I was given the awesome opportunity to interview actor and comedian Steve Byrne ahead of the release of his film The Opening Act. Byrne wrote and directed the film, which follows a young comedian, played by Jimmy O. Yang, who is hoping to start his career as a full time stand-up comic. I am a huge fan of Byrne’s comedy, and have enjoyed watching his specials for years. He’s a funny guy, a fan of the site, and he offered up some great advice to those hoping to try their hand at comedy. Check out the interview below, and watch The Opening Act in theaters, On Demand, and on Digital today.
Jessica Fisher: Hi Steve, I’m Jessica from GeekTyrant.
Steve Byrne: Hi Jessica, pleasure to meet you. I’m actually a big fan of your site. You’re the third website I go to every day.
JF: That’s so awesome, I’m so glad to hear it! We are huge fans of yours too. We watch all of your Netflix specials and loved your series, so it’s just a great pleasure to talk to you.
SB: You got it. I love, obviously, all your movie insight, but you guys are one of the few that actually showcase some of the collectible toys and Sideshow and all that, so I’ve always been a fan of your site, so this is kind of really cool for me.
JF: That’s so cool! So, I was able to watch The Opening Act, and I enjoyed watching it, just being a fan of comedy. In the film, when Jimmy and Cedric’s characters go out to lunch, Cedric’s character Billy talks about what it takes to be a comedian, and he tells him to write and get on stage, then he shares that the gift of being able to make people laugh makes comedy the best job in the world. So is that your voice and advice coming through, or is that advice you’ve gotten from mentors along the way?
SB: You know, all three characters in the film are me. I was Will Chu, I certainly was Chris Palmer, and at this point in my life, I am Billy G. And those are all based off of conversations I’ve had over the years. I’ve listened to them over the years, and I’m having them now. Now that I’m kind of a veteran, on the road especially, there’s a lot of comics who say ‘Can I go out to lunch with you?’ or ‘Can I pick your brain?’ or ‘Can I talk to you in the green room before, and talk about how you started?,’ and you know, it almost becomes nauseating after a while, but you just say, you know, I was that kid. So, you know, I have those conversations on almost a weekly basis. And there was a comedian, I won’t say his name, but he came to one of these screenings, and he said, ‘I had that conversation with you just a few months ago! Is that why you put that in there?!’ And I was like, ‘No, unfortunately, that’s a common conversation.’ So, I discerned a lot of knowledge from comics. And that line in the film that says, ‘when I was younger, I thought I had to make people laugh so that I could feel good, but now I know I make people laugh so that they feel good,’ that’s the line from Billy Gardell. He’s from Mike and Molly, and now Bob Hearts Abishola, I actually named the character Billy G after Billy Gardell, because he’s been such a mentor to me over the years. I have nothing but high regard for him. And that line stuck with me like an incredible melody, like your favorite song. It’s just been in my head over the years. When I was writing this, I was like, ‘that’s going in the fucking script.’
JF: I’m a huge fan of his as well, so that’s so cool to hear that he was the inspiration for that.
SB: He’s an enormously underrated comic.
JF: Totally agree. So how vital is it for comedians to bomb onstage and get through those rough patches?
SB: Well, I mean, it’s inevitable, right? It’s part of the job, to bomb. There was something originally written in the script where, you know, part of the barometer, part of becoming a stand-up comedian, other than being full time, these are…well, actually these things all got cut out for a reason, so maybe I shouldn’t share, (laughs) but it’s just not being dissuaded by the fact that you bombed. The ratio is usually one to ten. For every one joke that works, there are usually ten jokes that haven’t. So when you see an hour stand-up comedy, you see every joke that works, you think of all the jokes that didn’t work to get there. So it’s definitely just part of it. And I think when you finally get that comfortability of knowing okay, I’m fine, on to the next one, but it also helps you develop an arsenal of weapons. You know how to get out of any situation. No matter how bad a joke is, you’ll have a line that will help transition and pass the baton from the bomb joke to the next joke and your head becomes kind of like this Plinko chip that hopefully always gets you to the ten thousand dollar instead of the hundred dollar Plinko reward. So I think it just takes time, it takes experience, and I think Jimmy’s character Will is trying to do over the course of the weekend, is he’s trying to take the advice from Billy G, he’s trying to apply it. But he’s learning that it’s also going to take time. It doesn’t happen overnight, and he learns that pretty quickly.
JF: Right, so in learning from every situation, the movie sees Jimmy dealing with hecklers, so as a comedian, you prepare your material and commit it to memory, so is there a rule of thumb when dealing with hecklers and how to get back on track from that?
SB: Um, yeah, I think when it comes to hecklers, I love it. I love anyone who tries to heckle me, because I feel like I’ve got a black belt in Jiu Jitsu and somebody just came to the strip mall for their first class of Tai Kwon Do, you know, white belt, no stripes. So that’s kind of what it feels like. You feel empowered with it, and you know, when I was a young stand-up in New York City, I was doing six or seven shows a night, and I’d dedicate one of my shows solely to improving and crowd work, and to this day, I spend my first ten minutes just doing crowd work, and it’s a part of the craft I feel very confident in. And there are different facets of stand-up comedy. People just think, oh, you do stand-up, but like roasting, like Jeff Ross, there’s a real art to that, and that’s not something that’s my forte. But crowd work, and slowly I’ve worked into becoming a better writer, and an overall entertainer. I certainly know my strengths now down the line as opposed to early on.
JF: So what would you recommend for people who are just starting out in a pandemic? What do you think they should do to keep the momentum and not give up?
SB: Oh God, if you want to start now, in a pandemic, I think you might want to move to a red state, first off. Those seem to be the only states that are open right now. They’re just like, ‘Fuck it! We’re open for business baby!’ So you may wants to go there, and get to the open mics and the bars. Because you certainly do need that physical interaction from performer to audience, no matter how slim the margins are. I’ve gone up in front of four people, I’ve gotten up in front of fifteen thousand people, and you just need that communal feel.
JF: Right, because you may think something could work, but you’ve just got to have that return.
SB: They know nothing about stand-up. An audience member has no clue, they’ve never written a joke, they’ll be the most honest. They will tell you what works and what doesn’t. There’s just something about a collective group of people. Same thing with a movie, right? People will just say, ‘I just liked it. I don’t know why, I just do.’ Same thing with stand-up.
Steve went on to say he has a lot of irons in the fire, and is hard at work on projects that we will hopefully soon hear all about. He’s a kind and gracious guy, and I hope to talk to him again soon.