POSTED ON MARCH 11, 2009:
Local funnyman Jay Dee gets serious about learning the business of standup comedy
From the Best. Jay Dee was able to arrange a personal meeting backstage, where he found Chappelle to be incredibly humble and willing to chat. "We bullshitted for forever; and as I was just starting out, he gave me plenty of pointers..."
"If you don't like these sketches, then feel free to wipe your ass with them."
"Jay Dee," a comedian born and raised in Tulsa, wrote this in a cover letter to Dave Chappelle, one of America's best-known actors/comedians. Jay Dee had written five sketch comedies down on toilet paper and submitted them to Chappelle's Show. He spent the next few days following the UPS track number, awaiting anxiously for some kind of response. "It was about 10 minutes after they received it that I got a call from his manager saying Dave was interested and wanted more [comedy sketches]," said Jay Dee.
That is not all of his history with Dave Chappelle. But for now, let's bring it back home . . . At Tulsa's Nightingale Theater in December, the multi-comedian format provided not only a revealing first glimpse at Jay Dee's performance skills, but also a platform for comparing him to his contemporaries.
Jay Dee was funny and charming with an evident wealth of untapped potential. Hints of Dave Chappelle's timing and swagger are balanced by a distinctly Midwestern sensibility; and his observational humor provides a brief glimpse into the young performer's psyche.
Even more revealing, however, was the opportunity to sit down with this funny man, who uses "Jay Dee" as his stage name. I learned that this is his second run at stand-up following an initial quick-start that came to a halt. A year and a half lapsed before he returned to the local stand-up scene.
Now, in the midst of reestablishing himself, Jay Dee has learned much from his first run. His level-headed confidence, reflective of his talent, has earned him a following as well as respect among his peers. He has become one of the key players in Tulsa's re-blossoming comedy circuit.
Before looking forward, however, I was curious to see what would motivate someone to put himself onstage. As it turned out, Jay Dee admitted that he rarely watched late night television but stopped on David Letterman one night and caught a comedian who had been catching some buzz.
"They made such a big deal out of him and how good he was; and I've always been a fan and student of comedy, so I watched," said Jay Dee. "Anyway, he bombed -- everything he did was just horrible and I thought, 'This guy is crap and on David Letterman? Not that I think I'm any better than him, but at least I should be able to compete with the crap . . . '"
Shortly thereafter, Jay Dee made his debut during Labor Day weekend in 2004 at an MC competition in the now deceased Tulsa Comedy Club.
He stood before an audience of four, the managers and owners of the comedy club. The gig was divided into three segments performed in a four-minute timeslot. Jay Dee recalled getting the shakes throughout his entire body while standing on stage. He felt it first in his hands, and when it came time to perform his sketch, his small audience could see the microphone shaking uncontrollably in his hands. His voice reflected it, as well. And after that, he figured 'Well, things can't get worse,' and eventually he found a comfort zone onstage. And although he didn't win the competition, Jay Dee felt he had found a new home at the club and thus began his stand-up career.
Funny You Ask
With experience can come wisdom; and while Jay Dee is still something of a raw talent, his experience is obvious when he performs next to a novice. Whereas a number of upstart comedians rely upon sex, bodily functions, drugs or religion jokes, many experienced performers take a different approach.
Building his repertoire largely around personal observations, Jay Dee said "I rarely ever actually write my (stand-up) material. Little things come to me and if it appears funny to me or makes me laugh, I jot it down. I've got notes everywhere -- on bar napkins, random pieces of paper, you name it..."
After going back through those notes, Jay Dee comes up with a premise or outline and lets the jokes develop from there, honing his material on open mic nights.
What may not be apparent is that the young talent does write well, even if he's not using the skill directly in his stand-up material. However, the manner in which he structures his sets and his ability to flow smoothly between topics hints toward this ability.
Jay Dee has been writing comedic material for quite some time in the form of sketch comedy. "Last year, I worked on a sketch comedy show for a few months, 'Biopsy Playhouse'" he said. "It's nationally broadcast - or now they call it international, I guess, because they got a deal in Europe. Anyway, I did it to stay sharp and have fun. When I was working on jokes, I'd have ideas for sketches, so I wrote and acted in it some. It was fun until they wrote up contracts; and basically it said they'd own my image, likeness and material, so I knew it was time to get out," he explained.
