by Ryan Meehan
So, this religion teacher at an all girls Catholic high school walks into a bar — and they hire him. That’s where the Tim Cavanagh comedy story begins. The bar was Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago. And that’s how Tim found himself teaching Genesis and Exodus by day, and doing funny songs and jokes by night. “Not surprisingly, I found the biggest difference between the classroom and the night club was the drunks — which I generally let the principal handle,” says Cavanagh. Since leaving the classroom, Tim Cavanagh has built an amazing comedy career. The quick-witted, word-twisting comedy songwriter and stand-up can be heard regularly on the nationally syndicated “Bob & Tom” radio show. Tim has performed hundreds of his songs on Bob & Tom, covering topics from gas prices and Viagra to tequila and the equinox. His weekly feature on the show, “The One Minute Song,” ran for over two years. Currently on the show, he can be heard doing his recurring segment, “Tim Cavanagh’s Cavalcade of Celebrity Birthdays.” Over the years, Tim has also had 25-plus songs featured on the nationally syndicated “Dr. Demento” radio show, including favorites such as “99 Dead Baboons” and “I Wanna Kiss Her (But She Won’t Let Me).” His comedic songs can be heard on Sirius XM radio, and have even been played on BBC 4 and Continental Airlines (at no additional cost to the passenger, we’re pretty sure!). Tim has three comedy CDs available through Hits & Giggles Records. In fact, he has been named the Hits & Giggles “Artist of the Year” four out of the last five years. Even though he’s the only act on their roster, Tim says, “It’s still a thrill.” On TV, Tim has appeared on a prime-time ABC-TV comedy special, as well as on Comedy Central, Showtime, and WGN America. Chicago Magazine calls Tim “a wonderful original.” In Pittsburgh writes that he “performs one of the best and cleanest acts on the comedy circuit… Cavanagh uses brilliant word-play in stories and songs…” The Minneapolis City Pages reports that “he is a definite must-see… get set for a rollicking good time.” To top it all off, he’s our guest today in 5 Questions.
FOH: So, I have to ask this first: When you were teaching high school while your comedy career was just getting started, did you ever test any of your material out on the students to try and lighten up the mood of the learning environment? While I was reading your bio I got this bizarre idea that high school students have to be a pretty tough crowd, so if you can make them laugh then the material should go over pretty well at a comedy club that serves drinks. Am I on to something there?
TC: Let me set up the precise scenario. For three years, I taught religion at an all girls Catholic high school on Chicago’s southwest side. It was at the beginning of my third year of teaching that I started my comedy career at Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago. I did not try out my club material on my students. My students were very young (ages 13-15), and while the jokes I did at night were clean by comedy club standards, they were for the most part: Dark (“I remember when I was like two, my dad put me down for a nap. And in the crib with me he put a plastic bag, a package of razor blades, and bottle of rat poison. When he came back an hour later—boy, was he surprised. There I was with a bagful of dead rats with no hair under their arms.”) Absurd (“I read my horoscope today. It said, ‘Mercury is in your house, while your furniture is in the thermometer.’”) or Suggestive (“My sister just had a baby. The baby was premature, taking after the father in a sense.”) Not the kind of stuff you’d like to hear coming out of the mouth of your religion teacher. Little known fact: In those early days, the song I opened my show with was “Thank God I’m an Atheist,” a little piece of comedy that could have gotten me fired.
FOH: You’ve had a few major radio legends really get behind your work – particularly Dr. Demento and the guys from Bob and Tom – Do you think that you’d be where you’re at today without those relationships? And you think that getting airplay on morning radio shows like that is essential for anybody who does the kind of musical standup that you do?
TC: My connection with Dr. Demento dates back to 1981. The first song of mine that Dr. Demento played was “I Wanna Kiss Her (But She Won’t Let Me).” The national airplay that Dr. D. gave me was a huge boost to my career. In fact, the first morning I did The Bob & Tom Show (circa 1995), I performed “I Wanna Kiss Her.” Bob & Tom’s producer was familiar with the song from Dr. Demento, and he thought I had stolen it. Bob & Tom have changed my life. In 1998, it was Tom Griswold’s idea to have me do a weekly segment on the show called “The One Minute Song.” After two and a half years of doing a new (totally), funny (sometimes), and short (always) song every week for their national audience, fans of the show began to know my name. For the past few years, I’ve been doing a recurring segment on the show called “Tim Cavanagh’s Cavalcade of Celebrity Birthdays.” I also have to mention that I did a lot of radio work with Partridge Family star Danny Bonaduce. He did his show out of Chicago for two years, and I was his most frequent guest, and wrote probably 20 jingles for the show. I continued to work closely with Danny when his show moved to Detroit. He’s an amazingly smart man and very good at radio. I certainly would not be where I am today without the support of Bob & Tom, Dr. Demento, Danny Bonaduce, and a host of other radio shows across the country. Morning radio has been a big driver of comedy, and whether you have music in your act or not, it’s good for any comic to cultivate positive relationships with the people who host those drive-time shows.
