This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Samantha “Sam” Saifer, manager, Avalon.
As a manager for a decade, Samantha “Sam” Saifer is on a path that may lead her to shape the future of comedy.
Scrappy, conscientious, and a shrewd counterpuncher, the Los Angeles-based former comic currently hangs her shingle at Avalon–the management, live promotion and television production group with offices in London, New York, and Los Angeles—where she is an astute judge of both the comedic merits, and business potential of her clients–many of which, under her tutelage, are becoming major comedy stars.
And many are taking notice.
In the New York Times’ article (Nov. 25, 2018) headlined “3 Savvy Comics Who Shine Where Sex and Politics Intersect,” writer Jason Zinoman singled out two of Saifer’s clients: Comedian Liza Treyger, who is featured on “The Degenerates,” a collection of half-hour specials on Netflix; and comedian/writer Emmy Blotnick who bowed in with an outstanding debut special on Comedy Central in November.
Wrote Zinoman, “Liza Treyger delivers sex jokes that aren’t afraid to dive deep into the gory details or wallow in bad taste…..She jokes about depression, masturbation and how it’s ridiculous that no one pays for pornography.” He later adds, “The smartest recent joke I’ve heard at the intersection of sex and politics does not seem at first to be particularly sexual or political…Emmy Blotnick, a 30-year-old rising star who writes for ‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,’ describes the shock of realizing that many of her favorite songs, including ones from Britney Spears and Taylor Swift, were written by the Swedish producer Max Martin.”
Saifer also represents comedian/ writer Ali Siddiq; actress/comedian/writers Sasheer Zamata, and Katie Crown; comedian/writer/actress/producer Sabrina Jalees; comedian/writer/actor Solomon Georgio; comedian, actor/podcaster/writer/producer Ari Shaffir; comedian producer Lindsay Adams; actor/film director David Arquette; actor/ producer/writer Artruo Castro; and writer Jess Lacher.
The multi-faceted Saifer is also an executive producer of Comedy Central’s “This Is Not Happening,” and the upcoming show “Alternatino with Arturo Castro” that will air on Comedy Central this summer.
While managers and agents are currently sending a seemingly never-ending line of comedy clients out on the road–as well to Comedy Central, Netflix, and to award shows and festivals–the comedy world itself is in turmoil over the recent escapades of Louis C.K.; the Academy Awards’ blow-up of Kevin Hart stepping down as host; varying accusations of comedians of sexual impropriety; and Bill Cosby’s conviction of aggravated indecent assault.
Counterbalancing all this is the ongoing popularity of such comedy vets as Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Larry David, Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Larry the Cable Guy, Dave Chappelle, and Russell Peters; along with wave after wave of fiercely independent TV and social media-driven comedians.
This includes Amy Schumer, Michelle Wolf, Emily Heller, Mike Birbiglia, Ali Wong, Colin Jost, Kumail Nanjiani, Hannah Gadsby, Janelle James, Pete Davidson, Roy Wood Jr., Maria Bamford, Kelly Carlin, Tiffany Haddish, Tig Notaro, Nikki Glaser, Iliza Shlesinger and many others.
And, of course, it includes Saifer’s growing roster.
Warning: This Profile Contains Language That May Offend.
This is arguably the best and worst of times for comedy. The best of times with stand-ups earning more money than ever for their TV work–Chris Rock and Ricky Gervais reportedly both earned $40 million for their Netflix specials in 2018. The worst of times because comedians are being warned to avoid performing material about sensitive cultural topics.
For decades, with comedians like Red Foxx, Richard Pryor, Roseanne Barr, and Chris Rock, comedy was about pushing the envelope. Now there’s questions of how far a comedian can push the envelope.
I actually disagree. I think that social media has changed how we find out how upset our audiences are. I think that people have always been offended. People are pretty easily offended, but social media allows them to voice that, and for comedians to find out, and to have repercussions for the things that they say. I’m sure that people were offended watching Richard Pryor, but they didn’t have Twitter.
People going to a Richard Pryor show in ‘70s knew what to expect. Nor was he playing colleges whereas college students, liberal snowflakes if you want, are now getting upset with jokes, and performers are being asked to sign agreements preventing them from performing material about sensitive cultural topics like racism, ageism, and homophobia.
