Exclusive Interview: J.B. Smoove on ‘Last Comic Standing,’ Hecklers & The Ruckus

“Last Comic Standing” is back on NBC with a new lineup of judges and a new host. Roseanne Barr, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Russell Peters will judge the lineup of standup comedians competing in weekly challenges. J.B. Smoove will host the show and guide things along. In anticipation of the new season of “Last Comic,” I got a personal phone call from Smoove. Famous from the ensemble of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” now seen on “The Millers” and a legend of sketch and improv himself, Smoove gave me a private audience with all his comic wisdom. We touched on hecklers, social media and his new website The Ruckus, but Smoove made it personal as soon as I answered the phone.

J.B. Smoove: Where’s Freddie at? What’s up, Fred-O?

CraveOnline: Thanks for calling to talk about “Last Comic Standing.” I know you from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and sketch and improv. Did you do standup yourself?

Man, I’ve been doing standup for 24 years. 24 years of standup! You probably wouldn’t recognize my work because when I started, there are different regions of comedy. I started out in a lot of the black clubs. A lot of the black clubs weren’t even comedy clubs. I started out in one in Harlem which was The National Black Theater. Then I branched over into some other comedy clubs but most of the comedy clubs that I started out at were not comedy clubs. They were clubs that had a comedy night. Fred, I’ve done it all. I performed in strip clubs. I’ve done baby showers. Fred, I’ve done a little bit of everything.

You know what, a lot of my stuff you probably didn’t see or didn’t know it was me back in the day. I did Comedy Central’s inception actually, a show called “Short Attention Span Theater.” I was just one of the comedians on that show. “Apt. 2F” with the Sklar brothers. These are all early shows before Comedy Central really got going. I was on all those shows, you name it I did it. “Showtime at the Apollo,” “Friday Night Videos,” I’ve done almost every standup show imaginable, especially New York when I first started. Then I started branching out when I moved out here. I just continued to do “Def Comedy Jam” and all that kind of stuff, BET stuff and then I started to really branch out. After that things just started to fly.

What was your material about?

I talked about everything, man. I’ve always written material that everyone can laugh at. I talked about growing up. I did a lot of physical comedy. That was my thing. I was a physical comedian. I did anything and everything from running on a treadmill, I can paint a picture on stage of anything. I used to do impressions of horses walking around. I had one where a guy lost both his legs and he had two horse legs transplanted on his body, and I would just walk through the club, a big club, on horse legs. All my stuff was physical material. I had one about a cop that didn’t have a car. He would just chase cars. I would do all this crazy physical stuff. I had a bit about Kool-Aid on crack. I had a lot of silly material, but everybody would get it because I’d do these crazy physical action on stage and have a good time. That was my thing. Physical comedy was my thing and that’s always been my thing. When you see my standup act, there’s a lot of physicality. As verbal as I am, I paint great pictures on stage.

Can we find clips of those bits online?

Oh, there’s a lot of stuff online. It all has its era, it all has its time. I think comedy evolves constantly. I reinvent myself all the time. I always find a way to entertain myself because I truly believe you have to entertain yourself in order to relate it the right way to your audience. So I always reinvent myself because my humor changes throughout the years. Over these past years, what I think is funny evolves. Your humor can change, so all you’ve got to do is put it in the right package, and you re-present yourself to your audience. This is where I am now as a community. I reintroduce myself and reinvent myself to you.

With comedy you have to practice, but when you fail the audience sees you fail. When it’s on national television on “Last Comic Standing,” how can a comedian recover from that kind of failure?

Here’s what it is. We pick these comics for a reason. They’re good, they’re funny, we know they’re funny. Can they beat each other? That’s where we’re at right now. Are you funnier than this guy? Is he funnier than you? We’re at a place with “Last Comic Standing” where everybody has their audience, everybody is funny. Whether you show it that night or not, that’s the question. You’re funny, but are you as funny as the next guy? Are you on that night? Are you ready for “Last Comic Standing?” A lot of comics are not of course because it is its own vehicle.

As far as standup, everybody has a vehicle they are driving. If what you do works, it’s like playing golf. If you can master that one swing over and over again, you will be successful. That’s what standup is. You have to have a central move and it has to be yours. You have to own your comedy, own what you do. You can’t try to do what someone else is doing because the crowd is laughing at what they are doing. You have to do exactly what you do. You’re most comfortable at doing exactly what you do all the time, repetitively, over and over again, if that’s your style.

