Ep 24: Industry Legend Barry Katz on making it in the business
On this episode of Be Here For a While, Rachael gets a hell of a lot of great advice from legend Barry Katz, the man who has introduced Hollywood to some of comedy’s biggest names.
After some initial jokes about how cold the room they’re in is—“You could raise veal in here,” Katz says—the two dive right in.
“Bob Newhart spoke to me.”
If you’re wondering how Katz got started in the entertainment industry, here’s the story:
Katz’s father passed away when Katz was four years old, so it came as a surprise to him when he pried open an old rusted file cabinet as a teenager to find 50 musty albums hidden away. He uncovered albums by Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, The Supremes, Diana Ross, and the game changers: three comedy albums by Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, and the Smothers Brothers.
He saved up 30 books full of supermarket tickets (you know, like cashback deals, but old school) in order to buy a fold-down record player, and he immediately threw on the three comedy records. He thought Jonathan Winters was a bit crazy, and the Smothers Brothers were funny but not quite up his alley.
“But Bob Newhart spoke to me,” Katz explains.
Katz says that Newhart is a genius because he does what Katz calls dialogue humor—like what Ellen Degeneres did in her monologue about God during her stand-up sets back in the day.
In the album (called The Button-Down Mind), Newhart does a bit about a driving instructor, and this bit stood out to Katz, so he memorized it and filed it away.
Later on in life, while living in Boston, Katz walked into a brownstone pub called Crossroads and up the stairs to find a comedian playing with a guitar—only to realize after the fact that the man was Steven Wright.
He went back to Crossroads to perform his own set during an open mic night, and Katz pulled out Newhart’s driving instructor bit. It was a hit.
From there, he ended up as a manager of a comedy club in college. But when his wife died, Katz said he needed to get out of Boston. One day he got in his car, drove to New York, and called a real estate agent from a pay phone in a bar. He got a tiny place near where Seinfeld lived.
“I didn’t know why I was there or what I was going to do, but I told myself, ‘If I can open an office here and I can open up a comedy club, I’ll do it,’” Katz said.
And he did, and when he did, he named it “The Boston Comedy Club.” At this point in the podcast, Rachael chimes in to ask a question.
“Why did you call the club ‘The Boston Comedy Club’ in New York?” she asks.
“Because,” Katz says, ‘clearly I’m an idiot.”
“Listen, you don’t want to do this. Just give it to me.”
Here’s the story of how Katz opened said club in NYC: Eddie Brill, who used to book for The Letterman Show, told Katz that he was leaving a club to move to Los Angeles. Katz visited the place, and even though it was a total dive, he tried to convince Rick Messina to give the club over to him.
“I said, ‘Listen, you don’t want to do this. Just give it to me.’”
And Messina did.
On opening night, the guy who helped Katz set up the chairs and run the mic cords was a young 18-year-old redhead from Boston named Louis C.K.—Katz’s first-ever client.
“He was a great stand up, a wonderful guy, a great creator,’ Katz says of Louis. “But there’s one thing that made me want to represent him that is kind of odd—it probably has nothing to do with talent, even though he was incredibly talented. When my wife passed away... there are times when you’re going through a tragedy when you don’t want to do anything, you don’t want to see anybody, and I was in that place.”
Katz recalls being at home on Christmas one night—“I’m Jewish, but still, Jesus was a Jew,” he says—and Katz started getting calls from Louis every 15 minutes.
“Katz, get up, you’re coming to my house for Christmas,” Louis said before the answering machine clicked off.
Fifteen minutes later: “Katz, I’m telling you, I’m gonna fucking come over there. Get up. I’m not letting you do this.” Click.
Another fifteen minutes later: “Barry, I’m not fuckin around.” Click.
“I was in bed and I just picked up the phone and said ‘Yeah?’ and he’s like, ‘Barry, come on over, man. We got a place at the table for you.’”
So Katz went (through a snowstorm) to Louis’ house, and was welcomed by a place at the table and gifts under the tree.
“It was one of the most amazing moments of my life,” Katz said. “I just said to myself, ‘If you can represent people who are talented people, who have a lot of drive, who believe in themselves, but who also are good, generous people, that’s really important.’”
And before he knew it, he had four of his own clients on Saturday Night Live: Tracy Morgan, Darrell Hammond, Jay Mohr, and Jim Breuer.
Katz goes on to give Rachael a telling anecdote about the time Darrell Hammond came into his office for a management meeting.
Katz asked him point blank, “What do you want?”
Darrell crossed his legs, leaned on the side table, and rested his hand on the side of his face. He looked at Katz and he said, “I came to New York from Florida to be on Saturday Night Live.”
And Katz’s response?
“I will get you on Saturday Night Live, and if I don’t get you on Saturday Night Live the first time I try, fire my ass right then and there.”
“How were you so confident?” Rachael cuts in to ask. “How did you know you could do it?”
“I can shake somebody’s hand and it’s like the dead zone,” Katz says. “I can see the future. I can see what’s happening with certain artists, and I know, and I knew with Darrell.”
