all Laughing Buddha Productions?
JL: Yes, they will vary from new talent line-ups to our Saturday night prime time show which has more pros in it. Tuesday we have a non-bringer show. Some of our shows are bringers, we offer club auditions, packed open mics, it’s a whole variety.
BCT: You got into comedy rather late, right?
JL: Well, yes and no. I released my first comedy album … I was a rock singer, for many years. I was a rock singer professionally for about 15 years, and somewhere in the middle there I released my first comedy record. So then I was touring Europe…
BCT: Were you telling jokes at concerts?
JL: No, not really, not at all. We were a pretty serious alternative LA rock band in the 90’s but I just wrote this one song that my producer thought was amazing and we recorded it, and that was a comedy song. Ironically here we are, it’s gotta be like 15 years later and I close a lot of my shows on the road with that song.
JL: So, and then I portrayed Ernest Hemingway on stage in New York for a one month run at Wings theatre and I turned what was supposed to be a dramatic role into a comedic role. Everyone would laugh, I wasn’t trying to be funny but I became the comic relief of this dramatic play. And then I wound up touring, this is interesting, I wound up touring in Europe. I would take my guitar and go get work for the summer in places like Spain and the Greek Islands playing mostly cover tunes, U2, Bob Dylan, REM. But because there’s hordes of tourists crowds what I would do to warm them up is go from table to table and interact, dialogue, “hey you’re from Sweden, you’re not gonna fight with England, are you?” So that ability to do that translated when I started doing stand-up in terms of working the tourist crowds and all that. So that’s my background. I kind of got into comedy over the years, accidentally.
BCT: Now you’re just doing stand-up full time.
JL: I dived right in full time, my experience as a lifelong entertainter taught me there is no other way. It is scary, but to me necessary.
BCT: Do you still do a lot of road work?
JL: No, I don’t have to really. I don’t do a ton of road work. I do maybe one weekend a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. Partly because I produce shows in the city on the weekend, which is rare – most people can’t make good money on the weekend so they go on the road, whereas I found a way by having our Laughing Buddha industry showcases on the weekends. So it’s hard for me to get away sometimes. You know, it’s gotta be substantial.
BCT: What led you to start teaching classes?
JL: You know it’s ironic, I had taken a bunch of classes and I didn’t think the emphasis was on the craft. The emphasis was on the money. I also felt that there was no advanced teaching out there, there was no school. Like in improv you have all these levels, at college you have masters and grad schools. But with stand-up it was all about taking that basic class to get you on stage and then that was it. And I had an idea, what if we had really advanced instructors who would focus on the craft, and that’s how the school started. And at the same time, Al Martin who owns this club, approached me and said “why don’t you start a school? You can use the club.” So that’s how it started. And initially I hired the best instructors I knew, some of the top comics and top people at all levels, and I gradually grew into teaching myself.
BCT: You do various … I know that you have a class in working clean, and a class in industry auditions.
JL: Well that’s really the same. Basically when a need comes up, for instance Tim Young approached me – and that’s something I think we’re very blessed with at this school. A lot of great comics have come to me. Tim Young approached me and said hey I’d be really interested in teaching a class on breaking into the college market, because he does extremely well doing colleges. I thought that was a great idea, so we coordinated this one night class and it sold out. That’s basically how we do things. Dr. Nancy Goldman, a personal coach, approached me about doing a bio and resume class. Most comics lack a great bio, or don’t even have a resume put together. That’s a thing I’ve notice from being the director of this school the last few years, is that most comics are really lacking in business skills. Many that have been doing this for years don’t have a web site, don’t have business cards, they don’t have a strong bio to set off their press kit, and this is a business. So that was my other angle, too, that no-one teaches business. No-one teaches breaking into the college market, no-one teaches how to get a DVD made.
BCT: Do you prefer performing in New York, or on the road.
JL: New York. You know, just cause it’s my crowd. You know, just cause as an openly gay, Jew going out on the road I always feel like I don’t know what I’m going in to, even though it’s been amazing. My last few road gigs have just been amazing, but it’s kind of the unknown out there, and here it’s more of the known.
BCT: You’re never sure whether you’re walking into a place where they’re gonna be a little –
JL: Conservative? You know I’ve actually never experience a lot of homophobia or anti-semitism, it’s just the more conservative nature of some of the venues.
BCT: Oh, you haven’t? Because most people would assume –
JL: Not on the road. I have here in New York.
BCT: You’ve experienced that more in New York?
JL: Well, just because I’ve performed more here in New York. You know, I do 90 percent of my performing in the city so I’m gonna experience more of everything here.[At this point the host of the show lets Jeff know he’s up next. Jeff tells him to just put somebody else on.]
BCT: Now, you mentioned the clubs you do with Al Martin – here, Broadway Comedy Club, and the new one, Greenwich Comedy Club, that’s brand new, that’s just a couple of months old, is that right?
