Jay Schultz Quits Standup, Finds Musical Comedy
Have you ever found yourself in a hotel room with Norm Macdonald, high, eating fried chicken? Jay Schultz did, and then he retired from standup comedy.
Then, three years ago, Jay, Ray Timmons, and Dan Gerbarg accidentally formed a band. Although Jay is no longer active on the standup scene, he is more active than ever with his comedic musical trio, The Weekend Pilots.
Jay’s retirement from the standup scene has allowed him to reflect on what it was about standup that left him feeling uneasy. More importantly, he knows that comedy does not require anything of you, except hard work. If you come up against some feature of comedy that you cannot stand, simply find a way around it or leave. For Jay, this feature was standup’s characteristic loneliness.
So I know that you and Ben Rosenfeld have been friends since college. Were you already doing comedy when you guys met?
When I met Ben Freshman year I was not doing standup. However, during that year is when I began doing standup. It started because I saw a flier that said RU Funny? In our school, Rutgers University, “RU” was on everything. “RU Hungry? Come eat at this place.” So this said “RU Funny?” and there was a standup comedy competition. I thought “Yeah! I should try that. I’m funny.” So I showed up but I didn’t actually participate. I didn’t feel ready. I didn’t actually have any material to enter the competition, but it was still the inspiration to say, “Oh this was interesting.” The show was headlined by Stephen Lynch, and I was a big fan of Stephen Lynch, so I really enjoyed that show. Although, I’ve gone back and revisited his music and now I wonder why I really liked it. I’m really not a fan at all now, but I was. So my humor must have just changed; now I find it to be too obvious, too… “Oh it’s a song called ‘Special Friend’ about his friend who’s ‘special’… as in ‘retarded’… ha.” My comedy is just as dumb so I don’t really know what I’m talking about.
But you eventually went for it anyway, evidently.
There was an open mic scene at The Stress Factory in New Brunswick, NJ. A bunch of guys were into it; some of them still do comedy, some of them are doing who-knows-what. But Ben would come with me to these open mics; he wouldn’t do comedy, he would just watch them. So would our friend Chris.
We would go watch these open mics and they were terrible for the most part but they liked it. We enjoyed the car wreck of it as a group. I mean, hey, at least it was three bodies in a room and we were laughingsometimes. But we enjoyed how weird it was and how intensely bad it could get. That was a lot of what I think we were laughing at. But I would try to do some comedy. I was goin’ for it at that point.
And that kept going even after you graduated?
After Rutgers I came to New York City. I lived here for a few years doing the standup thing, and then I moved out to Los Angeles for work. I was working in marketing at the time.
Did you drop standup in LA?
No, actually. As a matter of fact, it all led up to my biggest show and then I retired from standup because I thought, “It’s not gonna get better than this.” I believed wholeheartedly that I had peaked in the world of standup and that that was where I should leave it. I opened for Norm Macdonald in New Orleans at Mardi Gras and afterwards we went back to Norm’s hotel that he was staying at, and he had people taking care of him, you know saying like “what do you need, Norm? Anything you need?” So he said he wanted weed and fried chicken. They brought a ton of weed and fried chicken. We got super baked and Norm told stories for hours… it was just a multi-hour private Norm Macdonald comedy show.
So I was high and eating fried chicken with Norm Macdonald and after that night I thought “I’m not gonna do any better than this… this was a fluke.” I got paid a grand, did ten minutes… I wasn’t going up from there, so I retired.
But I have come out of retirement a couple times, because Ben convinces me to do a show every now and then. And I’m gonna come out of retirement for his birthday to do a show at Caroline’s.
How long had you been doing comedy in NY before you went to LA?
I guess about 3 or 4 years. I didn’t do it a lot, though. I’m not as hard working as Ben is. Like, I didn’t do spots every night, maybe a couple times a week, but I always found standup to be very lonely. I didn’t like all the time that I would spend waiting to go on. I wasn’t that close with most of the comics, I didn’t feel like they were my friends, I felt like I was just kinda hangin’ out waiting.
Was there any point you can think back to that was the absolute worst?
I can’t really think back on it as just a negative thing. I know this: when I bombed, which didn’t happen that many times… the highs were so high but the lows were just as low. It was just such a spectrum. I’m not one of those comedians who can just shake off a bomb easily, and say “Oh, who cares, you know? It’s fine.” For me, I was profoundly affected. And same when I killed, I was high. Standup comedy can be so linked to one’s own personal validation that it can be very unhealthy, and I think I have that relationship with comedy.
I remember one time a set went really really poorly and I said, “Alright, it’s official, I quit comedy,” and I put the mic back in the stand and walked off instead of finishing the set. I was kidding, though, and one of the guys came up to me after the set and said “Hey man, you weren’t that bad; you shouldn’t quit comedy.” And once I knew that even my final joke, that I ‘quit comedy,’ had missed… and that there were people actually coming up to console me and tell me not to quit comedy… yeah.
