Just His Two Cents, But Dave Little Thinks You Should Quit Comedy If You Can’t Embrace An Audience’s Silence When You’re On Stage.
Dave Little has assembled an arsenal of ace-level bits over the years, but he’s also adept enough at comedy to torch an audience with a set that’s completely off-the-cuff. His keen mind for humor and a charmingly acerbic disposition have helped Little sustain a career in stand-up and landed him opening spots over the years for prominent touring performers such as Ron White.
The Dallas comedy fixture didn’t have access to comedy clubs in Dallas when he started performing around town in 1979, so he opened for Dallas band Bowley & Wilson with both music and comedy. He went far in both of those pursuits — sometimes combining comedy and music — by establishing himself as a comedian and even releasing five music albums.
Though he keeps both talents separate for the most part, Little’s insights into stand-up are well worth performers of any stripe’s time. But while he can offer guidance to comics on their structure and timing, he’s not interested in hearing newer comics’ material. Little says that it doesn’t matter if he likes what someone has to say; far more crucial, he says, is that they believe in what they’re producing.
There’s little doubting that he’s learned a thing or two over the years. And that’s how I came to talk with Little about the comedy scene has changed from when he started out and what it’s like now, how his act has (and hasn’t) changed over that time, and why newer comics shouldn’t be trying to win his approval — even if he did once literally host a show called “Win Dave Little’s Approval.”
So you’re touring for a couple of different comics right now, right?
No, just Ron [White] right now. I run his meet-and-greets, and I also open for him. I’ve been with Ron about three years, I guess. He has a meet-and-greet company, which I’ve done some other tours with — for two years, I ran the Last Comic Standing tour. I’ve gone out with — and this is just running the meet-and-greets, this isn’t opening for them or anything — Eddie Izzard, Iliza Shlesinger, Trevor Noah. And a few music groups, too. LeAnn Rimes for a couple of shows. But I’m mainly with Ron.
So what goes into the meet-and-greets to separate them from the show?
It’s either before the show or after the show, and people pay money. It’s not an exorbitant amount of money, but they get a laminate and they get some merchandise. We have a fun meet-and-greet in that we… it’s not a handshake line. I direct it, but Ron comes in, and I take their picture. They’re in a semi-circle, so they come in, get a picture, come back out and as they’re doing pictures there’s a Q&A. Ron’s really good about it. He makes it last, y’know, 30 minutes or so. It’s mainly after the show. They get a seat in the first couple of rows, too. It’s not a ton of money, but it’s more money than a regular ticket. They get a pretty good bang for their buck.
How did you get involved in organizing these?
I didn’t organize them, it was his company. I’ve known Ron for 30 years. In fact, I’d been a comic for a couple of years before I even met him. We just stayed in touch over the years, just kind of… I wasn’t doing anything, didn’t really have a job other than comedy. His tour was coming up, and a guy that also worked with him, a comic from Austin named John O’Connell, asked if I had the time to do this. It was the Last Comic Standing tour, and I go, “Yeah.” So I went on the road that fall — this was two or three years ago. I kind of got in the system, and now I’m doing this.
You’ve worked a lot of different creative fields – in addition to comedy, you also have a music career.
I don’t know if it’s a career. [Laughs.] I have made five albums, I was in a band for a while — just friends of mine. I still do it. Like, I’ll be here at AllGood Cafe [where the interview was recorded], and we’ll do a song swap, and I’ll play my songs. I still write songs — I used to do songs in my act, but not so much anymore. I guess it’s a career. I call everything I do a vanity project. I have a lot of vanity projects.
What’s it like building a career off of… we’ll say vanity projects, here in Dallas?
I guess it’s not that difficult, really, if you stay at it. Keep working. I’ve certainly traveled over the years. I think you just try to not get bogged down. If something’s not working you go to something else. And there’s networking. I mean, I ain’t rich… but I’m OK.
Does one kind of feed into the other? Will avenues in comedy open opportunities in music and vice versa or are they pretty separate?
I think it’s all-inclusive. I’ve opened for musicians just doing comedy, and I think it’s a natural thing. It’s all connected — comedy, music. I love doing just music clubs and just playing my music and not doing stand-up. That’s a lot of fun. And then I like doing stand-up and not doing my music in comedy clubs. I like doing both. I used to do a one-man show where I’d do music and these monologues I would write and read those. Do whatever the hell I do — but I’m not sure what it is I do. I like doing that, too.
Before we started the interview, you mentioned being on break from a tour with Ron White. Can you give us a broad sense of what it’s like to go on one of these tours?
