"Trust me, when I'm calling the whole room of women a bunch of dumb holes, in me there's still a thing going, 'I hope they get that I'm just trying to say the funniest words.' I have a daughter. I'm kidding."
– Big Jay Oakerson
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Jay.
Big Jay Oakerson: How are you, my friend?
GM: Good. Where are you?
BJO: I'm in New York City right now.
GM: Home, right?
BJO: Yes, indeed.
GM: I've seen you here in Vancouver on a couple of occasions. How many times have you been here? Do you have any idea?
BJO: I did the Comedy MIX twice and I did a JFL Nasty Show at the casino up there which is called the, um...
GM: River Rock.
BJO: River Rock, yup.
GM: I saw that and I saw you at the MIX as well once. And now the big festival, you're all over it like a dirty shirt. I know you're doing the Nasty Show here, and that's a multi-night endeavour, and you're doing "What's Your Fucking Deal?"
BJO: Yes, indeed, my all-crowd work show. Luckily I don't have any jokes and I just kinda work off the cuff always so it's never going to get too tired. I basically host it and have some other comics up to do the crowd work stuff so it's not as taxing as the Nasty Show. The Nasty Show is not my show. I just have to go do a set on it. What's Your Fucking Deal? is more like my baby.
GM: Not everyone's great at crowd work, are they? It's not everyone's strength.
BJO: I find that comics I tend to like, even if they're people who are very timed and written, if they just kinda find that spot they can tap into where they can just be as comfortable as they are off-stage on-stage, they find that they are actually all good at crowd work. They're all funny people. They all never prepared their jokes before they did comedy. When you were just being funny with your friends, you never really over-prepared for that. I kinda like tricked them into finding that spot.
GM: I guess it's a good muscle to exercise for any comic for a regular show because who knows what's going to happen.
BJO: Right. Absolutely the truth. It's always good to have that skill in your back pocket ready to go.
GM: And it's just a lot of fun, isn't it?
BJO: It's tons of fun because that's the only chance it really gets to be as funny to the comedian as it is to the audience because we don't know what we're going to say, either. You don't have any idea what you're going to say until seconds before you say it.
GM: Some comics work kind of a fake crowd work. It's genuine but the jokes are all just there waiting. The comics lead the questions to an answer that they're expecting so they can deliver the killer line they have prepared.
BJO: It's funny. In my regular set, I do have some elements of that myself. If I want to use the crowd a little bit, I know I can use that to lead me into the next, not something that I necessarily have a prepared answer for but I just lead the questioning to kinda take me to where I want to go.
GM: The worst crowd work I ever saw from an established comic was Jay Leno.
BJO: Really?! That's a guy who's worked off the written word forever, though.
GM: He was playing up here in a big theatre. An hour into his set, he starts the crowd work and goes down the line: "What's your name? What do you do for a living?" And then one comment on the job, and then the next person: "Hey, what do you do for a living?"
BJO: "Where you from? Ohio? Boring. Next!"
GM: Who's the best crowd work person you've ever seen?
BJO: I'd say my favourite person to watch doing it is Todd Glass, I think. He really tickles me the way he goes about it. But there are some people who are just brilliant. Rich Vos is amazing at it. We did the show and it's going to be coming out on Seeso.com, NBC's new streaming service. Kurt Metzger was amazing at it. Andy Kindler, Gilbert Gottfried was awesome. Colin Quinn was amazing.
GM: You filmed a series?
BJO: Yeah, we filmed an 8-episode series.
GM: Of just crowd work?
BJO: Yep, I host it. We have a comedian running around the audience also so he interacts with them. He's kinda like your conduit to the person on stage.
GM: And he has the mic to hold up to the person in the audience.
BJO: He has a microphone to hold up to them and he can chime in if he feels somebody needs help. Or if he sees somebody fledgling, it's his thing to reel them in if he wants.
GM: Who's that comic?
