It's been really cool over the past couple years to see more local comedians headline their own shows at Wiseguys. It may not be an every-week thing, but local talent is getting the chance to own the crowd on the biggest standup stages in the state, usually with an all-local lineup supporting them. Travis Tate will be headlining his own show on June 30 at the Downtown SLC location, but before it happens later this month, we chat with him about his career in SLC and thoughts on local comedy. (All pictures provided courtesy of Tate.
Travis Tate on Twitter
Hey Travis, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, Gavin, the main thing that I want people to know about me is that I'm the type of person who dips french fries into ice cream. If that offends anyone, that's okay, I totally get that it's not for everyone. But that's who I am, and if personal shame hasn't stopped me from doing it, neither will the opinions of strangers. Other than that, I'm a pretty regular guy. I'm 38 years old and I've been married to my high school sweetheart for over 20 years (yes, that is too young to get married and no, she wasn't pregnant). I have three awesome kids, a day job that sucks
the life out of me, and oh yeah, I perform standup comedy for the good people of Utah and surrounding states.
What first got you interested in comedy, and who were your biggest influences?
First of all, I didn't start doing standup
until I was 34. Which is traditionally a path to guaranteed failure. As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to do standup. But sometimes in life we get sidetracked, or we talk ourselves out of taking risks. For me, I got married very young and immediately started a family, which was obviously my number one priority. At the time,
the only standup happening in Utah was all the way down in Utah County (which, by the way, is where standup goes to die—lovely people but more of an improv comedy/boy scout skit bunch).
Since I was still young and needed an outlet of some sort I turned to one of my other loves, football. I tore my body up for three years playing for an indoor football team called the Utah Blitz (which coincidentally is now the name of a very good woman's football team that I'm sure has a much better record than we did). My body was really getting banged up from getting slammed into plexiglass and concrete covered with skin-ripping carpet, but I'm not a quitter and I just kept going—until one day on my way to work I was t-boned by a lumber truck that ran a red light. I was left with six herniated discs in my back, which meant no more football.
All of this time, I continued to feel the longing to do standup,
but felt that my kids were to young for me to invest so much time away from home. Then, to my wife's credit, she told me that I had been talking about wanting to do standup since we had first met. She told me that she and the kids would be fine, and that I either needed to go for it or shut the hell up about it. So here I am.
As far as influences go my first one was probably Fozzie Bear. Before I could even form a sentence, I would always go nuts whenever he or Kermit came onto the screen. After that I would say that Cosby was huge in my youth (obviously before the information about his atrocious criminal personal life came to light, which still puzzles me because a comic's main goal on stage is to make a connection, get a reaction, and know that people are into what's happening. I guess that shows you what kind of monster he is, allegedly). After that I got into SNL
, and standup shows like An Evening at the Improv
and Live on the Sunset Strip
. As far as comics who have influenced my act, I'm not sure. Obviously, whenever we observe or interact with someone we can absorb part of their personality, inflection, or cadence. That's a human trait. I once heard The Rock describe his wrestling alter ego as "Dwayne Johnson with the volume turned way up" and that's how I like to think of myself onstage: basically me, but with more confidence and less mumbly. I try my hardest not to be influenced by other comics. I think being conscious of that and being as genuine as possible keeps you true to who you are.
What made you decide to attempt standup comedy?
My decision to start standup was primarily based on a deep desire to create something. The only other thing that I had ever created was children, which was a lot of fun, by the way. But procreation has its limits, and I really needed a creative outlet. Some people paint, or write songs, or build things with wood. I write jokes and make people laugh. I've always wanted to make people laugh.
What was it like putting together your first sets and breaking into shows?
When you first start putting together jokes to try at your first open mic, it's usually an assortment of random things that you find funny. Sometimes it's just premises that amuse you that you hope will connect with an audience. Anytime you try a new idea on stage, it's a big leap of faith. Especially when you're first starting out, because you don't have the experience of failing, then realizing that it's not the end of the world.
