Back when I was in the cubicle-land of the gainfully employed, I found one of the nicest things about a steady paycheck was being able to pay my bills and be a productive member of society. What fun is that? No, what I particularly enjoyed was being able to give more money to creative projects, to be able to monetarily help the artists I most wanted to support. Kickstarter has made this even easier, for both artists and their audience, and Seth Olenick‘s massive photography book, Funny Business, was one of the first projects for which I happily forked over cash. The book features over 200 photos of comedians, particularly those comics in the so-called “alt-comedy” scene, who have helped shape the face of comedy over the past 20 years. We spoke with Seth about crowdfunding, Dave Hill‘s audio commentary for Funny Business, Seth’s own comedy roots, and how comedians are people too.
Serial Optimist: So it’s been seven years now since you started this project?
Seth Olenick: Yeah, it’s been seven years since I first sent out the first e-mails. I think I had like seven or eight comics’ e-mails, and they were all people that I had photographed when I was working for Heeb magazine. I did the first shoot on March 26th, 2007. So the actual shoots took place over six and a half years, but tack on three months before that and then three months to put the book together, and that’s how we get to seven years almost to the day.
SO: On paper, that sounds like a long time, but for a project of this size, I’d say that sounds about right.
Seth: It’s like one of those things where if you’ve never been to a place and you’re walking there or driving there, it seems like a really long time. But once you’ve already been there, all of a sudden it’s a breeze. I think during the process it just felt like it was dragging on forever—not in a bad way, that makes it sound like it was just ugh. But no, it was originally something that wasn’t supposed to last anywhere near as long, and I’d never done a project of this sort, so I really didn’t know what I was getting into. Yeah, looking back on it, I know people who have worked on things a lot longer. I think a lot of people didn’t really think this was going to come to fruition, my first literary agent being one of them. He actually dropped me, told me flat out, you’re never going to actually do this, and that was immediately after telling him that I had booked Judd Apatow for a shoot and how should I approach him to write the intro. That was like three, almost four years ago.
SO: Well, who’s laughing now. If you were to tackle another project like this again, do you think you could do it more quickly?
Seth: I think I would have more focus. Definitely when I started doing this thing, and you can tell, the earlier photos were more just kind of straightforward portraits. And then as I was going along, it just seemed like it would be too bland to just take a nice portrait of each person, so they got more conceptual. So I think going into whatever my next project is, I think I’ll have a better idea ahead of time. But these things, they morph. I can’t imagine anybody actually sets out to do something between five and ten years long and at the end of it, the road map is exactly as we planned it. We all have detours and epiphanies. It’s organic.
SO: Speaking of organic, the Kickstarter really worked out well for you, huh?
Seth: Yeah, that was, y’know—I had been doing this whole project on my own, so to open it up to other people to kind of contribute to it—obviously, monetarily—but also everybody’s getting something from that, and I’m glad I can give books to these people who made the book happen. Some of the people in the book were already tweeting about it before I even had a chance to tell them there was a Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a full time job. I’ve always had a day job—I mean, there was a little over a year during this project when I didn’t have a job, which was a rough period. But for the most part, I’ve had a day job throughout this whole process. So these shoots are happening on weekends or at night or taking vacation days to go out to L.A. to do shoots out there. So I was working during the day, coming home at 6:30 or 7, and then working on Kickstarter stuff till like 3 or 4 in the morning sometimes. I would say the average that I went to sleep that whole month was, like, 3 am because I was just sending out e-mails to any blogs that knew about me or that I knew about, “Hey can you do this?” It was crazy. I definitely understand why people have publicists if they can afford them. But to me, it was also a bigger sense of accomplishment to know that I was the one that set up the Kickstarter, that I was the one pushing it out to people and the fact that people reacted to it, it was awesome. New York magazine did a little blurb on the fact that I was offering a Benihana dinner with Horatio Sanz cooked by me. You guys have been very supportive throughout the process, going back several years, and I’ve always appreciated that. The momentum was just kind of building, and the Kickstarter was the culmination of that momentum. And then once the Kickstarter ended, then all of the sudden, you’re like okay, now there are all these expectations, deadlines. Before it was just like: Work on it, shoot whenever I can, at some point I’ll feel I’m done with it. But at that point, it’s like I told them it’s going to be out by this date, so I have to be done shooting by this date, designed by this date. And because there are so many moving parts at that point, it becomes out of my hands, and that’s when the delays start. Ideally the book would have been out in September, if not October, but it’s still coming out December 10th for sure.
