The comedy landscape is dotted with figures like Wayne Federman: the grinders. The ones who, during the comedy boom of the ‘80s, popped up on shows like An Evening at the Improv and The Comic Strip Presents, earning the respect of their peers due to their affable personalities and great material, but somehow never busting through that ceiling and landing their own sitcom or a big cable TV special.
That hasn’t dimmed Federman’s spirit at all. Rather, the 56-year-old writer and comedian has spent the last three decades cultivating a multi-faceted career that includes a nonfiction book about former NBA star Pete Maravich and picking up acting work in commercials, TV series and films. Over that time he’s earned the respect of his peers, including longtime fans Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell, and when those folks become famous, they do the right thing and pull Federman up along with them. That’s how the character actor and comic has landed parts in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Step Brothers, and wound up with some choice writing gigs on shows like Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
Through it all, though, Federman’s bread and butter has always been stand-up. His sharp wit and self-deprecating style is one that has translated well over the years as he graduated from the brick backdrop clubs of the ‘80s into the alternative venues of today like Largo and UCB. That is, in part, how Federman is able to release a 3 CD set of stand-up as his first album. Out on A Special Thing Records and culled from various recordings captured over the last 30 years, The Chronicles of Federman tracks his career from the early days, when he would close sets by performing rock anthems on a ukulele, all the way through his current material, where he talks about making imperceptible and hilarious tweaks to the Wikipedia pages of famous people and his experiences performing in Israel.
Busy as he is (he’s currently prepping for an upcoming performance on The Tonight Show and filming a small part in a new Will Ferrell film), Paste was able to catch up with Federman to talk about the evolution of his long career, the comics that inspired him and surviving the comedy bust of the ‘90s.
Wayne Federman: What do you need to know from me? What the hell do you need to know from Wayne Federman?
Paste: How did this album come together?
Federman: It was just stuff that I had. Very luckily, one of the clubs that I worked at, The Comic Strip, put in a VHS taping device for the comedians so they could get a tape of the set. So I taped quite a few sets when I was starting out and just kept them. I never watched them for any reason. Never thinking I would strip out the audio. And then when I realized I could do that, and I had these new recordings, and had these recordings from the middle of my career. Like from MTV Half Hour Comedy Hour, which is long gone and where the “Rockin’ With Dokken” bit comes from. I don’t mean to brag but that’s the name of the bit! Long ago they lost the rights to that stuff so…that’s how it happened.
Paste: I know for a lot of stand-ups, listening to material from very early in their career can be a cringe-worthy experience. Did you have that reaction listening to some of your earliest bits?
Federman: To be honest, yeah. It was more me. I suffer from stage fright sometimes, and that’s something that I’ve been working on all these years. Sometimes when that would kick in, those sets were just unusable, just because it’s so painful. [laughs] Painful at the time. Almost as painful to listen to it. But for the most part, I mean, those were the bits that I enjoyed doing, and it’s funny some just don’t last a long time in the act. So they ended up on this thing. These are the words that I would use to describe listening to a younger version of myself: thrilling and humbling. I don’t want to go into too much detail because I don’t want to start crying.
Paste: At the same time, can you hear yourself getting better as you listened through the chronology of your career?
Federman: In some ways, yeah. I think a lot of stand-up is a confidence thing, so as you build confidence, it becomes a little easier to do. I think I’m a better writer now than I was before. Even early on, those early bits, I’m…yeah, I’m tickled by them. They’re pretty well constructed bits. I just did this podcast and we were talking about the World Book Encyclopedia, which is a bit I do on the set. Kids don’t know the World Book Encyclopedia. It’s, like, “Oh, look! There’s 1/1000th of the Internet that they used to print up!” There’s anachronisms, but I go through the World Book Encyclopedia right up to my iPhone. I think most people would understand the concept of it. I hope it doesn’t sound like, “And then, we got the telegraph!”
Paste: Something I didn’t learn from this album was how you wound up doing stand-up. What inspired you to become a comic?
Federman: Honestly, as soon as I found out it was a job, I wanted to do it. Even though I would listen to comedy records as a kid, I never thought of it that way. I don’t know why I didn’t put it together that that’s a way to make a living. But then there were a couple of books that came out when I was in high school. One was The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy and the other was The Last Laugh. They were little treasure maps on how to navigate this world. And it really appealed to me. Teachers were very encouraging of me. I was a very funny kid but I wasn’t disruptive. There were kids who were class clowns and could make kids laugh but I always felt like that was a low bar to set. I always thought that if I could get the teachers and the kids to laugh, then that was an accomplishment. And I started performing ventriloquism in high school so that’s what led to it.
Paste: Listening to the first disc of this set, there’s almost a vaudevillian-like aspect to some of your early work, where you’re doing ventriloquism and your ukulele bits. Was that part of your comedy education as well?