Sure, and I think that social media has a large part to play in that because a big thing with colleges is that they are afraid that they are going to get a bad reputation from that type of thing, right? That’s why they are willing to do that. I agree that Richard Pryor wasn’t playing colleges, but he wasn’t always saying what he became known for. I’m sure when people were seeing him for the first time…..Also, if you look at Lenny Bruce, Lenny Bruce died fighting for the right to say what he wanted. Personally, for me, I always consider myself a very staunch feminist. I am very liberal, but I don’t offend easily so as long as somebody is being funny. If people are trying to be shocking I’m not necessarily offended because I’m a feminist. I am offended because I am a fan of comedy, and just saying shocking things is just lazy writing to me.
The Asian American Alliance at Columbia University recently interrupted a set by comedian, and former writer for “Saturday Night Live” Nimesh Patel during cultureSHOCK, the group’s annual charity. Alliance members felt that his jokes about blacks and gays were insensitive.
Comedians, speakers, and musicians on college campuses are now facing heightened scrutiny as bookers are being encouraged to attend National Association for Campus Activities (NACA) showcase events in order to preview performers. That’s wild.
Yeah, that is garbage. I don’t even have my clients do NACA. It’s garbage. NACA has always been garbage. It’s not a new thing. NACA has always been the most boring, “clean” thing ever. It’s not new. For 10 years, NACA has been, “Make sure you do vanilla ice cream jokes.” Nobody cares.
I think where people are being offended by now, where they weren’t before, is the use of the N-word. It is the use of racial stereotypes. It’s the use of race jokes. It’s degradation toward women. You know what? We should be fucking offended.
And politics. But the thing with politics is that people have always been offended by politics.
True, but media coverage, nationalist passions, and the inflammatory ingredient of racism have intensified political discourse, and sparked controversy, perhaps, driven by the politics of fear. America is very much divided today.
Yes, that’s true.
If you are going to a joke about President Donald Trump be mindful where you are telling it. Some audiences will be gleeful; others outraged.
I think that Trump is the most offensive joke of all, personally. Just as a human. I’m not even talking about material. His existence is the most offensive humor I have ever been witness to.
Still, even more than Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama this president provides a comedy rich bounty. Or is he just ridiculous on his own?
He is. I am very conflicted about the way that “Saturday Night Live” approaches him because yes what he does is ridiculous, but he’s dangerous.
For many Americans, every day of his tenure seems like a reign of terror or a series of caricature moments. The moment a comedian says the words “Donald Trump,” they’ve produced the punch line.
Well, I think that the thing is that you don’t say “Donald Trump.” That’s why I am really proud of the people that I work with is that Donald Trump is not the problem. Donald Trump wouldn’t exist without the people that elected him, right? He is a symptom of a problem. He’s not really the thing to address. The thing to address is the misogyny, the racism, the fear. That is how you be political.
As I said, say the words “Donald Trump” and the joke is over
That’s why the people I work with don’t say it. I have a client who is working on some new material right now about very detailed language of how women need to masturbate more.
Liza Treyger discussing masturbatory Hitachi wands doesn’t fulfill you?
Some people don’t even masturbate. They never touch themselves. You know how fucking crazy that is?
Don’t start talking dirty to me. It’s too early in the day.
I know. To me that is where the revolution lies, right? The revolution doesn’t lie in taking down Trump. He’s just some fucking misogynist piece of…..and another greedy piece of shit will take his place. Again, he’s a symptom. Why talk about Trump? He’s not really the problem. That’s just a distraction.
Last April comedian Michelle Wolf stunned a 3,000-strong audience at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner in Washington with a risqué 20-minute monologue peppered with sexual references that eviscerated Donald Trump, and members of his administration, notably Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. Those on the right viewed her media moment as a vile, hate-filled address that was neither funny nor appropriate. To be truthful, I didn’t find it funny, but I wasn’t offended.
I think that (a monologue at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner) is a losing position because liberals want you to go for blood. Nobody wants you to be funny. They want you to go for blood, and you have to do that. She’s a very talented comedian, but no matter what she did, she was not going to do that, and win.
I also think about Louis C. K., prior to the New York Times reporting in November 2017 that 5 women had accused him of masturbating in front of them, and he admitted it was true; that he was making jokes that were making audiences uncomfortable. As was Andy Dick.
