A chat with Fran Solomita
You have to respect a man whose ego is so under control that, when serving as narrator of a comedy scene of which he was a part, he willingly admits, “You have no idea who I am.” Admittedly, it’s kind of true…although when you watch the rapid-fire montage of Fran Solomita’s various gigs on television – both in shows and commercials – that appears at the beginning of his directorial debut, “When Stand Up Stood Out,” you’ll almost certainly recognize his face, if not his name. The film, which details the rise and inevitable fall of the Boston standup comedy scene in the 1980s, is a great documentary that reveals what Steven Wright, Denis Leary, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Janeane Garofalo all have in common. Solomita chatted with Bullz-Eye about how the film came to fruition, who some of the unheralded stars of the Boston scene were, and discusses how one of the single largest names in American comedy today managed to get involved in the project…and why his contribution didn’t appear until the DVD was released.
Fran Solomita: Hi, this is Fran Solomita calling.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, how’re you doing?
FS: Excellent. Your name is…?
BE: Will Harris.
FS: Will Harris! That’s right, I’m sorry. I called Jen (the lovelier of Bullz-Eye’s two publicists; sorry, Mike!) by mistake, because I didn’t know who I was supposed to call.
BE: Oh, okay. Yeah, I was just getting ready to send an email to make sure everything was still a go.
FS: How’s it going?
BE: It’s going great.
BE: And it’s only fair that you don’t know who I am, since, as you admitted at the beginning of the movie, I didn’t know who you were, either.
FS: Did you do standup also?
BE: I do not, no.
FS: So, you know, I really have a problem with people not knowing who I am.
BE: (Uncertain silence)
FS: No, I’m only kidding. I don’t really. I was just making fun of myself.
BE: (Laughs) Well, what’s funny is that, as I watching the brief snippets of the various pieces that you’ve been in, I absolutely remember that Dentyne commercial! (Solomita plays a new dad whose breath is so bad that when he leans into his baby’s crib, a tiny hand pops up with a pack of Dentyne.)
FS: Oh, isn’t that funny?
BE: I’m, like, oh, I do know that guy!
FS: I’m, like, the famous obscure guy. The famous obscure guy with a girl’s name. So…you’re from Bullz-Eye?
BE: I am, yes.
FS: Oh, terrific!
BE: So I got the DVD, and it’s absolutely great.
FS: Oh, I’m glad you liked it!
BE: And I see it’s one of those that’s been a long time coming, because I guess this premiered in, what, 2003 on the film festival circuit?
FS: Well, what we did, we did a couple of festivals back in 2003, and then we just fixed a couple of things and, basically, spent a year and a half trying to get a distributor. So while it looks like it took about six years to get it made and released, it only took about four; it just got spread out over six…which, y’know, is not the ideal situation, but the way I look at it is that six years would’ve gone by one way or the other, and we got it done. Thanks to the distributor (TH!NKFilm). I think they’re a good name to have on this thing, because of “The Aristocrats” and their track record.
BE: Absolutely. In fact, we did a review of “The Aristocrats” and, although the guy who actually reviewed the film when it originally came out wasn’t all that ecstatic about it, I reviewed the special features on the DVD, and I loved it.
FS: It was a funny movie.
BE: And it was fascinating, too, listening to the various interpretations of the same joke.
FS: It’s just a really well-edited good idea.
BE: And have you ever told “The Aristocrats”?
FS: You know what? I didn’t even…I kind of knew the joke, but, no, I never did it. And after seeing that movie, I don’t think I have the right to. (Laughs) I mean, maybe someday if I get really crazy and I’m in some borsch belt comedy club, or I’m at the Friar’s Club and I’m, like, 57 years old and I want to get really filthy for no particular reason, maybe. Who knows?
BE: So what inspired you to make this movie? Obviously, it’s a labor of love, but was there a particular impetus that made you go, “Oh, I really need to put together a documentary about the scene”?