My first open mic was at Wiseguys Trolley Square in front of a very large crowd that was informed before I went on stage that it was my first time, so they were super supportive. It went well enough that I continued to come back and write new jokes. I worked my butt off for six months doing open mics until a few comics told me that I should try to get some guest spots on some local shows. Then one night I went to see Steve Soelberg headline at Wiseguys West Valley, and I got up the courage to introduce myself to Keith Stubbs, who owns the clubs. He told me that he had heard good things about me, and asked me if I wanted to do a three minute guest set. Of course I said yes, because this was what I had been working toward, but on the inside I was having a panic attack, because I was about to do a last minute tryout for Keith Stubbs, who not only owns the clubs and knows everyone in the business, but is also an amazing comic who had headlined everywhere, done tons of TV and has worked with everyone from Gaffigan to Stanhope. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous. Luckily, it went well, and I was able get more opportunities.
What were some of the biggest lessons you learned about performing when you first started?
The biggest thing is that comedy is a business, and I'm a product that I really want people to buy. When I say "buy," I don't necessarily mean just with money (although money is always appreciated). I want to make a lifelong connection with people either with me as a person or at least with something I've said. I need them to make an emotional investment in me. To get that investment, I need to always work my butt off and believe in what I'm doing; otherwise, it's useless to expect others to buy in. Laughing is an involuntary human reaction. If people don't trust you enough to let their guard down, it can be difficult to get the laughs that we crave. So I guess the two biggest lessons, for me at least, are work hard and be prepared, because if I'm not better than I was yesterday, someone else will be.
What's your process like coming up with new material and figuring out what to use?
My process of coming up with topics to write about is pretty simple. Either something happens or has happened in my life that I really want to talk about, or something just mysteriously pops into my head that makes me laugh. After that, the process gets more difficult. I have to dissect what I think is funny about the premise, dig for more jokes within the details, then throw out the things that are to common and dig deeper still to try and find an original take on something. Sometimes people will say "you should say this thing in that joke" and I say "yeah, that's the first thought that came to my mind too. Which is why I didn't use it." The more personal a joke is, the less likely it is to follow where someone else has already gone. Comedy is the opposite of hiking: If you're following a recognizable trail, you're doing it wrong. After I have worked out the joke in my mind or on paper, I try it at open mic, which isn't always a good judge of whether a joke will work, because my bits tend to be longer stories about real life, which can be hard to test at on an open mic crowd, after 20 other people have just talked about getting high and how much porn they consume per day. If I like the way it sounds at open mic, I'll rotate it into weekend and out of town sets. That part really gets fun, because once I have confidence in the joke and my performance of it, I'm able to play with it and keep it fresh.
How is it for you working with other local comedians and being a part of this circuit?
I'm not the most outgoing person in the world, and I'm not into the cliquish frat mentality that I feel is prevalent in our scene. I try to play nice, but I see a lot of local open mic-ers
at shows, and they stand around in the back of the room and talk, or sit at tables and talk, or pull out their phones and play on there like a child all in full view of the audience. It's disrespectful to the person on stage, it's disrespectful to the room and whoever booked it, and it's disrespectful to the crowd, because if they were doing those things with a comic on stage, it would be unacceptable. Some people do comedy to make friends or so they can tell people that they're comedians, which will always happen, there's no stopping that. But stage time is precious and when you screw with other people's time, it pisses me off. That being said, I do have a group of comics that I enjoy performing and hanging out with: Jacob Leigh, Spencer King, Marty Archibald, Rodney Norman, Greg Kyte, Guy Seidel and Josh Fonokalafi. I've probably forgotten someone there, so if you didn't read your name, just assume it was you. Mostly though, I'd rather hang out with the club staff.
You've got a headlining show coming up on June 30. What are your thoughts going into that show?
My biggest thought is complete panic about drawing a crowd. I believe in my set, and I know that I'm gonna bring it. But drawing a crowd when you're not famous is really tough. I have great family and friends who always show up, but that only gets you so far. At this point, I'm relying a lot on social media and word of mouth. I've been doing panels at Salt Lake Comic Con and FanX. That's a lot of fun and people have told me that I was one of their favorite parts of those events. Now if I could just get those people, as well as the people that tell me that I'm hilarious after comedy shows, to all show up on the same day, I'd have a sold-out show. Unfortunately, planets rarely align. SUPPORT LOCAL ARTS, DAMMIT! Another goal I have for this show is to find some openers that I believe are funny and are taking comedy seriously (I know how that sounds). I like to see people who are busting their butt and really have a fire to be comics, and if I can get them on my show, I want them to have a shot.
