by Ryan Meehan
Dan French is a standup comedian, speaker, writer, and teacher, whose unique career includes being twice nominated for Emmys as a late night comedy writer, while also having a Ph.D. in Rhetoric — pretty sure that’s a first. Dan has performed over 3,000 standup shows at comedy clubs across the U.S. and Canada, and has been hired to do comedy and lectures by high profile organizations such as IBM, Nextel, Samsung, St. David’s Medical Center, Duke University, and the U.S. Naval War College. A prolific comedy writer who has worked on staff at The Best Damn Sports Show Period, The Late Late Show on CBS, and Dennis Miller, Dan has also been a contributing writer on George Lopez, Wanda Sykes, and David Letterman (you want to feel something weird, have your jokes come out of that guy’s mouth, it’s way cool). Dan’s Ph.D. is in Communication Studies, with specialties in both Rhetoric and Cultural Studies. He has taught at the University of Texas at Austin, California State University at Fullerton, and the University of Louisville. His courses include Advanced Persuasion, Rhetorical Theory, Relationship Communication, Southern Culture, Screenwriting, and Television Writing. After nearly ten years as a comedy writer, Dan swerved out of Los Angeles and into his current work, traveling and performing his one-person show, “HAAA: Healthy At Any Age (A Standup Comedy Show by a Comedian/Professor Who Lost 125 lbs. after Age 40, Changed Careers, Moved to Texas, and Shaved His Head),” Originally from Kentucky, Dan now lives with a lot of tattoo-covered humans in Austin, Texas and he’s our guest in today in 7 questions.
RM: What was it about stand-comedy that really made you want to get into doing it? How did your first time on stage go; and what was the first joke you told that got a real positive response?
DF: People never believe it when I tell them this, but I’m actually an introvert, perfectly happy to be behind the scenes or in back of the room — writer, producer, director, all good with me. But to make a living in comedy, and get the things done that you want to get done, in the ways you want to see them play out, a lot of the time you have to also be the talent delivering the writing. I’ve made a lot of my living in very extroverted ways — standup, teacher, speaker — and I really enjoy doing monologue and getting into direct dialogue with an audience — but I’m more naturally the designer of things, the writer.
Having said that, I got into standup because it was easy, it’s the easiest form of comedy to break into, all you have to do is find an open mike and go up. I first did that in Louisville, at the old Funny Farm (then the Comedy Caravan, now the Laughing Derby), Thanksgiving week, 1987. 200 people in the room, awesome night, super fun, got laughs, was hooked, and have done standup ever since. My first ever on-stage joke: “Everyone having fun? I’ll put a stop to that.”
RM: How did you lose that much weight, and what was your lifestyle like before you did? Were you a heavy drinker, or did you simply make poor choices when it came to what food you ate?
DF: Heavy drinker? Who are you, my Mom? No, not a big drinker, although I played rugby, so I’ve seen some beers here and there. And what do you mean “poor choices”? Hmm, steak and salad or dunk my head in this vat of high fructose corn syrup while bobbing for Ho Ho’s?
Our country is astoundingly food and body illiterate. Even people who think they’re eating and exercising “healthy” — esp. people who do cardio and eat low-fat and are veggiphiles — know nearly nada about any of what that food is or does. And I’m from Kentucky, so I know about illiteracy.
I was overweight because I was food ignorant. Now, I’m not as dumb. I do my show around the country trying to help others undumb themselves.
RM: How long did it take you to compile the material needed for your one-man show? What was more difficult – Losing all of that weight over that period of time, or turning it into a comedy themed hour-long performance?
DF: Writing clean, clever, gut-laugh comedy that can work anywhere and not be offensive — I encourage all writers and comedians to take it on as a challenge, because it’s HARD. You really learn to shape every word and phrase, use all the tricks to sweeten the script, and not take the shock and awe shortcuts that are usually there for comedy writers. I wanted this to be informative, comedy club funny, and squeaky, nun-teeth clean. I turned it all into standup by workshopping it twice a month for over a year at a local restaurant in Austin that had a nice little showroom they let me use. I brought in my own audience, honed and honed and honed, and finally got it to where it works in clubs just like regular standup. 75-90 minutes of that.
So, yeah. Hard. Harder than losing weight. Because losing weight just takes understanding body chemistry and then shoving only the good stuff into your face. Writing inoffensive fat jokes? Duuuude….
RM: What’s the biggest misconception that America currently has about diet and weight loss? How do you think that happened and what can we do to change our methods of thinking when it comes to overall health?
DF: People think about calories, which are a red herring (which are very healthy, by the way). It’s a big shell game in the food world, telling you all the benefits of something without including the downsides. If you really knew all the substances and micro-substances in food — any food, processed, homegrown, any food at all– and what they do in your body, you’d make severely different choices. But instead of vetting all that, we just worry about “How many calories is this? Damn, that’s nine hours on the treadmill. Better buy more songs on iTunes.”
