Being “Bad at Networking” Led To Barry Whitewater Earning Respect (and Work) From Headlining Comics Before He Ever Got Hired by Comedy Clubs.
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.
Barry Whitewater has automatic respect for people who muster the nerve to go onstage and actually pursue their interest in comedy.
His own fears kept him at bay until he was 40, and once he took the initial leap, he didn’t dare mention it to anyone. In fact, he’d been taking Dean Lewis’ comedy class at the Improv for weeks before he even told his wife what he was doing.
Whitewater is now far-removed from that anxious newcomer he once was. He maintains a core of relatable charm, even when he manages to sucker-punch audiences with terrific, unexpected turns in bits that expose quirks in everyday life.
His sharp eye for the idiosyncrasies lurking in experiences as common as camping or a night in a hotel – along with some game self-deprecation – have helped Whitewater become a go-to performer for area headliners looking for someone they can trust to deliver onstage. And, after winning over some of the top comics in the scene, he’s started to earn long overdue opportunities with local comedy clubs, too. Usually, comics have to establish themselves on those weekend shows to gain the trust of headliners, but a combination of skill and (according to him) bad networking, helped Whitewater earn those opportunities anyway.
I spoke with Whitewater about his progress as a comic, his tendency to seek out opportunities (even when the obvious ones seemed out of reach) and his surprisingly optimistic view on cliquishness in a comedy scene.
I’m catching you right before you perform with Paul Varghese on his showcase for the Addison Improv. Is it my imagination, or do you pretty regularly work with headliners in our area?
Not all of them. Some of them. It’s one of those things where it’s basically who you’re networked with. As you know, networking is half the battle, to quote G.I. Joe. Who knew G.I. Joe would be such an inspiration to my showbiz career? I thought it was going to be more Thundercats, but there ya go. But no, Paul’s always been good to me. And of course, I know Linda [Stogner] because I work at Backdoor [Comedy], so that leads me to Dean, and sometimes I do stuff, periodically, with other people.
Is that something you planned? Because it seems like you did things in kind of a reverse order; I’ve seen you working with headliners for a while, and then you were starting to work the local clubs.
No, actually I’ve always wanted to work the clubs, but when I first started, that was the worst time ever to break in as an opener, because Randy [Butler, the owner of Hyena’s Comedy Clubs] wasn’t around as much, and it was just hard to break into the Improv. Once Butch [Lord, manager and booker at Hyena’s Comedy Clubs] started booking openers, I wasn’t around as much, so I didn’t have that contact – not good at networking. So I missed those earlier dates. And then, basically, I just finally started doing it. So it was basically just bad business, or bad networking. If it seems calculated, it’s not, other than basically I didn’t know what I was doing.
So you had good networking except for this one big instance.
Yeah, except for the overall expansion of my career, I really had it all worked out.
I realized when I reached out to you that you’re quietly one of the most versatile comics in the area, I’ve seen you in just about every environment. I saw you in Denton before Denton had its comedy scene.
I love Denton – at that time, that was back when Ron [Lechler] and Alex [Smelser] and Matt Solomon were booking stuff. I forget how I got on with those guys, but periodically they’d throw me on shows. What’s funny is, now it’s almost a changing of the guard for Denton, but they’re doing a great job.
You were in Denton before Denton was cool.
Yeah – once again, great business acumen. Get in there when they’re first setting up shop, then leave once it starts paying off. Good work, Whitewater. [Laughs.]
Can we talk about your start in comedy?
I took Dean Lewis’ class, which is, to me, that was the best thing. I always wanted to do comedy, but I was scared to death to get onstage. I was 40. It’s the “Well, I’m 40, and I better do this.” I decided it was now or never. I didn’t tell anybody I was taking the comedy class, so that way, after the first class, if didn’t pan out, nobody knew anything. I didn’t even tell my wife until the third class.
So wait, you’re going to this comedy class once a week?
Yeah, once a week.
So once a week you’re just saying, “Goodbye – no reason!” How did you pull that off?
I don’t know if she was trusting, or just doesn’t give a rat’s ass.