BJO: On the show and historically we always use Ardie Fuqua. I'm not sure if they worked out to have Ardie Fuqua to come out yet to the Just For Laughs, but if possible it's best to have him.
GM: I saw Todd Barry's Crowd Work tour. Is he jealous now?
BJO: (chuckles) I don't know. I don't think so. We were just at San Francisco's Sketch Fest last weekend and we did a show called the Ultimate Crowd Work Show where we did it together. So we're collaborating.
GM: That's good. Because he's also doing his crowd work show in Vancouver at the festival.
BJO: Yeah. And we also just do it very, very differently. We have very different approaches to it.
GM: Are there basically two different approaches or are there as many different approaches as there are different kinds of standup?
BJO: Oh, there's as many different approaches as there are... Yes, absolutely. I try to give comics a speech before the show sometimes. Everybody worrying about who's going to go first versus who's going to go last. The person going first has all the advantage, where I try to argue that the person going last has a lot of advantages because when I got at the end of shows here in New York when I was working the circuit, I'd go up after eleven comics, some of them being Dave Attell, and I would go at the very end of the show. I'd always have to go up late. And I didn't want to bore the staff with my jokes again. I didn't want to have them sit there waiting to get through it. I wanted to entertain the staff a little bit so I would kinda work off the cuff. What I found I was able to do was through the course of the night, all comics, even if they say they're not crowd work comics and don't like to do crowd work, they do tend to talk to the crowd a little bit. And you just kinda get all these little pieces of information. The beauty of going at the end of a crowd work show is the joke's pretty much been written for you; all you gotta do now is kinda hit punchlines because you know this couple's been married for this many years, you know he thinks her sister's attractive. You're given all these tools to work with.
GM: You have the information that the earlier comics had to pry out of people.
BJO: Yeah, so now you have all the stuff to work with and all you gotta do is kinda tag on.
GM: As someone in the audience watching a comic talk to somebody, I'm sitting there thinking, 'Oh, why didn't you ask this?' So as you're listening backstage, you might go, 'Oh, here's something I want to know.'
BJO: 'How did he not go in that direction?'
GM: Kindler and Quinn and those guys who really excelled at it, I can see. Were there any that surprised you?
BJO: Andy Kindler I've always seen just do kinda rehearsed material, you know? I thought he was amazing at it. Dave Attell has done the show before and he's hilarious at it and he's very material-driven. He's a writer. He has a massive amount of jokes so for him to abandon that was so cool. Colin Quinn was one of my favourites, and Gilbert. Gilbert really is just a hilarious human being. He just embodies funny. I had a real feeling that Todd Glass would because he's so irreverent anyway so I was pretty sure he was going to go up there and kill it.
GM: Do you tell them not to do any prepared stuff?
BJO: Yep. Yes, I do. I tell them if they feel they're going to die and they want to get back on track and they have something they want to throw in, no one's penalized, obviously, for anything; it's just not really working the idea of the show. I'm not even a very big fan of concept shows. When it came about, this show, it wasn't really a concept to me because it's kinda how I do my comedy generally speaking. But I guess it is a concept show because a lot of people are breaking form to do something different for them.
GM: Some fans who maybe aren't that into comedy think you guys are just winging it every night anyway, even if it's not a crowd work show.
BJO: That's the interesting thing is if you're doing your comedy at the highest level, yeah, exactly, the idea is you're supposed to make it seem like this is the first time you're saying these things. Because people aren't expecting to go watch a play; they're going to go watch funny people tell funny things.
GM: You do the Nasty Show a lot, and you talk about pussies and whatever--
BJO: Sure. That should be the name of my album: "Pussies & Whatever."
GM: I like it. But even in your prepared act, you do a lot of crowd work anyway. Is the subject matter always dirty or sexual?