"I've been through that before; I tried a sketch comedy show years ago on cable access. It's fun but eventually reality sets in and people realize there's no pay in it and they all fall out."
Perhaps it's appropriate that Jay Dee exercises his skills in different forms of comedy. While it seems a natural progression for many top-tier comedians to eventually work their way into sitcoms or film, Jay Dee's main influences were always involved in both: Dana Carvey (doing stand-up, Saturday Night Live and film) and his greatest influence, Dave Chappelle.
"I've always been a major fan of his timing, delivery and subject matter," Jay Dee said. "I remember him doing 'Killing Them Softly' and it made me laugh out loud. I thought 'I'd like to be able to do that someday.'"
His admiration for one of the world's favorite comedians led him to a fan Web site from the peak of Chappelle's career following season one of his cable series, Chapelle's Show. Jay Dee had been working on some sketch comedy and occasionally would toss ideas out on the fan site. Eventually he became one of the site's forum administrators, which made his presence on the site better known. On one occasion, he unknowingly was communicating with Elaine Chappelle, Dave's wife and another site admin. With this conversation, Jay Dee's foot was in the door.
He bought tickets to see Chappelle perform in Houston, and after the show he crossed paths with Chappelle's photographer at a bar. He introduced Jay Dee to the comedian's manager, Mustafa, who asked Jay Dee if he'd like to meet Chappelle backstage. Ecstatic, he jumped on the opportunity and found Chappelle to be incredibly humble and willing to chat.
"We bullshitted for forever; and as I was just starting out, he gave me plenty of pointers like, 'Make it big where you're at first,' and, 'Be willing to play anywhere.'"
Chappelle also provided an open door; he was beginning to work on season three of his show and knew that Dee had been working on some sketch comedy bits. He mentioned to Jay Dee that he was willing to take submissions.
And after getting the run-around from the comedian's publicist and personal assistant, he was able to contact Mustafa. With contact re-established, the doors opened and Jay Dee submitted a total of seven sketches (which included the aforementioned ass wipes) with high aspirations.
During this time, Jay Dee's work had also garnered enough attention to land a gig on WHPK, 88.5FM in Chicago doing "News from the Service Entrance." The opportunity not only afforded Dee additional exposure but allowed him to continue building his writing chops during a 10-minute news broadcast that included a humorous segment called "Thoughts from a Midwestern Man."
Jay Dee was allowed creative freedom with his material and admittedly used that freedom to push the envelope. Eventually, though, he went too far, touching on a delicate "too soon" subject matter, and was released from the program. "You live. You learn," said the comedian.
Around that same time, Jay Dee's progress with Chappelle's Show came to a halt as well, as Chappelle went on a personal hiatus, scrapping season three and disappearing from the public eye.
In a matter of weeks, Jay Dee went from having a world of opportunities at his feet to having the rug pulled out from under him. It was at this point that he stepped away from the comedy scene to address some personal issues.
In February of 2007, Jay Dee returned to take the stage during open mic night at the Loony Bin, which had been open for only a few weeks at the time. And while Jay Dee had gained wisdom from his first run at comedy, he found that he still had a lot to learn.
"I remember the first time I came out [to the Loony Bin], I was cocky. I figured I had a history of doing this and I'd be fine. I didn't rehearse or anything and when I hit the stage, the first joke was awesome -- and then I froze, for the first time ever."
A good dose of humility came with the experience, one of only a handful of times that Jay Dee considers a bad performance, which proved to be yet another lesson in a comedic career that he claims is "all on-the-job training."
"There's a business side to comedy that I didn't know about," Jay Dee said. "My first time, I came in arrogant... but there's definitely a business side to it, even just in the clubs: show up regularly, be respectful, tip the wait staff, be dependable..."
All of these things may seem like common sense, but to a brash young performer who thinks the world is going to come to them, it's less obvious. "I learned a lot about what not to do, but that comes with experience," said Jay Dee, chuckling.
