Dead Unicorns and Jerry Seinfeld: 15 Questions with Bobby Slayton
Comedy veteran Bobby “The Pitbull” Slayton has been performing stand-up for over thirty years and has made numerous appearances on HBO and late night television, including roles in such films as Get Shorty, Ed Wood and Bandits. His first one hour special, Born To Be Bobby premiered last year on Showtime and Slayton is already at work on material for his next special which he plans on filming sometime later this year. As a comic stemming from the great comedy boom of the 1980’s, Slayton’s knowledge and stories of life on the road are an invaluable reference guide for young comics, and fans that want a look behind the scenes on the process that many comedians go through over the course of their career. As Slayton prepares for his shows at The Comedy Palace this weekend, SanDiego.com was fortunate enough to get a chance to talk with him and reminisce about his early years in San Francisco and learned about the weekend he spent with Jerry Seinfeld when they performed at The Improv in Pacific Beach.
When you moved to San Francisco from New York, where was the first place you did stand-up and do you recall any of that experience?
Bobby Slayton: It was the Holy City Zoo. That was a pretty legendary little club. There was nothing great about it; it was a little hole in the wall. It wasn’t really a comedy club; it wound up becoming a comedy club. It was a little folk club where they had comedy twice a week. Sixty or seventy seats maybe, maybe not. But my God, the first time onstage it seemed pretty big to me. I have it on tape. I heard it once or twice over the years. It’s pretty bad, but it’s pretty good for a guy who’d never been onstage before and hadn’t seen a lot of comedy. I’m very critical of my stuff. I was 21, so I had been living in San Francisco for about a year. Tuesday night was the open mic night, and Sunday was the so-called professional night. I knew nothing about stand-up comedy. When I was growing up I’d seen George Carlin and Robert Klein, those were the guys who my generation watched. I’d seen stand-up comedy, but it wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do and it wasn’t something I particularly knew a lot about. You watch a lot of the guys now and they have a template for how to do this. You can see how to do it now. I’m not saying it’s any easier, but they have so many people they can watch and study, and see how to do stand-up. So in a way it makes it a lot easier, and it makes it in a way a lot more difficult because it’s harder to find your own voice now because every style has been conquered and every joke has been done. So to establish yourself you’ve got to really have something special now. When I started out there was a big comedy boom in the late seventies and early eighties, and I was there playing all the clubs that opened up. And there weren’t that many comics, so the clubs needed us more than we needed them. But now there’s a billion comedians who will go in and work for almost nothing and they’ve watered down the profession so much. There’s too many of them out there, and too many of them are so horrible that comedy has been watered down and really hurt by all the crap that’s out there.
After that first time at the Holy City open mic, did you start going there regularly?
BS: I did stand-up once, and I never did it again for a year. So I don’t count that first time as being my first year in stand-up. I really started getting into it when I was 22. By the time I was 24 or 25 and had been doing it for two or three years, there was a club called The Punchline that opened up in San Francisco and I became the house emcee and it got me a lot of stage time. I would open up for George Wallace and Jerry Seinfeld, Michael “Batman” Keaton; a lot of guys that you probably wouldn’t know like Bruce Baum and Denny Johnston. Then there were a lot of guys that opened up for me that went on to become big stars; Judd Apatow the director, David Spade, Janeane Garafalo, Jon Stewart used to open up for me.
When did you move to Los Angeles?
BS: I went to L.A. in my mid to late twenties. I moved down there to try and break into The Comedy Store and Improv. The Comedy Store really wouldn’t have anything to do with me, and you either became an Improv guy or a Comedy Store guy. The Improv was more the New York guys, the cool comics. The Comedy Store was more the California guys, the prop acts, women comics. It was a slicker and bigger club but the Improv was a lot cooler.
Was this before or after the strike?
BS: This was right after the strike. The dust was settling. I had been down there performing while the strike was going on. I had gone down a couple of times and auditioned for Mitzi; she wasn’t crazy about me. But then the Improv had a big San Francisco comedy night with me and Dana Carvey and a lot of people showed up to see us. So I became an Improv comic, I never did like The Comedy Store. The one in La Jolla, is it still a fucking dump?
Yes, The La Jolla Comedy Store is still holding up strong. Did you ever perform at The Improv here in San Diego?
BS: I love San Diego. I performed at The Improv on Garnet in Pacific Beach dozens of times. I shared a condo with Seinfeld, when I opened up for him one weekend even though I was headlining at the time. Jerry was just starting to make it big and I said, ‘Yeah I’ll open up for Jerry.’ We shared a condo and I remember it was such a gay weekend. We went shopping at Macy’s for underwear, we went to the zoo together. Every day we had to do something; we had to get out. And every day at four o’clock Jerry said, ‘I gotta be back in my room.’ He’d lock the door for an hour so he could write. Every day; what discipline.
Did you ever work with Bill Hicks?
BS: Hicks opened up for me, two or three times, I helped Hicks out tremendously. Hicks opened up for me whatever week John Belushi died, he was opening up for me and we were sharing a condo in Sacramento. He was my opening act; he was about 18 or 19. I loved having him open for me. I got him a gig a few months later opening for me in San Francisco at The Punchline. I remember he loved smoking pot and was into LSD and all that kind of stuff. Then about seven years later we co-headlined in Austin, Texas and he looked kind of bloated. He wouldn’t come out of his room until four or five in the afternoon. I knew he’d been drinking a lot and wanted to be a rock star. He was great. I couldn’t follow him back then, Austin was his town. Then he’d always take off to go see some band or something or whatever, I didn’t really hang out with him. And I think that was the last time I saw him.
Would you describe yourself as a health nut?