(After Louis C.K. came clean about the allegations of sexual misconduct that were leveled at him. he lost his production deal with FX Networks (the show “Better Things,” which he co-created and co-wrote, continues without him, returning for its 3rd season Feb. 28th) and had to scrap plans for a theatrical release of his film production, “I Love You, Daddy.”)
Yeah, but everybody loved Louis. They still loved Louis. Who gave a fuck about what Louis said or did? I cared about what Louis did, but the general public didn’t and neither did a lot of club owners. Louis could get up anywhere. I was talking to a client recently who works the Comedy Cellar, Louis was VIP. People were giving him standing ovations. He was bumping other comics. Like nobody gave a shit. Andy Dick was never that funny. That’s why he had a problem.
Andy Dick is considered by many to be an asshole.
Yeah, and he’s an asshole. I’ve seen him be an asshole. He has a problem. He has a drug and alcohol problem, which is obvious.
Which he’s never tried to hide.
Right, I know that you see this being in the business. The demons take over and you are not dealing with that person anymore. So I think that he has a problem.
Louis C.K. has since stirred more outrage with a 48-minute audio recording, described as a set delivered Dec. 16th at Governor’s Comedy Club in Levittown (New York) of C.K., that surfaced on YouTube in which he maligned survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last February that left 17 people dead in Parkland, Florida.
(Actor/comedian) Rob Schneider showed support for Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart in a series of Twitter posts in which he lashed out at people for taking their jokes too seriously. Your thoughts.
My thoughts…I think in general, we have to be careful when judging a comedian’s early material. Stand-up comedy is one of the only art forms where the artist must show their work, you have to fail in front of people in order for the material to grow. You cant sit in a basement and work on a joke in a vacuum like a musician. The audience is part of the process and it is a messy process. All jokes start off bad or offensive, and then as comedians work on them they get better, smarter and less offensive.
I think that if Louis had the room to work on this, eventually that bit would be something we all would call provocative and brilliant once it was worked out and done. That being said… part of the issue is, previous to 2017, we all assumed Louis was a good dude who was exploring “bad things” or proactive things on stage, but he himself was a good person. He no longer has that benefit of the doubt. We are asking ourselves, “Is this a shitty person saying shitty things?”
Louis is a victim of no one but himself. As far as I know, he isn’t addressing what happened. He is talking about how much money he lost, and all this other nonsense that is inherently un-Louis. The Louis I am a fan of would get on stage and address the elephant with its dick out in the room. He is trying to skate past it, but he just doesn’t get that right. Not anymore.
(Wende Curtis, the owner of Denver’s Comedy Works, recently decided not to book Louis C.K. perform at the comedy club after getting in touch with one of the 5 women who called him out for masturbating in front of them. “It didn’t feel like it had been very long since he admitted what had happened and my gut instinct was that he hadn’t done the work,” Curtis told The Wrap.
Added Zack Sharf in Indie Wire (Jan. 9, 2019), “C.K.’s return to the stand-up comedy circuit has forced bookers to reconcile with the potential fallout of hiring C.K. for a gig. Is the backlash worth it? Does C.K. deserve a second chance? Is it easy to reject a comedian who so clearly still has a powerful brand and a marquee name?.”)
We also saw Kevin Hart stepping down from hosting the 2019 Academy Awards following a backlash to homophobic comments he made online nearly a decade ago
But I don’t think it’s about the tweets. I think it’s about the way that he handled it. I think if he had just been, “Hey, but it’s not that we grow and change as people that it is not how I feel now. I am sorry for anyone that I offended.”
From the accounts I read he wasn’t asked to step down, he decided to leave. A report in Variety indicated that the Academy organizers even later were open to him being reinstated as host, but that he had to have a “meaningful” conversation about his old tweets. In the end, Kevin reportedly told sources that he would not host the Feb. 24th event because he doesn’t want to be a distraction.
I don’t know for sure what happened. I don’t know the ins and outs. But I think it was the Academy saying, “We want you to apologize,” and it was like, “I’m not apologizing.” I think it’s okay being a person that has made mistakes and owns your mistakes. I have made mistakes as a manager that I am willing to apologize for. It doesn’t fuck up my pride to be like, “I was young and I didn’t know, I’m really sorry.” I think that is where he got in trouble.
