Dean Lewis Helped Coach Up Many Of Dallas’ Top Comedians. And His Advice To Area Comics Who’ve Found Local Success Is Always The Same: They Should Leave.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Many of the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s best and brightest performers owe a serious debt to Dean Lewis and his comedy classes.
If you follow this Humor Us series at all, Lewis’ name should already be familiar to you thanks to the number of references to him made by other comics we’ve profiled, many of which have benefited from his wealth of stand-up experience and acumen.
Of course, even without the classes, no survey of the area’s comedy scene would be worth anything if it failed to discuss Lewis. As a comic, he boasts an innate ability to tap into the humor of practically any subject, as well as a peerless understanding of how to shape even the wildest ideas into terrific comedy. Having been captivated by stand-up since his early childhood, his appreciation for the medium is apparent when you watch him perform, which is likely why he’s enjoyed remarkable professional and artistic achievements, and built a career that anyone in any scene would envy.
But, given all of the above, why does Lewis, an indispensable part of Dallas’ comedy scene, think that comics should try to leave Dallas for greener pastures as soon as they possibly can?
We get into that below, and also talk about how he got his start, the mistakes new comics often make, why he’s suspended his comedy class, and how a working comic can start building bigger and better opportunities for themselves.
Your name has come up in these interviews more than anyone-
-because so many of the comics we’ve talked to came through one of your classes.
Oh, that’s great to know.
Can you even keep track of how many people have come through your class and gone on to enjoy success in comedy?
No, and I used to be really good at keeping records and everything. I would have a class roster, and I’d have everyone’s names, and emails, and phone numbers, and then… I think part of it is, I lowered the price of the class, but about three years ago, just… I’m not teaching it anymore, because the people who were taking it beat me down. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I lowered the price about four years ago I guess just because, economically, I know comics don’t have a bunch of money. And times were a little tougher back then. I thought, well, if I lower it, I’ll get paid less, but I may get more students, so it’ll even out in the end. But I don’t know if it’s because of the lower price that it attracted a different type of person – and anyone who reads this, I hope they don’t feel bad, because hopefully I’m not talking about you – but there were just a lot of people who would take three classes and then stop showing up, or they would never do the work, or they would just fight me on everything. Which, I know comedy’s subjective, and it really is, and you feel your sense of humor’s gotten you through life, and now now you’re in this workshop and this guy’s telling you, “That’s not gonna work. That’s not funny.” I mean, I can understand you taking it personally to a degree, but they would just fight me on stuff, and I’d end up in these long discussions, and in the back of my mind, I was like, if you were in medical school, and they told you, here’s how you remove a liver, would you go, “Yeah, but I don’t think that’s right, I want to try it my own way”? So it got to the point where it was just a march of agony, for lack of a better word, to get through the classes. So I stopped teaching for a while, I just needed to take a breather. And if I start teaching again, I’m gonna put the price back up high again to see if that was it. And there could be a payment plan, so you don’t have to come up with all the money at once. I don’t know what it is, I also think it’s just over the last few years, people have gotten so… spoiled? That’s not even the right word. But just – this phone, you can have everything. You can have everything. I just don’t think people want to put the work into it anymore. I mean, you’re a comic – and I think you’re very funny, by the way – and part of the reason I like you is that I can tell you’re doing the work. I can tell you’re a writer, and you think things through, and you put in the effort. And you also know – and now I’m gonna come across as the angry old man – but a lot of comics locally, they just think that, y’know, sex jokes, that’s all I need. They just want a reaction from the audience, and they don’t put the work into it. Which is a shame, because with a lot of them you can see, my God, if you just worked a little bit harder, they’d be so great.
I can see how we get defensive and don’t want to work guys showing up at open mics, but I’m kind of shocked they carry that attitude in after paying to take a class, which is basically saying upfront, “I want to learn from you.” It’s one thing to just show up at a bar and be defensive, it’s another thing to sign up and pay, and still have that.
