Published on October 18th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Interview Tips for Comics

I started interviewing comics in 1998, and have done the reporter thing since 1994. Yeah, I am old enough to remember a time when “journalist” was a career option.

In that time, I’ve learned a thing or two about interviewing. But not everyone I’ve interviewed has media wisdom of their own. This is my handy-dandy crib sheet for comedians who are embarking on – or are in the midst of – that thrilling experience known as “doing press”. Keep these points in mind, and you’ll be known as a media darling in no time.

Eugene Mirman's website does it right

Eugene Mirman's website does it right

Make it easy
If we want to do a story on you, we should be able to find you. If the only contact email on your site belongs to your web designer, have him fix that. Make it really obvious who we should be contacting for press, whether it be you directly or your representation. It’s not insanely hard for us to find out who represents you, but have you visited some of the big agency websites? They’re practically blank. Not helpful. Yeah, you have a Facebook — but do you manage it yourself? Do you even read your @replies on Twitter? We’re not going to put much more effort into this before suddenly diverting our interest towards the guy opening for you.

Don’t call us, we’ll call you?
I’m still getting used to the idea of email interviews, even though it’s become the standard for blogs. Most of us were taught in journalism school to never do email interviews, and I agree with that stance, but being a blogger now I have to be flexible. For traditional media, though, you should assume it’s a phoner (or an in-person). And as for who-calls-who? It really depends. I’d say 75% of the interviews I’ve done in the last 5 years were me calling the artist. If the artist was famous enough to not want their number out there, or if they were doing back-to-back interviews on a media day, they’d just call me. If you’re a comic who can’t afford a long distance call, it’s not rude to provide your digits on the assumption the journalist will call you.

Talking points are for politicians
It’s fine to have something you want to say in mind. But if you give the exact same lengthy quotes, verbatim, to two competing publications, we are going to hate you when we see it in print. Whenever I had time after an interview, I would run a Google check on a particularly clever or insightful quote, and if I saw it appear in 7 other stories from the past month, I’d likely drop it. Even worse: I interviewed a certain big-name Canadian comic twice in 3 years, worked my ass off to come up with new/interesting questions the second time around, and 75% of the answers were repeats from the first time. He could have done that interview without me.

Have some respect
We’re putting time and effort into this. Between research, scheduling the interview, conducting it, transcribing the quotes, and writing the story, most freelancers are making slave wages. Plus we put out our own cash for a voice recorder, get crap from our day job bosses for daring to have a second source of “income” (if you can call it that), and just canceled our weekend plans because now we have a story to write. And you? You’ve chosen to do this interview on your cell while driving around LA with the top down, making it virtually impossible for me to make out half your quotes afterwards. Even better, I had to to repeat a question because you were too distracted checking out a hot girl crossing the street to listen to ME. Snap out of it, pay attention for 20 minutes, and we’ll all get what we want out of this.

Don’t make us use our power
We’re not out to get you, and most of us DO want to make you look good in print. But don’t forget that we are in control of the finished product, so if you’re an asshole to us, we’re going to get passive-aggressive on you. You pissed me off with that whole distracted-by-a-hottie thing, and then started yacking about the pilot you’re pitching and how it’s going to be a huge success. So I’m going to plaster on a fake smile and write aaaaaallllll about your fantastic new tv show that hasn’t even been shot, because I know by the time this is published, the network will have passed on the pilot after discovering at the table read that you can’t act for shit. Now you have to repeatedly explain yourself at the afterparty to everyone who saw the story and thought it would be a good icebreaker. See how that works? (Thankfully, these situations are rare, because most of you are not pricks.)

Timing is everything
Hand in hand with the respect thing, is to remember to put us on your calendar. I called a comedian at home at the scheduled time, and she’d completely forgotten. She had company over, so we had to keep it short. She apologized up and down, was very sweet about it, but the story did suffer. I had to cobble together a story using rushed quotes and disjointed information. Please try to avoid this. Also, if you’re a higher profile performer and this is a “media day” for you, tell me your time limit up front (your publicist should have, but often won’t). I don’t want to find out at 11:44 that you have another interview scheduled at 11:45.

Is this happening, or…?
You or someone from your camp has agreed to an interview, so I’ve told my editor the story is coming down the pipe. He gives me my deadline. Which is inching closer and closer as you’ve decided not to bother communicating with me any further. I should not have to spend my week emailing and phoning you, your manager, the local producer/publicist, etc. Yes, you’re busy — but that’s why the word “no” exists in our vocabulary. If you can’t – or don’t want to – commit, please say so up front. Flaking out makes you look bad and me look even worse.

Being in character
If you perform in character, be upfront if you’re going to do the interview in character too. I would assume this for someone like Larry the Cable Guy, but you never know if someone like Emo Phillips does (he does). I had a very close call doing a radio interview with Ken Davitian from Borat: I assumed it would be as himself and prepared accordingly, but discovered when he arrived that he intended to do the full 30 minutes in character if it had been live (it was a pretape, thank God). A good journalist can improvise to an extent, but it sucks to have to throw out your whole line of questioning.

