Tonight, comedian Wayne Federman gets the stand-up slot on “The Tonight Show,” playing the piano for the first time. It’s hardly his first appearance on that program, though, because Federman has been performing stand-up for over 30 years — an epic-length career that has been archived, for the very first time, in his “debut album,” “The Chronicles of Federman.”
Federman has also made countless appearances in films and TV shows, becoming an iconic, “Hey, it’s that guy!” for comedy fans. When reached via phone, Federman was more than happy to talk about some of those more random appearances, as well as how comedy has evolved over the last several decades. First things first…
When your name first came up, I realized that it sounded really familiar. Then I realized it’s because I’ve seen the “X-Files” episode you guest starred in [the seventh season episode “Hollywood A.D.,” written and directed by David Duchovny] a couple of times. I’m curious: Why was your real name used for your character?
Well, I will tell you. That episode– David Duchovny had known of me through stand-up. He’d seen me at the Improv and stuff like that. And he wrote this episode about this producer who follows him around to write a movie about those two characters — Scully and Mulder. He goes, “Wayne, I’m writing this with you in mind.” And then he sent me the pages and he goes, “Wayne, obviously I’m going to change the name, but I just want you to read it so you get a sense of where I’m going with this because I want your voice and your rhythm in my head as I’m writing this character.”
And I said to him, “You know, you may not have to change the name because the episode is very meta. It’s about a movie within a show within another show. And he’s like, “You know. If you don’t mind I think it’s kind of funny to keep in Wayne Federman.” And I was like, “Great.” But then it gets tricky because I had to audition for the role of Wayne Federman.
[laughs] Well, at least you got the role.
Yeah. Well, it wasn’t as easy as you’d think it was. I mean, obviously, as I walk out of the audition, I’m thinking, “If I don’t get this part. This might be it. This may be the end. I might have to consider another line of work.” Because there were other actors in the waiting room reading for the role of Wayne Federman.
Oh my goodness. I mean. I imagine, as a working actor, you get used to seeing the same kind of clump of people coming to audition for the same roles. Was it that same clump of people coming to play you?
It wasn’t. [laughs} It actually wasn’t those guys. I think they went a little older and a little sleazier because he’s a Hollywood producer. So, luckily somehow I managed with my vast acting background to nail the role of Wayne Federman. I don’t know how I did it, but I landed that role.
You dug deep. You went method.
Exactly. I don’t know if you know this, but I actually studied with Stella Adler, the famous acting coach.
Yeah. At NYU. Stanislavski from the Moscow Arts Theatre created modern acting. He taught Stella Adler. Adler taught Federman. So, basically I’m two steps away from Stanislavsky. So basically that’s the line of modern acting in the world — Stanislavski, Adler, Federman.
Yeah. I’ve heard that. Definitely.
[laughs] Of course you’ve heard it. Everyone knows that. [Adler] was still teaching acting when I attended there in the late ’70s.
How much comedy were you really doing at that point?
Well, my goal was to be a stand-up comedian who was a solid actor. That was my goal. I wanted to be a stand-up comedian starting back in high school. And on “The Chronicles of Federman” there’s actually a clip of me performing at my high school. Not doing stand up. Even more humiliating — doing ventriloquism.
That’s what’s so exciting about the collection, of course, is that it covers literally 30 years of stand-up comedy. In doing an anthology album, the question becomes: are you considering this a retirement?
No. I do not consider this a retirement. This will be Volume One, and then in 30 years — 2045 — I’ll do the second: Chronicles Two. I don’t even know how it will be delivered. I assume there won’t be CDs at that point. Maybe directly to a brain chip. Something like that. I don’t know. But the fact that it’s my debut album and in a sense is a bit of a box set compilation — That’s me. That’s Federman.
I got a chance to read the Splitsider article you wrote about the history of stand-up, and it made me want to ask you: Have you personally seen technology changing the way that comedy exists in our world?
Well, of course. I think the point of my article is that it’s been going on for a long time. There’s comedians that put their acts on records. There were other older comedians that were like, “Why am I putting an act on where I can make several grand a week in Las Vegas on an album for $1.98 or $2.98?” Or whatever it was at the time. There’s a generational shift then.