I came home and said, “Do you know where I’ve been the last couple of Sundays?” She was like, “I don’t know, where?” Alright. [Laughs.] So I told her, and she’s like, “Oh, that’s great.” She was mildly excited. I didn’t tell anyone at work, and then let it slip right before my showcase, and had a bunch of people show up from work for the showcase. And I’m glad I did, because it’s always better to have people at the show. But yeah, if I hadn’t done it that way, because basically, going through Dean’s class, we practiced at the Improv, we got onstage, so basically by the time they came to the showcase, I wasn’t scared to be onstage, because you’ve done your set so many times, and you’re comfortable on the stage. It wasn’t a big thing. And you were so excited that night. It’s definitely a lot better. For me. I know it doesn’t work for everybody, doing comedy classes, but it’s probably the only way I could’ve done it. I had this big phobia that I was going to go in and do comedy, and people were just going to go, “You’re bad. Never come back.” Like somehow there was going to be the ruling council of comedy, and they’re like, “Never again.” And then you realize nobody gives a rat’s ass, and you come back the next night. So it worked for me.
So you took the classes before the open mic?
Yes, because Dean always says don’t. His whole thing was, it wasn’t that it was bad to go to an open mic, but you see what works a lot at open mics, which is bathroom humor, and just using the F-word 900 times, and that’s what gets a laugh. And you think, “Oh, that’s what gets a laugh.” Then you go to a real show, and you do what you did at an open mic, and there are normal people are working jobs, and they do not care for your microwave abortion joke. So it definitely helped. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s always helped me, at some shows, is I’ve always tried to work clean as much as possible. And I think it’s opened me up to avenues. I definitely like the way I’ve gone.
Has it always been a deliberate thing?
Yeah. At first, I wasn’t going to be deliberate. But when I was in Dean’s class, he pointed out when you’re clean, you get this much work [opens arms wide], especially when you first start, and when you’re dirty, you’re going to get this much work [brings hands close together]. Because the headliner doesn’t want anyone on the show dirtier than them, and if you have a clean comic, they don’t want someone dirty opening for them. Think about Hyena’s, they don’t want you [as an opener] to be dirty. And later on, if you want corporate work, that’s open to you, once you get good enough to do that.
So that was your introduction to comedy? What was your introduction to open mics like?
I waited a month after doing Dean’s class, and I went to Backdoor. And I only went to Backdoor. I went to Backdoor exclusively for a year. The first time I went, and of course the first time, they put you on at the end. There was like a senior night out or something, and most of them had left, there was only, like, five people in the audience by the time I got onstage. And I did a joke that had killed during the showcase, and I remember one of the big lines I did was, “Let’s go to the Sirloin Stockade!” and a lady in the audience went, “Golden Corral is better!” and I didn’t have a comeback for that. I just said, “Yeah…OK. Alright.” Nobody laughed. They smiled, y’know. That was a very deflating time.
How often would you say you get out now?
I do DCH [Dallas Comedy House] on Tuesdays, and Hyena’s on Wednesdays, if I’m not doing a show. Every now and again I’ll go to Hyena’s [Fort Worth] on Thursday, but I definitely go to those two open mics. I try to do three. I’d like to do Houston St [full disclosure: I run Houston St Bar’s Monday night open mic], but Hat Tricks is so much closer.
What are your thoughts on the DFW comedy scene?
I like it. I always read this question with other people being interviewed, and I feel bad, because I have nothing to [add]. I haven’t been anywhere else, just DFW. It’s pretty vast. I know people say it’s clique-ish, it’s definitely clique-ish. You have different styles of comedy. But I think, ultimately, it’s what it is to make the scene as good as it is. I’ve seen some comics come in, and they hit the ground and get it from the go. And you see other comics, and you go, “Oh, I don’t think they’re gonna stick around.” Then you see them six months or a year later, and they got it. Because you saw them do the work. That’s nice. In that respect, I like DFW comedy. And I think there’s gonna be a group of people you can find who has your same mentality. I feel like I didn’t answer your question. [Laughs.]
It almost sounds like you’ve found the upside to cliques, where you find those people you can really work with.
Right — or write with. When you first start, you think you can write with anyone, and then you find you can’t write with anyone. You’ll find there’s only certain people you can write with, who are on the same wavelength. I remember the reason I had a best friend in high school was because we got each other’s humor. And nobody else – we’d sit in class and tell jokes, and nobody else got what the hell we were talking about. But we had this love of Monty Python, and everything else in comedy at the time. We were the only ones on the wavelength, and when it comes to comedy, you have to be on the wavelength.
I think the clique thing has been mentioned several times, and you might be the first person to talk about its advantages.
Yeah. I mean, if there was one, just, Borg Collective, and we were all like, “You have to be this way,” I don’t think it would be that great. I think that’s when you have a comedy scene where it’s like, “Yeah, we have 40 people, but only two of them are that good.” Or you have one of those weird ones where you have one open mic a month, or something. Maybe that’s what happened to Denton. You had that core group – Ron, Alex, Matt…I know Wesley [Moon] was there. And you, for a while.
