by Ryan Meehan
Fresh out of college, comedian Dan Viola performed at his first open mic. Following an inspiring but brief introduction to the comedy world, life came calling and he promptly took a thirteen year hiatus from the business of funny. One wife, seven children, and several career paths later, Dan incorporates a myriad of life experiences into smart, clean and razor sharp comedy that is as hysterical as it is impressive. Dan connects with any audience, especially those who are willing to think “outside of the gutter”. Drawing from his background as a game show host, father, teacher, coach, and salesman, he will entertain without insulting. Dan will always deliver more than enough laughs to make any show a huge success, and he’s also my guest today in 7 questions.
RM: Comedy is a very complex art form with many different levels of…Wait, you have seven kids? How in the world do you find time to do comedy with all of the personal responsibilities that go along with that lifestyle?
DV: Well, let’s acknowledge that it hasn’t been easy. The stress in my life is aging me at a pace that renders any headshot obsolete after just 2 years. Our kids range in age from 22 down to 5 years old; their needs are as varied as they are constant. However, with no twins in the lineup, my wife and I have built up to this gradually. For years, I taught high school chemistry, 8th grade summer school, coached lacrosse and hockey, gave hundreds of baths, washed dishes at restaurant volume and changed over 30,000 diapers. Getting on stage is a welcome break. So even if a crowd is dead… hey, I just enjoy the peace and quiet.
RM: Good grief…Okay, comedy is a very complex art form with many different levels of strategic techniques and methods…How did you come to fall in love with the medium in the first place? Were you always considered to be the funny kid in school, or did you have to go out of your way to find your interest in the practice of being humorous?
DV: It’s always been a natural talent of mine, I guess. Through grade school, I was near the top of my class academically. Cracking jokes and getting in trouble may have been my way of not being labeled a “goody 2 shoes” kind of kid. I was selected “Class Comedian” in the 8th grade yearbook, probably because Chris DiMascio had already been chosen as “Most Athletic” and he couldn’t hold two meaningless titles at once. Throughout high school, then college, then my first jobs, I was always able to make my friends laugh. Hard. And every time I changed scenery, the laughs followed. But I always knew that much of my humor relied on inside jokes and a familiarity developed over time, and wondered how this would translate to an audience of strangers.
It was in my last semester at Cornell that a situation catalyzed the process. For a Business Speaking class, our final exam setting was a fancy restaurant. We were each assigned a particular role and I was the After Dinner Entertainment. So, I’m barely passing the class due to (ahem!) “attendance issues”, I haven’t slept in over 24 hours, and I can’t even afford dinner at the restaurant. I split all the Saltines with my equally-broke buddy John Ettinger, who went on to a huge career with Mercury Records in Nashville, I think. So, they give me 5 minutes, and I tried some jokes I had written (in a stats class) about commercials. It KILLED! One other kid in the class hired me on the spot for his fraternity’s 50-year reunion banquet…for $75. My first paying gig!
RM: During the period of time in which you weren’t getting up on stage, how often did you find yourself coming up with ideas for jokes that you had to shelve because you weren’t doing stand-up? Did you always know that you would eventually return to doing comedy?
DV: I never planned on getting back into comedy. As a comic in my 20’s, I tried very hard to be “clever” and “original”. I was so worried about gaining respect within the industry, but didn’t really have enough life experience to connect with many audiences. Once I got into teaching, I threw away all of these self-imposed restraints in my efforts to keep the high school kids somewhat interested in chemistry. I was break-dancing, cheerleading, screaming, stealing jokes, doing accents and other
voices…and having a ball. The classroom provided me with a daily opportunity to take chances, change gears, experiment with styles, and try over and over again to make them laugh. If they were unresponsive, I’d just start teaching. It was better for me than any comedy boot camp.
When I unexpectedly returned to the stage, I performed with much more freedom than in my “first” comedy career, and combined it with actual life experience as a working man, husband, and father of (at the time) four kids. Over the next several years, I would take many premises and ideas that worked on my students and try them out on audiences. Of course, in any bits about my family, I had to keep changing the # of kids in the wording.
RM: Let’s say that I am in charge of event planning for a major corporation and I had to choose a comedian for a large gathering. There are two other comics competing with you for the gig, and they are both of equal skill level and have the same amount of experience as you do…What makes you the right selection for the job given that you know no details about the other two performers?
DV: I’m probably cheaper and more desperate.
OK, truthfully and with absolutely no disrespect to my hypothetical competition in this hypothetical situation… I really try to sell myself by emphasizing the fact that I always work clean. My show is not just an “edited” version of the club act with the profanity removed. When I do a church or corporate show, I am still able to use all of my major bits.
I also share with prospective bookers that in my experiences with comedy, hosting game shows, MC’ing banquets, and 18 years of teaching/coaching, I have spent thousands of hours disseminating important information to all kinds of people. I tend to think quickly on my feet; when I open my mouth, something will come out.
And….with the places that life has taken me, I’m confident that there is SOMETHING that I have in common with the people in the audience. That’s important when building rapport.
RM: Aside from the obvious financial benefits that corporate gigs provide you with, why is the principle of working clean something that is so important to you? If you woke up tomorrow and had to do material along the lines of Doug Stanhope and Louis CK, how do you think that you would fare?
DV: Ironically, I spent many years as a fairly foul-mouthed teen who was not averse to dredging the bottom of the barrel to get laughs in the locker room and at the frat party. Now, as a Christian, I choose not to go R-rated. When I returned to open mics about 10 years ago, I’d listen to hours of other comics, many of them in the gutter. And I’d think, “Why in the world am I even here. There’s no place for clean comedy.” But I realized that the audiences just want FUNNY, not necessarily dirty. When it played out over time that clean comedy is actually more marketable for me, that was a huge bonus I hadn’t really planned on. I once had a younger comic telling me where I could insert F-bombs to make my act more effective with the late-night drunks. I nodded politely, but I’m thinking, “Dude, I have 9 people living in one house including 2 teenagers and a crazy Italian wife, I can’t pay my bills and my stress levels can’t even be charted. I need advice on many things, but I’m pretty sure I know how to use profanity.” Dumbass.
RM: How would you best describe your personal relationship with the comedic writing process? Do you feel that a lot of your joke ideas come to you during your routine day-to-day activities; or do you feel that a majority of your material comes to fruition when you sit down with the intention of focusing on new bits?
DV: Definitely the former (um, the first one). My best ideas are a direct result of stress combined with sleep deprivation. While I never had a drug phase like the Beatles or even Carlin, my coffee intake ramped up dramatically after baby #6; that contributed to some interesting ideas, as well as many really awful ones. The real challenge for me is to find the time to actually record the idea before it’s gone.
RM: What’s the most bizarre thing that has ever happened to you on stage? How did you respond to that situation at the time; and if that same scenario were to occur tonight do you think you would handle it differently?
DV: While hosting the game show, back in my 20’s, we had a packed auditorium at Stetson University in Florida. I was making some joke about picking my nose, and for the visual, I jammed my finger up my nose and caused a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop for a minute or two. Since then, anytime this subject comes up………I just PRETEND to pick my nose!
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
DV: I’m headlining The Comedy Club in Rochester, NY from July 9-11, and then I’m making my first appearance at The Lucille Ball Comedy Fest on July 31. (Jerry Seinfeld headlines the Fest on the following night…..am I able to say that I opened for him? What’s the statute of limitations on that?)
Really, I’m just looking to expand my opportunities and take advantage of them when they arise. Oh, and I have a new website.
Official Website: http://dan-viola.com/
Dan on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dan-Viola/111090742373
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