And long-playing albums really hit comedy in the ’50s. And the Internet has changed a lot of it. But I think if you read the last line of that piece was that, “Despite all this technology change and all the venues where you can become famous like Bo Burnham did in his bedroom in Massachusetts doing a comedy act that for the most part is still the same thing. You have to stand up on stage with a microphone and reveal yourself through words to try and gets laughs. And that really hasn’t changed.” And I think there’s something beautiful about that.
When you’re Bo Burnham and you’re distributing through YouTube, what becomes laughter for you?
I know, that’s a good question. Are these Funny or Die Videos getting laughs? Is that any less legitimate a laugh then me at the Catch a Rising Star in 1982 or at the Improv in 1995 or at Largo in 2004? Or NerdMelt in 2012?
The thing is you’re hearing the laugh that you’re getting at Catch a Rising Star. You’re hearing it audibly. Online, Bo Burnham has comments and likes to go by.
So there isn’t that. But Bo still goes out on the road. He tours. Are you saying that you feel like in the future a comedian will not have to perform in front of an audience?
I would argue that YouTube is its own sort of audience. But the concept of what it means to get the laugh, though, could that fundamentally change by the time you release Volume Two in 2045?
Let’s just a step back a little bit. Myself listening to Bill Cosby — I hate to bring him up, but he had this comedy album I used to listen to a lot as a kid called “Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right” was the name of the album. Or “Why Is There Air?” is another album I would listen to. He was getting laughs from me and I’m in my bedroom. So, do those count? I have no idea. I feel like this is a very existential question. I don’t know.
I do know this: I do know that when a comedian is on stage and I’m in the audience and it’s working, there’s a special kind of feeling in the room that’s very, very powerful, that people still are drawn to. Even that you don’t get watching a special on television. Or with or without that audience reaction. It’s that in-the-room feeling I guess. I’m talking literally off the top of my head. I don’t even know if I’m making sense. But I do feel like there’s something palpable and real that’s just like, “Oh, this is better than watching people laugh. To be part of it.”
No, that makes sense. And you’ve got me thinking now about the fact that so many comedians have started hosting their own podcasts. And unless they’re recording in front of a live studio audience, they’re pretty much making their funny in a vacuum–
I know. I know. It’s curious. I really don’t know where it’s going. I’m not a soothsayer.
Given the choice between doing something in front of a live studio audience versus the privacy in your own bedroom, what would you prefer?
To tell you the truth, I honestly like both. I do a podcast. It’s not famous or anything. But “Human Conversation.” My feedback for that podcast are the reviews on iTunes or on that podcast app. And those reviews really hit me on a deep level. Not like getting a laugh in a club. But people really talk about how much they enjoy the banter that goes on between myself and Erin McGathy on this podcast. And it couldn’t be a simpler podcast. It’s just the two of us talking. I mean it’s called “Human Conversation.” There’s nothing to it. It still is resonating with a lot of people going directly into their ears through an ear bud. And maybe it is morphing into different areas.
I mean all of this has to evolve eventually.
I like the way you’re thinking about this. I mean, do you think there will every be stand-up without a club? Without an audience? That’s just directly beamed to people?
There’s Periscope and all these apps like that, where you’re interacting in real time with your audience. That’s completely a different thing, but could be applied to the same principles.
Bill Burr does a stream of consciousness. I think it’s called the Monday Morning Podcast. So, it’s not that much different than his stand up. I mean obviously he’s doing bits in his stand up. But It’s still just one guy talking. It’s not like he’s interviewing other comedians or taking suggestions over Twitter on characters to do.
I’ll ask what your favorite podcasts are. Because I’m always curious about that.
I recently did a six-hour drive, and normally I have to have like an audio book or something. But for this one, I found myself listening to episode after episode of “How Did This Get Made.”
Yes. Yeah. They’re very creative over there. So, let me ask you another question. Do you prefer the studio ones or the ones they do at Largo?
That is a good question. I think it speaks to your point, that the ones in front of a live audience are much more dynamic.
So you feel like you would rather hear those live ones?
I do tend to lean to those. Yeah.
Curious. Maybe we’ve discovered something here.
Maybe we have.
Because there is — I don’t want to use the word magic — but there is something to that dynamic of the act is being affected by the reaction of the audience and vice versa. Did you happen to see the Maria Bamford special she did in front of her parents? That worked. I loved that special for numerous reasons.