SO: But it seems like even with the delays, contributors are understanding of that.
Seth: Yeah, I actually got a handful, five or six people, just saying, “Hey, I haven’t heard from this and I moved, so when do I send my address?” But when you’re in the thick of it, you’re just trying to get it done. I should have updated people a little bit more. I’ve gotten better about it over the last couple months; anytime something has happened I’ve updated people. One person even wrote, and I was like, “Sorry it’s running late,” and he was like, “I always add a few months to what people say so you’re pretty much right on track.” So that made me feel better. I’ve contributed to several Kickstarter projects, and some of them are right on the day and there’s one I’ve been waiting on for almost a year since they said they would deliver. It’s tough. It’s only when you’re actually making the thing you’re selling that you can realize there are certain delays and certain speedbumps. Luckily in my case, it wasn’t drastic, and I had a designer who I also work with at my day job anyway, so we were able to keep in constant contact. The printer, that was a tougher thing because I was just sort of handing these things off, and y’know, I’d never done it before, and I guess I had hoped that I would get a little more…not hand-holding, but just more explanation of the process. And I think a lot of the delays came after the delivery of the files, there were at least a couple weeks’ delay, and because of those couple weeks, the shipment is coming around Thanksgiving, and that’s what’s delaying the delivery to me another week. Theoretically, I could have had these books out by now, but y’know. It is what it is.
SO: It sounds like your experience with this is still preferable to the traditional publishing route, which you had tried, right?
Seth: Yeah, we tried. We pushed it. I did have a literary agent, and still do. He’s been with me a few years now, and he’s a friend, and he’s one of the few people who believed in this and thought, y’know, there’s going to be an uphill battle to sell something like this, but it’s worth it. And so we did go that route and we pushed it to a lot of the publishers who have been putting out books by the comedians in my book, but unfortunately they all passed. They said there’s nothing out there like this for us to compare it to, to know its actually got an audience.
SO: That’s obviously a concern, but you were on Carson Daly, doing P.R., and it seemed like the demand was fairly obvious.
Seth: I would like to think that, but also putting out a full-color book, my book is 236 pages, so I guess they didn’t think of it as something that was going to be really cheap. I only did 1500 copies, and it was pretty pricey. Obviously, the more copies you make, the cheaper it gets. But I really think the audience is out there, and if I had a publisher behind me, a P.R. team behind me, I’d be able to sell a lot more books. But as just one person, I am relying on word of mouth at this point, and I am going to write to everybody that was in the book and ask them to put out the word again. Whatever can be done. I’ve been writing to a lot of the talk shows to see if they would put me on. It’s tough. Again, I’m not a publicist, so I don’t have that kind of access to the right people. But I am getting contact information for what I think are the right people, and hopefully it will lead to something.
SO: I wanted to ask you about Dave Hill narrating the audio version.
Seth: Yeah, it’s amazing.
SO: From the way you describe it, I mean, does he tend to stay on topic or—
Seth: No. No, not at all. And that’s what I wanted. I was pretty clear with him. Everybody wrote a little blurb to go along with their photo in the book, and somebody with less creativity would have just decided to have someone read each caption. But I know how funny Dave is and I know how much I wouldn’t want to listen to something that was just someone reading everything that’s in there. I wanted it to be more like director’s commentary on a DVD. So it’s just him commenting on the photos: He’d see a cat in a photo and just kinda go off about how he’s allergic to cats and the first time he realized that. Just kind of stream of consciousness, going on tangents, non-sequiturs, a little bit of everything, and his stomach was gurgling the entire time.