Comedian and former host of “America’s Got Talent” Nick Cannon showed support for Kevin Hart on Twitter by re-posting old tweets from Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and Chelsea Handler that, similar to Hart, feature LGBTQ slurs and derogatory terms.
I know that Nick Cannon pointed out Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and Chelsea Handler’s tweets that also used the “F” word, “fag” just to be clear what I am talking about. I think a really good point that somebody made is that they have each really been advocates for the gay community, and it was clearly a joke; whereas Kevin Hart has never associated himself with the gay community or been an advocate of anything in that world.
I think that is why Roseanne Barr went down so quickly after tweeting racist comments in May. She went down for many reasons including either you love or loathe her boorishness. Plus she’s known to be a pain to work with. Also, ABC-TV’s then-president Channing Dungey, since hired as VP of original content at Netflix, who canceled “Roseanne,” is a woman of color. ABC used Roseanne’s latest outrage to oust her. They just wanted her gone by that point.
Comedy is hard because in order to be a great comedian you have to be pretty much of the people, and she’s been pretty disconnected from the people…
For a long time.
For a very, very, very long time. Roseanne was still doing Roseanne from the ‘80s and nobody wants to see Roseanne from the ‘80s. And I think that is why it didn’t work. “Girl, nobody, no you are done. We have no time for you.”
That’s why the observational redneck comedy of Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy works. Their Blue Collar Comedy Tour, which was on the road for over three years to sold-out audiences in over 270 cities, and grossed more than $35 million, was successful because it played to a country music demographic: The world of bait shops and gun racks. Jeff Foxworthy is in a league of his own. Many people who first heard his act felt that he would only appeal to a distinctly rural audience, but he became the ‘60s-styled Bill Cosby of today.
Yeah. He was very smart in creating a character for himself.
As with Ron White being the cigar-smoking, scotch-drinking smartass, and Larry the Cable Guy who is like watching your Uncle Willie perform at the local legion hall.
They were very smart with, “This is the character. You are either into it or you are not.”
If you are going to see Ron “Tater Salad” White perform you are going to hear some raunchy material. If you are going to be offended, you shouldn’t be in the audience.
Exactly. Also, their audiences are older, quite frankly. There is like a generational difference, and there is also a social media difference. Like 19-year-old girls from Columbia aren’t going to see Ron White or Larry the Cable Guy.
Anyone like Ron White can say fuck; it’s saying fuck in context of a character or a situation.
Yeah, and I think that sometimes it’s about being open. It depends on every situation. I don’t want to say it’s blanket across the board because there are some things where I am like, “Well I don’t know about that.” There are also sometimes where people are offended by something where I am like, “Oh, get the fuck over it.” I had a client once–I don’t work with her anymore–but she is a white girl, and she was going to do a rap, and a college canceled the gig because they thought that she was doing cultural appropriation. I was like, “Fuck you. You listen to rock and roll. How dare you? That is like fucking crazy.” Also, I do believe that necessity is the mother of invention. It (pushback) makes people have to be more thoughtful about what they are saying. People should feel weird about doing race jokes. I don’t think it is something that people should feel chill about.
What’s going on for you in the coming months?
I have a show coming out on Comedy Central called “Alternatino with Arturo Castro” that I am very excited about. It is going to air in the summer. I was recently in New York filming. I’m executive producer.
What’s the pitch on the show?
It is a sketch show from the perspective of a Latin man in America.
(Created by and starring Guatemalan actor Arturo Castro, best-known for his work on the Comedy Central series “Broad City,” and on the Netflix series “Narcos,” “Alternatino with Arturo Castro” is a sketch show based on Castro’s experiences as a Latino millennial in the United States. The series, being directed by Nick Jasenovec (“Detroiters,” and “Broad City”), is executive produced by Castro, Jasenovec, Samantha Saifer, David Martin, Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner for Avalon Television, with Avalon Television producing.)
Avalon is a talent management, live promotion, and television production group with offices in the UK and the United States. A sizeable production house, Avalon obviously provides access for work for its management client roster. Anything you are working on with a client may be able to fit into an in-house production; or, if you have a property that you can pitch to Comedy Central, it can be with the support of Avalon?