BJO: There's a method to the madness. If you do it with a wink and a nod, the kind of things you can get away with saying to people opens people up. Also it kinda keeps the crowd on their toes. The reason why that started was, when I do New York when I was younger, they would have you do sometimes these prom shows where all these 17- and 18-year-old kids would come in and they didn't want to be there half of them. They felt like the king that night because they just came from the prom and they have their girlfriend with them and they're trying to get laid, they're probably a little drunk. I'd watch them take very good comics and chew them up just with their lack of giving a shit. Too cool for school. You know, someone says a really good joke and the crowd doesn't get the reference or whatever and someone in the audience goes like, 'Nice reference, dude,' and then everybody kinda laughs at the comic instead of with the comic. I didn't want that feeling so my thing was to go up there and ask the kid who's got his feet up on the stage, sitting back, and he's a little hammered with his girlfriend, so I'd start asking him why is he not getting laid tonight, and start going at him. 'This chick doesn't want to fuck you so bad she drove you to a 2 a.m. comedy show just to find another excuse to not fuck you.' That put them on their heels.
GM: Gives you the upper hand.
BJO: It immediately takes away their power because even though they're not afraid to talk dirty, they didn't think were going to be talked to like that that day. That's kind of the aggressive way and then the same way I'd say it with kind of a wink and a nod, I'd be talking to a very polite, sweet couple saying dirty things but almost with a dimply smile to it, like we're all friends here, just laughing and having a good time together. Sometimes you want to make the crowd sensitive to it so they kind of straighten out, and sometimes you want to desensitize them so they'll stop worrying that it's dirty and just laugh at how funny the content is. It's not just hearing bullet-point words such as pussy or cock or whatever it is and just start taking in the whole, just how funny it is. You end up getting articles written about you where it's just like, 'He just came out and said "cock" and "cunt".' That's not really what happens. I definitely had context to what I was saying.
GM: I will not be writing that, just so you know. I was just thinking of two former BC comics who are very good at crowd work: Phil Hanley, you know him?
BJO: Yeah, I know Phil very well, yes.
GM: And Ian Bagg.
BJO: Yes, Ian Bagg's great. He did a little bit of it on Last Comic Standing.
GM: That's right. Although his is always that kind of thing where he's leading them to that joke that he already has. But still hilarious.
BJO: Right. They're both very talented guys.
GM: The Nasty Show is a tradition in Montreal. How many years have you done it there?
BJO: I think I've done it four times now.
GM: And the original guy, Bobby Slayton, is hosting here.
BJO: That's great.
GM: And he just played the MIX within the last year.
BJO: Oh nice. I like that club so much, the Comedy MIX.
GM: Does the Nasty Show get nastier every time you do it? Do you feel like you have to go to the next level every time?
BJO: I feel weirdly sometimes it gets dialed back. When I did my first audition for it, I went there and did a pretty dirty set and the only feedback that was given to me was, 'Can you possibly be a little dirtier?' Sure! That's no problem at all whatsoever. I thought that was insane. But it's a matter of who they book. Sometimes they get people who aren't really that dirty. For the Nasty Show, I think they've almost like broadened the spectrum of what they're looking for. I did it one time with Anthony Jeselnik. I think he's brilliant and he's very politically incorrect. It's very shock and awe humour. Not necessarily dirty but it still very much applies. I've never seen a guy with more well-crafted and more Holocaust jokes. And if you have the talent to make those things funny, I think that deserves to be on a quote-unquote nasty show as much as someone talking about anal sex or whatever.
GM: Right, because it's not the Dirty Show, it's the Nasty Show. And you can be nasty talking about little kids dying or the Holocaust.
BJO: Sure. Insensitive racial jokes, all those things like that. But it's supposed to be the place where that's your haven, where you're not being run over the coals for that.
GM: Do you use material in the Nasty Show that you wouldn't use otherwise?
BJO: No. No. I pretty much do the same thing I would do anywhere. (laughs)
GM: You just concentrate it to just the particularly nasty.
BJO: Exactly. Like I might grab my dirtiest stuff.
GM: It's interesting you said they came to you and asked if you could be a little dirtier. I guess you usually hear the opposite, if you're going to hear anything at all.