I remember it all fondly, I guess, in the end. But it was lonely. I didn’t like the loneliness.
I think if I lived in the city now and I just did spots with friends, I could do it. Because now I feel like I have friends who are comics here, but I didn’t feel that way back then.
What do you think about the process of moving up in standup? Is there a path, even generally speaking?
No. Though, I think that the “bringer” is the worst thing that any comic can do. I don’t think that anybody should ever do bringers. Now, I’ve ‘paid my dues,’ and I’m putting that in air quotes because there is no ‘paying your dues.’ If somebody wants you to ‘pay dues,’ they’ll keep you 'paying dues’ forever and you’ll just be perpetually 'paying your dues’ for all time.
You’ve arrived when you say you’ve arrived. You’ve arrived when youbelieve you’ve arrived. I used to bus tables to pay my rent and get my spots; I used to ‘intern,’ as they’d call it. I’d clean the toilets, take out the trash, bar-back, mop up, that kind of stuff, for spots.
But I’ll give a step-by-step path to somebody who wants to become a comedian, I’ll lay it down: it’s not playing by the rules of some comedy club owner who knows nothing about comedy. Comedy is supposed to be a good time… So first of all, ultimately you want to involve yourself in shows that you are proud to invite people to, so when people watch it, you never feel like apologizing to them, but you expect them afterwards to be like “Thank you; that was an amazing show.” This is your goal of what kind of show you want to be on.
So one should try to produce shows more than being on them?
If you produce that show yourself, then you produce it yourself. Producing a show is not easy, it’s difficult, becoming a comedian is going to be difficult. Nothing I’m about to say is gonna be easy. But what you would have to do is practice. And what you’re practicing is putting on a show that’s a good time for people. And you have to get repetition in that, just putting on good shows that people enjoy. You don’t have to be the producer, maybe you’re just one of the performers. How do you get booked on that show? Be the guy that’s right for the job. So if you need to go to open mics, if that’s part of your practicing, ultimately getting up in front of the open mic crowd and seeing if you can make something work there, then go ahead and do that. As soon as you can, get yourself out of that scene and doing other things, and you can do that through networking, meeting people, working harder, writing more material, structuring your time….
I would avoid any show that feels like a terrible place. Most bringer shows fall into that category. Eventually, after you’ve practiced and you’ve gotten funnier and funnier, you’ll get more and more recognized and then you have to continue the social networking end of things. Hopefully something good will happen to you, but probably not, so hopefully you’re in it just for the love of the game.
Sort of the “comedy is a hobby until it’s not” mentality?
It’s important to be doing something next to comedy that can earn you money and not being delusional and saying “I’m gonna makemoney off of this thing.” Because so few people ever work that out. You just have to love it, do whatever life you’re doing, and if you can manage the two, you’ll be happy.
If you think that comedy is gonna start paying your bills and all you need to do is “start with the open mics, and move on to the bringers, and the next thing you know you’ve got your own sitcom,” that’s insane. I don’t think that’s ever happened.
But now you’re in a comedy band?
Yeah, The Weekend Pilots. We’ve been together for more than three years, we’re goin’ on year four now. We’re doing more than ever. Recently we did a KickStarter campaign to fund one of our music videos. The video is called “You Need More.” It’s a song about being the best that you can be, kind of an inspirational piece, and to fund it we did a Kickstarter campaign and one of the perks was that, for $25, we would write you a song.
It was kind of a terrible decision in some ways and a brilliant decision in other ways but either way now we have over 100 songs that we need to write. We currently write and produce about 10 songs a month. That’s a lot, in case anybody doesn’t know. Our Soundcloud is where we keep most of them but maybe we’ll make videos for some of our favorites.
How did you transition to the music thing?
I never did music before this. I didn’t know anything about music. I didn’t even know that I was in a band, I was kind of tricked into it.
The story goes like this: Ray Timmons was my co-worker; we used to work in marketing together. He would always joke around with me and I would always joke around with him. For example, maybe it would be a really intense moment in the middle of our work day, and he would say “Jay! … Jay! … Jay!” and I would look up and he just has his shirt pulled up and he goes, “I made you look at my belly.” And that was the kind of stuff that would go on inside of our office.
So he kind of thought about me as the funny guy who brought out the funny in him. He knew that I had a background in standup, and he had another friend named Dan, who I didn’t know. He kind of also thought Dan was a funny guy, but Dan had a very strong musical background; he’s been doing music all his life. So Ray would invite the three of us to hang out and he would have melons and cheeses and marijuana… it was a very fun atmosphere. The idea was that we were just getting together, joking around, writing comedy… which is why I liked it; I thought, “Yeah, I can joke around, get high, and write comedy! No problem. Easy. Done.” So then we would come up with these great ideas.
What were some of your earlier ideas?
