Brandon Scott Wolf: Failing Forward
Brandon Scott Wolf has failed. He has been rejected, denied, and asked to try again later. And yet, with failures beneath his belt, he has managed to become a contributing writer for Funny or Die, CollegeHumor, and Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. His failure has led him to an appearance on Lopez Tonight. His failure has granted him a show at Chicago’s Just For Laughs comedy festival, where he shared “a pretty awkward meal with Demetri Martin, Kristen Schaal, and Kumail Nanjiani.” His failure won him the title “funniest college student in America” in 2011 at the Rooftop Comedy College Competition. Brandon Scott Wolf fails forward.
Brandon’s fail-road to success began on the second floor of his Penn State apartment housing in 2008 when he started Penn State’s first stand-up comedy club Second Floor Stand-up.
So, how did you get into comedy?
When I was 18, I had just gone to Penn State and decided that I wanted to join their humor magazine, Phroth, which has been around for over 100 years and produced a lot of great comedy writers who are now a part of the UCB, CollegeHumor, various TV shows… I’m pretty sure it also produced the guy who penned Casablanca. But yeah, I joined and started pitching Onion-style articles.
I’m sure being surrounded by other funny people made the descent into stand-up more enticing.
Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and I felt like I had found the “place for me” in college. But after about six or seven months I decided that I wanted to pursue stand-up. I actually still remember the date, February 13th. There was a group called SOMA that had an open-mic night/showcase featuring people dancing, playing jazz, and me doing stand-up.
I prepared ahead of time, just staring at a mirror and memorizing bits, had my friend tape it, and that was my first “spot.” It was fifteen minutes.
Whoa, fifteen minutes is a bit much for your first spot, no?
Yeah I wasn’t aware that you shouldn’t start off with a fifteen minute spot. I thought it went great; in retrospect it did not… But I had a lot of fun with it. I did it again one month later and started calling bars in downtown State College, PA. I asked if they had open mic nights and if it was okay that I was 19, to which they told me I had to be 21 just to enter their establishment. So no outlet there.
So you were just left to practice stand-up with your friends in private or what?
Well, the semester ended so I went home to Philadelphia for the summer. In order to get into the clubs, rooms, and bars there though I had to take my parents with me. So I started doing shows here and there until eventually once place (at a Ramada Inn) started putting me on shows. It was called the Comedy Cabaret and it was a very small room, no frills, nothing crazy. I went to mics there every Wednesday. That was about a month or so into my open-micing.
So you started off in the Philly comedy scene then? How’s that compare to New York?
I was really just on the fringe of the Philly stand-up community. The places where I was going were in Northeast Philly, which is nearly a suburb of the city. Add to that the fact that I had to bring my parents with me… so I was “in it” but pretty separated.
I can’t imagine taking my parents with me to most open mics. That scene isn’t exactly…
Yeah, I was definitely doing “inappropriate” material, considering that it was in front of my parents. But also they would listen to other comics and say “I can’t believe they’re talking so much about drugs and alcohol and sex and…” what did they expect?
Very supportive of them, though! I imagine once school rolled back around you were eager to practice on your own, yeah?
Absolutely. When I went back I began calling those bars again and asking them “can I please come in there? I’ve been doing stand-up in Philadelphia.” Still no dice.
Foiled again! So did you go back to SOMA, or what?
Right? Actually, I felt like SOMA really just wasn’t the place for my stand-up stuff. I gathered up a few of my friends and organized an open mic at my apartment. So we had a mic stand and a microphone and a cruddy little sound system.
That sounds pretty… quaint.
Yeah, there were about 10 or 12 people attending and performing. A few people showed up just to watch.
That’s actually pretty sizable, given the location and homegrown-ness of it all.
We actually kept that up for two or three months before we decided to go on campus. We talked to some folks in the know and became a student organization.
I imagine that helped a lot with the venue?
Definitely. We transitioned to this place called Carnegie Cinema, which is a 100+ person lecture hall in the communications building. It has a full stage, velvet curtains, a screen to project videos, pretty much everything comedy needs. And so that became home for Second Floor Stand-up and it still is today.
So it’s still running strong on campus?
