A Day with Dreesen

“I’m having lunch with Tom Dreesen.” I told the attendant at the security gate. That sounded surreal. I had met Tom once before years ago in Chicago. He gave a lecture to aspiring Comedians called “The Joy of Stand up Comedy” for free. He talked for over an hour about stand up comedy and I took 4 pages of notes that day as he imparted onto us his more than 40 years of knowledge in show business.

Mr. Dreesen and I have very similar backgrounds. We both grew up in blue collar families on the south side of Chicago. I grew up in a very middle class home and he grew up poor in Harvey. After doing stand up in our home town for years we both made the trek to Los Angeles. He slept in an abandoned car and hitchhiked up and down Sunset Blvd begging to work for free at the Comedy Store and I sold nearly everything I owned and left a promising career in sales. Both of our marriages subsequently ended.

The receptionist paged him and he greeted me a minute later in a beautiful navy blue pin stripe suit. He looked like he was about to get on stage. I wore khaki’s and a polo yet still felt underdressed standing next to this pro. He apologized for having had to push our meeting back 30 minutes. You could tell it genuinely bothered him as he prides himself on punctuality and keeping his word.

After exchanging a few pleasantries about which parish we grew up near (a south side ritual) and showing me some of the pictures mounted on the wall of celebrities who had been members of the 85 year old Lakeside Country Club including Bob Hope, W.C. Fields and John Wayne, he asked me all about my background; where I’m from, where I went to school, what I studied, my professional career, my stand up experience. It wasn’t your typical LA conversation where the person you are talking to is scanning the room to see if their is someone more important or more interesting to talk to. I had his complete attention and he was genuinely interested in my story and my journey.

After I talked for a while he began to share with me his journey and his process as a writer and entertainer. “It’s all about the material. Stage presence and timing are important but at the end of the day it’s about your unique perspective. It’s what’s unique about you that is going to set you apart from everyone else. The best way to connect to an audience is to let them get to know you. Who you are? Where you’re from? For years I was the Comedian from Harvey, Illinois. There are lots of comics from Chicago but I’m the only one from Harvey. That made me unique. You want to make it ‘An Evening with Ken Garr’. The most important thing is to make it conversational, not presentational. If your wife tells you that dinner isn’t going to be ready for another hour and to go entertain the guests, what would you go talk to them about? What stories would you share?” His passion was contagious.

“The difference I see in comedy today is that when I started and you told someone you were a Comedian everyone was floored. Nowadays, ‘oh my chiropractor does comedy, my dentist does stand up.’ Everyone is doing it. There are way more comedians than their were when I started which makes it even harder to get noticed. That’s why it’s so important to keep re-inventing yourself and always coming up with new material. The Comedians that make it today have a hook. Something that is unique to their character or their act. There are lots of Ventriloquists but Jeff Dunham is the most successful one because his material is good and each one of his puppets has a unique voice.”

Later on in the conversation I asked him if he ever thought about quitting. “No. It was never an option. There are so few people in the world that can do what we do and I knew that this was what my spirit was called to do. Their are maybe 1 out of every 5 million people that can do what we do. I’m fortunate that I’m able to make a good living as a Comedian but whether I’m making $1,000 a year or a million, I knew that this was what I wanted to do and I wasn’t going to quit… ever. Now that being said, a guy has to eat so if you need to take on a part time job to pay the rent and eat then that’s what you have to do. You don’t want to pass out on stage from starvation. But my comedy is always evolving. I’ve moved into motivational speaking and corporate work. I also do a lot of charity work and I’ve been doing my one man show for years now. Doing a one man show allows you to pull a range of emotions from the audience not just laughter. It’s ok for them to laugh and cry all in the same night. I always did what I wanted to do.”