JL: Correct. We have show on Fridays we will be doing. You know one thing I wanted to say is that in comedy you go where there’s opportunity. When I came to the New York Comedy club three years ago Al was asking me to come in here because I was producing at Broadway. So I came in and the club has always been a little gritty, you know, no frills, and I saw an opportunity. The club was closed a couple of nights out of the week. Al offered me the keys, I worked with him on recession-buster shows Monday and Tuesday with cheap prices, so I had the opportunity to literally come in, open the door myself and run my shows. And that’s what comedy’s about, you go where there’s opportunity. I remember at the time I was producing at different venues and all my mentors, all the people I knew who were successful in this business said to me “if they give you the keys to the club, that’s where you go.” You know what I’m saying? That’s where you go. That’s where you set up camp and that’s where you get good. And I’ve been here almost four years, and the amazing thing is, when I finally go out and perform in front of people who haven’t seen me in a few years, (cause when you start out and you’re new in this business, even if you’re getting laughs, you’re still a newbie) they can really see the development. What’s really been nice is coming to this club three or four nights a week for the past few years and really growing outside of the public eye, now I get out there and I’m in a lot of pro line-ups and can hold my own. So my advice to anybody starting out there is to find a stage. It doesn’t matter where, it doesn’t matter how fancy it is, it doesn’t matter what stars drop in, you know what I’m saying? Doesn’t matter if it’s Broadway, doesn’t matter, you need work. It’s like the minor leagues. Nobody goes from high school to the Yankees. You spend five or seven years in the minor leagues and then you get the big call-up. And that’s what comedy’s like. You gotta have a work-out room, a place where you can grow. And not just me but all the Laughing Buddha comics can come in here, and I know you’ve done shows here, you can come in here, try out new material, be yourself. This is where I try out all my edgy stuff. Hitler, AIDS, Cancer, how much I hate religion is all honed in here before unveil it to, say the main room at Broadway which often has 150 plus tourists in it.
BCT: Do you have plans to expand the school or do you want to try and focus more on your own performing as you’re getting onto the better line-ups around town?
JL: I’m actually focusing on both and hitting the road more. We’re adding a new pro division at Laughing Buddha that will allow comics to have more guest spots, even paid spots, take advanced classes, and get booked on the road. It’s not a matter of either or. I wound up teaching a one week workshop in Tampa Fl. It was covered by the St. Petersburg Times, and I appeared on the cover of the Sunday edition in a human interest story. I headlined the show and upon it’s completion the students and I received a standing ovation from 175 people at the Cuban Club Theater. We are scheduling new workshops there and just formed a partnership with the national chain of Catch a Rising Star. We are talking about bringing our school out there as well. I recently headlined in Buenos Aires, and they are very excited about the idea of the first English speaking stand up comedy workshop in South America! I like to think of Laughing Buddha Comedy as a movement and a community that is taking me and a lot of others to places I couldn’t go if I were just performing as a comic.
BCT: And finally, can you give us one good story about a time you dealt with a heckler?
JL: Oh yeah, it was right here at New York Comedy Club. It was a Saturday night, and the room was completely sold out, and there was a new waiter or waitress and they were really behind on checks. I was doing the closing spot and I was supposed to be up there till the checks came in, figure 10, 15 minutes, but they couldn’t get the checks in so I was up there for 25, 30 minutes. The air conditioner wasn’t working and the crowd was already belligerent before I even got on the stage. So after about 25 minutes of being up there this tattooed, heavy lady from – fat, fat, I can say fat. This fat lady from Staten Island yells out “Enough already, I hate gays!” And at first, you know, we’re all trained as comics to retort, and fight, and curse, and it was really interesting what happened to me, I was just exhausted. I pulled up a stool and I didn’t say anything, and the room came to a complete screeching halt. It was like that EF Hutton commercial, you know, everyone that was just all over the place came to a complete stop, and I pulled up a stool and I looked up at the ceiling and I just didn’t say anything. Total silence in there. And after about eight seconds this woman yells out “I love gays!” And then this other woman yells out “I love gays!” And then this guy yells out “we love gays!” and then everyone starts applauding. And I didn’t even look at her, didn’t even say another word to her.
BCT: Dealt with her with silence.
JL: Yeah, so it’s an interesting thing I learned because we always think of how to handle a heckler, but there’s no one way to handle a heckler! There have been a million times when I’ve handled a heckler by making a joke or even being insulting or just yelling at them to shut up or having them thrown out, but there’s no one way to handle a heckler. It depends on the night. Like if it’s a big night, if there’s industry in the room I might just ignore it, just go on and they’ll shut up. But if I have to address it I have enough experience with doing that. But on this night I just decided that I’d had enough, too. It was so hot, I just pulled up a chair and was like “I’m done,” and then the room just rallied behind me. With comedy, the one thing audiences will never rally around is hate. Whether it comes from the audience or from the comic, hate just does not work in comedy clubs, and that was a person full of hate.