BJO: Right, yeah. That was such a weird thing for such a prestigious festival to say: 'Hey, can you actually gross this up a little more?' 'Sure!'
GM: Have they ever said the opposite?
BJO: No. The only thing JFL had me go out to Australia. They had a JFL out there for a year or two. I did shows in the main hall of the Sydney Opera House. The host asked me if I could be a little cleaner because his mom was in the audience. And I said no. (laughs) I can't prepare just for your mom when there's a whole room of people.
GM: There's one topic that seems to be off-limits. Although two nights ago Bill Burr was in town and he figured out a brilliant way to broach it. It's on your fellow Philly comic, Bill Cosby. Everyone can make fun of him, but you can't go near defending him. He was talking about Ricky Gervais and he said, 'If you want to be really edgy, defend the guy.' And then he went into what a comic might say in such a situation. So in a way he was getting to do those jokes without attaching himself to them.
BJO: Almost a character sort of.
GM: He was talking about Cosby's rapes per laughter, and how there was way more laughter than rapes. And he said, through this character, 'It's your fault for being a woman in the 1970s.' That kinda thing.
BJO: Comics a lot of times get called to the carpet for things where it's just like, look, no comedian that's pro-rape ever slipped through the cracks. Although I guess Bill Cosby is a good example of it. But if you're up there making jokes about said subject, no one's going up there to genuinely defend Bill Cosby and say, 'He seems like a pretty great guy to me.' No one thinks that at this point. I mean, he hasn't been convicted yet but it does not look good for him. But to make a joke to the contrary makes it funny. If you bring up Bill Cosby at a comedy show, it doesn't really make much sense to go up there to go, like, 'He's a terrible, awful person and he should be held accountable for all he's done. Now, moving on.' Like, if you're going to bring it up, you're going to have to take the funniest thing about that.
GM: To take the other side takes some balls.
BJO: In a public forum that has nothing to do with comedy, and you were asked a question about Bill Cosby, who's going to stick up for him? What comic is going to be able to say at this point, 'No, who cares? He's still Bill Cosby.' Of course everybody cares. I understand why they would pull a show off the air, I understand all those things. But in the given moment of being on stage or being in a comedic situation, you're going to take a shot, at least, of saying the funniest thing you could possibly say.
GM: He's from Philly; you're from Philly. There are a lot of great comics out of Philadelphia, aren't there?
BJO: Sure. Todd Glass, Dom Irera, Keith Robinson, Kevin Hart obviously, Kurt Metzger also.
GM: Oh, is Metzger from there. And he's on the Nasty Show with you.
BJO: Yeah, Metzger's from Toms River, New Jersey, but we started comedy together in Philadelphia, and Kevin Hart.
GM: Bob Saget's from there. David Brenner.
BJO: David Brenner, yes, indeed!
GM: W.C. Fields.
BJO: (laughs) Now we're going back.
GM: Imogene Coca. But is it a good scene there?
BJO: There was a good scene there at some point. When I first started there was literally only a black comedy circuit at the time, so that's where we all kinda started, me, Kurt and Kevin. By the time we came to New York, performing in mainstream rooms with black, white, latino, Asian comics, it was such a new thing for all of us because the three of us really didn't have much experience with that. We were just pretty much performing for black shows that were promoted by hip-hop radio stations. So it was a unique experience to start out in. And the beauty of that was it toughens you up because these are crowds that, especially being a white guy and just jumping up there, you really had to show and prove or find them and catch them in some way because they were very excited to boo you if they didn't like what you were doing.
GM: Does it require a different energy from the comic?
BJO: Out of the gates as a brand new comic, it requires a different energy, for sure. The fun thing to do now is when I get the opportunity once in a while if someone asks me if I want to perform on a black show, it's always fun to do because I'm relatively low energy, I'd say, on stage. My words, I think, have energy but I don't walk all over the stage. I sit down most of the time so it's fun to not be afraid of them not getting it for the first two or three minutes and kind of bring them to my energy. But that's a skill that has to be acquired over time. You can't come out of the gates doing that. So in the beginning, yes, it taught me how to capture a crowd that looking at me wasn't necessarily into what I was about to do.