There’s physical comedy, there’s political comedy, there’s observational humor. There are so many different kinds of humor, as far as my act, my act can be easily seen as 50%-70% improv because I truly believe in being in the moment. Now on this kind of show, you cannot do improv because you only have four minutes. Unless you are really, really spontaneous and you really, really have a handle on what you do, you can leave, joke around with something and jump right back into your set and know exactly where you are, and people love that about you and that’s what you give them. But every style is very different, just like boxing. Every style is different and styles make fights. That’s what makes comedy so fun to watch.

This season though, I think what’s going to really propel the show is that this year, not only are you going to sit there and watch comedians do standup, you’re going to get the science of what standup is from myself, from our judges. You’re going to get the sweet science of what standup really is. A certain amount of laughs per minute, your stage presence, your delivery. All these different things are going to help you see into the mind of a comedian and its preparation. Four minutes seems short, but if you’re not doing well, four minutes can be the longest four minutes of your life. If your rhythm is off, if you’re not grabbing the audience immediately. People want to know who you are when you step on that stage. Who is this guy? If you’ve got people engaged in what you’re talking about, they will laugh at your premises. All you get in your head is, if you like my premise, wait ‘til you hear the punchline. That’s when you’ve got people.

If you can get 4-6 laughs a minute, that’s a whole lot of laughter in those four minutes. That’s a nice set. Your character is what sells you to people. Anybody can tell a joke. It’s your character they love that’s behind you, how you think and what you write as a comedian. Your writing skills are a big plus. You have to have numerous four minute sets to make it through every round, and it’s just not standup. We have challenges that are going to push you to the limit of what you can do. You have to have all these skills to be a superstar. You’ve got to be able to be on a talk show. You’ve got to be able to improv. You’ve got to be able to write. All these different skills will make you the most well-rounded comic in the world. They can’t throw you off if you have all these skills to work with. Somebody has all these skills. Somebody doesn’t. In this show, there are no losers, it’s just everybody can’t win.

Do you get hecklers on “Last Comic Standing?”

No. People kinda understand it’s a TV taping, but who knows? That may be one of our challenges, to see how you react under pressure. We may have a challenge that’s going to challenge you with a heckler to see how you react. I don’t know. We don’t know all the challenges as of yet. That’s a great one. That may happen.

I’ve never been to a comedy show where there wasn’t that one drunk heckler. What is that?

Hey man, it’s because those are people who would love to be on stage also. They have this thing that’s called I want to be a comedian, I just don’t know how. I love it. That means you’re listening to me and everybody else is also listening to me. That means I can take that and turn that around and have a ball with you. A lot of times, what the guy’s saying is accurate. No one’s going to heckle you if you are killing the crowd and you are just ripping it to pieces. But, if you can turn that heckle into you’re absolutely right and turn that around on yourself, that’s when your improv skills come into play. Now you’ve learned how to take what someone’s throwing at you, make it part of your show. Or, you can turn it around. If you’re really good, you can turn it around on that person, no matter what they say you are so prepared in your mind, there’s nothing they can say to you that’s going to throw you off. You can take anything they say and it’s relatable to some material that you already have in your arsenal. You can take that and piggyback off of what he just said and make that part of your show. There is no one way to do standup.

So you’re saying don’t lash out at the heckler, you might want to be more self-deprecating?

Sometimes it works better because what happens also is this: When you allow them to win, when you allow them to take over your show, your power is gone. Now you have to make up for what this guy’s saying to you and him throwing you off. A lot of times, when he throws you off, you get tongue tied. You can’t even think of what to say next. Now you’re gun shy. Now you don’t even believe in what you came on stage to do from the get go. And when you don’t believe what you do from the get go, now he’s thrown you off. Now you’re tongue tied. You don’t know what to say to what he’s saying. It’s better off to ride with it until you gain control back and then you hit him every chance you get. You relate everything you say to him, to his family, to his looks, his shirt, his tan, his drink he’s drinking, his lady.

You have to gain control back first, then you have the gun, you have the power, you have the microphone which is 10 times as loud as any heckler. You have all the tools at your disposal. You get him, you get him relaxed and then you destroy him. These are little tricks of a veteran of how to gain control of an audience when you’re lost him. You have to make him feel like, “Oh, that was funny.” Once you turn the tables around and you’ve got control of the microphone and you can control your pace, you can get more of your written material out there and you relate it to him, oh, that guy… My motto is this: You can watch the show or you can be the show. Oh, I love it man. If you know what you’re doing, you cannot lose on stage. You should never lose on stage, never. You have the power. You have the microphone. They’re facing you. Everybody is facing you. That’s your power.

Have you gotten into new media with TheRuckus.com?

Oh yeah, man. The Ruckus allows folks to create their own, and we can judge them. We can rate them and have a good time. There’s so many funny people out there, man. So many funny people that they need a platform. It’s true, there’s a lot of platforms out there. You’ve got to go with the one you feel represents your sensibilities and they understand what you are doing and they get your humor. That’s what The Ruckus is.

