Bryan Miller Q&A

September 30, 2019
Bryan Miller left journalism for comedy and his words have never had more impact.

“Sitting down with a notebook is essential. It forces you to spend time thinking through the process so you explore angles in greater detail. But it’s all abstract until you go onstage and start telling jokes. Then the audience helps you understand what works and you amend that with each performance and then go back to the notebook to rework. You talk it out and riff and rewrite and listen to your old sets until at some point the joke is done.”

Do you wait for jokes to come to you or do you give yourself dedicated writing time?

You can’t wait for jokes to come to you; they will, occasionally, but not very often. I write a lot of different stuff—standup comedy, of course, and also fiction (you can read one story for free at intrinsick.com, and another is posted on the audio fiction podcast The Drabblecast). I also write jokes for a weekly football segment on a syndicated radio show, movie reviews for City Pages, most of City Pages’ opera coverage, freelance essays and articles, and some corporate for-hire work. I write pretty much every day and for a significant portion of it, assuming it’s a good day. The biggest challenge is keeping all those plates in the air, making sure I have enough time in the schedule to dedicate to each one.

Do you find that you get lines more from performing or from sitting down with a notebook?

Sitting down with a notebook is essential. Anyone who says they don’t need to do that is kidding themselves; that just means they’re a talented, productive comic who could be much more productive. But the notebook is just part of the process. You have to tune your brain to thinking about jokes and keeping an eye out for things that are funny. The really great stuff is more nuanced, things other people don’t notice. You’re paid to notice funnier things than people can notice themselves for free. Regular sit-down (or walk-around-the-block) writing sessions are essential to tune your antenna to the joke signals. Physically writing forces you to spend more time and think through the process so you explore more angles in greater detail. But it’s all pretty abstract until you go onstage and start telling the jokes. Then the audience helps you understand what works and what doesn’t, and you try to amend that with each performance and hopefully go back to the notebook to rework. You talk it out and riff and rewrite and listen to your old sets until at some point the joke is done.

Do you carry a notebook 24/7 or talk ideas into your phone?

I always carry a pen. I generally always have a notebook handy-ish, back at my hotel or in my house or car. But I don’t literally carry a notebook everywhere. If I have an idea that really needs writing down, I’ll grab a piece of paper, write it in the margin of the book, text it to myself if necessary. Having a notebook handy is less essential to me for some sudden inspiration—that really doesn’t happen very often—it’s more about having one nearby in case I get a spare 30 minutes or an hour where I didn’t expect it so I can sit down in a coffee shop or a park or wherever and get some work done.

How much mic time can you get these days in Minneapolis in a week?

If you’re established (meaning you can pretty much get up at any mic or showcase) and you’re not booked on any paid shows in or out of town that week, and you just want to see how many mics you could do, I’d say you could probably squeeze in ten five minute sets in a week. Maybe a couple more. There are more than ten regular mics, but some of them overlap.

How long does it take you to work up a killer 15 minutes?

It depends on how much time I’m dedicating to writing comedy vs. writing fiction or doing contract work to pay for the expensive new plumbing work I did on my house this summer. I usually write what turns out to be a couple minutes a week, and some of that falls away because it’s topical or it’s just kind of mediocre. I’m reasonably happy if I write 30-40 minutes a year that is polished and ready for paid shows. It’s not really so mathematical though. You’re gaining and losing jokes all the time, trimming them down, bringing an old thing back because it works to set up a new thing. For me an act is more like a living thing that expands and contracts rather than something like a vault of material that accrues.

How did Craig Ferguson’s people find you? What was that experience like when you appeared on his show?

I got very lucky. Craig was in town working a casino and wanted to come hang out somewhere, so Chad Daniels sent him to a show I was doing with Anthony Jeselnik at Acme. Craig saw me open the show on a Friday or Saturday, dug it, and his booking guy called me the following Tuesday and asked me to come on and do a spot. I was still quite new so the whole thing was pretty dizzying and overwhelming but all positive. Ferguson is a genuinely cool guy, incredibly impressive. The first time I met him I came out of the Acme green room bathroom and he was hanging out, talking to my wife, who was sitting on the couch reading a Kurt Vonnegut novel, and they were having a pretty in-depth conversation about “Cat’s Cradle.” My wife, who is completely disinterested in the industry, was like, “Man, that guy from TV really knows his Vonnegut, he’s super smart.”

You crushed last year when you opened for Gary Gulman. Was that a top five evening for you? What were some others?

I’m not really sure I have a top five in mind. So many experiences are memorable for different reasons. Certainly working with Gary is always terrific, he’s one of my favorite comics and one of my favorite people. That wasn’t even my most memorable show with Gary. We did a run at the Helium in Portland, Oregon, right before Christmas a few years back. It’s a great club. He and I were sitting in the back with another comic, Gabe Dinger, eating great food from the club and watching all these Christmas shows on the green room TV, Grinch and Frosty and Rudolph. The crowds were top-notch and we were just having a terrific time. Then Gary, because we were just watching it, does this little riff about what a jerk Santa is in the Rudolph cartoon, funny but very mild, and this woman in the crowd absolutely freaks out that Gary would besmirch Santa Claus, or something along those lines. Gary doesn’t indulge her—he’s a very quick, sharp wit—and it turns out the woman is there with some giant drunken corporate party of like forty people who all make a scene of storming out of the show. A couple of the drunk guys want to yell at Gary so they find the green room door. Me and Gabe Dinger lock it and we’re standing in the green room with these drunk guys pounding on the door while the ushers are trying to hustle everyone out. All over Santa Claus! I’ve had a lot of memorable moments, most good. Some bad, like the time I unknowingly got booked into a white supremacist bar in a town in Iowa that had a literal plague of frogs at the time. But I got to open a couple of shows for Dave Chappelle at First Avenue, played some 1,000-seat theaters, visited Mt. Rushmore on a trip out west with my pal Costaki Economopoulos.