What's your take on the Utah standup scene and the people coming out of it?
In my opinion, there are 10 comics in Salt Lake City who could go to any room in the country (club or alt) and kill a 30-minute feature set. Out of those 10, maybe five could kill as a headliner right now. Maybe less. Everyone else needs to be patient and go to work.
Aside from yourself, who are some of your favorites you like to check out around town?
This is always the worst question, because comedy is so subjective, and after years of doing comedy you just don't laugh as much. Most people who answer this question just name either people that they hang out with or people that they fear, hoping that the scary person will someday be nice to them. So I'm going to name someone who everyone always skips over. Someone who has been on the scene for over 20 years. I'm going to say Scott Timm Thorn! First of all, he recently just returned from performing with Tim Allen and Tom Arnold in L.A., plus he can go in front of almost any crowd and get laughs. He doesn't get enough credit for that. Also, Timm is my friend, and watching him drag his leg behind him while saying the wrong thing to almost everyone brings me great joy. Also, everyone else that I've mentioned in this article is very funny, and you should check them out.
What are your thoughts on the current club system, both major and indie, and the work they do to promote comedy?
Like I said, when talking about my show at Wiseguys, marketing comedy to the public can be very tough. Some comics who come through town could do a week's worth of shows that are completely sold-out, while another comic who is equally as funny struggles to draw an average-sized crowd. Our society values fame. There is a real "If I've never heard of them, then they must not be funny" mentality. Which really sucks, because I believe that the average American would struggle to name three actual working comedians, and most of the ones named would be people that they saw on SNL
or while scrolling through Netflix. I promise you that the funniest comedians that I have ever seen don't even exist in my parent's world, and I'm a comic. So I think that Wiseguys, as well as the alt
shows around town, are doing dynamite work trying to build the scene. As for you folks that can name 200 comics off the top of your head and go to as many shows as you can... I love you! I wish we could clone you. Thanks, and keep being awesome.
What's your opinion of national standup comedians coming through town, and what impact do you believe that has on the local scene?
I believe that if we didn't have Wiseguys bringing in the top names in comedy every week, we wouldn't have
a local scene. In order to have a scene, you need to have butts in seats. You need fans. Otherwise, it's just people standing in front of each other talking about their genitals. If Wiseguys wasn't here, comics like me wouldn't have the opportunity the eat pancakes at two in the morning with Marc Maron, or have a deep conversation with Tom Segura about the intricacies of farts, or spend three days hanging out with Tracy Morgan. Being on shows with and hanging out with these national headliners is priceless. Having these guys watch my sets, performing in front of their crowds, and getting their feedback has taught me more than any book or podcast ever could. I've had opportunities 4 1/2 years into comedy here in Salt Lake at Wiseguys that hilarious 20-plus-year comics would kill for. So I would definitely say that it's good for the scene.
What advice do you have for people looking to getting into standup comedy?
Honestly, don't do it. If you enjoy watching standup
and laughing, then performing standup isn't for you. I still absolutely love standup, but I rarely laugh when watching it. When I hear a joke, I break it down like a math problem, either to figure out why I liked it or why I hated it. If you disregard my warnings, then I would just say Be Patient and Work Hard. But I should say that you have a better shot at being a professional athlete than you do of being a famous comedian, so you really have to love it to do it.
What can we expect from you during 2016?
Well, first off, I'm headlining Wiseguys Downtown June 30, 7:30 p.m. tickets are only $12, just in case I forgot to mention it. I'm starting a podcast with my wife Penny, who is way more beloved in the comedy scene then I'll ever be. I'm also developing a web series with my buddy and fellow comedian Jacob Leigh. I'm hoping to be a part of Salt Lake Comic Con again in September, because being a part of those events in front of those fans is truly enjoyable to me. Besides all of that, I'll stay laser focused on doing standup, growing my audience, and doing more shows in other states.