If you’ve spent any quality time here on Punchline Magazine, you’ll know that we pride ourselves on giving you the latest interviews with the biggest names and up and comers in stand-up comedy. But every once in awhile, we also like to introduce you to some of the behind-the-scenes players of the industry, the folks who are integral in helping those stand-up comedians reach a wider audience.
To that end, allow us to present you Judi Brown-Marmel, formerly an average gal from suburban Colorado and now one of the most influential names in the business.
Brown-Marmel currently runs the management division of Levity Entertainment Group, a multi-armed comedy-centric outfit responsible for fostering and maintaining the careers, among others, of Pablo Francisco, Jeff Dunham, Mitch Fatel and Jim Breuer. Brown-Marmel has executive produced projects for Dunham, Robert Schimmel, Steve Byrne, Doug Stanhope, and many more. She’s also currently heading up production on The Jeff Dunham Show, which premieres on Comedy Central in October.
Punchline Magazine recently chatted with Brown-Marmel in Montreal, where she was overseeing production of Scottish comedian Danny Bhoy’s new hour stand-up special and then bumped into her in New York just days ago, where she was buzzing around Gotham Comedy Club, producing Comedy Central’s latest Live at Gotham tapings, which will air later this year.
It’s rare that a girl grows up obsessed with stand-up comedy. How did that happen for you?
I grew up in Colorado in a very middle class family, as far away from the entertainment industry as you could possibly get. But I grew up in a house where we watched a lot of television, a lot of All in the Family. And I think that I knew at a very early age that this was something that brought the whole family together. I loved stand-up comedy and any type of live performance or theater and live music that my parents would take me to— the excitement in the audience, the whole thing.
I watched the movie The Idolmaker when I was 15 or 16 years old; it was about this guy who took these male singers and made them matinee idols. And I remember watching that and saying, ‘that’s what I want to do.’ The only difference is at the end of the movie you find that he didn’t really want to be their manager, he really wanted that life for himself. I never had any aspirations of doing stand-up. I never wanted to be in the spotlight whatsoever. To me a job well done, is knowing that you had a big part preparing someone to have great sets, great specials, great TV shows and a successful career. So, I remember seeing this movie and thinking whatever that guy does [Ray Sharkey’s character], I want to do what that guy does.
So how did you make that happen?
My roommate’s boyfriend was part owner in the comedy club in Colorado Springs. We start going there all the time and sit at the bar talk, to comics. And at this point I’m like 18, 19 years old and I was like, ‘I can see stand-up comedy for free every night. Are you kidding me?’ This was like the Holy Grail. I became the ticket girl and the coat check girl at the club. Then I’d go in the back of the showroom and watch the show until people left. And I just thought this was the greatest job you can ever have.
Then I slowly but surely moved up: to daytime manager and then years later I’m booking the club. Roseanne was coming into the club and working out, Sinbad, Emo Phillips, Tim Allen, Sam Kinison. I was like the epicenter of comedy. Then my job became everything. I took comics to do press; I’d have to knock on the door of the condo: ‘C’mon, I know you’re hung over, get in my car.’ It gave me this really great sense of every aspect of a comic’s life and everything that goes into the live side of making a good show.
Ok, so in your current position at Levity, at what point in a comedian’s career do you, personally, start working with them?
For me, it’s typically when they’re getting ready for a special or they’re getting ready for network development.
When you say “getting ready,” does that mean the comic already has a deal in place with a network or that they’re simply thinking about approaching a network?
Probably that they’re thinking about it or someone in my company has pointed out to me that there’s a piece of business to do with this comic. Then I’ll meet with that person and see them live and start testing the material. I’ll say, ‘Show me the hour and 15 minutes.’ Or, if it’s for network television development, ‘show me what your point of view is.’ At that point, it’s really me being hands on with them and combing through it and asking, ‘What are we trying to say’ and we try to cut the fat away.
We want to make sure that it’s really at the highlest level quality that it could be and is this what the comedian really wants out there. With a one-hour special, we really take it very seriously that this is going to be something that’s out there for a very, very long time as an archive; it’s something you want to be proud of and it’s something that you want to hold up to the test of time.
During this time, does the comedian have an obligation to report back to you on the status of things?
I wouldn’t say it’s an obligation, but the way I like to work with them is that it’s a partnership. They are always the artist. So I hope that their vision is taking into account all the things that I see in the market place. I’ve done this for more than 25 years. I’m hoping that they take some of the knowledge that I have – maybe some material is repetitive, or derivative of something else – and together we’ll establish the best way to present it. It’s truly a partnership.
There’s a point where art and commerce sort of collide. It’s tough because I really appreciate that they’re out there and they’re the judge and jury of everything on their own. And then all of a sudden, we take that piece of art and start asking: ‘How do I package this that makes sense to the industry and to the consumer?’
So marketing and commerce are necessary for a comedian to continue what they’re doing.
Commerce provides them a bigger audience and more opportunity. Then eventually they’re able to make more choices about what they want to do with the art. I think a lot of comedians that come into it, don’t want to embrace the commerce side at all. But hopefully I’m there to help them add commerce into their art and still make it true to what they’re original vision was.
What exactly does a comedian’s manager do?
In my case, I executive produce projects for the clients I manage. But that’s not always the case. Like, Robert Schimmel. I executive produced [Life Since Then] but I don’t manage him. When you get into the management side of things, that’s everything from the comedian saying, ‘I need this many personal appearance dates because I need this much to pay my mortgage’ or ‘I need these weeks off because I’m going on vacation with my wife’s family.’ Or ‘Don’t book this because the kids are out of school that day.’
As a manger you’re really in charge of taking care of their livelihood and their revenue stream. But you’re also personally involved in what they need to get out of their career. And not every comedian has the same needs. They don’t have the same financial needs and same goals; a manager’s job is to try to come in and help them accomplish what they want while still helping them have a happy, healthy and whole life. I’m a firm believer in if the whole picture of their whole life is in really good shape, then they’re work is going to be really good. Like you can’t just send someone on the road forever and burn them out and just hope it all works out.
So you do all that. And you also help them find agents and publicists. In in this online age a lot of what we’re trying to do is helping them find a way to create interesting viral content. How are they in charge of their own messaging? What are you putting out there in the world that is on point for what you’re trying to tell people? For a lot of comedians that’s the first real exposure they get instead of hiring a $5,000-a-month publicist. Now, a comic’s first entrée into publicity is some sort of viral content.
It used to be a comedian would be on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, he’d bring you over to the couch and the next day your career was made. I was working in this business when that was the case. But now you’re hoping you put a piece of viral content up there that takes the world by storm and the next thing you know [Hollywood talent agency] CAA is calling. I think it’s an exciting time for comics because you no longer have to wait for someone to knock on your door. You can sort of create that opportunity yourself.
Are you able to watch comedy as a normal person and laugh and not as someone who’s so deeply embedded in the industry?
There’s still a lot of stuff that makes me laugh out loud but I definitely don’t have the ability to watch not as a regular person.
Have you become jaded?
No, I wake up every morning with a lot of gratitude that I get to do this for a living. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. And I feel really blessed to have something that I love to do and that I never tire of— that’s something a lot people will never have.