FOH: What do you think is the biggest mistake comedians make when they are feature acts and are looking to become headliners?
TC: This is a trick question. From the time you start your comedy career to the time you retire, you will make thousands and thousands of mistakes. Some big, some small, and we all make them. The act you do on stage involves split-second decisions. Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you don’t. I look at the mistakes we make as opportunities to learn. You find your true comic voice by trying stuff, making mistakes, and then making adjustments. It’s a never ending process. How high will somebody get on the comedy ladder? I’ve given up trying to figure that one out. I may watch somebody’s act and say, “That guy is going nowhere. He’s rude, offensive, and completely unlikeable.” And the guy sitting next to me may say, “Yeah. That’s what I like about him.” And three years later, he’s got his own sit-com.
FOH: Is there a certain relatability to Midwesterners that makes them more down to earth when it comes to the way they perceive comedy, as opposed to doing comedy in a city like Los Angeles in a room where everyone has ambitions of being an actor or a comedian?
TC: Honestly, I have not done enough shows in Los Angeles to have a feel for the audiences there. I can say that doing a show in front of entertainment industry people can be a challenge. My experience is that you don’t always get laughs where you normally get them. In some cases, I think that industry people are there not so much to laugh, but to evaluate and analyze; i.e, does this guy/woman have what it takes to be a star? I have been in many comedy auditions where an act who did not necessarily get very good laughs through his/her set, is the comic chosen for the project. Being from Chicago and starting out my career there, I do appreciate Midwestern sensibilities. Midwest audiences are generally friendly and willing to go where the comic wants to take them. But I have worked for great comedy audiences everywhere. And some brutal comedy audiences everywhere. I don’t think that it’s so much about what part of the country you’re in as much as it is the unique personality of each particular audience.
FOH: What do you want people to know about standup comedy as an art form that they may not realize having never done it themselves? TC: I think that people who have never done stand-up don’t realize the precision of a well-delivered routine. Good comedians make it look easy, but there’s a lot involved. With each joke, a good comedian, through trial and error, will find what words work best, what needs to be emphasized, where to pause, and what sort of physicality helps to drive the joke home. I may tell a joke 50 times, and it isn’t until the 51st time that it all comes together and I say, “Ah-ha, that’s how to tell this joke.” Everybody tries to tell jokes. I think the main reason that some people don’t tell jokes well is that they haven’t appreciated the precision involved. If you hear a good joke and you want to re-tell it, don’t count on your memory alone to get you through it. Take the time to practice it. That way, you avoid the mistake of getting two-thirds through the joke, stopping and saying, “Did I mention that the guy with the kilt is a cannibal?”
FOH: I see on your tour schedule that you do a lot of corporate gigs…Is there a different mindset that you have to have when performing for a corporate audience? Do you ever find yourself second guessing what you can and can’t say at those events?
TC: Over the years, I’ve become quite comfortable doing corporate shows, but it took long time for me to get there. At one of my first corporate shows in Chicago, I was booked as the opener in a two¬ person comedy show. And for thirty minutes, I did my jokes and my songs to almost utter silence. It was devastating. I thought, “Well, this is just an impossible audience!” Then the next act, a wonderful comedian named Ed Fiala, went up, and within 45 seconds, he won that crowd over. Big laughs for the rest of the show. And I learned an important lesson that night. When people come to a comedy club, they’re on my turf playing by my rules. When I go to do a corporate show, I’m on their turf playing by their rules. And I had no idea what those rules were. It has taken a lot of corporate shows, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of second-guessing to get to where I am now—comfortable.
FOH: What’s next for Tim Cavanaugh in the twelve months that follow? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
TC: The goal in the next twelve months is to record, record, record. Songs, bits, conversations between my loud-mouthed neighbors, everything. Hopefully I’ll have a new CD and a few music videos by this time next year. Probably a lawsuit from my annoying neighbors, too.
Tim’s Official Website: http://www.timcav.com/
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