Yeah, but I did that before anyway. Before I came to Avalon I had two TV shows on Comedy Central.
Just for Laughs’ “New Faces of Comedy” showcase has been credited for launching the careers of Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, Mike Birbiglia, Ali Wong, Colin Jost, Michelle Wolf, Kumail Nanjiani and Pete Davidson, among others.
Also, SiriusXM has channels centered on Kevin Hart, Larry the Cable Guy, Quake, Nikki Glaser, Kelly Carlin, Ricky Gervais, and Jeff Foxworthy—all well-known–but in listening to SiriusXM’s “Raw Dog Comedy” or watching many of the Comedy Central or Netflix shows I rarely know the comedians.
Starting out in comedy is easier today with more entry points, but having a comedy career remains difficult because there are so many comedians out there.
Yeah, it’s very saturated. There are a lot of comedians. I don’t know half the comics, and I work in the business. It’s a lot of people to keep track of. In the ‘80s, 90s and early 2000s, you weren’t getting stage time unless you had been doing open mikes for two or three years. It’s crazy how quickly people are getting managers today. I have people like, “Oh, that’s an opener. They’ll probably be ready for management in two years.” Well, they have managers already.
Social media has accelerated the career pathways throughout entertainment. Bands, who’ve played a handful of shows, are fighting off managers, and expect to play festivals. They seek to play Coachella out of the gate.
Totally, and they get it. It’s funny because I heard this interview with this band Chvrches that I am a fan of saying that the first time they got booked on Coachella they didn’t have enough songs for a set. I don’t think that there is any difference between music and comedy. There’s not going to be a U2 in 20 years. There’s not going to be anybody who can tour and can sustain themselves like U2 does.
Like with musicians and bands, there are too many comedians to really shine.
I think it’s about the comedians, and the artists holding themselves accountable to something besides fame.
Are the 5 pillars of comedy today Netflix, Comedy Central, Just For Laughs, “Saturday Night Live,” and the Edinburgh Comedy Festival?
I would think that those would be the Big Five. I would also say that there are no guarantees of anything anymore. It’s not like the age of when your appearance on “New Faces For Montreal” is set, and then you get a $20 million deal from NBC. You are lucky today if you get a $100,000 deal from the studio, and that still doesn’t really happen.
The success of the improvisational Second City comedy franchise led to “Saturday Night Live,” and “SCTV” which brought skit comedy to television in the mid-70s. Previously, TV comedy—outside of network sitcoms—was primarily stand-ups on the “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show” or “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast.”
“Saturday Night Live,” “SCTV,” and then “In Living Colour” in the ‘90s put skit comedy as a force on TV on a weekly basis. Comedians previously played clubs in order to get a shot on TV or to play Las Vegas. That was their graduation. Graduation today for most comedians is a television special or a TV series.
As a result, management of comedians today is a more creative role than it used to be.
Are you continually trying to develop properties with your clients?
Yes. That’s a big part of my job. I spend a lot of time developing creatively with clients. I often help them come up with ideas, and I try to figure out what they are passionate about, and what is the best way to structure it.
It’s great to be on the ground floor creatively with clients, but it’s always been tough to pitch to networks. That’s why there are agents.
I have a lot of friends that are agents, and I think that they play a very important part in peoples’ careers. I am not an agent.
You aren’t selling?
I’m also not a Bible salesman. I’m just not an agent. I work with the agent. I have clients at ICM, WME, and CAA.
So you don’t have to be calling the club owner in Cleveland to ensure that everything is running smoothly for a gig with your client. Do you go on the road at all?
It depends on what is going on. Ari (Shaffir) recently did a bunch of sold-out shows in London, so I went to those. Yeah, so it just depends. If it’s a big tour, I will go. If it’s not, no. Not really.
You have been executive producer for numerous Comedy Central, and Netflix shows.
Several of these shows have been with your clients including Ari Shaffir’s “Double Negative,” and “The Degenerates” with Liza Treyger, both on Netflix. Were you involved in the pitch of those shows, and ended up as executive producer?
No, what it means is that for Ari is that I helped. Ari self-financed “Double Negative” so I got a production company to put a budget together. I helped structure the material with Ari. I got the director. I helped to decide the style.
