Dan Cummins: Heroes and Zeroes.


dan cumminsDan Cummins has been on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Last Comic Standing, Comedy Central, Tonight Show with Conan, has four hour long releases under his belt and now hosts the morning show on The Playboy Channel. Just that last resume tid-bit should be enough to check in with this very funny dude. SUSC and Dan get into the nitty gritty of the biz. See Dan at Rooster T. Feathers this Thursday through Sunday! Tickets here:


How did you start doing stand-up in 2000 and end up in the Seattle Comedy Competition in 2001?

I rose up fast, but circumstance was part of it. There wasn’t an open mic scene in Spokane, Washington in 2000. There was a weekend club but they didn’t hire local opening acts. Basically, I had a new car and hooked with Dave Tribble and I was willing to work for shitty money. I was also responsible enough to show up for gigs, so I got all these runs just a few months into starting doing stand-up. I got thrown into it faster then I know is normal.

How is Idaho in the middle of winter?

Cold. Montana in the middle of winter, driving through blizzards. Wyoming, Oregon and Washington all tough. It was never Seattle or Portland. It was always like Longview, Washington and Bend, Oregon. Bozman, Butte and random small markets in Idaho.

You would host?

Technically, featuring. They are two man shows so you do an extended host set. You go up cold and do 20/30 minutes to some bar or hotel lounge, or wherever they had the comedy night. I jumped into those pretty fast. I would drive to Seattle and host for free at The Comedy Underground, which turned out to be my audition for the Seattle Comedy Competition. I didn’t have much experience but I was real hungry. Then I tried the San Francisco Comedy Competition, but I didn’t fare as well.

Who won the year you did the SF competition?

Oh man. No idea. I want to say one year it was Rob Pue (2003), a Canadian comic. Don’t know what happened to that guy, he was young, good looking and crushed it in the competition. He even got some heat off it, which was rare, because usually nobody cares. He ended up going down to LA, got good representation and management and then he was back in Canada.

If you look at the first batch of years of the comedy competition you see some insane names. But the competitions don’t seem to have the push in a person’s career that they used to.

There used to be a more linear route to a career in stand-up and working clubs and theatres. Like, Steven Wright was an open mic comic in Boston and had a random chance sighting by a guy from The Tonight Show who was checking out collleges for his daughter. Did a great five minute set and Johnny Carson loved him and had him on again a few days later. And that made his career. He went from open mic to selling out comedy clubs. It’s really weird now. You can win on Last Comic Standing, like Dat Phan, but he has trouble selling out his backyard. Great guy, gets some good events, so do I. You would think winning would have more weight than that. Marcus was a runner-up, an impressionist out of Utah another year, he got second place and by the time the tour was over–in one year, he was back to just working small clubs in the Salt Lake area. Even with all that exposure, the guys calendar was empty.

Just goes to show. . .

. . the old systems aren’t in place anymore. Conversely, there are people who have never done any TV and go viral on YouTube. Look at Miranda Sings, she does matinees shows, all ages shows at comedy clubs. I was in Cleveland at the Improv, she was at Hilarities. The headliner was a known comic, lots of Late Nights, a special or two, he had name recognition. His show was selling poorly and her shows were sold out. It’s crazy.

You have a big resume of accolades and there are certain things that still seem to be stepping stones for people. Like Montreal’s Just for Laughs.

It helped get me on Comedy Central. Got me some Late Night stuff. And that was great, and I’m thankful, but I had an hour special on Comedy Central 20 years ago. But ultimately those credits give me an extra 20 people that show up to a show. And that’s pretty common. There are guys like Matt Barunger who have a couple of specials but they still cannot sell out a club and he’s hilarious. It takes a series of things now to do what one appearance on Johnny Carson would have done. Now you need a TV show to come out and a special and some videos that go viral. It takes five things at once to cut through all the noise. Then you still have to do things to keep your name out there. But that initial explosion has to be really big to be heard through all the entertainment options that are out there.

When Ray Romano had a TV deal that came out of his stand-up it was still an anomaly. Now every comic thinks that their life story should be made into a sitcom.

Yup. Everyone feels the pressure. In LA all anyone talks about is a vehicle. It’s not enough to be on a show, you need a vehicle for your stand-up. There are guys like my buddy who was on a show called My Boys. He was part of an ensemble cast. It had four seasons on TBS, but it didn’t help his touring numbers at all, because it wasn’t his show specifically. Now its not even enough to be on a show. Now the show has to be about you, and the show has to do well and it has to do well for a while. I was in college when Seinfeld was on the air. We would go to somebodies dorm room and have drinks and watch the new episode.

