Dan French: Professionalizing Austin comedy

photo / Wayne B Dan French 

In the 20 years he’s been doing comedy, Dan French has performed stand-up all around the country, been nominated for an Emmy, and written for such late night TV shows as The Dennis Miller Show, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, and The Best Damn Sports Show Period. He also writes for and collaborates with numerous nationally known stand-up comedians (including Austin favorite Matt Bearden) and teaches workshops in comedy writing, comedy careers, and stand-up.

Dan recently moved from Los Angeles to Austin to begin doing more production-oriented work and currently has two comedic web series slated to air on Super Deluxe and Austin-based ON Networks. That Other Paper writer and budding stand-up comedian Bradley Jackson recently sat down with Dan to talk about his days on network television, the ongoing writers strike, and why he hopes to see the Austin comedy scene continue to grow and become more professionalized.

That Other Paper Tell me about your web shows. I read about you having something on Super Deluxe.

Dan French Yeah. It’s called “Game Film.” I did it with Matt Bearden, and it should be on soon. It’s essentially Mystery Science Theater 3000 with old sports clips.

TOP So when we’re talking old sports clips, are we talking like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler old?

DF [laughs] You can’t get the rights to those, so we had to go further back. There’s a website called Prelinger Archives. They have tons of free stuff, completely rights-cleared. You can’t get rights to any real sports footage because it’s all owned and they won’t let you touch it because I guess it’s so valuable. So we went back and started collecting these really odd, old sports clips and re-voiced them with new announcers. We just cut four episodes for an initial pilot order.

TOP I heard you also had a show on ON Networks.

DF That’s a show we’re actually wrapping post-production on this week. It’s called Gettin’ Rich, and it’s about a fake company that creates get-rich-quick schemes, but all the ideas are really weird. Like the first episode is called “Home Prisons,” where you open up prisons in your house.

TOP That’s awesome.

DF We shot four of those and did full shoots. Each one of them is about a three-minute script with as many as eight to 10 actors.

TOP Are you writing and directing these?

DF I’m creating, writing, and co-directing. I’m not really a techie -– I’ve been primarily a stand-up and a writer, so I’ve needed to have partners on the production stuff. I moved to Austin because I wanted to get into production. I mean, I wrote for a little over six years on talk shows and there’s a lot of production there, but it’s all “day-of” stuff, like sketches. I liked it and learned how to do it really fast.

The main difference is that if you’re working for Fox and it’s noon and you’ve gotta get something done by two o’clock, you’ll have two editors and a director so you can do it all. Here, people aren’t getting paid, or they’re getting paid small amounts, so it’s very different trying to get things accomplished.

TOP What shows did you write for?

DF My first job was at The Best Damn Sports Show Period for Fox Sports back when Tom Arnold was still there. I was there for about a year and a half. When it started, they wanted it to be half comedy, half sports, but now it’s dwindled to all sports. When I was there, it was still about a third comedy. I mean, Tom Arnold would literally call the four writers over between takes and say, “I want to make a joke about Michael Irvin’s shirt.” So we’d sit there for two minutes while they were resetting and write 10 jokes and he’d pick one.

TOP So what was the joke?

DF Michael Irvin would always wear these outlandish clothes, so Tom Arnold ended up saying, “Hey, man, where did you park the bus when you came in today?”

TOP And so you moved to The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn after that?

DF Yeah. I was at CBS for a year, and then Kilborn quit, and I was there for another three months after he quit. Then I moved to Dennis Miller.

TOP So what’s the difference between writing for Craig Kilborn and writing for Dennis Miller?

DF I don’t know. You just use less adjectives, essentially. You know, Dennis likes things very intricate and arcane. He likes to maximize what’s going on in a sentence. He gets a lot of his laughs from the imagery, the dexterity of the language, or things coming out of left field.

TOP What’s the process of getting a job in late-night TV?

DF Friends, man. It’s all about friends. You also need to have a writing sample.

TOP So you have to write for the show?