I can’t either, I’m glad you see my pain. I also don’t know if people don’t know what it’s going to be, if their perception is that they’re just going to go up and be complimented on how funny they are. I’m a very old school guy, I started studying this stuff when I was 11. I just know that structure works, and there’s disciplines you have to have, and there’s a process that’ll turn out tons of material. One of the biggest struggles is everybody wants to tell their funny stories. One of the mantras of the class is your sense of humor’s quirky, but your emotions are universal. What I mean by that is, the odds that you – you know this, Alex – the odds that somebody could come off the street, that anybody in this Starbucks could get up and start making all these strangers laugh is astronomical. That’s just not gonna happen. But if you know certain things – this is where the emotional part comes in – if you know there are certain emotional things everyone can respond to, I mean, you and I, if they had a comedy thing here, you and I could get up and do a good set right now. Because you know how to write comedy that appeals to everybody versus “Well I’m funny, and this thing happened, my grandmother was topless in New Orleans and it’s just gonna kill,” and it’s like, no. No one wants to hear about your grandmother’s naked breasts, they really don’t. [Laughs.]
Is that example based on a true story?
Pretty much. Someone came in with something very similar once. I changed it a bit because I don’t want them to know I’m talking about them. That’s another thing, and again, you know this, here’s the big truth: If you want to know my quick lesson in stand-up comedy, don’t act like a headliner. If you’re working open mics, you can’t act like a headliner. And what I mean by that is, you see somebody with their Netflix special, or you see them at a comedy club, and you see all these things that headliners get away with, but the thing you have to remember is you’re at an open mic, or you’re opening the show at Hyena’s, or the Improv, or whatever, you can’t do hardly anything the headliner can get away with. There’s hardly anything they can do that you’re allowed to do. For example, when people go to a comedy club, they go to the headliner. They already have acceptance. You’re an unknown person, they don’t have any acceptance of you, they’re just hoping you don’t suck. But you walk up there, and because they accept the headliner, and they know the headliner, because they’ve seen them, and they go, “She’s the bitter, divorced mom, and she’s always got these horrible things she says about her kids.” So she can start saying these horrible things about their kids, because we’ve seen that on Netflix, we want more of that, we love you. You’re an unknown. If you get up there, and you’re guilty of what I call being too intimate, that’s not sexual, but it’s an overshare. Most comics get up there and they overshare right away, and people are like, “Whoa whoa – who are you? I don’t even know if you’re funny yet, and now I know that you have a birthmark on your vagina.” [Laughs.] You know what I mean? It’s too much, too quick. I could go on and on about that, but it’s a mistake I see people make the most. You can’t get up there and act like a headliner. There’s a thing I have, I call it the 20-60-20 rule. Which is, the first twenty percent of your time onstage, you just have to make them laugh. You have to be so funny, so you talk about things everybody’s going to understand, and they’re gonna laugh, and then they’re gonna relax. You probably know this from watching audiences, but you walk up onstage, and their arms are crossed, either physically or in their minds, their arms are crossed — until you make them laugh. And you can see them relax, and go, “OK, this next seven minutes isn’t going to be hell.” So 20 percent of the time you just have to be super funny. Once you’ve done that, then you’ve earned the right to do the 60 percent of your act. You can do stuff that’s escalating intimacy. Which is, now they like you, you’re funny, and now you can start telling them more about you – not your deepest, darkest secrets. And then the last 20 percent is, you just have to crush it. You have to be so funny, because the problem is, they’re not going to remember anything but your closing bit. As well you know. How often have we gone up, and you kill-kill-kill, and the last bit dies, and you walk offstage, and after the show the audience avoids eye contact with you? And you’re like, “But I was funny for six and a half minutes! Why are you judging me on the last thirty-five seconds?” On the same hand, you’ve seen people who are like, okay-okay, and then they have a killer closing bit, and after the show, everyone’s like, “You were so funny!” They only remember your last bit. I also think – this is kind of the brutality of stand-up – one of your jobs, I think it’s a job, it’s a chore, you should make it next to impossible for the next comic to follow you. You should never worry about the next comic. Because they grow. The thing is, it’s the comic’s sickness – you’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to follow her, she’s too funny.” Like, how many times have I had to follow Linda Stogner, thinking, “She’s just killed it, there’s no way I’m gonna be able to follow her.” I’ve been doing this for two decades, and I still forget that rule. I’m like, “I don’t want to go up there now.” But it’s gonna be fine, because then you’re gonna ride the wave, because she’s set the table so well. It’s easier for me, but there is that fear. But that’s your job as a comic, to make it impossible for the next guy to follow you. And it’s not a mean thing, but it makes everybody else better. A lot of people don’t know this about Jay Leno – he gets slammed a lot, people don’t like him, but I think he’s great – but back in the day at the Comedy Store, when Richard Pryor was at the height of his career, he would show up every once in a while, and do like a half-hour set and just kill it. No comics wanted to follow him. And Jay Leno said, “Always put me up after Richard Pryor. I always want to be the guy to follow him.” For like a year, Richard Pryor worked out one of his concerts onstage at the Comedy Store, and Jay Leno followed him. And look what happened. He got the Tonight Show, he’s one of the funniest comics ever. Did I answer your question? [Laughs.] But don’t act like a headliner. That’s my point. Know you’re an opener, or you’re at an open mic. Can I ask you a question?
