CJ Starr is Versatile Enough To Headline Your Comedy Club And Have A Killer Set at Your Church.
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.
CJ Starr has a wickedly quick wit, and an excess of natural charisma. He can gel with an audience so smoothly that it can feel less like you're watching a performance, and more like you and the rest of the crowd are catching up with an especially charming old friend. He can pull big laughs from a spontaneous aside, and he also has a wealth of ace material to draw from during a set.
Starr excels at injecting himself into his writing. He can slide from self-deprecation to observational tangents to sharing stories about his life, and stay consistently funny, endearing, and relatable throughout. His talents have elevated him to a headlining act at Hyena's Comedy Club — he'll be headlining a show at the Dallas location tonight, and a performing weekend's worth of shows at their Fort Worth location this October. He's been featured at the East Texas Comedy Festival and Gilda's Laughfest, and books several shows of his own, including the upcoming Sketch City, which will be held at Taste of the Islands in Plano on July 8.
Starr started comedy in Corpus Christi about nine years ago. Before the tape was running on this interview, he brought up his time there and what inspired him to make the jump to North Texas. Los Cody, a comic from Fort Worth, had booked him for a show at the Crazy Times club in Corpus Christi, and Cody asked a simple, albeit pointed, question: “You know you're not gonna get famous in Corpus Christi, right?”
Here's where our conversation went from there.
Tell me about your move to Dallas.
[Los Cody] was telling about this group called “The Comics,” and he said they would help me write my jokes and structure comedy. So I said “OK,” and I moved up here. I joined the group and paid the tickets and paid my dues, but I wasn't getting any funnier whatsoever. I went to Dean [Lewis'] class; I took two of Dean's classes. I kind of knew where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be, but it just wouldn't come to me. I would write backwards — I would have the punchline, and I would have to write the story. I used to always tell Dean, “I want to be a story comic, I want to be able to tell stories like Eddie Murphy.” And we used to butt heads. He would tell me, “Eddie Murphy doesn't tell stories, every one of his bits break down,” blah blah. I was like, “Then you don't know what I'm talking about.” And sure enough, every single one of those stories, you can walk in and start right there, but it's still a story to me. That's the kind of comic I wanted to be. I just started listening to other comics and how they write — John Tole, Justin Foster, Tone [Bell]. I started listening to how they write. Everybody had their own identity. So regardless of if someone is stealing jokes, or taking someone's premises, if I write a joke, it's gonna be from my perspective. So it's not like you can steal too many of my jokes. [Laughs.] It's been a journey. To tell you the truth, in nine years [of comedy], there were probably three years out of the nine where I might've done one show a year.
Yeah. I was frustrated. Instead of me wanting to use my frustration to write jokes, I was like, “I'm funnier than that person. Why is that person doing this?” Do you know Tommy Blaze?
I know the name but haven't met or seen him.
He's an older guy. One day I was on the road, and I was opening for one of the Looney Bins. I was complaining to the feature [performer], “This guy's on TV, this person's on TV, this person…' [Blaze] walks by, and headliners hardly ever talk to openers on the road, unless they know you. And he's like, “You should write jokes, and just be funny and don't worry about it. Funny will take care of itself. I guarantee you, if you're funny, you'll get somewhere. It might not be where you want to get to, but somewhere.” And I was like, “OK.” And ever since then I stopped complaining out loud. [laughs].
You've got a couple of headlining gigs coming up this weekend at Hyena's, correct?
It ended up double-booked, so I'm doing Thursday only, but he also gave me a date in October to have the whole weekend in Fort Worth. So Thursday, I'll be at Dallas Hyena's headlining, Friday, I'm gonna be at Taste [of the Islands], Saturday, I'm going to the East Texas Comedy Festival. I'm performing with Michael Winslow on Saturday.
You just mentioned Taste of the Islands. Can you talk about your relationship with that room?
About six years ago, someone told me to go out to the Taste. Jeff Stachowski and Tyson Faiffer, it was pretty much their room, and it was a good room. I don't know who started it, I don't know if it was Flo [Hernandez] or Kasambwe, but one of them [started] it, and [Stachowski and Faiffer] just kept it going. Now Jeff's out of comedy, and he asked me to take it over, and I said I'll take it over for the weeks I'm here. But basically it's been a long-running… we try not to make it an open mic… [but] it's an open mic, basically. We tried to make it something where people who don't get an opportunity to do more than 3 to 4 minutes can do 6 to 7 or 7 to 10 depending on how many comics are there, and say new stuff to a room that's not quite a bar, but could turn into one at any time [laughs]. But I'm more proud of Sketch City [a show that periodically takes the place of the usual stand-up format at Taste]. It's kind of a mix of Wild n' Out and Whose Line is it Anyway?, and that's been going really really well. No practice, just straight up improv. We go out there, we play games. I'm really enjoying it. That helps me out. I try to tell all comics to do improv because it helps with your stage presence, and for when you're working with the crowd, or doing crowd work.