We’ll just do like a Thursday-Friday-Saturday. I’ll fly to the first city usually on a Wednesday, get in, and I’ll meet the bus — usually, we’re on his bus. Usually, the bus will come up from Nashville, and Ron will fly in from wherever he’s at usually Thursday morning. This is gonna sound really hard, but we’ll go play golf — we have clubs on the bus. There’s nothing worse than just having to sit around [before a show] just staring at each other. We’ll play in the town where we’re doing the show that night. We’ll play, get some lunch, go to the venue. He has a bed on the bus — there’s a master suite — and then there’s three bunks, and I have one of those. Normally, we’ll get a hotel if we’re staying the night, but if we have a ways to go, we’ll leave after the show and go to the next city. Hopefully, we’ll wake up and play golf again. That’s always fun. And then repeat. Sunday, he’ll fly or take the bus… usually, east of the Rockies we’ll take the tour bus and west of the Rockies he’s got a jet, so we’ll fly on that. Up to Canada, we’ll do that. I know, it’s hard. Really rough. [Laughs.]
At what point in your stand-up career did you start getting touring opportunities?
Well, I think… I don’t know what year it was, but I mean, once you meet some people, and just… I mean, a tour could be going down to Waco. Waco and then Austin and Houston, something like that. About 1979 or so, I started going onstage. I was still in school.
Was that here in Dallas?
That was here in Dallas. There was a band called Bowley & Wilson. You should look that up. They played at this place called Up Your Alley, which is now Milo Butterfinger’s, across from the Barley House. They did comedy songs. Bowley had a 50-foot cord and he would go into the audience and mess with people. They were a band. I discovered that, and I went to 40 shows in a row. That was ’78. Then I started working with them off and on during college. They were amazing. It was… you think about comedy clubs now, and if somebody’s a heckler, they toss them out. In this club, you only got thrown out if you got in a fight. I didn’t get in the band, but I stage-managed them, and then I’d do a couple songs of my own. Then I started doing some stand-up. People would be yelling at me, throw stuff at me. It was open Tuesday to Sunday. This was probably ’84 or so. You get pretty good when people throw shit at you.
What kind of comedy scene was there in Dallas when you started?
There was the Comedy Corner, and I kind of got into an improv group on Monday nights there. By the way, there’s nothing worse than stand-up comics who do improv. It’s horrible, it’s the worst experience possible. That was really the only club. And then the Funny Bone moved in around maybe 1985, and so did the Improv — the Dallas Improv, off of Walnut Hill. That’s when I started doing shows that weren’t in bars or weren’t with Bowley & Wilson.
You had a pretty long stretch of doing shows before the comedy clubs, then. What was the transition like?
I mean, I didn’t know any better, any different. I’m just happy when you got thrown out if you tossed shit at me — that was the best thing for me. Oh my gosh, all you’re gonna do is yell at me? I can handle that. It was kind of a gradual… I was up in Denton, and I graduated there in ’84, and then back to Bowley & Wilson for a year or so – I was running spotlight, getting onstage also, around ’86, I think. I quit, and just started cobbling things together, traveling, stuff like that. Back then, you could make, opening – and I have my books from back then – you could make $500 to $600 opening.
Yeah, it was pretty good.
That’s really good.
Yeah, I know.
People talk about the ’80s as seeing a comedy explosion. Did that impact the Dallas scene? Did you see a big change or big growth?
There were a lot of clubs here. At one point you had the Dallas Improv, the Addison Improv, and you had the Arlington Funny Bone, the Fort Worth Funny Bone, and then the Comedy Corporation in Arlington also. You had five clubs. That was before… that was about 1990, or something like that. And everyone wanted to do comedy, and you had places doing Comedy Nights. But there were a lot of shitty comics back then. That’s the thing about comedy: Shitty comics never go away.
[Laughs.] That’s true.
You’re always gonna have that.
I did want to ask you about the comedy scene now. How would you say things have changed from when you started to today?
I don’t know. I’d say the main thing is technology. I mean, you have the internet. I worked with comics, and they’d put out a notebook to have people sign up, and they’d mail them stuff.
I know comics today who are self-conscious about e-mail lists, I can’t imagine…
Yeah, it was difficult. So it was really hard to get people to… I don’t know, maybe it was the same getting people to come to the shows, but there wasn’t that immediate, y’know, put something on Facebook. You had to mail a postcard. So that was the main [thing]. There were cliques back then; there were people that you wanted to tell jokes to, to help out, friends, people you didn’t want to do that. I don’t know. It hasn’t really changed that much. I think there’s still the same amount of clubs to go to — Hyena’s has replaced the Funny Bone. There’s still Arlington Improv and Addison Improv, and Backdoor Comedy is still viable. It’s not that I don’t care, I just don’t know the bar stuff anymore. If I never see another bar show, I’ll be fine.
It sounds like you did your time in the bar shows.
I think I did. It’s not like I wouldn’t, I just don’t care to. I don’t search it out. I don’t need stage time, I don’t mind not going up.
We talked about how technology changed comedy. You have a good web presence. You’ve done some podcasting, blogging, things like that.
I have a thing called “Things I Thought About Today,” which I’ve been doing for about 10 years. I did one a day for three years — I thought it might catch on. If it doesn’t catch on after three years, it’s probably not going to. So I kind of said, I’ll do it when I want to. I still do it — I put it on my Facebook, my Twitter. I still like doing them. It’s a vanity project, something I like to do. If you don’t like doing it, why do it? I guess I have a web presence. I don’t know. You can’t convince me.
