Stocking Laughs: Comedy Booking Consultant Steve Heisler

Comedy tastemaker Steve Heisler got his job by publicly complaining about a major comedy festival lineup. Now he's in charge of booking Just For Laughs, fine-tuning his ear to discern between a good joke and a great comedian.

A former performer and comedy journalist, Steve Heisler landed on the industry side of show biz thanks to one very public complaint. Four years later, Heisler oversees booking for between 75 and 100 performers at Just For Laughs’ Chicago festival each June, curates U.S.-based performers for the organization’s Montreal festival in July and has evolved into an expert in what makes for funny.

Comics who make it to the big leagues—the sold-out shows, Comedy Central specials and film roles they yearned for as a kid—have people like Steve Heisler to thank. Responsible for plucking new talent from obscurity and giving them each a slot in potentially two of the largest comedy festivals in North America, Heisler spends his working hours sloughing through the best and the worst comics across the country to find those most deserving of some enviable exposure.

While both the Chicago and Montreal Just for Laughs festivals draw in the biggest names in the game like Steve Martin, Louis C.K., Joel McHale, Demetri Martin and Seth Meyers, showcases from local and lesser-known comics that Heisler and other talent booking consultants curate make up the proverbial bread and butter of both fests. New faces showcases are the part of the festival that prevent headliners from resting on their laurels, that encourage the festival to evolve, that motivate the comic scene to keep producing innovative work that pushes the boundaries of comedy and creativity. They’re the shows that Heisler lives for

Of course, wrangling up to 150 artists and being the harbinger of rejection for hundreds of others isn’t all squirty lapel flowers and cream pies to the face. Nor was Heisler’s beginning with Just for Laughs. While working as the comedy editor for Time Out Chicago magazine in 2008, Heisler received a press release about a new comedy festival that would promote the city’s thriving comedy scene by flying in out-of-towner Ellen DeGeneres. He responded with a somewhat scathing article about the festival’s lack of focus on the city’s local talent. And that’s when things got interesting.

Get In Media: How did you get involved with Just for Laughs [after the TOC article]?
Steve Heisler: I immediately got a call from Bruce Hills who’s the COO of Just for Laughs … he was like “Listen, I understand why you wrote what you wrote because there’s no more information in that release that we can release yet, but I want you to know that there’s going to be more, and why don’t we keep in touch?” … I kind of forgot about it, and then in September or October of 2010, I got an e-mail from his assistant asking if he could sit down for coffee with me while he was in town. We met for coffee, and he was like “Now’s the time that we have to make sure that all that stuff that you wrote about in your article doesn’t happen, so we need to find a person who can be like our man on the street, who can tie us in with the local scene, who can help us do cool local programming and make the festival an integral part of Chicago, and that person has to know the scene really well, and that person has to be completely unaffiliated with any of the theaters in town. Do you know such a person?” And I was like “Yep. Me.”… I ended up leaving Time Out Chicago because I felt like it would be a conflict of interest.

GIM: How did being a comedy critic prepare you for your current job?
SH: … As a writer, I was able to let [comedians] do what they wanted to do and kind of fall in love with it or not fall in love with it. Now, I take a little bit more of an active stance as far as telling them what I think would help and what I think would not help their performance… . That all stems from my ability to see a performer and be able to read them as a performer and know their strengths and know their weaknesses. My goal is never to tell them what to do. My goal is always to make sure that the best version of themselves is represented, so just having been a journalist and having to see a lot of shows and really deeply understand comedy, it helps me because I’m able to deeply understand the performers and help them bring out the best. There’s still a lot of organizational stuff too that I brought from the other job, like just knowing what’s coming up in the scene, being able to recognize, based on the people that are involved, what’s a big deal and what’s not a big deal.

GIM: What’s the best and worst part of your job?
SH: I like the fact that I’m seeing a different side of the business than I did when I was a journalist. I’m seeing the bigger picture of careers that comedians have, and I’m able to take an active role in that. As such a big comedy fan, it makes me really excited that I can do that … like last year, we did this thing called the Pet Project series where we asked really cool Chicago comedians if they had something that they’ve always wanted to do that they’d never had a chance to do. Cameron Esposito, who’s this local comedian, decided to put on this one-woman show that included videos and stuff that her friends had made. She called it Side Mullet Nation, and it sold out like instantaneously. Now, Side Mullet Nation is a thing. She can take it with her and bring it to different cities and she has … that’s the kind of stuff that I get really excited about, being able to help people like that.