Have you taken improv classes?
No, I was just the youngest child. [Laughs.] My improv class was lying, and trying to stick with it. [Laughs.]
When did you start doing headlining gigs at Hyena's?
About… not even a year, it hasn't been a year. I've been featuring at the Improvs for almost a year and a half. I asked Randy [Butler, the owner of Hyena's], “Hey, can you move me up?” This was when I was a host. I was like, “Could you move me up? I have way more time than you need.” And he was like, “Y'know, if I move you up, you work less.” And I just really wanted to move up. And I was a feature for maybe six months [before headlining].
So he just shot you right up.
Yeah. It was a surprise. I featured at all of the locations, then all of a sudden he was like, “I'm gonna have you co-headline,” and that went well for me — more for me than the other guy. And ever since then, he's just given me [headlining] dates. Hey, I'll take it! [Laughs.]
Were you nervous about asking to move up?
Yeah, I was. For people who know Randy, you know he's not someone you just say, [excited voice] “Hey!” and high-five him. I texted him first — the girlfriend text [laughs], like, “Hey, buddy, I just wanted to know if you could maybe check out my set, and see if I'm ready to be a feature.” And he didn't respond. When I worked in Fort Worth, he was there, he was at the bar. This was around the time Plano was about to open, and he said, “You guys are gonna open Plano, you're gonna rock it the first couple weeks.” After that, he came up to me and said, “I know you want to move up. I want you to know it's less work.” I said I was ready. He said, “I think you are, too.” But I did have my downfalls. There are certain things I didn't know you could do as a host. One time, I did tell the crowd to make some noise because “the owner was there” and he could hear them. And he had to tell me to not ever bring up or point out the club owner during a set.
I didn't know that was a rule. I'm glad you said something.
It was like I'd take two steps forward and one step back every time: “Don't do this, don't say this, don't do that.” There are books written about comedy, but they're so outdated about what you can do and what you can't do. Do you ever talk to the headliner or feature and ask if there's anything they don't want you to say or do?
I've never asked.
See? Back in… I guess this is before me, but they used to do that. I guess they had a structure. Like the opener actually isn't supposed to be as funny as the feature, and you're supposed to scale it back a bit. They used to say “don't mess with the crowd” because you want the crowd to be “pure as driven snow” and all that stuff. The feature gets to go out a bit further, but the feature also needs to make sure he's not saying any stories or premises that are too close to the headliner. Then the headliner gets to go up and do whatever the hell he or she wants. [Laughs.]
You also book shows, like the aforementioned Sketch City at Taste of the Islands, and I've seen a few other shows you put together. Can we talk about your experience with booking?
I hate booking. [Laughs]. I see why bookers are mean, because dealing with comics… Some comics feel that they should just show up and go up. Other comics don't promote themselves. Other comics don't… after the show is over, I've always said “Kiss babies and shake hands.” Some comics don't do that. They just feel that, “I just gave you all my life out on stage.” I think you should thank people for going out. You really should. You should thank people for coming out to a comedy show. As much stuff as there is happening in the world, comedy is not the top thing you should do. No one's sitting around about to get a divorce saying, “You know what? Let's go to a comedy show.” It's hard. Not only do you have to set the times, and make sure the comics are there, there are tickets that need to be out, and posters that need to be out. You're telling everybody and promoting, you have to make sure the other comics are promoting it, then you have to be funny. Which is left on the back burner. [Laughs.]
So there's a lot that goes into the show before it happens.
Oh yeah. I've sat around with people and said, “We should do a show together,” and they'll say “OK, let's set a date.” We'll get a date. Once you get a date, you have to make sure the venue's open. Then my M.B.A starts clicking and I start thinking about how much money is going out before money's coming in. “How much will this cost?” “I can make flyers.” OK. “Tickets, we're gonna need tickets.” It's best to buy tickets because people always say, “Yeah, I'll be there,” then they falter out. Luckily, I've had the chance to be around good people, and every time I'm around, I'm learning. When I'm talking to Randy, or someone else, I'm learning their concepts how they do things. There are certain people in my life… do you know Q (Quenton “Q” Coleman)?