There’s one show in particular I wanted to ask you about, I think it came about before my time. But can you tell me about “Win Dave Little’s Approval”?
I can! This was a show I was able to set up thanks to Dallas Comedy House. We put the shows on there. I’d been in a lot of improv groups over the years, I studied and really had a great time. I was in Lone Star Comedy, I was in Section 8, and I did Ad Libs, met all these great improvisers. I wanted to try to do a show with them and also use my particular skills — whatever those are. “Win Dave Little’s Approval” was I’d get six improvisers, divide them. One member of each was a stand-up comic who also did improv. I would come out, I would talk to people in the audience. Then comics would come out on each side – I’d divided them into teams – and do five minutes each. And then all three members [of a team] would come out and we’d do an improv game. The last thing was we’d do a song. We did two songs based on the people I talked to at first. I tried to get a piano player to come in. We’d do two different styles. Sometimes I’d play guitar, which would make it limited styles. And then we’d determine a winner, and I would bring a bag of my stuff to hand out as a “prize.” I did it five or six times, but it was just hard to get people to come to it. I just hated to waste people’s time, so I stopped doing it.
We’ve been talking about career stuff for a while. I did want to ask you how your act has evolved over the years.
I don’t know if it has. Not really. I mean, I don’t play any songs anymore. I used to do a couple of songs, which I was always proud of. I never did parodies — I did original songs — but I got tired of carrying my guitar around. But I kind of always had this style of sparse… I don’t really tell any stories, but I try to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Use as few words as possible. I think the way it’s evolved is it doesn’t bother me if it’s a bad show, not for very long. That’s how it’s evolved, really. I mean, I don’t think I’ve gotten smarter or anything like that. I’ve learned to embrace the silence.
That’s tough, having a crowd just stare at you.
But sometimes they’re listening. They have to determine if they like you or not. Silence is just as powerful, if not more so, than laughter. I love comics who do joke-joke-joke-joke-joke, but that’s not what I do. And I don’t mind if something doesn’t go very well or goes differently. I think an audience wants you to be in charge, they want you to take charge. If you’re OK with it, they seem to be OK with silence. I mean, it can’t be quiet for 30 minutes. But the evolving is really just learning how to do what I do better, I guess. The joke-writing has kind of stayed the same. Once you find the way you write jokes, it’s tough to do it differently. It makes it hard to write jokes for other people, you’re more in tune to how you do it.
Do you have a ritual around your writing?
I use a pen. I don’t really sit down and write. It’s scraps of paper, notebooks — the only thing that was more of a ritual, not as much now, was the “Things I Thought About.” I would always try to do it first thing in the morning, and not think about it, just write it on a legal pad. Sometimes, I’ll try to write down something and go, “Is this a lyric for a song? What am I going to use this for?” Now I can put it on my phone. I’ve just gotta figure it out. Sometimes it sits forever, but there’s still nothing better than writing a joke and have it work. Still amazing.
What are your thoughts on Dallas’ comedy scene today?
I don’t know anything about it. [Laughs.]
Is it hard to stay connected when you’re moving around so much?
I don’t know. I mean, I go up to Hyena’s [for the open mic] on Wednesday nights. I don’t know anybody up there really. And I don’t think anyone knows me. And that’s fine, too. I’ve had about three different peer groups move to L.A., and they’re not really around. It’s really hard to make new friends. So, y’know, I haven’t really seen newer comics. Paul [Varghese] is great, Aaron [Aryanpur] is great, Dean [Lewis] is great, Linda [Stogner] is great. But I mean, that’s kind of the top tier, I guess? Maybe. I don’t know what a tier is. I know there’s other comics I’m missing — but that’s their fault.
Do you feel like new comics take advantage of having a veteran presence around?
I think sometimes you can give advice and they don’t understand it. And how can they? You have to do it long enough. I’ll talk to anybody, but I’ll hardly ever go and see somebody’s act because it doesn’t really matter if I think they’re funny. I don’t want to hear the jokes really. It’s more about the process of what they’re doing. Are they getting to the joke quickly? Why are you saying “Y’know what I’m saying?” and saying it all the time. Why are you doing that? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s really just getting to the point. Especially at the open mics, using it to your advantage, there’s no point to telling jokes that work. There’s no point to that. You’ve got to be willing to suck. I tell people to quit all the time, too: “What are you doing, why are you doing it?” If it rubs people the wrong way, it’s like, I’m no worse than an audience member. Sometimes they’re going, “What the fuck are you doing up there?” You have to be able to do it regardless of what people are saying. You don’t need validation from me, or anybody.
So you really don’t need to win Dave Little’s approval?
You really don’t. All you’ll really do if you win it is get a bag of shit. [Laughs.]
If you’re someone who’s trying to carve out a career working freelance, in entertainment – musician, comic, etc – do you have any particular advice for that person?
I think you just can’t give up, y’know? Because if you give up, no one cares. Your friends will say they care, but they just think, “Oh, one less person.” If you’re not doing it to satisfy you, what’s the point? That’s anything, really. Embracing the silence, I think, is the key.