Kevin Pollak has accomplished much in his more-than-40-years of performing. He’s an accomplished dramatic actor with infamous roles in The Usual Suspects and A Few Good Men. He’s a veteran stand-up comedian who thrived in the 80s and early 90s before his acting career took off. And over the past few years he has built a successful podcast, Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, where he interviews actors, directors and comedians every Sunday. Pollak talks with his guests about their journey in life and in show business, but he also combines old-school flares like a game called “Who Tweeted?” and live regularly encourages his audience to interact. Today, Pollak moves his show to the illustrious Earwolf podcast network, home to Comedy Bang Bang, Professor Blastoff, Gelmania and many more.
I had a phenomenal, inspiring conversation with Pollak the other day. We talked about his podcast (naturally), the old world of stand-up and the abstract journey of finding your comedic voice– that elusive element of a comedian that makes him different from everyone else on the microphone. Check it out and enjoy a brief clip of Pollak’s take on finding your voice.
I was just watching the Kevin Smith episode of your podcast.
Are you enjoying the wildly poor quality of that New York studio that we used? We did a couple of shows in New York, had all these things where anything you get for free like that are just going to be sub-par. You know, we reached out on Twitter, like, ‘Hey! Who has studio space?’ My memory was the contacts and the interviews were all terrific, I just wish I was less critical of the shitty, technical side of it. It’s just those few New York shows where I had great guests like Paul Rudd and Kevin Smith and I was like, ‘Argh! Sub-par surroundings!’ That sort of bothered me.
I didn’t even notice the low-quality technical details. Probably because I was too caught up in the actual interview itself to notice.
I would say that’s all that matters at some point and that I should be less upset and more appreciative of the guests I had in New York. I have to ask. Were you half-watching and mostly listening or what was your experience with it?
I would say half-watching and mostly listening. I would be listening to the interview while checking emails, or looking up your IMDB, or writing out some more questions to ask you for today. Which I can do, listening to a podcast. That’s why I love podcasts.
Yeah, that’s the thing. Right now I’m doing research for my show tomorrow with Jon Favreau. We’re going to stream live for the first time on YouTube, which I’m excited about. While doing the research, and going over the 60-page dossier that my research producer sent me, I’ve got his interviews playing in the background. That’s the thing with podcasts: you can make it part of your day or night without giving it your full focus.
So you’re touring and doing stand-up. You got back into it after a long lapse, correct?
Yeah, well after A Few Good Men came out in ’92, I crossed that goal line that any actor drives for, which is going from auditioning to getting offers. And because I was getting offers after A Few Good Men and the stand-up gold rush of the 80s, was actually dying after 1992, so it was real easy for me to transition– to just almost turn my back on it. I’d been doing stand-up my whole fucking life: started when I was 10; professionally at 17. So by the time it’s 1992, I’m 35. It’s like, ‘Alright. I’m going to be an actor.’ I kept doing corporate dates but I wouldn’t do any more club or theater dates. I wasn’t working on my act then. I had my old act that I would use for corporate dates because it was easy money. Then, I did 40 movies in the 90s…which is about 25 too many. I was just a bitch, little whore who wouldn’t say no. That kind of thing. It was weird getting offers because it was like, ‘What the fuck?’ By the time the 90s ended, I had stayed away from stand-up for eight years, which could have been 80 years.
It felt like so long for someone who had spent their whole life in it. The comedy scene was kind of coming back. The alternative scene was starting to crush. There was this young blood sort of attitude. I became disenfranchised with the filmmaking experience as a gun-for-hire. I wanted to get more proactive in my creative world, which is what stand-up always is. You’re in charge of everything. They’re totally opposite ends of the spectrum. That’s probably why, when I started doing the podcast in March 2009, I felt there again that I was being proactive. I felt like, ‘This isn’t a fucking dress rehearsal. This is it!’ As much as I got spoiled in the 90s with the phone ringing, if you’re just waiting for the phone to ring, you’re basically allowing your life to march past. It was easy to drift away from stand-up and it was real easy to get back into it in 2000. Also, to this day, in 2013, it’s really easy to never drift away again.