GM: When you think of Kevin Hart, he's a live wire.
BJO: Always was, yeah.
GM: When I used to see the Apollo comedy hour on TV, all the comics had a real manic kind of energy.
BJO: Oh, they're laying on the ground, they're humping stools, they're pacing back and forth. There's a lot of very physical, very demonstrative comedy.
GM: Who gave you the nickname 'Big'?
BJO: It's funny, speaking of those black clubs, when I was in my senior year of high school, my best buddy's name was Jay, also. His girlfriend at the time called us Little Jay and Big Jay, and that's kinda where it came from. So when I started doing the open mic nights in Philadelphia in those black rooms, they used to massacre Kurt Metzger's last name so much. They'd say any other word except Metzger when they would bring him on stage, which used to frustrate him so much. And I was like, I'm not going to have Oakerson get mangled that much; I'm just going to go with Big Jay. So it was just Big Jay for the longest time. And then once I got more into the mainstream scene, it was Big Jay Oakerson. And some people just call me Jay Oakerson, which is fine, too. I have no gripe with that. It can always be just Jay Oakerson. But what I like about Big Jay Oakerson is it does stick. If we have to sign things, like autograph posters with like 50 autographs on it, you can kinda tell which one's mine because it's three words. I think it sort of pops more. I'm in on the joke. I get how silly it sounds but it resonates. You remember that a little more than just a name.
GM: It almost sounds like a wrestling name.
BJO: Sure, yeah, exactly. At the same time I'm laughing at it, I see the benefit of it.
GM: I read where you once had some white supremacists come after you. Do you often get altercations after a show?
BJO: If I'm the aggressor in anything, and I saw somebody getting mad, I do wheel out of it, almost like without saying I'm sorry. I'm apologetic to the point where it's like, 'Hey, I'm just playing around.' I still put it on them, where I'm like, 'It's ridiculous. Don't get mad at me. I don't know you. Why are you taking this to heart?' But I do also enjoy the occasional when someone comes at me, just coming angry at me for no reason. I do like to get them wound up. So it does get confrontational to some degree, but I'm never ever looking for a 'Let's go fistfight outside' situation, for sure.
GM: You might intimidate them just with your size.
BJO: Sometimes. But sometimes they do want to go outside and they wished they probably could get their hands on me. That white supremacist situation you're speaking of, I just went at them because when I was on stage it was a heavy metal festival I was performing at and I was trying to just do some jokes and they were telling me to get the fuck off the stage and giving me the finger and pacing around just trying to yell over me. That would have been contained in the little section they were in. It was 25,000 people and it was just this one little pocket of guys that are doing this, so it's ten people, kind of, right up front. Twenty people behind them have no idea. I could have just ignored it but I'd rather address it. Also because it gets me out of the monotony of doing jokes I've done a hundred times already. I can just kinda go, 'Let's see why this guy's so mad at me. Why is he so angry that I'm out here.' It does always kinda start that innocent, too. I didn't just start saying, you know, 'Hey, you piece of shit, what's your problem?' Also I've learned it's better if you take a few blows from the people, it frees you up to say anything. You get the crowd on your side. 'Hey, what are you cursing me out for, man? I'm just trying to make you laugh.' And when they're like, 'Fuck you,' you're like, 'Oh hey buddy, you hate comedy? You don't like to laugh at all?' 'You fucking suck!' So by the time you take a few of those shots, kinda rope-a-dope, then when I decide to start saying horrible, horrible things to that guy about everything from his mother to his looks to whatever terrible thing I can think of, the crowd is just cheering for things that are far worse than that guy ever said to me because I was painting the picture of 'Hey, I'm just trying to be your friend. Why are you smacking me in the face?'