Could you have ever done The Segway Pimp anywhere else?

Oh, of course, yeah. Hell yeah. Definitely.

Have you been impressed so far with the uploads to The Ruckus?

Oh yeah, definitely, man. The fun thing about The Ruckus is I’ve seen some really cool stuff, but also what I think is a plus with these type of sites, it helps you to spring off, like we started a company called Converge. We started doing branded entertainment. Branded entertainment to me is one of the greatest discoveries. To be able to help a company sell their product in a funny way, it really extends the life of you as a comedian, you as a creative person, you as a business person. To own your own company extends your life in this business. Now, not only do comedians know of you and actors know of you. Now you have folks who are in business and corporations who are using what you do to help sell their product. This is what I find to be fun about what we do as comedians and what we do as business people.

Every comic should think about their next wave and what’s next for them. Some people want to do standup forever. Standup for me is just a vehicle to get where I gotta go for the future. I don’t want to do standup. I don’t want to be in smoky comedy clubs forever but I do want to use it as a vehicle to keep people engaged in what I’m doing and follow me and understand what type of comic I am and use those skills in other ways, whether it’s behind the camera, writing, producing, doing branded entertainment, starting a site like The Ruckus. These are all branches off that tree. Managing other comics is also another branch. I feel like I know a lot about the business, a lot about standup, a lot about production, a lot about humor in general that I can be beneficial to any young comic coming up. These are all plusses and things you want to get out there, man, so people can respect what you do and the path you have laid as a performer.

Is having a Twitter presence necessary for a modern comedian?

I think it is. I think all that is, but here’s the thing people don’t understand. You still have to do the legwork. A lot of time to acquire those types of followings, you have to have something you have done in your past, or stuff you have already done so people can jump on and follow you because they see you on other stuff also. In a way, they work for each other. Having Twitter followers still does not take away from the work you have to put in. You have to still get out and work the stage. You’ve got to get out and meet people. You’ve got to network with people directly, which is what you really need to have longevity in this business.

Twitter followers are people but is that going to get you in a movie? Is that going to get you in a room with a director? Is that going to get you to the next level? Probably not? Will people come out and see you more? Yes, but you still have to do the legwork. You have to have something that’s going to make you follow you, number one. You have to do some work to allow them to want to follow you. They’re not going to follow you just because you’re on Twitter. You have to connect with them somehow. That’s the fun part about what you do. It’s beneficial but it’s not necessary to what you’re doing. You still have to get your presence on that stage, on that movie or on that television show. If millions of people watch you, two million people are going to follow you. Put it like that.

Did you have your choice to be either a judge or the host of “Last Comic Standing?”

No, no, man. They actually wanted me to host it. I think I have a certain type of presence on stage. I think I have a great delivery. I think I can make anything exciting. I truly believe in the process. I truly believe that you can win this. I truly believe in the laughter. I truly believe that we as comedians are beneficial to the world. Our take on things, you can deal with things easier when a comedian puts it in his own terms, his own words and makes you understand it and takes the sting off things a little bit. I like being a host. I think I’ve made the show my own. I think the judges and myself work well together. We all have worked together before so that’s another plus. I’ve known Roseanne, I’ve known Keenan, I’ve known Russell forever. I’m not a judging comic. I’ll have a look on my face or I’ll raise my eyebrows like, “Wow, that was pretty damn good.” We all kind of get it, which is what you want. The main thing is that people at home are watching this show and they’re thinking, “Damn, I wish I was there.”

Did you have a favorite episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where you thought you and Larry and Jeff were nailing it?

There are so many episodes, man. I think me and Larry have tons of moments. Everybody says Larry hogs me up so I don’t get a chance to do too many scenes with anybody else. I think me and Jeff had one scene together. Me and Richard Lewis had no scenes together. I don’t think Cheryl and I had a scene together. Most of my scenes were with Larry directly so for me, I think the “Get in that ass” scene is one of the greatest ones ever. I think all of New York was great, when Leon arrives in New York. I love that one. I love the talk when Larry and I got into a discussion about Rosie O’Donnell. I think the “Get in that ass” one might be classic. “Get in that ass, Larry.” I was telling Larry how to defend himself verbally. Don’t allow a man to punk you like that. You’ve got to be able to respond in a way that’s going to make him respect you. Get in that ass. Not physically get in someone’s ass, but it’s a metaphor for defend yourself as a man. Just berate him. Make him understand you’re a grown man and you’re not going to allow a man to talk to you like that.

Get in that ass, Larry.


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