This is something Paul Varghese said, and this was really a profound thing. He said, “If you’re killing at open mics, you’re probably doing stand-up wrong.” To me, why that’s so profound is, if you’re playing to the open mic room, you’re probably being dirty, you’re probably doing shocking things, things that will make the audience uncomfortable, and then you get some kind of response, and that feels good enough, and you’re happy with that. And then you get a week at Hyena’s, or the Improv, and you just eat it. You’re like, “I don’t understand! This stuff killed in front of nine drunks, and 22 comics waiting for stage time, why is it not working in Addison for these people who live in the suburbs?” So my question for you is, do you agree with that? That playing an open mic, and lowering yourself to the crowd’s level is the way to go? What do you think?
I like taking material to pretty much every kind of environment, just to see what happens. What I’ve noticed is that sometimes it’s not necessarily the material I need to change, but the delivery. If I’m very forceful in a room full of drunks with a bit, that bit can work with a crowd in a comedy club, but I don’t need to force it down their throats in how I present it. The content doesn’t always change, but the delivery has to.
Great, yeah, there you go. Just to put it in perspective, you need to use the open mic, but not let them use you. What I mean is that you need to go in and eat it sometimes, but know that this is good material, that this just wasn’t your night, and get back on the horse. Don’t act like a headliner. You can’t be too intimate, you can’t be too dirty – if you’re only onstage for three minutes, people don’t want to know about your sex life. They just don’t care.
I feel like “audiences don’t care” is one of the best lessons to learn early on in stand-up.
They just want to be able to… Probably for the most part, it’s people on a date, and they want to get laid. They want the date to go well, is what I mean. Having to sit through bad comics, they’re thinking, “Why did we make this choice? We thought it’d be fun; it’s the worst choice ever.” And they want to leave. So your job is, if you can get onstage and for the most part, most of the time, make a room full of strangers laugh – without using the tricks, and you know there’s the tricks. Being shocking or dirty, taking someone’s bit and slightly changing it, being a hack and all that, you’re gonna win the fight, I think. I don’t think I’m answering your questions. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] No, you’re good! One thing I do want to discuss is, for a lot of comics in Dallas, you’re the start of their story of how they got into stand-up. So what was your start like?