Well, you’re in it.
That’s not the reason. The reason I love it is because it’s so raw and really gets to what stand-up is. And I feel like there’s a lot of stand-up comedians who, when you break it down, they are performing for their parents. What are we really doing? Why are we up here? I loved that angle of it.
I forget if her parents were really good laughers.
Yeah. They were pretty good. They adore her so it was just beautiful to watch. I couldn’t be a bigger fan of a comedian than Maria Bamford. I just think she’s spectacular. What I love about comedy and how it’s evolved is that audiences allow that kind of comedian to exist. Like, if she came up in Joan Rivers’ time and had to navigate that club scene I think it would’ve been way different for her.
That speaks to something important and interesting about our current era, which is that there’s been a birth in diversity. More and more unique voices, who may have gotten shot down 20 years ago, have a place to speak. Do you think that’s made comedy better?
Yeah. This is going to be controversial because I love old time comedy. And I’m talking radio comedy. Pre-Richard Pryor and all of those guys. I really like comedy. But I do feel like audiences are more sophisticated about how you approach getting a laugh. And I do think it continues to evolve.
Is this speaking to the current debate of being too PC?
Well, a little bit. This is one thing in my article I didn’t quite get to which was even though the boundaries for speech and subject matter have expanded all the way from every decade until this last decade, it’s really contracted in some areas. I don’t know where that’s going to end up, but I think it does — I’m going to steal your term — speak to a more diverse community of comedians that want to make everyone feel more welcome in this world.
I want to change the subject slightly because we could easily keep talking about this forever. But I’m really interested in the fact that you have a number of credits working on awards shows. What do you like about writing them?
Well, it’s afforded me the opportunity to write for some phenomenally great people. For example, this last time I wrote for an awards show called the Creative Arts Emmys. It’s the Emmys before the real Emmys. Some people called them Schmemmys. I even have more derogatory terms, but it’s like all the technical awards. Mainly you give out a few guest actor awards. But Mel Brooks was up for a few awards in these pre-Emmy Awards. He was like, “I want to present.” So I wrote him something and then he brought it in. And then we sat together — just Mel Brooks and myself — and created another little piece of comedy for him to do. And then we put it on the teleprompter and he did it. I don’t even know what to say. It was ridiculous. The writers’ room was Mel Brooks and Wayne Federman. That’s the writers’ room. So, that was a career highlight for me, just hanging with the guy.
What was he like to work with?
Oh, it was beautiful. It was beautiful. That’s the highlight of it. That’s the top. Or there was something I wrote for Oprah Winfrey. She was presenting at the Independent Spirit Awards. And so she read it word for word. I said, “Wow, I really know the voice and rhythm of Oprah Winfrey.” That was thrilling for me even though there was not one laugh in it. So, that’s the highlight. That’s what really I like and also between you and I, I like that it’s a short gig. It’s like, oh, on the 17th we’re gonna do a show and then it’s over. I like that kind of writing.
Looking at the landscape right now, are there voices you’re really excited about?
You mean comedically?
Of course. I think everyone is enjoying what Amy Schumer is doing, but there’s this guy Nate Bargatze that’s great. And this girl from, I believe she’s from Australia named O’Doherty. And there’s that kid Brandon Wardell I think is really funny. That’s why I love stand-up. Oh, Claudia O’Doherty. She’s in “Trainwreck.” She has a great thing going.
We keep talking about finding new comedians. What’s the primary way you’re discovering them?
Because I still work in the clubs– Like next Tuesday night, I’m going to be at UCB with the Cameron Esposito show Put Your Hands Together, and there’s probably gonna be a couple of comedians that I haven’t seen that are gonna be at that show. And because I have a foot in the alternative comedy world, I get to see these young comics starting out…some not even that young. And so, I think that’s my No. 1 way of seeing it. Once in a while, the Internet. There was a list Variety put out of comedians you should know about or comedians to watch so I kind of threw that a little bit. And I might see that. But for the most part, it’s someone will recommend someone and I’ll check them out online. Oh, and there’s also this kid named Sam Morril. He has an album coming out. He’s great. He’s out of New York and he’s excellent. So, it’s fun.
What’s the biggest difference do you think between the comedy that you’re seeing right now, and the comedy that is from the earliest days that you’ve seen?
