By Jason Tanamor
Fans of pop culture and funny commentary can now look toward a new spokesperson. Brian Balthazar, comedian, news pundit and writer, looks back at all things pop culture in his online blog, "PopGoesTheWeek." Updated daily, Balthazar pokes fun at anything, from a website to a product, or a picture. He recently chatted himself up with Zoiks! Online magazine.
Q – You’ve been a stand-up comedian, TV News pundit and panelist, and writer. Which venue do you like the best and why?
A - Anything that can make me a lot of money! Oh wait - none of them do! Truth is, I really like all of them for different reasons. But it's the stand-up comedy that really got things moving for me. I had been working in television as a producer doing hard news for many years, with a lot of aspirations, but none of them were really working. It wasn't until I started doing stand-up comedy that everything started coming together. Although comedy doesn't always pay much, (or often, anything) it has proven to be a fantastic way to grow in every other genre. It keeps me sharp when I'm on live television, and it forces me to think differently about my writing.
And ultimately there really is nothing like having the instant feedback of an audience. Hearing them all laugh tells you you're doing something right. If you make a joke on live television, you really don't know if anyone at home is laughing. That can be terrifying.
Q – Tell me how you got involved in each medium.
A - I had always been a writer, even though I wasn't necessarily getting paid for it. But that's the beauty of writing - you don't have to be doing it as a 'career' to really BE a writer. You just have to keep doing it. One day, after working in retail for almost ten years, thinking there was nothing else out there for me, I up and quit and decided I would become a freelance writer. I was in Boston at the time. Real life proved that it wouldn't be that simple, but I didn't give up, and began writing short articles for next to nothing. Those little articles led to writing news stories for a local news station, and that's where my career in TV news production began. The nice thing about writing is that no matter what field you're working in, it all contributes to your growth as a whole. Learning how to tell a story is something that you'll use in any genre - from a news story - to a novel, to a joke.
I had wanted to be a comic for years but I didn't know where in the world to begin. I had an idea of what I wanted to talk about, but I couldn't motivate myself to try. By now I was living in Manhattan. What was I waiting for!?! I decided the only way I would get onstage was if I took a class that I PAID for. I knew that if I forked over a few hundred bucks, I would force myself to finish the class, and most classes end with a live performance. So that's what I did. It was a great plan, plus most classes also are taught out of a comedy club, so you get to know the people there, and build the relationships with the club folks, if you're lucky. From there, I did bringer shows and invited every person I knew to come watch. (For people outside the field, 'bringers' REQUIRE that you bring a minimum number of people to the show, or they don't let you perform. I was fortunate to have some very loyal friends who've been subjected to my jokes far more than anyone deserves to.
I was doing this at night, while during the day I was working as a television news producer. Coincidentally, while working as a producer I got to know TLC's Stacy London, the host of "What Not To Wear." She was doing a series of late night talk show specials for the network, and it had a live audience. With her recommendation, I became the live audience warm-up comic for the series.
I still consider it one of the most fun comedy jobs I've ever had. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. You never knew what would happen on the set, so you didn't know if you would need to work the crowd for ten minutes or forty-five minutes. Or more. It was totally unpredictable. I loved it. A casting agent noticed me and hired me for more warm-up gigs for MTV, Food Network, and Comedy Central. I will always be grateful to Stacy London for getting me my first break in comedy. She's a dear friend to this day.
As for television, it wasn't until after doing stand-up comedy that people in the business saw me differently. (Before that, I had always solely been viewed as a producer.) It led to me getting some on camera spots doing offbeat stories for MSNBC. Again, some producers took a chance on me, and asked me to do some reports for "Countdown With Keith Olbermann." This was more than eight years ago, and I was reporting the unusual sidebar stories from the Democratic National Convention. They were so 'out there,' I wasn't sure the network would air them. But they did. I didn't land a full time job out of it; although I did get some feature reporting work for NBC a few years later. Then, another dry spell. Then, just four months ago, some former producers from Olbermann who have since moved on remembered me from those spots eight years ago. Now they work on HLN's "The Joy Behar Show," and they've booked me on the show a few times as a panelist. So you never really know when your work will pay off. Now I'm doing "The Today Show," "Showbiz Tonight" and "The Early Show" as a comic and editor of my website "PopGoesTheWeek."