So now I may do 15-20 dates a year, that kind of thing. Just enough to keep me juiced and excited about getting on stage. It’s also enough to not make it feel like a job, which is really important. And then with this podcasting world, it really was a total fluke and I had no idea that I would like hosting a talk show, basically. Some friend of mine told me, ‘This is becoming your legacy. You’ve got two-hour interviews with people like Seth MacFarlene and Billy Bob Thornton and John Landis.’ It’s weird that it’s become this thing because it did start as, ‘Oh, what the hell. Let’s try this.’
That would definitely be one of the differences between the stand-up world then and now: podcasts have become a new outlet for showcasing your comedy skills. What are some other differences between stand-up when you started and now?
Well back then, the market wasn’t flooded. I don’t know how you go about starting these days. I don’t know if it’s easier or harder. It seems easier becomes there seems to be a million comedians. In the 80s, when you met someone and you said, ‘I’m a comedian,’ their response was, ‘Wow! A comedian! I’ve never actually talked to one. What is that world like?’ And then, in the mid- to late-90s and in 2000, if you met someone and you said, ‘I’m a comedian,’ their response was, ‘Oh yea. My cousin’s a comedian. He says it’s really fun. He likes it.’ Everyone kinda knew a comedian. And nowadays, if someone says, ‘What do you do?,’ I’ll say, ‘I’m a comedian.’ They’ll say, ‘Yeah, me too.’ That’s got to be the biggest difference. It went from being, ‘Woah! You’re an exotic animal. What’s that like?’ to, ‘Oh yeah, isn’t everybody?’ It’s this bizarre profession that everyone sort of dabbles in. That is to say that everyone can kind of tell a joke.
There’s a ton of amateurs who don’t even think about a career in comedy who just love to tell jokes when hanging with their buddies. That, of course, has nothing to do with the art form of stand-up comedy, but it makes amateurs out of everyone. Whereas nobody dabbles in dentistry. In other words, when they look at you as a comedian, they themselves tell jokes to their friends at parties, they don’t see the chasm between what they do and you do. It’s the art form that gets the least amount of respect, but if you talk to members of the art community in New York, their minds are blown when you tell them you do stand-up comedy. They can’t fucking believe that you stand on a stage without a script and without other players.
Would you say the vibe is different in the stand-up community now than it was back when you started?
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been around so long and that I’ve been a survivor, but when I meet younger comedians there is this sort of generous, respectful reverent nonsense, which is nice, but I don’t get a real sense of who anyone is because they’re putting on airs when they meet me. I think what’s different is that when there was only a few hundred of us in the late 80s, we were like Navy SEALs. We felt as if nobody knew the shit that we went through, going on stage in front of a bunch of strangers with no credibility at all. ‘Make me laugh, fucker,’ was the overall atmosphere of the audience. I started out in an area where there were no comedy clubs. I just went on when the band would break in shit-kicker bars. Talk about overstaying your welcome within 90 seconds! We all went through the trenches (to keep going with the Navy SEAL analogy).
There weren’t that many of us. We were like fucking veterans, in a sense of war time. Everyone else was an outsider and didn’t understand what we did or what we had to go through. It was, ‘Don’t give me shit for sleeping in until noon. I didn’t get off stage until three.’ That was the New York story; I was on the West Coast, but I would hear it from these guys. It seems like the vibe now is that you can set up your own room or you can take over a night in a room. You get your own audience. It’s a whole other world from the one I came up in. I don’t know if it’s any easier or harder but the big difference is that the vibe with the comedians back then — although certainly still cut-throat — was that we all had the same patch on our jacket.
There seems to be a sense of camaraderie amongst the not-old-but-older generation whereas today it can get a bit more cliquey.
I think it really was because of the low numbers. I don’t think it had to do with some sort of other mentality or special abilities or talents– there just wasn’t that many. So when you entered the field, there was already a sense of camaraderie. ‘You’re one of us, now. Now, don’t get in my fucking way because I want that time slot on Saturday night.’ But in a way, I think it made me less competitive now because everyone seems to have to get along.
And even now, it’s starting to become like everybody’s a comedian; everybody has a podcast. I wouldn’t say it’s over-saturated yet — it’s still a very new medium — but it’s gotten to the point that anyone with a microphone can make one, which is both the gift and the curse of podcasts.