That’s pushing the boundaries of being a manager.
I’m a manager. That’s my job. That’s my job as a producer. So I do that as a producer, and then for Liza, “The Degenerates” was a series that Netflix was already doing. That they already had in mind to do, and they were booking 6 people. I just helped her get her material together.
Does Avalon bring you clients or are you expected to develop your own client lists?
I want to get my own clients.
Are there many people knocking on your door?
It depends. I get a lot of unsolicited emails.
Your client list, while diversified with actors, producers, and writers, has many women. That’s the nature of stand-up comedy these days isn’t it? Just as we’re experiencing a revolution in politics, with more women running for government positions than ever before, comedy also appears to be experiencing a female revolution.
Yes. I never set out to just sign women. I don’t look at it that way, and I don’t think about it like that. I am looking to sign voices that haven’t been heard before, and women have been silent for a very long time.
Women comedians have a lot more to say about things going on these days including embracing confrontational points of view in their stand-up routines. Liza Treyger talks about masturbatory Hitachi wands, and compares herself to Willy Wonka’s Grandpa Joe in bed (only without friends), and also she presents an insightful commentary about sexual assault
Liza is great. She’s amazing.
Canadian Sabrina Jalees’ shoot-from-the-hip style draws laughter as she relates being shunned by her extended Muslim family after coming out. Her family disowned her?
Her parents didn’t but her extended family did. I also handle Katie Crown who is Canadian.
In recently watching Just for Laughs’ “Inside Jokes” which follows 7 hopeful stand-ups pursuing their dreams of landing a spot on “New Faces of Comedy” showcase I thought, “Why do people want to become comedians?” Stand-up is a lonely proposition. in the formative years of a career, it’s moving from city to city alone. I’m so reminded of Lenny Bruce’s classic routine “Lima Ohio” in which he talked about the several weeks he spent during the 1950s booked at a club in Lima, and the lack of things to do while there. That is basically what doing comedy in North America is still about.
I don’t think that a lot of people know that when they start.
They usually start because friends have told them they are funny, and that they should do stand-up. Then they do something locally or they take a couple of improv classes.
I think a lot of people who start comedy don’t understand the reality of getting there (establishing a career) and then by the time they figure out they have to go to the Funny Bone in Toledo, Ohio for a weekend by themselves they are in too deep. Most of my clients don’t love going on the road. They end up going on the road to certain places, but even the young ones are like, “I’m not doing that” to certain places. They are like, “No, I would rather…” Especially, if they are in New York, you can make a good living in New York doing stand-up.
Initially, as a manager, you’d be trying to have the comedian develop themselves on their own but at some point, whether they are working at a computer or in TV or clubs they will ask, “Samantha is this working? What do I need to do? What is right, and what is wrong?” As much as you may be reluctant to get deeply involved with their creative process you are sometimes brought into it are you not?
Yeah, and I always tell them I don’t know. I’m not a fucking fortunate teller. I can only give them my opinion.
Yes but you can tell them what part of their routine is dying.
Absolutely. Yes, I try to give constructive criticism. I will be like, “I think that this is not working because of” blah blah blah blah. After that, it’s up to them what they want to do. Ultimately my job as a manager isn’t to force someone to do what I want them to do, even if it would be in their best interest. Ultimately, this is their life, and if they don’t want to do it, if they are not willing to do the things that I think that they need to do to become successful, maybe, I’m not the right manager for them and, maybe, they don’t actually want to be successful.
Unlike with singer or a band, when a stand-up comic isn’t doing well the audience response is highlighted even further because they are onstage in the spotlight dying on their own.
I think that comedy is harder than anything else. A song doesn’t need to be seen by people until it’s ready, right? You can work on a song for days and hours and months and years if you need to before playing it to an audience. A movie, you can make adds. You can make cuts. You can watch it. You need audience feedback to know what is working with stand-up. You have to fail in front of people in order to be good.
It is telling looking at older clips of some of your favorite stand-ups that when they were starting out, they were just not funny.
Nobody is funny when they start.
Well, I think Robin Williams was always funny.
Robin Williams was always funny but Robin Williams also started at the Julliard School (attaining a full scholarship in 1973), and with the LA Improv (as well as the Holy City Zoo club in San Francisco). I don’t even know if I can consider what he did as stand-up because he was kind of in a class all of his own.