I may have met him, but don't really know him.
He's a genius when it comes to promoting and putting things together. He must put on 15 shows a month in different places. It seems like he's everywhere. Plus he works a day job! Then he writes. People like him inspire me, because I'd much rather just book shows and travel.
That's one thing I never realized was happening in comedy before I started, that there are people who can sustain themselves putting together shows in bars and small-town venues.
This past weekend, I had two private shows. One was in Paris, Texas, and one was right up the street from where I live. But the one up the street was at 9:30, and the one in Paris was at 6:30. So I went to Paris, did that show — and I told them before I got onstage, “Look, I'm gonna have to leave right after I get offstage, so could you pay me now?” And they paid me, and I said, “I'm serious, right when I say 'goodnight,' I have to go.” And it was my microphone, my speakers. So I said, “Goodnight!” and… [mimics gathering up equipment] I just start wrapping it all up, got here and did the 9:30 show. [Laughs.] It's like, “Hey, I made $600 tonight!” But I just drove, sweated, did two family reunions…
You were one of the first people to book me for a private gig. I don't know if you'll remember this or not, but it was an apartment complex, and the guy in charge comes up to us right before we go onstage and he just breaks down all of these things–
This is what we can't do. [Laughs.]
And it was like he took everything you could make a joke about off the table! How often does that happen in a private gig, where they lay down way more rules than you could expect?
Oh, man. It happened to me at a college. They told me they were bringing me down for this event for Black History Month, that's all they told me. They booked me, they paid the deposit, so I had to go. I went, and when I get there, they tell me I'm hosting this event. And I look at the event, and it's the first black lady to play basketball here, the first black man to play football here — I have to bring them up, and they get to speak. And then prayer. And then this, oh, and then your set. And then we're gonna do another comedy show. Basically there were two stages, so this [first show] was more for people who were graduated already, and as soon as that's over, the college kids come down. So, OK, you'll be rowdy on one stage, but PG-13 rowdy for the other. It was the weirdest thing in the world. The lady came up and was like, “I didn't know I was the first black person — I didn't know I was the only black person on the team!” And the guy comes up crying, talking about, “I remember the police pulling me over.” And then I went up there, and they wanted me to be funny! I was like, “Uh, yeah… how did you not know you were the only black girl on the team? Did you guys not take showers back then? Did you not have your 'Colored Only' shower where you were the only one in there?” I've been through some stuff. I've been at a church where they prayed, and prayed, and then, “Amen. Alright, are you guys ready to laugh? Let's bring the comic up!” [Laughs.]
How do you navigate a situation like that, where you have all of these obstacles thrown at you at the last second?
I just try to seriously think about what could turn this crowd to my side right now. What's the first thing I could hit them with? I'm a firm believer in… I don't know if you do it, but I count laughs, laughs per minute and all that stuff. And I try to get a laugh as quickly as possible. And that's why, if you ever come see me, I try to say something about myself before the music stops, or before whatever. I'm trying to get that first laugh out of the way as quickly as possible.
What do you think about the Dallas comedy scene at large?
I think we could be a little bit more supportive. To tell you the truth, I've seen New York, I've seen L.A., and we have the most talent I've seen — group, individually, collectively. Of course, you'd have to get a strainer and shake them out. But if I look at those three scenes — and Houston, and then you've got Austin — I think we have the best core funny people, y'know, individually and collectively. But we don't support each other enough. We're always, like… I don't know, we call it hatin'. Where basically on the outside you're like, “Hey, good for you!” but on the inside you're like, “Really? This person?” or whatever. Or if I get a hookup on a show and they tell me to bring someone, I won't bring someone I find funny because I want to shine. Stuff like that. Talent-wise, we're there. But support-wise, we're not where we should be. I'm on different Facebook groups, like there's a group called Coming to Atlanta, and you basically just say, “Hey, I'm coming to Atlanta July 12 through 15,” and people will seriously say, “Hey, I've got a show you can jump on.”
So, sight unseen, they'll just say what's available?
Well, of course, to get in the group, someone had to approve you. But they help each other out. If I go on a Dallas comic group and say, “Hey, I'll be in Dallas from this date to this, are there any shows I can jump on?” Someone will just say, “Jump on these nuts!” [Laughs.] I've never seen things stay serious in our local comedy groups. Because we're all comics. But I think, for the most part, seriously, if we could use our powers for good instead of evil, we'd be awesome. [Laughs.]