Oh, wow. Well, as a little kid, like four or five, I used to watch Jonathan Winters, I used to watch all the comedians on Ed Sullivan, I always just wondered how they did that. When I was in second grade, my dog got run over – he survived, but he got run over. And I decided to write a comedy routine about it. I was in class, and I was telling the teacher about it, and I… had a good set. [Laughs.] And that’s kind of that background. As far as wanting to get started in comedy, I was terrified. It was around 1977 when the comedy scene kind of started. That’s when Robin Williams came along with Mork and Mindy, and HBO was there, and there was all these comedy specials. It kind of dawned on me, “I guess you can do this.” There’s Robert Klein, there’s George Carlin… that seemed to be about it. But now there’s this new wave of Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, all these other guys. Comedy clubs started popping up. I thought, “I guess you can do this.” Unfortunately, I spent most of my twenties terrified of going up. Couldn’t make myself go up. So I studied everything I could. I did improv groups, because I felt safe being in a group of people, I took a lot of theater, I stayed at Richland College way too long. Around the fourth or fifth year the teachers were like, “Do you have enough credits to graduate? Why are you still here?” It was embarrassing. I read a lot of books, I went to lectures. Anything I could find, I would just absorb it, thinking somehow all that knowledge would help. But the truth of the matter is, I kind of knew this, but you can learn about it all day long, but until you get up there, it doesn’t really matter. The cowardly way I kind of got into it was the first Improv opened up on Central Expressway on Walnut Hill – it’s gone now. I got a job there as a bartender. There was a thing called the Comedy Gym. This guy Sam Cox taught it in Austin. I had taken the Comedy Gym a couple of times. It was kind of like the class I taught; you take eight classes and you’d do a showcase. So I had some experience. But at the Dallas Improv, they had this thing called the Best of Dallas. It was Monday nights, and it was not really an open mic, because at that point in Dallas, there were maybe 12-15 really good working comedians. These guys were on the road, and they were working. They wanted the Best of Dallas to be about 80 percent those guys, and then it was kind of an open mic. Sort of. On one of the Monday nights I was bartending, the manager came to me and told me, “Hey, nobody showed up for the mic tonight. You do comedy, right?” Yeah. “You’re going up tonight.” I mean, it was a cheat because I worked at the Improv, the management knew me, but I went up there and I didn’t bite it, it was probably the twelfth time I’d been onstage. But they liked what I did. Tom – the manager/owner now, Tom Castillo – said “I’m just gonna make you the host of our Best of Dallas Monday nights.” That’s kind of how I got my start. I would go up every Monday night in Dallas, and I was also doing defensive driving. This was back when it was eight hours – it was actually nine hours, because you had to give them an hour for lunch. I tried to look at it as, other than the drinking and driving part, which they wanted you to treat seriously, I would look at it as a seven hour set. I would teach Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays. I would have 21 hours of stage time a week. For years. I would go up thinking, “How do you make hydroplaning funny? What do you do to make them laugh when you talk about restraining children in child seats?” So that’s how I got my start. Again, it was fear of trying it, so I danced around it. I should have done what all of you young kids do, and just go to open mics for a while, and eat it, and get better. So I kind of went into it in a back-ish, backdoor way, and then opportunities started falling into my lap. In a way, I’m glad I waited until I was almost 30, around 28. I had studied so much, I had a lot of structure to back me up. I would go onstage and go, “Oh, I know why this isn’t working.” But most other people did it the other way, and would do stage time until they figured it out. To me, it’s the difference between reading a medical manual, and going and trying heart surgery, and just going, “I’m just gonna chop people up until I get this right.” [Laughs.]
That version is messier.
How did you get started? What did you do?
I thought about it idly for months, or a year or more, going from liking comedy to wanting to try it. I knew someone how helped run a monthly poetry open mic – I was there more for her than for the poetry – and they had a comic do a set. I didn’t know they were gonna do that, and it aggravated that itch. So after the show ended and we left, I texted her and asked if I could do comedy at the next show, and her response was, “Just don’t be racist like that guy tonight, and yes.” I was like, I can do that. So I had a month to cobble together three minutes together. I did it, I felt great, and then I didn’t do it for another three months, because I didn’t know how to find open mics. I finally found another one in Denton, where I was living at the time, and it was a Thursday, and I did it for a second time. I really wanted to keep doing it, and they immediately went on like a three week hiatus. I just wanted to keep doing an open mic on Thursdays. I searched, I found the Backdoor Comedy open mic, and eventually my once a week stage time became twice a week, three times, four times, as I kept finding mics where I could go up, and I would constantly drive from Denton to Dallas to tell jokes, and then drive back, and then try to be at work at 8 a.m. the next morning. That’s how I got started.