The first time I saw Robin Williams was in 1978 when he was in a sketch on Canadian as a Russian comedian, Nikki Lenin, being interviewed by a somber Peter Gzowsk on the CBC-TV entertainment show “90 Minutes Live,” a few months before “Mork & Mindy” premiered on ABC-TV. Robin was, in essence, an actor.
I’m talking about straight stand-up. Nobody is funny all of the time. I have seen Louis C.K. not be funny. I love watching Bill Burr working on material because he will do it, and it won’t work, and he will go, “In six months, this will be funny, watch.” He knows. The good ones know that they are not always funny. You have to be willing to not be funny in order to be funny. If you are just trying to be funny all of the time you are either a hack or you are never going to make it.
So do you your clients still get upset with a bad show or can they quickly move beyond that recognizing that a bad show is a part of developing?
Most of the people I work with do get it. Ari tries to make a new hour every two years and he knows that it’s not going to start funny. And Liza Treyger. Most of my clients get that it’s not going to be funny, but “I’m going to work on making it funny.”
When you meet with a potential client who is not on the level of your other clients–but are almost there–what advice do you give them before you decide to take them on?
What advice do I give them before I take them on?
About, perhaps, diversifying or saying, “You are really good, but I see a breakthrough for you if you do these type of things” That type of thing.
I think that just depends on the person. I’m not really of the mindset that this is what you have to do. I think that everybody’s path is different. Generally, when I meet with people I ask them why do they do this. That is an important question for me, and I ask them what they want to do. If I meet with someone who says that they just want to do stand-up forever, I explain to them what that actually looks like, and beyond that, I’m a very big proponent of taking control of your own destiny. If you are just trying to act…so much you can’t do one thing…it’s not like clubs are desperate for comedians. There‘s a minimal number of spots that people are fighting over with not much money. It’s not that easy to work the road anymore.
Also, clubs can hire locally in many cases.
They can hire locally. It is just not a sustainable lifestyle. If it’s a lifestyle that you want, great but I’m not really interested. I’m more interested in working with people who want to do things; that are in pursuit of many avenues. They want to write. They want to act. They want to do stand-up, and they ware willing to dip their tail into all of it.
You are married?
I am. My husband Eric Abrams is a producer and a director. We have a show together on Comedy Central, “This Is Not Happening”
How did you two meet?
We met through work . He used to book The Improv chain when I was working for (manager) TJ. Meguesser at Pacific Comedy. We’ve been married since 2012.
So Eric saw you do stand-up?
He saw me once. He sat right in front of me, and it was a true nightmare. We had just started going out, and he was the booker for The Improv, and he sat right underneath the lights. He was the only thing that I could see. It was a nightmare. I’m still like, “Why would you have done that to me?” He’s like, “I don’t know. I always sit in the back.” I say, “You are a nightmare”
How did you first get involved with comedy?
I don’t know. I have no fucking idea (laughing).
Comedy is a sector of entertainment you could excel in separated from the world of your father, Lorne Saifer, who is a well-known music artist manager and a former label A&R executive. I’m not saying your were rebelling, but you don’t have to say, “I’m Lorne Saifer’s daughter.”
Yeah, but Rob Light (Partner/Managing Director/Head of Music, Creative Artists Agency–CAA) has crossed comedy and music. So yeah, “I’m Lorne Saifer’s daughter.” And Steve Levine crosses music and comedy at ICM (as a partner and the Head of Worldwide Music at ICM Partners). So it comes up sometimes.
(Lorne Saifer was inducted into The Honour Roll of the Music Managers Forum Canada in 2016. Saifer started his career in Winnipeg, Manitoba, managing Neil Young and the Squires, and later there he started a record company and a publishing firm with Canadian guitarist Randy Bachman. After moving to Los Angeles in 1972, Saifer became dir. of A&R at Columbia Records, working with Billy Joel, Boz Scaggs, Bill Withers, Andy Williams Johnny Mathis, and Roger Miller. While overseeing A&R at Sony-affiliated Portrait Records he signed Burton Cummings, Heart, and Joan Baez. Next, he joined forces with Randy Phillips and Arnold Stiefel in the management of Rod Stewart, Prince, Simple Minds, Toni Braxton, and the Bangles. He has managed Burton Cummings for 35 years.
