Comic Dave Hill Builds a Career,
One Web Video at a Time
[The Wall Street Journal, 2 August 2009]
By Richard Morgan
You won’t see Dave Hill’s name up in lights in Vegas, in Hollywood, or on Broadway. But he is at the vanguard of a new class of entertainers making a living with rules they are scribbling for themselves.
Hill takes in $100,000 a year working with Cinemax, MSN, HBO, Comedy Central, and others making comedic viral videos –- ridiculing Comic-Con, Fashion Week, anything. He is adored on BoingBoing, one of the world’s most-trafficked blogs. His suits are given to him free by tailors at Penguin. Not bad for a 36-year-old self-described “fat-faced nobody who gets to have fun doing whatever.”
His quasi-monthly talk show, The Dave Hill Explosion, is conducted at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade theater. Not that his humble digs mean he doesn’t have high-minded fans; he is photographed obsessively (and also for free) by Beowulf Sheehan, a professional who has also shot Henry Kissinger, Paris Hilton, Wu-Tang’s RZA and writer Dave Eggers.
Some online videos he made as his alter ego, The King of Miami, debut on British television this weekend. His Web site offers a Japanese version because he is the kind of cool dude that would take over Tokyo way before catching on in Manhattan or Los Angeles, let alone his native Cleveland.
To hammer that last point home, this week –- flanked by giant banners proclaiming “BIG!!” –- Hill gave a one-night-only performance called Big in Japan; in it, he riffed on his exploits from a nine-day, four-city concert tour of Japan with his band, Valley Lodge, that was organized by a Japanese record label. “I am so big in Japan,” he deadpanned, “that if you told a Japanese person that you didn’t know who I was, they would probably punch you in the face -– which is saying a lot, because they’re a very polite people.” He talked mostly — and sometimes disgustingly, he admitted — about Japanese toilets.
“I was so amazed at how awesome and futuristic and amazing that world is — it was like reality flipped, and I was this American tourist taking a million pictures of Japan,” he noted to his packed audience. “Then I realized: when we take pictures of Japan, it’s because it’s awesome there; when they take pictures of America, it’s because they can’t believe how lame we are. They need to document it so their friends believe them.”
When I first saw Hill, I watched one of his talk shows, which he started by bursting out of a cardboard box in his underwear. Then he interviewed television legend Dick Cavett (who taught the audience how to moonwalk) and emo musician Rufus Wainwright, getting them to challenge each other to see who had the funniest Holocaust-related personal anecdote. At another of his shows, I sat across from Ira Glass, the eminent public radio host; the actor Jerry O’Connell asked if the seat next to me was taken; the seat in front of me, reserved with a velvet rope made of scotch tape, was plucked at the last second by Steve Gutenberg. They had all joined the regular audience of 200-ish Brooklyn hipsters and NYU pre-dropout artistes to witness The Explosion. Previous talk show guests include Moby, a Victoria’s Secret model, and Randy Jones (the cowboy from the Village People).
Part of what makes Hill so different from the funnymen before him is that so many of the Old Guard relied desperately on very particular hinges in their career: you had to get called up to Johnny Carson’s desk on The Tonight Show after your stand-up routine; you had to get on Saturday Night Live; you had to land a sitcom on a national network. Meanwhile, you were slaving away at some not-comedy job: Bill Murray worked at Little Caesar’s, Bernie Mac was a furniture mover, Steve Carell was a mailman. Dave Hill lives in an age when you can quietly but forcibly open your own doors.
More and more people are realizing it helps a great deal to have a finger in every pie,” says Ben Schwartz, an Emmy-nominated 27-year-old comedian who runs RejectedJokes.com – the very premise of which means that none of his ideas are wasted anymore. Just a few years ago, Schwartz started off the old-school route: wearing a tie and sneaking into the MTV president’s office with his résumé, faxing in 15 to 20 new jokes a day (every day for two and a half years) to David Letterman for $75 a joke (if the joke aired), or SNL’s Weekend Update, wishing and hoping.
Then YouKnowWhat happened. And for $60, Schwartz made a funny short film that got 10 million hits. Now he has a book out and another out in August, a movie with Sarah Silverman and Rainn Wilson, a TV pilot with Richard Dreyfuss and Mary Steenburgen, and that Emmy nod.
“You can’t have downtime,” Schwartz says, “that’s how we feel these days. At least, that’s how I feel. You have to use every part of the buffalo.”
Brett Erlich, who studies viral videos for an online comedy routine called Viral Video Film School, explained: “This is what we do that’s so different from Jay Leno. We are the first generation of channel-surfers since birth. We live extracurricular lives. We gobble it all up and poop the most multicolored, diverse poop that’s ever existed. Can you really hate Leno for not understanding that? He’s just copying what he grew up with. Forgive Grandpa; it’s how he was raised, y’know?”
Backstage before his show, Hill downs his pre-show energy mix: two diet Cokes, a banana, and a peanut-butter-and-chocolate Clif energy bar. He’s getting used to this–in his band days, it used to take him up to six beers just to feel comfortable on stage.
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