SO: How long is the audio book then?
Seth: I’m still going through it, the only things I’m editing out are like when he would ask me questions and then restart, so I think in the end it’s going to be somewhere between two hours and fifteen minutes and two and a half hours.
SO: Oh, of unadulterated Dave Hill, that sounds great!
Seth: Yeah, and his voice is like silk wrapped in honey. Or honey wrapped in silk. Either way.
SO: So I wanted to ask you about the Lance Krall photo and the baby sandwich. Whose baby is that?
Seth: Oh, that’s his baby, his daughter. I got his and his wife’s permission. No babies were harmed in the making of that.
SO: I read where you said people were more interested in where you got bread that size rather than the safety of the child.
Seth: That’s 100% true, that’s the question I get most often, which I find kind of nuts. In fact, Lance wrote me just the other day and said that he showed the picture to his daughter recently, because she’s about four years old now, and she asked, “Why am I in a sandwich?” I told him I hope I didn’t give her some kind of sandwich complex.
SO: You also got to photograph The State. Was that difficult getting them all into one room?
Seth: Actually, it kind of fell into my lap, to be honest. I was photographing “Reno 911!” for their final season DVD in L.A. That was in December ’08, and Tom [Lennon], Kerri [Kenney-Silver], Joe [Lo Truglio] and Ben [Garant] were like, “We’re having a reunion in San Francisco at the Sketchfest, you should come take photos of that,” and I said, “Yeah, okay.” I was already in L.A., so I just extended my trip by a couple days and flew up to San Francisco. And we had discussed a couple concepts, but the one that seemed the most feasible—because there are eleven of them—was kind of a class portrait. And yeah, it worked out perfectly. That photo was taken about half a block away from where they were doing their show at the Eureka Theatre, and I got to photograph their rehearsal as well, and that was just a lot of fun. A great bunch of people, I couldn’t ask for a nicer crew.
SO: You also have talked about how much you like to work with “Weird Al” Yankovic and what a big fan you are. What’s your favorite record?
Seth: Record or song?
Seth: I really like the song “Melanie” on Even Worse. I love that. As far as like a full album, it might be Dare to be Stupid, or Even Worse I do love as well. Something around that era. I mean I’ve loved almost everything he’s done. And I only got to see him live for the first time a few years ago. I told him, it had to have been 1986 or so, so I was about 7 years old, and all I wanted was all of the “Weird Al” tapes at that time. And I got them, I don’t remember if it was for my birthday or Hanukkah or something. My brother and I first had Dare to be Stupid, and then my parents got me the self-titled album and then In 3-D. Knowing one album’s worth of stuff, and then knowing there was couple more albums out there, it was jut so amazing. And it was just right up my alley as far as my comedy interests. Before that, I’d been listening to Bill Cosby tapes, that was probably my biggest exposure up till the late ’80s and early ’90s until Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer and They’re All Gonna Laugh at You! by Adam Sandler, when those came out and that just changed everything. Those coupled with The Ben Stiller Show, which I write about in my book as being one of the biggest influences on my comic sensibilities from then till now.
SO: It’s great how—I hadn’t seen The Ben Stiller Show since Comedy Central re-ran them in the late ’90s until I got the DVD a few years back, and that show really holds up well.
Seth: Yeah, it does. Well, it holds up for you and I. I think anybody born in the early ’90s wouldn’t get the “Melrose Heights 902102402” references, but I definitely still love watching those. My brother and I watched it originally on Fox, so when it was re-run on Comedy Central, we made sure to tape them on VHS, and those are the only VHS tapes I’ve ever worn out from watching so much. I really, really love that show and knew it backwards and forwards. And then to find Mr. Show when that came about, knowing that came from the ashes of The Ben Stiller Show as well.
SO: It just now occurs to me to ask, have you ever done stand-up?