GM: You get the numbers behind you in case anything happens.
BJO: Yeah. I had a thing last weekend here in New York, actually, where there was a girl who was getting very angry at something I was saying. The funny thing was she was just making up my intention. She said I was implying or saying things I wasn't saying. I actually had to stop the crowd from booing her so I could hear her ridiculous points. I like to hear a conflicting opinion. I'm like, 'What is it, sweety? What do you have to say?' And the crowd was booing her. I'm like, 'No, don't boo her. Let her say it. I'm sure it's going to be something dumb and we'll all laugh at that, but don't just boo her out of the gate. Give her a chance to dig her own hole.'
GM: Did she stick it out through the show?
BJO: Yeah, it was great. It was funny. By the end of my set, I was just attacking all the women in the audience and saying horrible things about them. I think that might be my luck. You talk about luck in comedy. I don't know if I've had a ton of it but one of the things I do have is some x-factor twinkle in the eye where it's like at the end of the show people get that I'm just kidding. I think I called the whole room of women, I referred to them as a bunch of dumb holes. And at the end of the show I was still getting all the girls coming up and saying, 'Oh, you were so funny. That was so fantastic.' They were even like, 'Fuck that girl. She has no sense of humour.' Trust me, when I'm calling the whole room of women a bunch of dumb holes, in me there's still a thing going, 'I hope they get that I'm just trying to say the funniest words.' I have a daughter. I'm kidding, if it makes sense.
GM: Is your daughter a teenager yet?
BJO: She's 13. Just turned 13.
GM: Does she see your act?
BJO: No. (laughs)
GM: Does she know about your act?
BJO: She knows why she can't see it, if that makes sense.
GM: Do you live with her?
BJO: No. But we're both in New York so I see her. My girlfriend and I are getting ready to go watch her basketball game at 3 o'clock.
GM: Great. I just coached my son's basketball team this morning.
BJO: Oh, man, I tell you what, I wish I could coach this girls' team because the coaching is horrible.
GM: When you're here doing your crowd work show, will you use comics from the festival?
BJO: Yeah, very possible. When we get the full list of who's at the festival, we like to reach out and see who's around.
GM: When did you start this?
BJO: The first one we ever did, actually, was at the Montreal comedy festival in 2012. I had the concept and my girlfriend, Christine Evans, who's one of the executive producers on the actual web series we did, and a woman named Rebecca Trent, who's directed one or twoColin Quinn's one-man shows and runs a comedy club here in New York called the Creek and the Cave – that's where I do one of my podcasts, in Long Island City in New York – I'm not very much of a business-end guy. I just had the concept. They got Montreal to agree to make it a surprise midnight show one night and we've had to play with the format that first night. Colin Quinn, Jeff Ross came through for us, Todd Glass did it that night. It was so much fun that we just continued to do it. And then we got it picked up. We did it at South-by-Southwest festival twice now. So it's been in about four festivals so far. I'm just excited that people still want it. We just did it at San Francisco SketchFest. It's just been a blast.
GM: You don't do it regularly in New York, do you?
BJO: Every couple months we'll pull one out and just do it. We did it at the New York comedy festival. We probably do two to three a year in New York. We just did eight for the series so we probably won't do one here for a little bit until the show drops. But we sold out at the Bitter End eight shows on it and it came out fantastic. I just saw the trailer for it the other day and it looks fantastic.
GM: When is it coming out?
GM: Do you have proprietary rights on it? I could see other cities doing this kind of show.
BJO: Yeah, but in Toronto I have a friend, Rob Mailloux, who does a satellite version. He's done a couple satellite versions of it. He's a buddy so I'm like, yeah sure, if you want to throw it together, just call it Jay Oakerson's What's Your Fucking Deal? He loves doing it. Rob's great at it, too.
GM: Well, thanks, Big Jay.
GM: I'll see you up here.
BJO: Looking foward to it. We'll see you very soon.