RM: When it comes to standup comedy, what do you think is the most unhealthy habit that a comedian can develop; one which creates a negative stigma that is impossible to reverse? And conversely, what’s the most healthy thing that a comedian can do for their career?
DF: Creatively, there are so many bad paths for stand-ups they’re almost limitless. The one that irks me consistently is probably the advice to “develop your own voice.” That’s so vague, and unspecific, and it’s taken from a really naive theory of art. Everyone is a conglomeration of influences. The “authentic” standup voices — like Attell, CK, Bamford — all have huge glimmerings of others in them, and I can also promise you they mimic people they’ve been around in their lives — check out how much an “original” comic sounds like their brother or sister or parent or weird uncle. We always absorb and interpret. Just going up night after night after night on your own is often a horribly inefficient way to develop as an artist. I think we’d better off with more specific mentoring for comics, better advice, venues that protect, encourage and reward creativity, more sophisticated theory about the art form itself, etc. I used to teach standup classes that delved into bigger issues — much bigger than the ridiculously lame statement — “You can’t teach funny” (okay, I’ll tell that to Picasso’s teachers) — but it’s kind of exhausting, fighting the big swell of anti-structure and anti-pedagogy in standup. But hey, standups are tearer-downers of whatever they bang up against, and that includes their own profession and own heroes, so I get it.
RM: You did a post a couple of years back called “Corporate Crab” about Alaskan King Crab and how it was never technically meant for human consumption…In all your time researching food and health, what other similar surprises have you encountered when it comes to what is available at the grocery store but should not be? And what do we need to know about food additives and dyes such as Red 40 when it comes to the effects they could have on our bodies? And if there are so many negative effects; why do these dyes and additives continue to be added into the products we buy on a weekly basis?
DF: We need to know so much that we probably don’t want to know about how much we need to know. It’s fascinating how good the mainstream corporate culture has been at gaining trust for foods developed in labs and never, ever studied beyond dumping a few glasses of orange juice on rats.
Red Dye 40 shot JFK. Just saying.
RM: What’s the strangest thing that has happened to you in all of your years on stage? As a comic, how have you matured when it comes to handling problems with an audience member that is unruly, intoxicated – or both?
DF: I got heckled once by gospel music. Cap City Comedy Club in Austin is in a strip mall, and an evangelical church opened next to it, started a service right in the middle of a show. God wanted some stage time.
I love crowd work. I’ve done entire headline sets just reacting and weaving things together, because it’s far more stimulating for me than running bits. A little drunk and stupid is wonderful from a heckler. Too drunk to understand how badly they’re being owned by a comic, not as much fun.
RM: What are the best and worst aspects of working as a writer on a television show? Have you ever developed a really negative relationship with anybody on a show’s writing staff because you just couldn’t see where they were coming from comedically?
DF: Why so negative? Everyone on a comedy staff is an angel treading the earth to spread the gospel of laugh-laugh. I’ve actually loved every job I had. There were some boorish nincompoops here and there on staffs, but you’re getting paid great money to jab and jostle. Money + comedy, everyone’s usually in a pretty good mood.
RM: It looks like you have taught a wide variety of courses, but I have to ask you – Have you found that you use your comedic stylings more in the “Advanced Persuasion” course; seeing as how a major part of doing standup comedy is convincing the audience that what you’re saying is funny? And do you think a majority of your students would consider you to be a “funny teacher”, or one that means serious business?
DF: Like the Johnny Cash of academics/comedy, I walk the line. I joke around constantly with students, because it’s a great technique for keeping everyone from boring themselves into a coma during the experience of medieval lecture/teaching techniques, but they’re paying for info, so it’s infocentric. I like thinking deep, retrieving thought coral from the bottom of the brain ocean, and bringing it all back to the surface to see if it’s useful. Plus, having a conversation between my head and a roomful of people’s heads is always fun.
Persuasion is the greatest course ever taught by man or minotaur. It’s all these techniques for making the world work in ways you need it to work, from how to control the behavior of tiny child humans, to how to get people to buy your, um, one-person standup shows about new ways of getting healthy. Persuade at will, my friends.
RM: What’s up next for you in 2014? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
DF: Keep going to HealthyComedian.com for updatings. There are so many aspects about using comedy to break open a world trapped by unhealthy food — the live show, podcasts, blogs, Facebook, video journaling, cartoons, books — I’ll never run out of stuff to jam in there. And I love it. Standup for good. What?
Official Website: http://healthycomedian.com/
Dan on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HealthyComedian
Dan on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HealthyComedian
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