Whew. That was a mouthful!
Q – Since Zoiks! Online focuses a lot on stand-up comedy, describe your act for those who have yet to see you perform.
A - It's always evolving. I don't have a 'schtick' per se, but I do observational comedy about my own daily life. I will add, I'm not an 'angry guy' comic. I'm much more of a happy guy who just thinks the world is completely screwy, and I'd rather laugh about it than shout about it. I also don't really make fun of the audience. (I need them on my side!) I'd much rather make fun of myself.
Q – How is writing stand-up material different/same than writing a column or writing for TV?
A - With stand-up comedy, or doing live panelist/pundit segments, you can take advantage of how you deliver a joke physically and verbally. You can adjust your timing, add a dramatic pause, take an unusual tone, or use a facial expression or body movement that drives something home. Sometimes that can make a joke that's just 'good' become great. But with writing a column, you have to really consider how the reader will interpret it. Will they sense sarcasm? Will they be able to tell when you're being tongue in cheek? Whatever the genre, you run the risk of offending someone. That's just the way comedy is - you won't win everyone over.
Q – You run a blog titled, “Pop Goes the Week.” What’s this all about?
A - What I hope for it to be is a smart, lighthearted look at the buzz worthy stories of the day with some funny (hopefully!) commentary.
Sometimes I'll throw in a post about a ridiculous site that I'm enjoying, an outrageous product that you should (or should never) buy, or just a picture that cracks me up. If "The New York Times" and CNN are your main course, I'm your dessert.
Q – What was your favorite news story to talk about in 2009?
A - 2009 was a great year for crazy stories. I try not to be mean just for the sake of being mean - but some folks were just asking for it. Balloon Boy dad, Jon Gosselin, Levi Johnston, Sarah Palin - they were irresistible! They're a comic's bread and butter. It got me a lot of bookings.
Q –Doing what you do, do you ever get ridiculed for poor taste?
A - Absolutely! There are some topics that are just going to press people's buttons. Michael Jackson is one of them. Just this past week I was preparing for a television segment, and I was trying to figure out a way to describe Michael Jackson's looks in recent years. But anytime you say ANYTHING negative about Michael Jackson you are going to hear about it. He has some very loyal fans and they aren't afraid to call you out on even the slightest criticism. I knew whatever I said would be trouble. But I went for it - not to be mean, but because I believed in it.
Some people just need to relax. Years ago I wrote an article for MSNBC.com and I got an email from someone who was FURIOUS about a grammatical error I had made. I mean, this person was ANGRY. Saying I had no business being a writer, and a barrage of other really hostile things. I wrote back a very polite response about how everyone makes mistakes. I think I included something like "I guess that's why they still put erasers on pencils," etc. etc. And then I paraphrased that they needed to lighten the hell up.
Q – Being a comedian, how do you decide what topic to write about versus not?
A - I think I'm still trying to figure that out. Like yourself, I do as many postings online as I can each day, and honestly, sometimes nothing seems funny. Sometimes you're just not in the mood. Fortunately, there are just enough crazy people out there to provide a fair amount of material.
Like I said earlier, I try not to be mean just for the easy laugh. Anybody can be the bully on the playground making fun of everyone. I generally poke fun of people when they seem to be asking for it with their outright ridiculous behavior. Well, that, or they chose a horrible outfit that day. But generally, I think there is enough humor in day to day life that I don't have to take potshots every minute of the day.
Q – Even though some of these news stories negatively affect peoples’ lives, being in the business, do you find yourself rooting some of these people on for the pure sake of having something to talk or write about? Like I could go all year about Tiger Woods.
A - I'd be lying if I didn't admit that there are some stories I can't get enough of. And the irony is, these people do in a sense get me more work. You're right, Tiger was the gift that kept on giving for the greater part of a month. I know that Levi Johnston will somehow work his way back into the news, and I eagerly look forward to that day. That said, if I never had to say the name Jon Gosselin again, I would be perfectly content. (The irony is I did a posting about him quite recently. And I didn't have a gun to my head!)
Jason Tanamor is the Editor of Zoiks! Online. He is also the author of the novels, "Hello Lesbian!" and "Anonymous." Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Brian Balthazar says Balloon Boy dad, Jon Gosselin, Levi Johnston, and Sarah Palin were just asking for it."
By Jason Tanamor