It’s fantastic! I think it’s an amazing thing. I don’t find it competitive. When someone of my field scores a guest that I want, there’s jealousy but there’s also an instant hope that means I have a chance to get him, too. Also, because I’ve already been through the competitive part of my career, I don’t feel it anymore. I was able to root for my fellow comrades instead of wanting to replace them. That’s why I really mean it when I had my first book come out and called it, How I Slept My Way to the Middle. You have to make peace with your place in the sun. You don’t want to lose that edge, your competitiveness, but one day I woke up in my early 40s and went, ‘Wow! I’m an incredibly lucky fucker!’ I started out and wanted Michael Keaton in Night Shift. I wanted Tom Hanks in Splash. I wanted that fame and glory when I got into the acting thing.
I wasn’t counting on the street cred as a dramatic actor and when I would run into someone that I admired, like Gene Hackman, and they even knew who the fuck I was. They would view me as a dramatic actor and they’d be surprised that I got my start in stand-up comedy…you just can’t fucking buy that kind of street cred. I think it’s great that anyone can pick up a mic and put up a YouTube channel. I think it’s fantastic. The best thing about the Internet is that we have a new place to fail. And that’s the only way you’re going to learn anything is by failing first and figuring your shit out. The problem with getting on stage, why it’s so competitive and tough, is that you better have your act together when you take that stage in LA or New York. You can’t really get up there and fail and learn. Or so it seems.
And then when you fail on the Internet, you get 100 angry trollers commenting about how you suck while they’re sitting in their parents’ basement somewhere, which isn’t too different from any idiotic heckler at a club.
It’s a new breed of heckler, no question about it. With this new medium comes this new form of critics. Anyone can throw up a blog and talk about film and call themselves a critic. Then the next thing you know, their name is being listed on a movie poster because they gave a movie a positive review on their blog! Suddenly they have credibility. And it’s just some fucker who started a blog, which is easier than starting a fucking bank account! Listen, it’s going to make you tougher. It’s going to make your skin thicker. I would say don’t read any of the shit they say. Don’t ever go to a fucking message board about anything that you do. Don’t fucking do that unless you just want to wallow in some depression for awhile. That’s where those freaks go to congregate and feel better about themselves because they have no actual talent. That was always the thing that blew my mind about reviewers. You know how they have that phrase, ‘Those who can’t do, teach.’
Honestly, you want to find out what you do that’s different than anyone else and exploit the motherfuck out of it. Like any art form, everything’s been done. Now what? Now how do I stand out in the crowd? Now how do I find my voice? That’s on you. You need to find your voice. The only way to do that is to — I believe it was Malcolm Gladwell who said it — put in your 10,000 hours. You just gotta get on stage. You just gotta turn on the mic and start podcasting. You just gotta fucking do it. And do not, do not, listen to any negativity. It’s inevitable. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, now more than ever. You just have to blow right through that nonsense. Just struggle and put in your 10,000 hours to find your voice. And finding your voice will feel like tripping over something one day. You’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s my voice! That’s my point-of-view.’ You’ll go, ‘I think that vegetarians are fucking morons. Why? Why do I think vegetarians are morons? Because they’re not even saying they don’t want to kill animals. They’re saying, ‘Hey, look at me. I’m special.’
‘Facebook may have been designed for college kids but it’s fucking high school. It’s not even worthy of college mentality. You don’t have any existence until you have a page on Facebook. That’s why there’s a billion people on the fucking thing who otherwise have no page in life that people can come visit. It’s actually a status. It’s like when Starbucks first opened, you’d watch people walking around with their coffee cup with that famous fucking mermaid bitch covered in green and white like they were somebody. We are so desperate as a society to be recognized.’
So is that my act? Am I going to break down society? So you get on stage, you stumble across it, next thing you know you have a point-of-view and an opinion and you keep hammering whatever that is. Then you realize, ‘Oh! I’m just talking about my opinion. I just found a funny way to say it.’ Then the difference between you and the trolls is instant. They have no funny way to say it. They’re just blasting out their opinion which is fucking meaningless. You have a point-of-view and an opinion and you found a funny way to say it. Congratulations. You’re now a professional comedian.