How do you feel about the Dallas comedy scene?
…Wow, usually I’m the one to ask that. [Laughs.]
I’ll tell you what I think, but I’m just curious about what you think.
I’m proud to see how many good comics there are here, at all levels, and I wish we had more going on outside the clubs, I guess, just because I know there are dozens of people who could go out and do really well with ten- 15-minute sets, but there are maybe five or six places you could work on a given weekend. And most of those clubs book you for the full weekend, so whoever’s there is there all weekend. I don’t think the opportunities are keeping up with the talent.
That’s good, yeah. I have a theory, which is, once you start stand-up, and once you’ve been doing it for about two years, or you have a pretty good ten minutes, it’s time to leave Dallas. I just don’t think there’s any reason for you to stay here anymore.
I think the Dallas comedy scene is great, there’s an open mic just about every night, if not every night, there’s a lot of good competition, but the thing is, it’s very easy in Dallas, as it is, I’m sure, with anywhere else, other than LA or New York, and I’m sure this is the same thing there, but it’s very easy to figure out the Dallas comedy scene and not grow. Does that make sense? You know, “Okay, this is my ten minutes, this is what’s gonna work.” Then you stop trying as much new stuff, if you get a good reputation you start going up everywhere, and you start to take it for granted, and you’re not hungry anymore. And in the meantime, you can get a really good-paying job, you can end up falling in love, having a family get started, and then it’s really hard to leave. I think once you get a decent ten minutes – and I count decent as getting about four to five laughs a minute in about ninety percent of crowds, and it’s clean, or you can at least clean it up – why are you staying here? I mean, if you want to pursue stand-up as a career. If it’s something you dabble in, or it’s a hobby, a creative release, then you don’t have to go anywhere. But if you got into this to get the HBO special, or to be the guy or girl to be the next Tonight Show host, whatever it is, none of that’s going to happen in Dallas. And I don’t mean that as a knock, it’s just that no talents agents from major networks are here. Once in a while, some will call through, but I think those are kind of scam-y. But why stay after that? You can starve in LA just as easily as you can starve in Dallas. And you’re going up at the Improv and Comedy Store. One adventure I took out to LA, for only a month, Judy Carter – I don’t know if you know her, but she wrote all these books on stand-up, we’re really good friends, she let me stay at her beach house for free for a month, it was awesome. I went up at the Comedy Store, the next day I had an audition at a movie studio, I think Universal, for a movie part. I went up at this place and Stu Smiley, I think that was his name, he had a comedy program at HBO, was there. He came and talked to me. I went up at the Improv and had Mark Lonow giving me notes. There was so much happening that would never happen in Dallas. The Dallas comedy scene is great, I think it’s super-talented people. I agree with you, there’s so much more talent than people think. But after you’ve got ten minutes or about two years, let me ask you, why would you stay if this is what you want to pursue?
I was not prepared to answer that. [Laughs.] That’s a good point. I mean, some scenes build bigger reputations, Austin, Denver… but as far as career opportunities, I don’t know. I guess I still don’t see myself as ready for those – it’s hard to convince yourself you’re ready, I guess.
Well, you’re never gonna feel ready. You’re never gonna get to the point where… once you go out on the road, it’s a real eye-opener. The first time I worked Las Vegas, years ago, we did 16 shows a week. We were there Monday through Sunday, you did two shows a night, plus three Friday, three Saturday. It was just bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, show after show. It took me until the second show Wednesday to find my Las Vegas set. I had no idea how much my set was very Texas-centric. There was so much stuff I was doing that was regional or local, I didn’t even realize it, that people across the country didn’t know what these things are. They didn’t get it. I had to rapidly delete and re-write, and it took me six sets to find my Vegas set. The first time I went out to California, at an Improv, it took a set or two to figure out, “Ohhh…” You get much better. My point is, I wasn’t ready for those things, but they will teach you what you need to know.