DF It depends. If you’re an established writer and they know you and what you’ve done, then it’s a lot easier. I mean, the first time I applied to CBS, my buddy Chuck got hired instead of me because he had two Emmys from Chris Rock and he wrote for Conan O’Brien. He didn’t adapt his sample for the show. Whereas me, I only had The Best Damn Sports Show Period to my credit, so I worked really hard to make a sample packet that fit that show.

TOP How many pages are we talking about?

DF Like five pages. I mean, I can tell within about two jokes if someone can write. So it’s usually like a page and a half of monologue jokes and maybe a couple of quick sketches. And in TV, the sketches are like 30 seconds, so it’s like half a page to a page.

TOP Are you a big fan of The Larry Sanders Show?

DF Sure.

TOP Is that what it’s like?

DF [laughs] No. It’s nothing like that. It’s much more mundane. It’s like a job. We show up at nine o’clock and you sit there for an hour with eight guys in a room just talking about what you want to do that day. And then everyone gets writing assignments and you go to your office and write for two hours, turn it in, and then go to lunch. Then you go to rehearsal in the afternoon where you see if it works and make some adjustments. And if your host isn’t completely crazy, they accept that you’re funny and they do what you’ve written.

TOP Of all the late night hosts, who do you think has the best delivery?

DF I think Conan O’Brien has the best sketches. I think he’s the funniest guy on TV. I don’t like his monologues as much. He seems uncomfortable. I think he’s really funny, but it’s more in off-the-cuff dialogue with people. None of them are really good interviewers. Jon Stewart is a good interviewer because he’s smart and he obviously cares about his issues. Craig Ferguson’s actually a really good interviewer. He seems very natural with it.

TOP How long do you foresee yourself living in Austin?

DF It depends on how things work out. My family lives here. I have kids here, so I’ll be here. I may end up going back and forth to LA or New York. It’s going to be interesting how all this web stuff works out.

TOP Especially with the writers strike, right?

DF Yeah, I’m on strike right now.

TOP So what’s it like being a writer on strike in Austin?

DF I was gonna go picket somebody, maybe Friday Night Lights, but I think they’ve wrapped production already.

TOP What are your thoughts in general on the writers strike?

DF They’re the same issues that every industry faces. Corporations want to keep as much as they possibly can and the only way they can do that is to underpay the people that work for them. Without guilds or unions, most entertainment jobs are awful because so many people want them that they compete each other out of getting paid. It’s happened in stand-up comedy. The money in stand-up has consistently dwindled over the years because someone will come in and do the job for less. And the guilds won’t let that happen. They set minimums that have to be paid.

photo / Wayne BDan French 

All three of my jobs on TV have been the exact same job: writing monologues, sketches, and sundry dialogue stuff. With my first job at The Best Damn Sports Show Period, you probably won’t even find me listed in the credits because they kept me on for a year and a half as a “temp writer.” They wouldn’t hire me full-time so they wouldn’t have to pay me benefits. It wasn’t a guild show. So I got paid 800 bucks a week for a full-time national TV show. And then I did the exact same job at CBS for Kilborn, which was a guild show, and the minimum they have to pay you is $3,300. So I quadrupled my pay scale for doing the exact same job, and that’s all because of guilds.

TOP Where did you get started doing stand-up?

DF I started in Peru.

TOP [laughs] Really?

DF No. It’s very funny with interviewers because the questions about stand-up are always the same. I actually started in Louisville, Kentucky, 20 years ago, Thanksgiving 1987. I went up and did a set at Cap City [a few weeks ago] to commemorate my 20 years.

TOP What do you think of the Austin scene?

DF Well, Austin used to have a reputation for being full of cliques and a little undeservedly full of itself in regards to stand-up. But it’s changed – it’s a much better scene since the last time I lived here, which was in 1997. Now the community is a lot friendlier and much more supportive.

TOP What’s your writing process for sketch and for stand-up?

DF Well, I start every morning in Peru. [laughs] I’m a morning writer, so by noon I’m done.

TOP Same here.

DF I like working in the afternoons, but I can’t write. Typically I write four hours in the morning and I’m done. I’ll do meetings, interviews and business-type stuff in the afternoons, but no writing.

TOP Who are some of your favorite stand-up comedians right now?