He shows a new level of maturity in his performance and material as well as learning how to read and work an audience.
"I write what's funny to me; but I've learned that sometimes what's funny to me is not funny to others," he said.
Jay Dee also pointed out that it's a fairly conservative market, and some things are just too much for this city. It's not just Tulsa, though; he learned the hard way that you need to gauge your audience.
Just last spring, Jay Dee performed at a club in North Hollywood. He had been told repeatedly by out-of-town comedians that he needed to play L.A., where his material would go over well with the larger market.
Jay Dee jumped at the chance. He tried out some of his more risqué material, which was met with a mixed response. Because the first performance went well overall, he decided to push the envelope a bit further with his second performance and used even more of his "blue (dirty) material," but was greeted with a cold reception.
"It was definitely not the reaction I had hoped for -- it was a humbling experience," he said. "Afterwards, I found out that club and audience is more conservative, but I learned from it. Now, I use more innuendo. There's more payoff and less risk."
Serendipitously, Jay Dee's rise in prominence and latest run in the business has paralleled the resurgence of comedy in Tulsa. With the closing of the Tulsa Comedy Club at 69th and Lewis, there was about a year when local comedians didn't have a place of their own. With the opening of The Loony Bin at 69th and Memorial, the comedy scene received a shot in the arm in this reliable venue.
Even though The Loony Bin is the only comedy club in town, more young comedians are performing, and the scene is growing in a manner Tulsa hasn't seen for quite some time.
Nightingale Theater also hosts standup comedy shows on the first Sunday of the month. Local comedians have also started to branch out and attend open mic nights elsewhere, like the Gypsy Coffeehouse on Tuesday evenings.
According to Dave Ashton, manager of The Loony Bin, there's not as much back-stabbing and competitiveness among performers as he has seen in other markets.
"There's a good bunch of local talent here that's serious about working hard and improving," Ashton said. "They are constantly writing and looking for other ways to build their chops. I've been to a lot of markets that are not as cohesive. It really helps because they feed off each other."
Ashton has worked in comedy for more than a decade in a number of places, starting in Memphis and touring behind his own career before settling in Tulsa. With that experience, he's seen a lot of comedians during the years, so I was interested to get his take on Jay Dee and his rise in popularity.
"He's one of the guys that I've seen really improve over the last two years," said Ashton. "We went from 'I don't know if he'll really do anything' to using him fairly regularly.
"He's level-headed, with his feet on the ground and he works hard at it," he continued, while acknowledging Jay Dee's place in a crop of rising local talent that includes Josh Mills and Jack Merriwell, among others.
Local comedienne Susan Freeman is another of Tulsa's promising talents who knows Jay Dee both professionally and personally. "I've known him for about a year and a half, and we've had the opportunity to work together at The Loony Bin," she said.
"He's great to work with; but on a personal level, I had the privilege of sharing a fireplace with him last year during the big ice storm," she continued. "Even at home and relaxing, he's good to the core and hilarious, even when he's not onstage."
Freeman was also quick to acknowledge The Loony Bin as a springboard for bringing the local comedy scene back to life as well as the cohesiveness of this particular community.
"I've consistently heard out-of-town and visiting comedians state how amazed they are at how cooperative everyone here is. People aren't catty or backstabbing like they are in some other places."
As the local comedy scene flourishes, Jay Dee is one of the leaders of the movement, gaining more notoriety and more opportunities to share his observations and humor. And while he acknowledges that he'd love to have his own special on Comedy Central one day, he said that for now he's set a low expectation level.
"I've achieved enough to make me happy and I'm still in it, still progressing. I've got something to tell my grandkids.
"Dave Chappelle told me the key to being successful is persistence," Jay Dee said. "I just keep doing what I'm doing and ultimately, if I keep at it, the opportunities will present themselves, as they should, as opposed to knocking down doors. I'm always listening for opportunity at the door."
Your best opportunity to catch Jay Dee or some of his contemporaries would be open mic night at The Loony Bin. Or, catch Jay Dee on one of his scheduled performance dates in April, also at the Loony Bin.
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