The toughest part is that I feel like there are a lot of situations in which I’m just saying no to people because you know, there are 10 slots, and there are twenty comedians, so you have to cut 10 of them. Somebody has to do that job, and it’s tough because no one who’s a comedian is going to understand the predicament that I’m in. I have to just accept the fact that this is the way that it is and hope that in the interest of long term growth of the Chicago comedy scene and of the festival and of just comedy in general, sometimes you have to say no to people in order to make the quality level of everything go up and to give people something to aspire to. But, that’s hard. I take it personally sometimes when people get angry about that stuff.

GIM: Now that you’re based in New York [and Just for Laughs has someone else working in the local Chicago scene], have you noticed a geographic difference? Is the comedy scene in New York different than it is in Chicago?
SH: … I do think that Chicago is a little bit more experimental because there’s really no opportunity to be exposed to industry unless it’s for a very special occasion. I think if you’re training in Chicago, your training comes from a more raw and experimental place than if you’re training in New York. I mean, training in New York is still vastly superior to training in LA because in LA, most shows, you’re just surrounded by industry … .

GIM: When you’re trying to find comedians to check out, how much of your job is physically going to see a show versus watching something on YouTube?
SH: It’s probably like 50/50.

GIM: So, YouTube is a viable way to get their names out?
SH: Yeah. I think it’s all about multiple channels for exposure. If there’s this comedian, and I randomly go to a show, and I think he’s great, and then he sends me a link to his album, which he put out himself, and the album kind of backs up how great I thought he was live, and then he has a web series that’s great, it’s like “OK. I’m sold.” It’s not about a video or an individual performance or a specific joke selling me on a person. It’s just about piquing my interest and wanting to explore more … . The more channels to be exposed that you create for yourself, the more likely I am to get a full picture for who you are and the more likely you are to get a shot or an audition or whatever … it all starts with getting on somebody’s radar, and it’s easier to get on somebody’s radar when you’re doing multiple things that are exciting to you, that you’re excited about, that you’re proud of.

GIM: If somebody wanted to break into comedy booking, is there a specific career path to it or is it typical to just happen into it?
SH: … We live in a world in which we have the ability to do the things that we want to do without asking permission on a grander scale. So, if someone was like, “I really want to produce Just for Laughs,” I would say find a small comedy festival in your town and get involved with them and volunteer, or, if there is no comedy festival, create a comedy festival. It doesn’t even have to be a huge thing. It’s just putting your toe in the water, and the more you can say, “I’ve done a little bit of what it is that you do,” you can build on that, and soon you’ll have a little bit of a reputation … . Yeah, I lucked into this job, but the pieces were all kind of there, and if this is something that you really want to do, start putting those pieces into place, even if it’s just one at a time, and even if it’s working for free. You can still put some of those skills to use on a smaller scale and start figuring out what kind of producer you’re going to be, which takes a little bit of time.

GIM: To break into your job, does somebody need to be in a major city?
SH: I don’t think so, but it helps … if you want my job, and you live in a city with absolutely no comedy scene, it’s not helpful because part of the prerequisite of the job is just to know comedians. With YouTube and stuff, you can definitely start, but if you’re in a small town with no comedy scene, that’s a great time to start a comedy festival and start bringing people in and start producing shows to give your town a little bit of a comedy scene. It starts there … 30 years ago, I’m not sure how big of a comedy town Montreal was, but now look at it. I guess if you live in a smaller town, be prepared to look up a lot of stuff on the Internet and take trips sometimes to see live shows, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Again, that’s a good opportunity to start something.

GIM: What’s the one piece of advice for someone who wants to do what you do?
SH: Just be open, I guess. That’s the thing I’ve learned is: be open and be flexible. Never rest on your laurels. Always try to be discovering the next thing, and if you’re not enjoying that process of wanting to know more about comedy and you’re not just naturally fascinated by that, then you’re probably in the wrong job because I’m obsessed with finding the next thing. I love it to death, and if I didn’t, it would be the most miserable job in the world.Get In Media

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