No joke
Probably a mistake you’ll only make once, but doing your material for a print journalist just doesn’t work. It almost never comes across the right way without the proper delivery. If you’re going to burn your bits, save it for the radio guys. And if you are joking around in an interview, as most normal human beings would do, just know that we usually have to specify “he joked” instead of “he said”. It sounds lame, but it has to be done.

Some of us are smarter than you think
An interview with a quintessential student of comedy started with him being rather disinterested in this task. I can’t blame him – journalists rarely let him be as passionate as he wants to be – but I felt like I was being dismissed as a hack before we’d even started. Thankfully I’ve gotten good at dropping heavy pieces of comedy knowledge into a conversation to prove I’m not a moron, so that’s exactly what I did. He realized I “got it”, and we were off to the races, able to converse at the level that we both wanted. I was very happy with the end result, he was too, and we continued the discussion for another 2 hours while he was in town. Just because you don’t know my name, and I don’t live in LA, doesn’t mean I don’t know my stuff. Make no assumptions.

Some of us are dumber than you think
We all started as student journalists. You may be talking to someone doing their first celebrity interview ever, sitting with a typed out list of the 8 questions they were able to think of, with no plans to stray from that. You may be talking to someone who has never spoken to a comedian before, and this is going to be as awkward as greeting audience members after a show. Or you may be talking to someone who is a massive fan, thinks it’s unprofessional to say so, and is nervous as hell to talk to you. In any case, if an interview feels awkward or stiff, try turning it into a conversation. It’s ok to ask us questions, no matter how trivial (“where’s a good place to go drinking in that town?”). For all you know it could become a half hour geek-out about World of Warcraft.

You can avoid bad questions
I don’t blame you for never wanting to answer “were you the class clown?” ever again. You’ll get to sense what it is your interviewer is actually asking you (in that case, they just want to know how you ended up being a comedian) and you might be able to steer your answer in a more interesting direction than recalling the number of detentions you got in grade 9. This isn’t a courtroom — a journalist won’t hold you in contempt for not directly answering a vague inquiry, especially when the quote is better than the one they thought they’d get. Just don’t do it with EVERY question.

Pause & Rewind

It’s ok to take a few seconds to consider your answer. We’re not going to hang up on you. And if you’re talking through an answer and realize you’ve just created verbal vomit in the process, don’t hesitate to repeat it in a more eloquent manner. We’ll never directly ask you to do that, so if you can voluntarily save us from paraphrasing or splicing up a messy quote with “, he says,” we’ll be grateful.

Sneak it in
Is there something you really want to talk about, that we’re not asking you about? Maybe we didn’t get the memo. Have you decided to move to LA? Shooting a film in Alaska? Did you just camp out in line for 4 days to see the first showing of the new Twilight movie? Tell us! This is what we exist for: to report news.

Hey Art, get in here
In most cases we need a photo of you. And a lot of times, it falls to the writer to find it because the layout guys can’t be bothered. Then they’ll stick our article in the back near the sex pages for the very reason that there is no art. Don’t make us use Google images. We need to know that this is a pic specifically for PR — that means a headshot, not a grainy snapshot of you onstage with a beer sponsorship banner behind you. Make a high-resolution jpg readily available. Low-quality vs. high quality can mean the difference between front page and not. Same goes for colour vs. black and white.

Comp us
It’s not 100% expected anymore (some pubs have even banned the practice), but it’s a classy thing to do. If you have the power to comp, ask us if we’ve been taken care of. If we haven’t been, and you can’t commit to arranging it yourself, tell us who to talk to (even if we already know). Standard is to “plus one” a person, which means 2 tickets. Most of us DO want to see you and meet you after talking with you, and we like to imagine you feel the same way. (You won’t always have say in this, though, and we understand that.)

Bonus tips for journalists:

“This is What This Is Going to Be”
We’re all on the same team here, so if you have a particular mandate (a “5 questions” piece, or a “favourite things” list), say so upfront. No sense in making them try to figure out what your game is, or leave them wondering why you only talked to them for 7 minutes.

Match the Tone

I was preparing to interview a b-list tv star, and came across audio of a recent print interview he’d done. I was horrified, because the guy was simply not havin’ any part of it. This was going to be a rough interview, I thought. But when it was my turn, he couldn’t have been nicer. The only real difference? The other journalist plowed through his questions with a high-energy radio morning zoo voice. I just matched the laid-back tone of the actor. We writers are so accustomed to communicating via our keyboards, sometimes we forget the basics of verbal communications.

Find the Passion
Probably true for any feature subject: I’ve found that comedians are very passionate people, and often have one thing other than comedy that they could talk about for hours. Sometimes it’s politics, or art, or music. If you can poke and prod and find that thing, your story will write itself. Asking them how they spend their time on the road is a good starting point.

Take Them Seriously
I may be preaching to the converted, but comedians are human beings. They’re artists. Don’t expect them to be “on” in a one-on-one conversation. A list of questions like “so what do you think of Paris Hilton?” might (sort of) work for Larry King when he’s interviewing Bill Maher, but I can promise you it’s not as good an idea as you think it is. Dig deeper, and everyone – you, your subject, and your readers – will get a much more satisfying meal out of it.

So, comics, time for your rebuttal. What should we journalists keep in mind when talking to YOU?

About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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