How accurate are the shows “Crashing” and “I’m Dying Up Here?”

I wouldn’t know. I rarely watch standup comedy on TV because I see so much of it live. When I’m home I want to watch pretty much anything else. (Occasional exceptions: I can’t wait to watch Gary’s “The Great Depresh” on HBO.) Mostly I watch horror movies and football and listen to opera, and endlessly rewatch “Deadwood” and “Succession.” Watching a fictional TV show about standup seems like the worst of all possible worlds to me. I worked with Pete for probably the last week he ever did at a small club, though, and we stayed together in a condo for several days. A delightful guy to spend time with.

You have a background in journalism. Has that training helped you in crafting tight jokes?

Quite the opposite. There’s no better teacher for editing than standup comedy because you’re held directly accountable for every word. When you’re writing something at home you can delude yourself into thinking your half-clever line is really clever and cannot be cut. Once you’ve done the same line onstage five times and it never gets a laugh, no matter how smart or essential you think it is, the collective audience is telling you something, and if you want to keep telling it because it’s important to you, you’re going to have to sacrifice a little something. Standup has made me a ruthless editor; it makes me look at a joke or a sentence or a paragraph (or, once, a whole novel) and really consider how that one smaller component practically works, both on its own and as a part of a larger piece. I’d be a better newspaper writer because I was a comic, not the other way around.

You were a newspaper editor in Carbondale, Illinois. Isn’t that where Bob Odenkirk went to college? Ever meet him there?

Yeah, Bob went to SIU for a bit. I don’t think he graduated, because graduating SIU is usually a path to nowhere. Some people did okay, though. Melissa McCarthy went there too. I used to do plays with her father-in-law, Steve Falcone, who is a true eccentric and a crazy-talented guy. I never met Bob, but I did a couple of long phone interviews with him for the paper. He’s funny and insightful and kind of brutally honest in a way you dream about as a journalist. He pretty much shit all over a bunch of famous people who probably deserved it and talked up a bunch of great under-the-radar artists, which makes him OK in my book.

Who are your three favorite comics of all time?

It’s hard to narrow down my top three favorite comics of all time because there’s such a divergence of styles. Doing comedy has made me appreciate a much broader range of approaches, especially people who work or think very differently than I do. Like the great Mary Mack; even when I write with her I can’t understand how she comes up with her jokes, but I love them. It’s easy to name my #1 comic. Bill Hicks. No question.

Do you still get stage fright?

Nah, no stage fright. Especially when I’m on the road, my whole day is structured around going onstage. That’s the fun part. I really like interacting with the crowd, especially when they’re willing to share and go to weird places. When the crowd is bad it’s fun to try to win them over or, barring that, confound them and revel in spite. I’m most comfortable when I’m actively writing or onstage. You want a little spill of adrenaline before you go on. It’s not bad, it’s more like a tingle of anticipation, a little injection of energy you can bring up with you to make it seem like a thing you’ve said 500 times just occurred to you. Better to have a little too much adrenaline than not quite enough.

It seems like the local stand-up scene is very supportive of each other, as evidence by the warm vibe at the open-mic night at Erik the Red that you emcee. How important is it for comedians to feel part of a community?

The Minneapolis comedy scene waxes and wanes, but overall it’s great. There’s a ton of talent here, especially the new kids in the last couple or three years. It’s the best it’s been in ten years, when there was a huge boom of great new voices. Erik the Red is a kind of rare show in that every single person who signs up gets on, which doesn’t happen at most shows in town because there are just too many comics. But I run the show as long as it needs to go so everybody can get on, even when that means 40 people go up. It’s important for new people to have a consistent place to get up for sure, and it’s good to have a place where the established comics and the brand new open micers can all hang out together. If you want to see what comics are like together, drink a beer on the patio at Red Menace Comedy and eavesdrop. There were more shows like that when I started, probably because there were fewer comics, so I want to keep that kind of space around.

What’s next for you?

I’m finally going to record an album. I’m getting the final details of the production and the venue and the dates lined up. I never wanted to record too early and I probably waited a bit long, so now I want to get that old material down and then get the new stuff I’ve been working on for the last year or two shaped up into some kind of narrative for a second album ASAP. I’ve got two short stories published and four more coming out between now and spring 2020, several more in the works, and another batch out to market already. I have a chunk of work done on the novel I want to write, which I hope to get back to soon. Most of my day-to-day focus is on writing more often and more effectively. The more you ignore the business (which is pretty much always short-sighted, reactionary, trend-chasing) and create as much as you can as fast as you can, in my experience, good things eventually come from that. But then I’m also the poorest person in my family, so maybe I’m missing something.