Federman: If you read Judd Apatow’s liner notes to the CD, he said that my act echoes comedians of the past while still staying current. To me that was the best compliment he gave me. Because not only was I a big fan of the comedians that were around when I was growing up, like Carlin and Pryor and Robert Klein and Steve Martin, but I love old time show business. Benny and Berle and Bob Hope. There was one comedian in particular, a guy named Victor Borge who has since passed away. That mesmerized me. I was so tickled by the way he merged music and comedy. So I’ve always been drawn to that. Then I picked up the ukulele and started playing some rock ‘n’ roll songs, thinking, “This might just work.” Maybe 15 years, I taught myself piano. [laughs] I’m a weirdo, what can I tell you?
Paste: Well, weirdos often make the best comics.
Federman: Thank you. Thank you for turning it into a compliment.
Paste: Music has been such a big part of your comedy. How did you find a way to use that in your stand-up?
Federman: At the very beginning it was just straight stand-up. Pretty early on, when I was just doing what they called “auditioning,” where you would audition to work for free at a comedy club. That was the system. So while I was still auditioning, I started with the ukulele and that became pretty successful. That was my big closer. But I also would do…let’s say the set was 15 minutes, I would do 10 minutes of stand-up and then five minutes of ukulele. To tell you the truth, there was a guy named Lucien Hold, who was the booker at the Comic Strip, and he said, “You know Wayne, just you walking onstage with the ukulele adds this anticipation to the act even before you get to it.” I really think he was on to something there.
Paste: You got started in Florida, then moved to New York. Why did you then move to L.A.? Was it just to try for bigger comedy gigs or to concentrate on your acting work?
Federman: It was both. I went to NYU Drama School and studied with Stella Adler. But I wanted to go to L.A. because that was the comedy mecca. And that was because The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was out there. Every once in a while, Carson’s bookers would come to New York to look for acts but for the most part, they booked out of L.A. That was the ticket for the generation right before to get famous or break through on a certain level. And there was a lot of acting work. I bought my ticket to L.A. as soon as I got my Screen Actors Guild card. I saw that little opening and said, “Yeah I’m going to move to L.A.” And the first guy I met when I moved there was Judd Apatow, who was a college freshman at the time. Between you and I, thank God I was nice to that kid.
Paste: Were you doing a lot of road work at this time too?
Federman: I was! I would do some stand-up clubs but mostly I was doing colleges. And let me tell you what, I could make, at a college on the weekends, as much as I could make during the week at a club. And it would leave me available for auditions. That’s how I started booking commercials and these little sitcom parts. I tried to be in town as much as possible. But at a certain point, I outgrew the college market. I got too old. Then I started playing more clubs, so it was just a balance of doing clubs and staying in town.
Paste: You talk a little bit about this on your album, but how was it for you to survive the comedy boom and bust of the ‘80s and ‘90s and still be working as much as you are today?
Federman: Let me think about this! I didn’t know you were gonna be this specific. [pause] Well, I have to say that I wasn’t worried that there was going to be no more comedy. I was more fascinated by how it was transmorphing into these different areas. I love the alternative comedians. I love Janeane Garofalo. I love Dana Gould. I absolutely love Margaret Cho. What they were doing was very personal and close enough to what I was doing. I was a mainstream club comedian but I wasn’t…maybe I just wasn’t big enough that they allowed me into that scene. There were some comedians that they would not allow in who were very funny people that were just a little too mainstream or there was other derogatory ways that they could describe their act. I don’t know. I just lucked out. The guy at Largo…there was a piano onstage and I did some piano stuff and I think he appreciated that. I’m just a fan of comedy. Like your earlier question about vaudeville and Jack Benny and Borge and those guys. I see it as a big continuum.
Paste: And now you can get your voice out there even more with podcasts and the number of new stages that are opening up all over L.A. for stand-up.
Federman: We’re in the middle of a comedy boom! And it’s definitely driven by the Internet. I wrote an article for Splitsider called “From Sullivan to C.K.” where I track the major events that got comedy to where it is today. And I talk about how comedians have supercharged podcasts. It’s as good as it’s ever been in my opinion. There are two comedy festivals in Iowa. I’m going to repeat that. There’s two comedy festivals in Iowa. Fans can really pick the comedians they want to follow. It’s great. Also, you know there was a comedy boom before the ‘80s, a comedy boom that happened in the ‘60s that happened on record. I think we’re in the middle of the third stand-up boom.
Paste: You’ve accomplished so much in your career up to this point and are still going strong. Do you have goals in mind still for what you want to do in the future?
Federman: Obviously that’s a huge question. I feel like I’m still kind of getting going. This is my first album. There’s always going to be stand-up. For a while. At least another 15 years. Well, hang on. At least another 10 years. I don’t know that I’m going be going until I’m 70. Maybe until retirement age. I think I really want to get into screenplay writing and music. In the meantime, keep creating.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.