Yeah, it’s on it’s sixth year, and still attracting some great and funny people. They have their open mic every week, a show every other week, and it’s proving to be a great training ground for stand-ups. Plus they’re all self-taught, the seniors figure it out and help the freshmen.
So how does one move from their apartment with a bad sound system to appearing on Lopez Tonight?
Well, my Junior year (that same first year we were an official group on campus), we entered a contest called the National College Comedy Competition that was hosted by TBS and Rooftop Comedy. It was a 32-team university comedy bracket, set up March Madness style. 25 Penn State comedians tried out and 8 of us were selected. Then we went to Philadelphia’s Helium Comedy Club where we competed against ourselves and whittled it down to 4. I actually didn’t make the top 4, so I wasn’t even on the final team for Penn State and those 4 faced off against Temple. We beat Temple in the first round only to face defeat against Duke right after.
It must be painful to have been ruled out so fast!
Yeah. I was president of Second Floor Stand-up at the time and I felt terrible for everyone who was involved. But we entered the tournament again the following year, went back down to Philly, and tried again. That year I actually did make the final four and we beat team after team until the judges from Rooftop liked us enough to say that Penn State was the “funniest school in the country.” I even received the honor of being the “MVP” of the team. That’s a great honor but it feels kind of weird in comedy. Comedy is just so subjective.
But it had a lot of perks. It was my senior year, so we won right after graduation and then I got to perform at Just For Laughs in Chicago and be flown out to LA to perform on national television on Lopez Tonight.
That must have been nerve wracking though.
It was. But it was a unique really fun experience, one that I’m glad I got to have at a very young age. I had so much fun with it, my set went over well, it was a larger audience than I’ve ever had before… I mean, it was a national audience, so… but yeah I would love to be back on TV someday and be back where I was, but who really knows if that’ll ever happen.
So do you want to develop your stand-up or work more from a writing perspective? How would you define “success” for yourself?
I really just want to have fun, enjoy the entire ride. If someone gives me a spot on TV, I’ll enjoy it and be very grateful, but at the end of the day if I never get on TV again or write for a TV show full-time, I’m still making a lot of good memories and friends and that’s really what I want.
Success is being happy with what you’re doing. If you are genuinely a person who wants to work in comedy, no matter how big you’re performing, as long as you are in it for comedy itself, then I think that’s what matters most. To be in it to be in it. I don’t have a mantra or tell myself “I need to write,” I just do it because I want to do it and I like it. If I end up in a writer’s room and never end up anywhere else, I will be perfectly fine with that. As long as I wake up every day getting to do what I want to do, great!
You seem well on track with that, landing a spot as a contributor to SNL, CollegeHumor, Funny or Die, working with the Upright Citizens Brigade…
I feel like the running theme for me is learning from failure and building upon it. I failed a lot. Not saying I don’t have success or those cool credits and experiences but failing is something I’ve done a lot already. I started interning at CollegeHumor a few months ago and my internship ended but now I’m allowed to contribute. For Funny or DieI interviewed for a position but wasn’t suited for it, they didn’t want me to aggregate content. So they let me freelance for them instead.The Onion was apparently hesitant to give me an internship because they saw that I was a writer and that comedy was something I was passionate about. Generally they don’t want people like that as their interns around their staff like that because they want to get interns that are just interested in media and interested in helping out with the day-to-day operations, not somebody who might pester their writers saying “hey when can I write for you guys, I’ve got a story!” And I never did that, because that would have definitely crossed a line. But regardless, that was a great experience. I really enjoyed everything that I’ve done even as an intern.
Yes, but SNL.
Okay, yes. I’m pretty proud of that story. After graduation I moved back in with my parents in suburban Philadelphia. I was not really doing much, comedy-wise. I had my own Twitter account so I could have some sort of outlet for some of my writing, because I was still writing all the time. I did a little bit of stand-up but not a ton. One night at like 2am I was sitting in my parents’ attic/my bedroom and I was thinking about how I could get SNL to look at me and consider me as someone who might write for them.