So if I had to guess, I’d say you got some opportunities outside of Dallas through the headliners who were coming through Dallas…
Sometimes, yeah. George Lopez and I used to work together a lot, he took me on the road a few times. I toured with Kathleen Madigan a lot last year; I worked two or three different dates with her. But headliners are the greatest, because that’s really what’s going to get you work at another club. You work with a headliner, and they like you… Here’s another tip, from the Dean Lewis stand-up workshop, here’s some other free advice that’ll save you a lot of time. If you’re working Hyena’s or the Improv, or anywhere with a known headliner, you ask these two questions: So where are you gonna be next week? And then you say: Could you get me a set there? You ask those two questions to everybody. And sometimes the answer’s no. Sometimes it’s, “I don’t know if you’re ready yet.” But especially if they go, “Hey, you’re really funny,” or “Hey, I really like you,” you say hey, thanks so much – you don’t ask for a job then, that’s just sleazy – but you thank them. And then the next night, later in conversation: “So where are you gonna be next week?” And, “I’m trying to get a set at that club, can you make a call and get me a set at that club?” That’s how I got into the River Center in San Antonio, it was through George Lopez. I’d worked with him at the Improv a couple of times, and he was going to be at the River Center the following week, and he said to me, “Come down and do a set, they need to see you.” I went down there, and management wasn’t there, and they didn’t see me. So I drove down, did the set, and drove back all in one day.
But the next day George calls and says, “Oh man, I just feel really bad, I talked to the management, the bartender saw you, so the bartender and I are gonna get you in.” And I started getting work there. Rather than send out your tape – I mean, you have to do that, make cold calls, send your tapes, but let someone open the door for you. If they want to. Don’t make them feel bad. But especially if they compliment you, ask them those two questions. That opens up a ton of doors. And people ask, “You give all this advice about leaving, why are you still in Dallas?” My whole thing is, when I started teaching defensive driving, that first year I made a lot of money. I was teaching three days a week, they were paying me a little extra, plus I was working at the Improv a lot. Well, at the end of the year, I ended up owing about $12,000 in taxes. And I didn’t know anything about taxes, I was so stupid. Because I’d never been in the entertainment world, it wasn’t like the other jobs I’d had. So I had to work another year to catch up and pay that, plus pay for that year. So defensive driving ruined my life. [Laughs.] It stuck me here. I was like, can I move to LA and find a job – and now I was owing $30,000 – can I find a job where I can make these quarterly $6,000 payments? I can’t do that. So it stuck me here. So for about eight years, I was stuck in Dallas doing defensive driving, because I was just trying to catch up. It ruined my life, it stopped me from doing everything. And I saw friends, Robert Hawkins, he moved out to LA, was working on Titus. He had all these things going on. Other friends left, had things going on. And I just never left, because I was financially stuck. But I was like, “Well, at least I’m still doing stuff, the Improv is giving me a lot of work.” And then around the eighth year, I met my former wife, and then I was stuck here. You get married, she doesn’t want to leave. She’s got a good job. Then kids came along, and bam-bam-bam. I’m a perfect example of somebody who just didn’t follow his own advice. Do you know who Ritch Shydner is? He was the best. Do you want to know who the best comedian was? You can talk about Seinfeld, you can talk about everyone else, and they’re all amazing, and Ritch Shydner was their king. He was the best, hands-down, stand-up comic I’d ever seen. And he would come to town, he would work the Dallas Improv about four times a year. Every time he’d come in with a new half hour that was killer. He was phenomenal. He was the best. And I got to get kind of a friendship going with him. And when he found out I wanted to do stand-up, he said, “Well, what are you doing with it?” I said, “Well, I’ve been doing it about two years, I’ve got about five minutes that-” “Leave. You’ve got to leave here.” I was like, “Ritch, I can’t, I’m…” “Leave. You don’t need more than five minutes, go out to LA.” As he said, prophetically: “Stand-up’s going to hit a point where it’s going to fall through, and they’re not going to want anybody, you gotta go now. You’ve got five minutes, go.” I was about two years in, and I should’ve done it. So there’s my bitter tale. But look at this guy [he gestures to his son, who has been sitting next to him throughout the interview]. I won in the end.