Well, my second open mic was one that they ran, but they took a three-week hiatus right after, and I wanted to keep doing open mics on Thursdays, so I found Backdoor and just started driving from Denton to do comedy in Dallas.
But all that changed over, and you look at it now, different guys are putting on shows left and right.
Do you ever get jealous, and wish there was more of that in Dallas?
I do, but that’s on us. It’s one of those things where I look at it, and I think, if that’s what you want, if you want more shows, you have to be that business person. You just have to go out and do it. People just don’t want to do it. I always say I should do it, and I don’t. You can sit there and write comedy, and it can be good comedy, but you have to have somewhere to go out and tell your jokes. So start your own show. You think when you first start that you just have to write jokes, and it’s gonna be, [applause] “So good, when can you start opening?” and it’s not. It’s networking, it’s not being an A-hole to people, be nice, be in the right place at the right time, and working hard. You can’t just write a few good jokes and lie back to wait for the accolades to go in. Speaking of which, here’s a funny thing – when I started comedy, I thought, I’m so glad I started, because I wanted it to be different from my day job, because there was so much, like, office politics. And I thought, “Thank God there won’t be any politics in comedy.” [Laughs.] Hilarious! I think that lasted nine months. [Laughs.]
I always like talking to someone who has… a life, essentially, in addition to comedy. I work from home, so an open mic is an excuse to leave the house, but I remember just having a job and feeling like it could be a struggle to incorporate comedy into my life. You have a job, kids, a wife who eventually found out you do stand-up…
What’s the juggle like for you?
Well, now I’m basically working at home – “working” at home – because I’m freelancing. I got laid off last year, so I’m working at home.
I know. So that didn’t help. My wife has a pretty good teaching job, so that’s helping. But when I was working with kids and all that, it would sometimes get a little critical, because I know with my last job, there were times I was working late, and I remember I was missing a ton of open mics. I was really getting angry about it. I didn’t care for that at all. And that was before I started opening, so I’m glad it didn’t start running into that. But the main thing is, it’s not so much work, because…it’s work. But when it gets into family stuff – I do Boy Scouts with my son, so we go camping. There’s been a couple of times where I’m doing a weekend at Hyena’s, and I’m like, “Oh, crap, I’m supposed to go camping this weekend.” He’s cool, he’ll go, and I’ll just catch him the next time. So that stinks. So I try to make sure I have enough time, so we can do family stuff, and we can do everything. The good thing, when it comes to open mics, is that I’ve done it so long that a lot of times, people are cool with me, and I can get favored nation status. They’re like, “Eh, just come in, we’ll put you on the list. Not all the time…” But I try not to take advantage of that too much, because I remember when I was first starting, your time’s almost come, and you’re like, “Ooh, I’m almost onstage,” but then somebody walks in, and it’s like, oh, he just got bumped in, and you’re thinking, “But I’ve been here like 18 hours! This guy just walks in…” So I try not to do that, because I still remember how much…it seemed like every week you’re getting bumped by people who are just walking in. They get done, they walk out. I guess that’s…if you stick around long enough, it’s a benefit.
It’s funny you mention thinking about people in the early experience; I remember when I was starting, you were one of the first seasoned people who would reach out and kind of be helpful.
I try to be. Now that I’m not around as much…I try to be. I try to remember that when you first start, you don’t know anybody, and you’re just trying to be cool about everything. Now, it seems like when you turn around, it’s not a whole influx, but there’s always one new person, one new person… And they may not be in the same circle. There’s people I know of who I haven’t met that much, so I don’t get to know them. But I try to remember that ultimately – I thought about this the other day – you have to remember that when it comes to comics, people that really go, open mic-ers or whatever, those are people who had the daring to be onstage. Because how many times do people go, “Man, I wish I could be a comic. I want to do that.” But you know they don’t, because they can’t get onstage. So everyone who got onstage, they went, “I’m gonna get onstage,” and they did it. And you deserve respect for doing that. No matter what anyone says about you, at least you did that. Because I’ve met hundreds of people who say, “Oh, I could do it,” or, “I should do it.” And you know they’ll never do it, because they can’t get onstage. The people who get onstage deserve at least a modicum of respect for doing that. It’s a bigger thing than people give credit for.
Cover photo by Bobby Friske.