It’s a double edged sword. Twenty years, or more, ago you could rise up and be noticed without all the distractions of Reddit, or YouTube or Netflix or whatever infinite choices people have today. But such a small, miniscule percentage were able to get on network TV. Today, anyone, anywhere can upload a TV episode they shot for next to nothing. The playing field has opened up.

Absolutely, that’s the exciting flipside of it. But because some many people can do things as well as studios can do it, everybody us doing it. So more people are in the game. Conversely, the good part is you have a better chance of putting out a really good product and making some kind of mark. Back in the day and the gatekeepers of the Big Three, ABC, CBS and NBC, if they all said no to you, you were done. You had no chance of a career. And then if HBO said no, it was like, “Alright man, thanks for playing.” I follow VladTV and he’s a Russian guy who produces these high quality videos and he does it all himself. He’s has TV shows offered to him, but they wouldn’t match what he makes on his own. You could literally make videos in your own house that catch on, for whatever random reason and you could become famous without any studio help at all. Marc Maron is a good example. His podcast in his garage did more than 50 late night appearances.

What is your vehicle looking like these days?

I’m shooting a sit-com with a buddy and we’re going to shop that around. That wasn’t an option 20 years ago.

 Are you crowd sourcing for it?

We have a production company attached so they are lining up private money. If we do sell it, it’s one of those good problems, because we have to cut other people into the slice of the pie. I’m shooting a new special in a few weeks. Warner Brothers is my rep and they’re just going to make it, shop it around, and if nobody wants it, it will live on and make money in other ways over time. It’s like the DIY model is much more feasible level than ever before.

Whatever happened to, “Hey, you’re a stand-up comic who tells jokes. That’s good enough!”

It’s frustrating. I was having a lunch with Jake Johannsen a few weeks ago. You know who he is, but the overwhelming majority do not. Even younger stand-up don’t know, which I think is a crime. We were talking about Instagram and Twitter and all these things. He made a really good special a few years ago and it’s great but it didn’t get picked up. He was speculating its because his social media numbers are low. Its no longer about content its about how many built-in viewers does this entity bring? I know this is true, because I host a new show on the Playboy Channel, I’m the morning host. The execs told the booker who books the guests, a mandate was given that said, don’t book any comics unless they have real good social media numbers.

What’s a good Twitter number to get on the Playboy Channel morning show?

6 figures. 100,000 plus. The guests who are a million plus make the execs real real happy. Comics have been reduced to metrics.

Somebody can be fantastic on Twitter and be a terrible comic.

It’s not one and the same. It’s a weird marketing thing. A lot of comics do weird, esoteric stuff on Twitter and then people come see them and their comedy is long auto-biographical stories. Will they come back?

It’s a different golden age then the 80s boom.

Yup. Back then all club owners wanted you to do was kill it. If you had a funny 45 minutes you made a good living, blah, blah, blah. Now you can crush a room, but if it’s only half full, that’s all the club remembers.

Do you think when you have a corporation that controls comedy clubs, bottom line will always be seen through economic parameters. But when you have an individually owned comedy club, like Roosters, comedians are more appreciated for their talent?

Absolutely. The Improv has been very good to me, but, I’m low priority on their booking because I don’t sell out the room. GMs of those clubs will talk about some minor celebrity they had the week before, who now does stand-up, and sold out the room. I ask how the show was and they say, and this happens all the time, “It was fucking terrible.” But at the end of the day, the club made its money. So you’re right, the corporatization of comedy clubs and chains could care less about stand-up. Stockholders just want to make money.

What’s the upside?

A lot of comics are like, “Fuck those guys.” Comics are doing their own bookings with rock clubs, coffee shops, whatever. Look at Doug Stanhope, he’s a fucking hero, I’m a big fan. His career may not look like one of the new comedy hotshots, but I think it’s one of the best careers. He does stand-up exactly the way he wants to do it. He tours based on stand and demand. He self-deprecates his career, but he has done a really good job of building a relationship with his fan base. He makes a good living and he makes art, he puts out important stand-up.

Do you think comics need to readjust the economic viability of a career in comedy? Like forget about the high life, how about just earning enough to pay the bills and raise a family? Isn’t that still a worthwhile goal?

Life in general is managing expectations. If you really only cared about making money, then why pick stand-up in the first place, there are so many better options.




One response to “Dan Cummins: Heroes and Zeroes.”

  1. Wes Hofmann says:

    Great interview – cool guy! I was fortunate enough to perform with him at San Jose State once.

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