Your father may understand certain aspects of the comedy business, but you took control of your own destiny.
Yeah, the truth of the matter is that I love my father very much, and any time that I asked him for something that was a favor, he said, “I’m not doing you a favor by doing you a favor.”
I’ve known your father for decades. Did he tell you that he and I argue a lot, but in a spirited, good-natured way?
I argue a lot with him too, but he’s not wrong, right? The gist of the matter is that my dad is not going to have all of the answers for stuff. There are so many new things happening. Every day there is a new fucking problem.
Where were you born?
I was born in Los Angeles.
Did you go to college?
I went to Emerson College (a private college in Boston, Massachusetts) for a year. I always thought that I was a filmmaker major but, evidently, I was a journalism major. I didn’t even know that until I asked for the transcript 5 years ago. I didn’t go to classes much. After six months, I was on academic probation for not doing anything.
If you weren’t in school, what were you doing?
I worked at Tower Records, and I worked at the House of Blues in Boston. Then I was a hairdresser. Then I did stand-up, and improv, as I said earlier, myself.
Were you any good?
I was fine for someone who had been doing it for 5 years. I was fine. I had potential. As my teachers would say I had potential.
You would have made a number of early comedy contacts.
Kind of. I really didn’t have a plan. I was just doing improv and stand-up, and my friend was in a band from Boston called Junius. They had bought a school bus and gutted it, They converted the bus to run on biofuel (vegetable oil) rather than gasoline or diesel. and they were doing a tour around the country. They were like, “You should come on the road with us.” I was like, “Yeah, okay.” I just sold everything I owned, and I got on the bus.
This all must have thrilled your parents.
My dad was just like, “Jesus Christ.” I did that for a while. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I returned to L.A. after the tour in, maybe, 2009. Tried to make money however I could. Then through my cousin’s friend, I started working for T.J. Meguesser at a small talent agency, Pacific Comedy that just did bookings. He has since gone to the Gersh Agency. I took an interview with him. I knew this guy who was T.J’s assistant who wanted to get a promotion. But to get a promotion he had to bring in a new assistant. He was really lazy. He wasn’t bringing in any interviews, and he knew that I was desperate for money. So he paid me to go in and to pretend that I wanted the job. My soon-to-be boss told me he’d give me roadwork. I just had to get in by noon, and he would pay me cash under the table. So I started assisting this agent, and it kind of ties back into that question that you asked me about, “Why do people go on the road by themselves?” So while I was his assistant, I was doing stand-up–I really wanted to be a Bill Hicks or a Doug Stanhope in terms of I just wanted to be in front of people talking. But working for an agent, I found that the reality of what that was, and I did not want the reality of that.
Stand-up at that level is tough.
You then worked as an assistant at The Gersh Agency and then worked at with J.P. Williams’ Parallel Entertainment which has had such clients as Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Engvall, Lisa Lampanelli, and Matt Knudsen.
The thing that Parallel did for me, that I am always going to be grateful for, is that they promoted me basically for no reason. Once anyone promotes you then you are considered a manager.
You were promoted from assistant to being a manager.
Yeah. There was no reason to do that.
Did Parallel allow you to manage?
Yep. They left me alone. I signed two girls called Abbi and Ilana (Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer), and I developed “Broad City.”
(“Broad City,” renewed for a fifth and final season, is a Comedy Central sitcom created by and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. It was developed from their web series of the same name, which was independently produced from 2009 to 2011. The series premiered on Comedy Central on January 22, 2014. The final season, set to air in early 2019, will be its last.)
After Parallel Entertainment you worked as a manager at Generate, the Los Angeles-based management/TV and digital production company.
Generate is also a management company that manages Patton Oswalt, and Pete Holmes. People like that.
You were there only 18 months. Like many talent managers, you have moved around quite a bit over the decade.
(Laughing) I’m not great with authority.
Does Avalon leave you alone?
Yeah, my boss David Martin (CEO, Avalon USA) is a very smart man in that he recognizes talent. He puts up bumpers (provides guidance), but he doesn’t try to form it (control it) himself.
You are given enough rope to hang yourself.
Yes, just enough rope to hang myself.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.