Because in the end, it’s just your own comedic point-of-view that will make any topic funny. I’m looking out the window of this hotel room and I see a smoke stack. Alright, now how the fuck am I going to make that funny? Well, if I were Jerry Seinfeld, I would figure out what it was like to put up the first smoke stack. What was that like? If I were Ricky Gervais, I would imagine two guys who have to repaint the smoke stack every year and they would go up with the pulleys and sit next to each other and have a sandwich, and they’re talking about nonsense while they’re painting a smoke stack. If I were Steven Wright or Demetri Martin, to make it more current, I would find the most esoteric possible example of something in life that reminds me of a smokestack. So it’s just a matter of, ‘What the fuck is my point-of-view?’ At the end of the day, that’s what matters for a comedian. What is your point-of-view? And you will not find it until you put in your 10,000 hours. It’s not enough to get up there and get laughs, to be funny. You’ve got to have a point-of-view because the guy who owns the club there has already seen everything. How do you stand out? Just find your point-of-view. Because you’re a snowflake, man. You’re actually different from everybody else. Now show me how.
By the way, when I was starting out, there was nobody talking this shit. Comedians had just started telling personal stories when I started out. Believe it or not, Bill Cosby was one of them. He stopped with the jokes and just started telling stories, whether they were fabricated or not. They were personal stories. Then he found the comedic beats within those personal stories. When I stopped doing just impressions and started talking about meeting these people who I’ve been impersonating or wondering what they were like in their every day lives, I found something to hold on to instead of just doing, ‘What if Jack Nicholson was a busboy?’ I was a hackneyed impression act when I first started out. Rich Little was a great technician of impressions but he was no funnier than if you hit him in the face with a comedy shovel.
So, it wasn’t until I found some personalized angle that suddenly I was starting to get attention. I was doing some impersonations that were spot on. And impersonations are just a magic trick. They’re really no different than juggling or playing a guitar. You’ve got some bonus added, weird, fucked-up goofy talent that no one else in the room has, which automatically makes you a point of interest. But boy, oh, boy, you better have something to fucking say. You cannot just get up there and do a great impression. It took me forever to find that out! ‘Oh fuck! I need to talk about my life. That’s right.’ And the moment I did, which was, fuck, only about 20 years into doing it, I was like, ‘Not only is this going over better but I’m enjoying the fuck out of it, for maybe the first time.’ So that was great.
That’s both refreshing and hopeful to hear. Finding that comedic voice is something I and so many other young comedians are struggling with and is the single, most frustrating thing. I think sometimes we just need to hear it, like that anti-bullying YouTube series, ‘It gets better.’
You can’t force it. It’ll come. It’ll only come if you put in the time. That’s the fucking road. That’s the bitch. It turns out there is no short cut. There are a couple of pricks who will stroll through on easy street on a short cut and they break the curve and it makes everyone think, ‘Oh, maybe I can do that, too.’ But it’s like winning the lottery. You just gotta do the fucking work. By the way, it’s insanely more rewarding when you put in the work and you eventually find your rhythm. I actually don’t envy the people who got lucky. It’s a shallow victory. They don’t appreciate anywhere near the amount you did had you paid your fucking dues. But now I’m getting all Yoda on here because this pertains to life, too.
I’m in this elevator and these 14-year old boys get on with me, and it caught my attention that these boys had acne on their faces, which is an immediate flashback to anyone’s youth. I thought, ‘Oh, right. That’s just a phase that tortures you in your youth that you have to just live through.’ Fuck you, ProActive, there is nothing that removes that that makes that awkward phase in your life easier or that will make you forget it. So likewise, when it comes to comedy or the arts of any kind, yeah, you just got to do your thing. You just absolutely have to do your thing. It will get easier. The acne will go away. You will go from adolescent to adult. Keep the drive. Just remember: no one’s responsible for your happiness. And you’re not responsible for anyone else’s happiness.
That’s a tough one, in terms of agents and managers. There’s a lot of schmoozing shit but at some point, they’re all fucking employees. As a baby entertainer, you think everyone is doing you a favor. You get into this mentality that I have to be nice to everybody. I have to make everybody happy. At some point, you’re totally getting in your own way by trying to be a people pleaser thinking you’re somehow accomplishing something by making everyone else happy as opposed to focusing on your act. You have to realize all this energy and time you’re wasting on everyone else’s happiness when the only thing that makes you happy is that you have a new three minutes of real kick-ass shit to try on stage.
Check out Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show on the Earwolf or subscribe on iTunes. You can also go to kevinpollakchatshow.com. His debut on Earwolf is now live with guest Mark Duplass (The League). Go watch or listen now before you head off to put in your 10,000 hours at whatever it is you do.