DF Brian Regan is the best comic in the country. He does comedy with no illusions. None of his comedy is bad language, none of it’s shock; it’s just character, performance skill, and clever jokes. I like Nick Swardson a lot. I like Dave Attell. I like Louis C.K. There are a lot of really good stand-ups right now. What’s that girl’s name?

TOP Maria Bamford?

DF Yeah. She’s hilarious.

TOP So what’s your partnership with Matt Bearden like?

DF Austin has all this horribly under-professionalized talent. They have very little experience doing stand-up on the road; they have very little experience with Hollywood. So there are a lot of talented people here who really have no clue about what they could actually do and what’s available to them.

At least with me, I’ve been through a lot of those systems. Like with Bearden, I saw him on stage and I immediately thought he was really good, so I hooked him up with a writing job through this company I used to write for, and he immediately excelled at it. About six months later, we talked about maybe doing a project together, so I brought him in to do all this webisode stuff.

TOP You used to teach comedy and comedy writing classes.

DF Yeah.

TOP How do you handle someone in your class who isn’t funny?

DF Not being funny doesn’t kill you in comedy. I know lots of people who make a living in comedy who aren’t funny. There are some full-time writers on a TV show who I’m like, “You’re not really funny.” Usually they’ll have one thing they can do well, and you can find that.

TOP Do you think there’s such thing as a cheap joke?

DF Yes, but everyone admires that comic who can pull off a tough joke. You know, the joke involving necrophilia with a nun in church and it still makes everyone laugh. And that’s great, but it’s a big playing field. I don’t care what anyone does, as long as they try to do it well. I don’t care if it’s prop comedy or if they’re using puppets; it makes no difference to me as long as they’re trying to do it well.

Usually what I find in class is that you help people figure out what they do well, and keep them away from what they don’t do well so they won’t waste their time. If someone’s a really good performer who can’t write, hook them up with a writer. I see so much wasted energy in entertainment because people try to do things they’re not good at. Craig Kilborn didn’t have a sense of humor, but he was a really good performer, and when he was trying, he was really good. There’s a reason why he was the original host of The Daily Show.

TOP So you think it’s okay if a stand-up comedian doesn’t write his own material?

DF I think it’s fine. Stand-up is another under-professionalized form of entertainment. In what other form of entertainment do you have to write, perform, direct, produce, book yourself, and sell your own merchandise afterwards? I’ve written for tons of guys, and I would much rather see a guy with great performance skills doing great material than that same guy doing his own mediocre thoughts.

TOP What do you think about Dane Cook?

DF I have no problem with Dane Cook. I knew Dane way before he got all this media exposure, and he was just a really funny comic. He could take over a room; he has a stage presence and energy that 98 percent of comics could never get to. And he could write. I mean, it wasn’t anything where you were like, “That’s the greatest thing ever,” but it was all good.

TOP So what are your overall goals while you’re in Austin?

DF One of my main goals is to get the Austin comedy scene more professionalized because there’s a lot of talent here that doesn’t know what to do and a lot of frustrated people who want to do stuff but don’t really have a strong venue. There’s a good improv scene here, but how do you make money? There’s a good stand-up scene here, but how do you make money? There are a lot of good writers and actors, but the real question is, how do you turn it into a money-making community?

So part of my idea of moving here was that I still have so many LA contacts and so much stuff I could pitch in order to tap that talent pool, find ways of actually making money for people, and let them fuel my stuff so it can be more valuable to Hollywood.


Bob DiPasquale's picture

Not sure if DF will be reading these but I’m certainly intrigued by his desire to find and grow talent. You know what’s weird is my coworkers call me “DF” too. I moved from Vermont to Round Rock in late 2006. I was huge in Vermont. Well OK, I was medium sized, but still huge compared to most toddlers. While in Vermont I wrote for local TV show Late Night Saturday, and made a name for myself on the local comedy scene doing gigs at places you’ve never heard of like Flynn Space and Higher Ground. I’ve done some open mic here at Cold Towne and Cap City, but I’d love some advice from someone like Dan on how I can put my hobby to work makin’ a few bucks. Can’t afford a trip to Peru to launch from there.