I think it’s more personal now. It’s a little less presentational. There used to be a thing when I started — this is going to blow your mind. There was a certain generation of comedians, even before Carlin and all those guys, who would always dress better than the audience. That was the rule. You should look more sophisticated than the audience, to give you a certain authority to be able to do these jokes. And so, that was a thing. Comedians, they wouldn’t put on their pants til right before the show so there wasn’t a wrinkle in their pants from sitting down. Or have any keys in their pockets so it was a smooth line, you know, just crazy stuff like that.
There’s a lot of comedians still performing, too, in suits and ties. Of course, Paul F. Thompkins, obviously a genius, genius comedian. He dresses in a very dapper way as kind of a persona. But I think most comedians now dress the way they dress in life. Sort of like their life is their act, as opposed to I’m presenting this. But again it all changes.
There’s this whole concept in social media of creating your personal brand. Within the comedy world, how much do people talk about that?
I do know some comedians that talk about their brand. Of course. How you open your set and the topics you decide to talk about. You wouldn’t do this show because it wouldn’t line up with your brand or something. I mean, I don’t really think about that, that way, but I guess on some level everyone — I don’t know. I can’t speak for other comedians. I don’t think I’ve ever used the words, “My brand.” What do you think my brand would be? What would you say?
That’s a really tough question because I think having someone else assign it to you makes it feel artificial.
[laughs} I want an assigned brand.
There’s probably some person working on Madison Avenue who would be happy to brand you.
I’m the guy who — just because I do so many diverse things — it would be hard to nail it down a little bit, which might be the reason this is the first comedy album I put out. This deep into my career.
Let me look up the e-mail that your PR rep sent to pitch me this interview… Yeah, here is the subject line: “Wayne Federman — a stand-up legend you may have heard of.”
[laughs] Yep. That’s about right.
If that’s your brand, how do you feel about it?
I love it. One. It’s a funny brand, and I’m a funny guy. Two, I mean the word legend is so over the top. Ridiculous and pompous. And then to immediately deflate it is a nice little angle. I don’t know, I guess just by surviving this long, there’s something legendary. You know, I’ve been with Larry David. And I started in the clubs with Seinfeld. And now I’m doing alternative. I don’t know if that makes me legendary. I think the whole thing makes me legendary in the smallest possible, lowercase “l” way. And then a lot of people don’t even know my name.
But a lot of people go like, “Oh. He’s the blind guy in ‘Step Brothers’.”
“Oh. He’s the horribly passive aggressive guy on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’.”
“Wait a minute. He was on ‘The X-Files’. That was one of my favorite episodes.”
“Wait a minute. He’s the guy in ‘Shameless’. Come on. That’s crazy.”
“Oh wait. I just saw him on Comedy Central doing his bit about carpool lanes.”
Yes, I do a bit about the carpool lane. So, does that sound legendary to you or does that just sound like a working comedian?
I think the difficulties of being a working comedian for decades make it a pretty legendary act.
Thank you. Oh my God. I don’t know. If you said, “The legendary comedian Wayne Federman finally releases his album.” I would not endorse that because that’s not me.
Coming up in the ’80s, I’m sure you were seeing tons of comedians landing huge deals. Do you ever wish that you’d gotten one of those?
Yeah. I mean is there part of me that thinks I could have probably had a Ray Romano kind of career? Yeah. But I do not dwell on it. I promise you because I know I keep bringing up Seinfeld, but very early on he said, “You cannot compare yourself to other comedians. It’s impossible not to, but try not to. Because everyone is doing their own thing. There’s only one of you.” Something like that. And I was like, okay. Because it’s a losing game. And then he goes on to become the most iconic comedian of that generation. But I thought that was good advice. Because I do see a lot of comedians get very bitterly competitive with their colleagues and it’s not pretty. And I understand it.
But yeah there’s a part of me. Did I tell you about the Zappetite’s campaign? Okay. Zappetite was one of the first microwavable foods and it was part of this big corporation. Oscar Meyer was pushing it. They scoured for great undiscovered comedians in LA to do this campaign. And they come up with three guys. We each do a spot. These are the three guys — this is the early ’90s — Tim Allen, Adam Sandler and me.
What happened to those other two dudes? But I’m still around.
“The Chronicles of Federman” is available now.