I shared with him that one of the struggles that I find each day is that when I wake up I don’t know what tasks I should be focused on in order to become successful. He said, “Write. And write everyday and keep writing. I know it’s not for everyone. A journalist asked me the best question once, ‘are you a writer who performs stand up or are you a stand up who writes?’ and I’m definitely the latter. I love performing. I love being in front of an audience but I know that I have to constantly be writing new material so that my perspective continues to be fresh and unique. If I can write one new solid joke everyday thats 365 jokes a year, 730 over 2 years! But I also encourage Comedians to not be obsessed with stand up comedy and not forget to have other interests. Obviously I play golf.” I agreed and shared that I see so many Comedians today who do nothing but stand up and aren’t out living a life that they can talk about. “It’s important for your material to do other things.” In addition to writing he shared that having goals is critical and not only having goals but to visualize reaching those goals. “When I was sleeping in the car up on blocks I would imagine myself sitting next to Johnny Carson on the couch and he would be laughing and it happened. I’m a huge believer in visualization. I believe your subconscious is always working toward that goal even if you’re not.”

I also shared my concern that I was spreading myself too thin and trying to be at all places at all times. “That’s not a bad thing. You never know when you’re going to get your opportunity. Obviously be loyal to the clubs that are working you but most of the clubs in town play fair and don’t mind you working other clubs. They understand the importance of stage time. Just get on stage as much as you can and most importantly be prepared for that opportunity when it comes. I’m always prepared. I have pen and paper in my suit pocket right now in case something strikes me as funny. In fact to prepare for our lunch I did my research on you. You’re funny! But I wanted to know a little bit about the person I was meeting with today. Preparation is important.”

“What are your thoughts on reaching out to agents. A lot of people feel it’s a waste of time?” I asked. “I don’t see any harm in introducing yourself to Agents and letting them know who you are and what you’re trying to do. Have some balls and ask them if they’d be interested in representing you. All they can say is no or not right now but at least you’ve let them know who you are.”

After some tea and cookies it was time to conclude our two hour lunch. He walked me through the club house and brought me to the locker room. “Come here Kenny. I want to show you something.” he said. We walked through a couple rows of lockers and into a smaller room where his locker sat next to Bob Hope’s. “They kept it here in his honor.” In the corner sat a golfer getting dressed. “Joe, I want you to meet a friend of mine. He’s a Comedian from Chicago. Kenny Garr, this is my friend, Joe Pesci.” I said in a very cool and calm voice, “Hi Joe. It’s nice to meet you.” as we shook hands. We chatted for a minute or two about his golf game that day and Tom showed me Bob Hope’s locker. The word ‘visualization’ popped into my head immediately.

As I left the country club that day I had a lot on which to reflect. If you ask me I’ll try and convince you and myself that I’m not in this at all for the fame and fortune and that I’m just in this to make people laugh and spread joy to the world but that’s not entirely true. Having a locker at a country club in the same room as Bob Hope’s and Tom Dreesen’s while asking Joe Pesci how he shot that day would be awesome. It would mean that I did something right in this business and that people recognized it. “I started with Jay Leno and David Letterman. Their friends of mine and people have asked me if I’m pissed that I didn’t have their type of fame and fortune. I’m not. I make a very good living doing what I love. I traveled the world with Frank Sinatra. I’m blessed. How many people in the world can say they’ve been able to do what they truly love and make a living doing it?”

Recently I was given the opportunity to open for Sebastian Maniscalco, another Chicagoan who is on a rocket ship to stardom right now. After the third of four amazing sold out shows Bob Fisher, the owner of the famous Ice House Comedy Club, presented him with a bottle of Dom Perignon. Bob later told me that it was only the 8th time in 36 years that he presented somebody with a bottle on stage. I told him, “That immediately became one of my goals, Bob. I hope one day you do the same for me.” I had never been more serious in my life. It’s been visualized. It’s locked in my brain now and my conscious and subconscious have been put to task. I know that one day I’ll put that bottle of Dom in my locker at the same country club where Bob Hope played golf and where Tom Dreesen, a fellow south sider and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, bought me lunch… and called me funny.

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