AmericasComedy.com had the chance to talk to comedian Don Friesen about his Showtime special and companion album Ask Your Mom. The hour is a sort of Greatest Hits for Friesen, an energetic comic with a very physical stage presence, whose material covers observations about family life, our collective childhood experiences, and everyday frustrations.
“I’m going to sound so boring,” Friesen laments. “Whenever I hear myself described, I think ‘That’s doesn’t sound too funny.’ I think the end product is great, everybody has a good time when they actually experience my stand-up, but I guess I defy neat little wrap-ups. So, good luck.”
Our call began, fittingly, with with cell phone reception issues. One of Don’s “classic” bits is a Dr. Suess style rhyme about terrible reception. It’s one of his oldest, most popular and recognizable jokes, but it almost never existed because, “At the time, it was still considered snooty to have a cell phone,” Don explains. “So everyone I talked to about it thought it wouldn’t resonate. Of course, a few years later every comedian had a cell phone bit and it had reached saturation. In fact, except for the special, I’ve pretty much retired that bit but here we are, all this time later, still walking toward windows [to get a clearer signal].”
AC: It seems like everyone describes you as “clean.” How do you feel about carrying this label?
DF: Well, if that’s the first thing that people say, then I’m doing something wrong. I’ve never made a big deal about working clean, but if that’s something you care about, I’m glad my comedy is accessible to you. But I’ve always put Funny first.
I think it’s more a challenge to get the big laughs when you work clean, it’s a little tougher to really get them going. But, then again, I’ve never done anything the easy way, so…
AC: So would you say it just comes naturally with the subjects you like to talk about or do you have to make an effort to stay on this side of the line?
DF: I think there are a lot of comedians who are funny being blue or even because they are blue, because that’s their truth. Most of my material is satire of my own life and experiences. And sometimes I think of something a little dirtier, but I find if I don’t let myself go blue, I have to dig deeper and deeper to find all the angles, so I end up with richer material.
What I want is for club audiences to think its funny without ever realizing I’m working clean.
I don’t want to use it as a crutch or have it be the reason someone comes to see me. But I do like that there are a lot of people who could use a laugh and they can feel comfortable coming to see me with their parents or their kids.
AC: And you do have a nice regular family (unlike a lot of comedians). How did you end up with the picket fence and how does that work for you?
DF: I think that’s why so much of what I do resonates with people. I’m basically them, I just have a different job. I think people see a lot of themselves in me because my life is so suburban normal.
The downside is that I don’t have any crazy road stories, which always seems to be the question they ask on radio.
AC: What made you decide that now is the time to do this special and this was the material you wanted to put on it?
DF: Well, I’ve wanted a Showtime special since I started, that’s been the Holy Grail for me. So, they saw my at the Hollywood Improv and approached me and said they’d like to see more and how much time did I have, so I convinced them to come out and watch me do an hour about a month later. And they loved it. They said “You’ve got the special, we’re taping next Tuesday.”
So I had just under a week to prep for this and I had to decide very quickly which material to do and they really wanted a lot of these “classic” bits because they show my personality and my background. So this is almost like a “Best Of..” hour of my career so far.
And it was nice to be able to archive some of the classic bits that people love. Even though a few of them felt a little dated now, they wanted to capture and archive all of these so then next time we can pick up from everything new.
AC: So how different would you say the special was from the hour you did at the Improv?
DF: Oh, it’s very similar. Some of the stuff they cut out was my newer stuff, which I think is funnier but not as fully developed, so I’m happy to save that for my next album.
AC: How many of the bits on the special are really and truly archived, never to be done again?
DF: It’s tough, you have people who want to come out and hear their favorite jokes and you have people who come out and want all new stuff, so I try to mix it up.
I’ll throw what are older – but what I consider timeless – bits about once a week, just to keep them fresh. But really, I just try to read the crowd at each show. I just kind of go by feel. But I definitely have some bits that are at least 80% retired.
AC: Speaking of retired jokes, do you remember anything from your first set?
DF: Oh, I was back in college and it was a Cool Ranch Doritos contest, so.. and this is the mindset I was in back then… I’m almost embarrassed about how corny it is. But, so I did a Jay Leno impression and said “Jay Leno here for Cool Ranch flavored condoms, hump all you want kids, we’ll make more” [The Doritos Cool Ranch slogan at the time was “Crunch all you want, kids, we’ll make more”] I’m not proud of it, but it is kind of funny to look back on.
AC: Who were some of your influences when you started and who do you look up to now?
DF: Brian Regan kills me, Mitch Hedberg was amazing. Classically, I loved Cosby growing up. Steve Martin, Woody Allen, I memorized all their albums as a teenager. Christopher Titus kills me too. And Doug Stanhope, he kills me. He says things that if you think about it, “I shouldn’t be laughing at that. I don’t even agree with that. But it’s funny.”
And there’s a lot of really funny guys out there still toiling in obscurity who haven’t gotten their chance to break out.
To me, funny is funny. If someone is being true to themselves, if they have a persona that you can believe in, then that’s going to be funny.
About the Author: Amy Hawthorne is an LA-based stand-up and writer and the founder of ComedyGroupie.com. She is convinced that the food industry is being unduly influenced by Big Avocado.