We came up with this idea for “Business Bear,” and it features kind of a realistic-looking bear costume. One of us gets in a bear costume, he’s got a briefcase, and a watch, and a tie… but he’s still a bear, but a very sort of minimalistic business bear. He’s clearly in a rush; he’s waiting for the train to arrive, so he’s walking back and forth on the platform, and we’d film other people’s responses to this “Business Bear” being in a rush. Then at some point the briefcase accidentally comes open and nuts and berries and fish are pouring out of it, and now he’s gotta scoop it all up… and we’d film people’s responses.
Here’s the thing: we didn’t have a bear costume. We didn’t even have a camera. So none of these ideas actually came into fruition, but what we’d end up with was… you know how before any kind of comedic sketch there’s always a little theme song, kind of? We would always have THAT. So we would have these little songs, and after we had no sketches done but like 5 or 6 theme songs worked out, they sorta just said, “Hey we’re in a band now.” And then I’ve had to learn everything that I know about being in a band ever since.
Did you ever do the road for standup, or just with the band?
I’ve only toured with The Weekend Pilots. It’s fun, going to a new city with two of your best buddies and causing a ruckus. We used to tour mostly on the west coast. We did one time make it all the way over to New York City and do a couple shows here; we did South By Southwest, so that’s the middle of the country, most of the time we would go to Phoenix. That’s our band’s home town. We go back there for Thanksgiving kinda shows. I hope one day we can go to Tokyo, they’d love us there.
Do you guys have an album out?
Oh we’ve got albums. Our first album you can’t find anywhere, there was only, I think, fifty copies. It was called “Album and a Sock.” It was a home-burned CD that we wrote on with Sharpie, put inside of a sock, and then printed a label. The label had care instructions, like “Do not tumble dry" and “Do not wash with baby.” It all looked very official, so you’d have to look very close to even catch that kind of detail on it. So that was our first ‘release.’ You had to come to our live show and get it for free.
Then we did a bigger CD, just called “The Weekend Pilots.” That one has a bunch of funny songs on it, including “Panty Survey,” which was our first big music video. Then after that we did a really experimental album called “Fish Your Wish.” It’s weird. I warn you now: you can stream it on Spotify, so you don’t need to pay any money or anything, but if you do, just be prepared to hear long instances of like… whale noises and stuff. But there is some really cool stuff on it too, we were messing around and having a lot of fun.
And now it’s all about these KickStarter songs, so that’s kind of like an album per month, if you really think about it.
Where did you start performing your material? Was that a hard thing to find, a venue for musical comedy?
Yeah, not all open mics are created equally. We used to perform at this one called “Soapbox Sessions,” this guy Jason put it on, and he loved running that open mic. It was a huge part of his life. He made it a place where artists can come and share with each other. You should try to go to an open mic that’s not a standup comedy open mic. Because if you’re just at a standup comedy open mic, it’s just a bunch of other comics waiting for their turn, but if you do something weird like show up at a poetry open mic, or show up at one where there’s some musicians, that will often be a better scene for you.
Do you have writing methods, or is it just kind of whatever comes to you?
I’m bad at that, really. I’m not funny enough to do it naturally. But, generally, at least twice a week, I sit down with a carved amount of time in my day when I have to write. It doesn’t mean that what I write is necessarily gonna be great, but I have to at least try during that time. For me, that’s good discipline. Is that really enough? Probably not.
If something funny comes to you on the street, yeah, get out your recorder and make a note, or write it down, but if you’re actually trying to produce content on a consistent basis, and you’re not way funnier than everyone else (in which case, good for you! you’re blessed and you’re able to just spit stuff out, but most people are unable to be like that), you have to treat it like a job. Sit down for a pre-determined amount of time at your desk or whatever it is and write.
You don’t get good at any art form without practicing on a consistent basis. You don’t become a good standup comedian unless you also become a good writer.
And it feels like you have to learn how to stand out from everyone else amid this glut of social media that we’re in.
I don’t think that’s entirely true. Ultimately you’re going to be judged on your merit; yes, you’re gonna give your stuff away for free… Build your own personal brand, you can still sell your t-shirt. But your comedy, your “content,” that you have to give away for free. You can still build your brand, gather fans, they love you, maybe they come to see you for a show, maybe you charge them five dollars to get in… You still have things you can sell if you’re good, but you have to give the jokes away. And eventually, if you’re good enough, if you’re funny enough, then you’ll rise above all the other noise out there. You’re not really competing with them.
If you think to yourself “There’s ten-thousand comics that are each gonna release a video and each of those videos are gonna get twenty views,” that’s not twenty fewer views that your video would get. Basically, nobody cared, nobody watched any of those other videos. They were never your competition whether they existed or not. They’re not being noticed. So now you’re hypothetically saying that you’re competing on these platforms against the other successful people, but that’s not really true either.
If you wanna make an impact online, if you want a shortcut, connect yourself to something that already has a fan base.
Solid advice. Anything I missed?
Don’t listen to me; I don’t know anything. Just write a disclaimer at the end that says “Jay is a fool, and does not stand behind any of the words that he said in this interview.” Something like that, I think.