Seth: I did it for the first and only time the day after my birthday this year. So July 28th, I did it.
SO: Did it go well?
Seth: It was just me and all the other people signed up to do the open mic, and then my friend, his wife and their baby who came, so it wasn’t like a big crowd. I wasn’t going to get huge laughs or boos or anything. So it didn’t sour me on the thing. I’d still like to do it again, tweak some of the things I talked about. I know what makes me laugh, so hopefully I can translate that into my own writing and express that properly. I don’t really expect to make a living out of stand-up or even a side career. But we’ll see.
SO: So, guy like Christoper Meloni are more well known for their dramatic work, like Jon Hamm and Kevin Corrigan, who are also in the book. These guys are clearly big comedy nerds. Why do you think they’re not doing more comedy than they already are?
Seth: Well, I think for somebody like Chris Meloni, most people know him from SVU and Oz, so people aren’t going to seek him out to do comedy. And the comedies that I know him from like Wet Hot American Summer and the Harold & Kumar movies, which aren’t exactly movies that I’m sure every exec has seen, so they may not even think of them as comedic actors. I just watched Wet Hot the other day and it holds up, and Chris Meloni is one of the funniest characters in the movie. I like to see beyond the typecast. When I shot Jon Hamm, I knew he was a huge comedy nerd, and we even talked about how, in his struggling days, UCB shows were all five dollars or less, so it was easier to go see comedy for next to nothing, so that’s what he did. And it’s nice to know these people are versatile with their acting. And Kevin Corrigan might be lesser known with that. Chris Meloni took things way to the other side of the spectrum in a good way. But I don’t think you’re going to see Kevin Corrigan acting like Freakshow in Harold & Kumar, or even Gene in Wet Hot, those kinds of ridiculous things. He has, like in Superbad; he’s like such an asshole but still just a great funny scene with him.
SO: Is he as scary in real life? Like his roles in Freaks and Geeks and Superbad, he’s scarier in those roles than in like his dramatic stuff.
Seth: Oh no, he’s a really nice guy. I’d talked to one of the other people I shot, and I knew they knew each other, and I was like, “Hey, can you say something to him?” And then I ended up running into Kevin on the train in Brooklyn, and I just like walked right up to him, and luckily I had that reference, like “So-and-so might have mentioned me to you?” And he was very friendly and we exchanged contact information and we did the shoot. Whether he’s a scary person in general, I don’t know, but he wasn’t to me. Y’know, the one thing—like when everybody is like, “Oh, was so-and-so really funny, cracking jokes?” And it’s like, that’s just their stage persona. A lot of these comics are not gonna walk around cracking jokes all the time. That’s their job. On the side, they’re just normal people. I try to have conversations with them about stuff aside from comedy, they’re not gonna sit there and just start testing out jokes on me.
SO: They’re not on 24/7.
SO: And that’s perfect for what you’re doing because you’re trying to capture them as people and artists. That’s the project for me: Not only are you a really good photographer, but it also lets us know these comics better as people. So I’m really excited for it.
Seth: I appreciate it. I hope you’re joined by at least 1499 others
SO: I will make some phone calls, sure. Who were you unable to get that you really wanted to get?
Seth: A short list would be like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, Larry David, those were the ones—oh, and some other SNL people. Andy Samberg‘s people actually did get back to me, but I was on my honeymoon the day they requested, and unfortunately that was never rescheduled. But I did get to shoot behind the scenes at a Lonely Island video. Will Forte was another—I actually do have some shoots lined up still for the e-book, so hopefully the shoot with Maya Rudolph will still happen. And the e-book hopefully will be out by Valentine’s Day.
SO: So the e-book will be like a companion?
Seth: Yeah, I think rather than mixing things in, because that means way more design work, so we’re going to have kind of an addendum. And to be honest, I took almost thirty people out of the book that I had shot. I just couldn’t have that many pages, it would be too costly. So I do have like twenty or thirty more photos that didn’t make it in. So the e-book is gonna be a good thirty to forty pages longer.