So I made a twitter account, @HireMeSNL, and I poured myself into that for about 9 months. I wrote 10 to 30 monologue jokes a day, posted 1 or 2 of my favorites online, and eventually I got noticed by the right people, got on the phone with the right people, I got feedback from a very nice producer. After I adjusted my writing style with some advice I was given, I got a try-out. So I had two days to write between 20 and 25 jokes. I turned it around and sent it in and I had to wait over the weekend to hear back from them. The following Monday I got an email that said “we’d like for you to be a contributing writer for SNL.” And so I’ve been writing every single week for them. It’s been pretty great so far and I’d love to continue to do it and hopefully work my way onto a staff like that.
You seem to have integrated yourself into a great crowd in New York. How did that unfold?
I feel like I’m a part of two different communities in New York. There’s the stand-up community and then there’s the UCB Improv-Sketch community. UCB is booming. It’s gigantic; it’s gone from something that was indie and underground to the standard. So I feel like if you wanna make it in Comedy, you want to be a TV writer, you have to go through a UCB, a Second City, or an improv group of some sort. And I see a lot of stand-ups in New York City who are pretty solid, they’re hitting as many mics as they can, even three or four a night, which is phenomenal if you want to really work on your craft that way and get booked on as many shows as you can. But if you want to get involved in a comedy scene, you need to be a part of the scene, and, to me, UCB is a concrete scene that you can look at and say “oh, I want to jointhat.” So in many ways, UCB is my home base here.
The right crowd can make all the difference in a career, yeah?
I think no matter what industry you’re in, there are people who are all in a circle of friends and want to work with each other… I feel like it’s about just breaking into the overall community. And often times, people don’t want to be your friend until you can prove your worth to that community. In general, in life, why would you want to be friends with someone if you don’t have anything in common with them? And if you see someone who’s very good at comedy and they think you’re very good at comedy, you’re going to want to hang around that person.
So yeah, I think that surrounding yourself with the right people is the way to succeed. If you’re going to surround yourself with the kind of people mostly hang out and do heroin, you’re much more likely to become an addict and die. I mean, not all heroin addicts die, but your chances go up when you surround yourself with other addicts. Likewise, if you surround yourself with funny comedians and people that are “in the know” your chances of getting an agent, your chances of getting booked on a TV show are gonna increase exponentially. So that’s my mindset, just be as funny as you can be, do work that you enjoy, work with people that you enjoy, help those people out, and eventually good things will happen for everyone.
That community is becoming pretty nebulous, these days. Twitter, Vine, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram…
I think more people are getting opportunities through social media butonce you get the facetime and people know who you are, you’ve gotta be more than just a Twitter account or funny Instagram account. You need to deliver in person. And if that means that your writing needs to be the best, then you need the best writing. You need samples, sketches, so that if someone calls you and says “show me your best monologue jokes,” you need to be able to show them your best monologue jokes and those monologue jokes better be from this week. When someone says “show me your sketches” you better have a topical sketch from Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” (though that’s actually probably even too old already). You’ve just got to be on-point. If someone from Comedy Central says they might want you write for@midnight, you need to have writing samples and shows lined up so they can come see you and see your stuff. If you don’t have that then you’re kind of dead in the water. That’s why it takes 5, 10, 15 maybe even 20 years to get anywhere.
Absolutely, “talk the talk, walk the walk,” and all that. But do you feel like social media is now necessary to success in comedy?
At the end of the day you have to be funny on your own merit, you have to go out and do open mics, get booked on shows, embed yourself in the community, write for certain shows at certain theaters, you need the facetime, and I realized that I was only going to go so far with what I was doing in a remote location. Not that Philly is the middle of nowhere, but I needed to be in New York in order to progress. So things like @HireMeSNL are great and fun and something that will get you noticed, but they’re not something that will get you in a writer’s room. They get you on the fringe of a writer’s room. You have to make a name for yourself in the actual community.
True. You can definitely learn from watching, but you never get quite the same feel for the “rules of the business” as you might from knowing the people who generate it.
Of course, but I look at comedy rules and things that people have told you or you just hear, and you should disregard them. Do what youthink is funny. If you think something is funnier with two beats instead of three, put two beats in! There’s no “rule of three” or “if you end on a hard K that sound is gonna make people laugh,” but really you just learn your own rules and you have to tailor them to yourself. There are people who know the rules but they build upon them or break them down and that’s when they’ve really made their own thing.