“In comedy, you’re going to college in front of people.”
Switching subjects, Katz explains that comedy is an interesting career path because comedians are learning in front of an audience, while engineers and architects don’t have to do that. Those guys can mess up in class and no one sees. For comics, it’s a different story.
“In comedy, you’re going to college in front of people,” he said.
And yet, if you actually put in the work and pay your dues so to speak, you’ll get there.
“If you are a great and extraordinary standup comic and you really believe you are, and you’ve studied and you’ve imitated and you’ve perfected the greatness, then people are going to chase you like your ass is on fire,” he says.
Rachael mentions that she’s been studying David Spade’s comedy a lot recently, prompting Katz to bring up the notion of stylization in comedy.
“Jim Gaffigan is the fascinating midwestern kind of guy, Dane Cook was that comedian for the Y-generation… What would you say your lane is?” he asks Rachael.
“I think my lane is a female comic that sort of has—I think so at least—a guy-ish personality,” she says.
“That’s something that I noticed about you right away is that you were just doing something and it didn’t matter if you were a guy or a girl, you were just doing material that you thought was funny about subject matter you thought was funny,” Katz says.
The two go on to talk about confidence in comedy.
“Doubt is a career killer,” Katz says. “Doubt and success don’t go together. And I can guarantee you, out of everyone you know in this business, you know that there’s a multitude of people who have self doubt. And you might not even be able to sniff it on them. But you—I know you can. And I can.”
One night, while at a party of Peter Engel’s, Katz noticed a paperweight with a particularly relevant saying: “Imagine what you could accomplish if you knew you would never fail.”
“If you take the doubt out of what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter if you’re a comedian, an actress, going up for a job at a law firm, or you’re working in a cubicle at some call center—you always have to figure out how to get to the next level and pass the people that are there,” Katz says.
“You’re not supposed to do better than your fucking client.”
Katz goes on to explain that the creation of his podcast was a bit of a fluke.
You see, Jay Mohr asked Katz to be a guest on his show, and the day the episode went live, it became the #1 podcast in the world that day.
Based on that feedback, Jay said to Katz, “Barry, you should do this.”
Katz asked lawyers, agents, and managers in the business if he should do it, and they all said no. But he gave it a shot anyway (and immediately saw success).
After he hit the ratings chart, someone jokingly told him, “You’re not supposed to do better than your fucking client, Katz.”
“If I manage somebody, and let’s say they get Saturday Night Live, it’s wonderful, it’s so gratifying, it’s so amazing, but I really have only helped one person,” Katz says. “On the podcast, I get to help a lot of people, and that’s what I want.”
“Apply the blueprint and the formula.”
Regarding the notion of success and how to excel in any business, Katz’s advice is to evaluate your life and gain knowledge from areas in which you’re already doing well.
“Look at what you do in your life that’s an A, look at what you do in your life that blows people the fuck away. Maybe you’re great in math and you’re always getting A’s in math—figure out what your formula is for that. Or maybe you’re great at managing a comedy club and that’s great but you suck and doing other things. If you want to figure out how to be great at the other things, apply the blueprint and the formula.”
For example, Katz says that for Rachael, if she wanted to be a great actress, she would need to figure out the formula she’s doing here with the podcast and apply what’s working there to the theatrical area of her life.
Rachael adds that that’s what going to Second City every single week for a year and a half and performing constantly has done for her.
“You know what it takes to win,” Katz says. “Most comedians that you work with out there, they’ve never won. In the podcast world right now, you’re winning.”
“Life is all about patterns, but also as an artist, it’s about changing the pattern.”
Rachael and Katz get to talking about the ten year rule, and Katz brings up the one similarity between the greatest comedic TV shows in history—King of Queens, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, Louie, Master of None, Home Improvement, Roseanne—and that similarity is a seasoned standup comedian.
“Every single one of those shows has a comedian who’s been doing it for at least ten years,” Katz says. “That’s always the way it is. So you have to put the time in.”
But the other piece of the puzzle, he says, is that you can’t be self-destructive.
“It doesn’t matter what job you’re in,” he says, “if you’ve got a great job at the law firm and you lose your temper in your office and everyone can hear you, chances are you’re not going to have a job that long. If you’re the manager of the 7-Eleven and you’re taking down girls’ numbers, chances are you’re not going to get to where you want to go. How many comedians do you see every night at the club whose sole purpose in doing their set is getting laid that night and then they wake up at the crack of 2:00pm and start the process again?”
The point is that every hour is valuable, he says. If you put the work in, you’re going to get the break you deserve.
“It’s just about creating those ‘Holy shit’ moments and blowing people the fuck away,” Katz says.
And no matter who you are and what you want to succeed at, there will always be a plethora of people who don’t want you to get where you want to go because they want to beat you at the game, he says.
“You have to figure out how to navigate to be that person who is going to just completely fuck people up and change the pattern that’s been happening in that scene.”