BS: No not at all, not whatsoever. I just eat really healthy. But then again I drink a lot of alcohol and I get no sleep. I made meatballs last night, I’m having meatballs again today for lunch, but I don’t fry them, I bake them. I kind of ride the middle. I try to really take care of myself. My only indulgence is pretty much vodka. I stopped smoking thirty years ago, and I don’t really do drugs anymore unless somebody gives them to me for free.
What do you to kill time when you’re on the road?
BS: I walk around a lot. I don’t care where I am. Even if I’m in the middle of nowhere with no place to go or nothing to do, I still walk. Because it’s great exercise and I talk to myself like a mental patient, and that’s how I come up with material. There are other guys who keep doing these HBO specials; guys like Bill Maher and Dennis Miller. I’m not saying the all have a lot of writers but I’m sure they have people writing a lot of stuff for them. I don’t have anybody writing anything for me.
When are you going to film your next special?
BS: I’m getting ready to do another Showtime special; I’m going to shoot it in Vegas I think. My manager said, “Do you want to do it in August?” And I said, “No, I really want to start getting to work now and do it in November or December when I have another really great solid hour.” Because the first one came out so well.
Have you burned all those jokes from your Showtime special from your live act?
BS: I still do a lot of it but I try not to. A lot of people didn’t see the special, and a lot of the material I’ve been working on for so long. You always hear guys like Jerry Seinfeld go, ‘I’m not doing this anymore, I’m not doing that bit anymore.’ They constantly sit and write, and I adlib a lot onstage and I talk to the audience a lot. So if you see my show which is usually about an hour, a third of it might be; when I say old material I hate to say that because the stuff’s so good. It’s like when the Stones do “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Satisfaction” It’s just there’s things you can’t let go of that just kill. A solid third of it is new, a solid third is either topical or adlibbed and talking to the crowd. I mix it up all the time; I never do my act the same way twice. I never open with the same joke, I never close with the same joke.
Having said that, are you an advocate of crowd work or against it?
BS: Well it depends if you’re good at it. Most comics aren’t very good at it. They’re not good at it at all. They’ll say something like, ‘Hey where ya from?’ Kansas. ‘What do you do?’ I’m a doctor. ‘What about your wife?’ where’s the jokes? What are you interviewing these people for a fucking job? What are you doing here? Why is this funny? I’m a lot like a magician that can hand somebody a card and sort of force a card on a person. I have a lot of material where I talk to the crowd and no matter what they say I have an answer for it. I don’t always know where they’re going to go with it. Sometimes it doesn’t work and if it doesn’t work I got back to my act and go to another subject or talk to another person. I’ve been doing this long enough where, when it comes to the crowd work I’m usually really good at it. It doesn’t always work but it’s a lot like improv. A lot of that improv crap you see they’ll yell out to the audience, ‘Yell out a director!’ And they already have a bit prepared for a director they know they’re gonna get, like Scorsese or Hitchcock. There’s a little bit of cheating which is okay because the bottom line is you’ve got to entertain the audience. I just kind of know which direction I’m going to take it. I go in and out of the crowd. I’ll incorporate a bit into the audience. It really depends on the show and the crowd. There will be shows where I’ve done an hour and barely got into my material. Then there’s other nights when I’m just tired and it’s a late show and I still want to give them a good show, so I just give them my greatest hits. There’s not a lot of guys working today who really just riff and adlib a lot and wind up getting a lot of laughs doing it.
Would you say that you do a lot of writing on stage, where you go up with a premise or idea and just flesh it out in the moment?
BS: Yeah, not a lot but I do it. I do it all the time, and I’m going to be doing it a lot more throughout the summer because I’ve got to work on this SHOWTIME special. When I did my first CD it was years of working on my act and it took me maybe ten or fifteen years before I did a CD. So I hd all my best stuff, then when I did my second CD, there was stuff that was left over. It took me about four or five years between my first and second CD to do another one, and it could’ve been Elvis Costello, I’m not sure who said this, but some rock star said, ‘You have your whole life to work on your first album and six months to work on your second.’ The reason it took me a long time between CD’s is because, I talk to the crowd a lot, and that’s all visual it’s not really audio, it’s not a thing that you can listen to. It’s sort of a like a juggler or ventriloquist on a record, it doesn’t really translate. With my act, talking to the crowd so much; that’s the kind of stuff you don't really want to put on a CD. So for the next four or five months I’m really going to be focusing on new material.
What’s your take on Arnold Schwarzenegger?
BS: Well I knew that for years. That’s nothing new to me. He use to go to my gym and all the guys who knew him would always say that he’s been doing that shit for years. I don’t know that for a fact. I don’t really give a shit about him.
If you had any advice for a young comic interested in doing stand-up, what would it be?
BS: They ask me this all the time and I really want to be helpful, but the problem is the way I got started and the way I got better and the way every comic gets good is stage time. You could do ventriloquism in your room and learn how to be a ventriloquist by looking in the mirror, and you can juggle in your garage and become a world class juggler before you go on in front of people. And you can write songs and become a great singer in your garage and all you have to do is overcome stage fright and get on stage. But when you’re a comic you can work from today until tomorrow on shit, but you need to be in front of people. I don’t know anymore where you can get that kind of stage time, because there aren’t as many clubs doing open mics and there’s a lot of people vying for that time. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of shit comics but there’s some good comics out there too... but there’s a lot of crap. Find the open mics and do a lot of stage time. That’s all I can tell people.
Does Bobby Slayton have a message for the children?
Bobby Slayton: I want all the children to know that every time you listen to Dane Cook a unicorn dies.
Bobby Slayton headlines The Comedy Palace June 10-11.