FS: Yeah. I had been living in L.A. for about 10 years…not even; about 8 years at the time we started making it…and comedy in general seemed to have, for me, become more of a business and more of a vocation that people were now sort of professional and doing their thing. I just felt like the comedy clubs out in Los Angeles and the Hollywood scene was…while there are great comics out here, the scene was very much like a show business conveyor belt, and it wasn’t really a comedy scene; it was more like a place to showcase. And I just sort of took a deep breath and thought that, really, the most interesting part of my entire journey was the very beginning. My idea was to do a narrative; I originally had an outline written to do a movie, a feature film…fictional. Sort of like “The Sopranos” meets “Punchline.” A gangster movie about comedy clubs. That was my idea. So I started to work on it, and I was having lunch with two friends of mine, these guys who ended up producing the movie, Chad Sahley and Curt Apanovich. And I started to tell them the story of the old days: living with Denis Leary, seeing Steven Wright’s early performances and Paula Poundstone’s first performance, and just telling them about all my memories from when I was a kid, just starting out in stand-up, and they looked at me and they go, “Wait, wait…you know all these people? You worked with all these people? We can get footage? We got a camera! Let’s just do it; let’s make a documentary! They’re gonna tell this story better than a script or a fake story will!” So I credit them with inspiring me and pushing me to do the documentary. And I’m glad we ended up doing that, because, geez, after the first interview with Lenny Clarke, we knew we had a movie. And then we started searching around for the old stuff, and we started to come across some gold. And we just felt like, these guys are great storytellers, so why not have them tell the story?
BE: Where did you get the footage from? Was it from the comedians themselves, or from the clubs?
FS: One of the producers of the film, a guy who we brought in, was named Doug Miller, and he was a guy who was shooting stuff back in the day, about 20-25 years ago. He was working for a local TV station, and he had the wherewithal to keep a camera going backstage sometimes. He was part of Lenny Clarke’s TV show, and he also shot some of the old B-roll footage of Boston back in the day. He was a great contributor to the project.
BE: How many hours of footage did you have to comb through, once all was said and done?
FS: Um…210 hours. We shot about 100 of interviews and new stuff, then the reunion (for the benefit for comedy club owner and comedian Barry Crimmins) and all that stuff, and then we gathered about another 115. I don’t know if you’ve watched it yet, but if you watch the making-of…
BE: I admit it, I have not. I’ve watched the movie and about half the special features, but the thing’s loaded down with special features!
FS: It’s totally cool. I’m just saying, if you watch that, you’ll get a real insight, and it might inform your review or whatever piece you end up writing, because it really is the three of us just sort of talking about the journey of making it. My partners make fun of me a lot, because they’re jealous of me, but it’s a very funny dynamic in the making-of, because it’s almost really a mini-doc about the doc. It talks about all the footage, the hassles, cutting it in my bedroom, and all these different things that we had to do to make the thing finally get done.
BE: How hard was it to get permission to use the Steven Wright footage (of his very first performance) from “The Tonight Show”? Because I know they’re generally pretty stingy when it comes loaning out material.
FS: (Clears throat) Well, once again…
BE: That’s in there, too, right?
FS: Well, it’s a good question, and it’s one I’ll answer for you, and then also you should, once again, look at that piece, because we talk about it…but what happened was Steven’s an old friend, but that doesn’t really get you any licensing. Steven can’t get you any licensing; Steven can’t license any footage for Johnny Carson. So I called up the Carson Productions people. There were bootleg tapes floating around that guys had taped off the TV, and so we had that, and we looked at that and we just thought, “This is amazing, we need to get the rights to this.” So I called up Johnny Carson’s nephew, who sort of oversees Johnny’s library, and I told him about the project. He appreciated where we were coming from as filmmakers, so, basically, he cut us a deal. It cost us a lot of money. It was, um…hold on one second. (Stops his cell phone from ringing) It was, um, expensive…although they gave us 50 percent off. And Peter Lasally, who’s the producer of “The Tonight Show” and was in the movie, he ended up – and you’ll hear this in the making of, too – but… (Other line rings) Can you hold for one second? I’m sorry, just for one moment.
BE: Yeah, sure.
FS: (Clicks over to the other line for about thirty seconds, then clicks back) Hi.
FS: So, um, what Peter ended up doing…Peter’s actually become a good friend of mine over the last three years since we met him, and he’s just a very wonderful man…I asked him if he would show the movie to Johnny Carson. And so he sent it over to Johnny’s house about a year before he died, and Johnny really liked it. He was very complimentary about the piece, and, interestingly enough, he didn’t realize how much of an impact his show really had on people. I think he did in a showbiz way, but not in a visceral way…how every one of us at that time, all we wanted…all we wanted was to get (on) that show. It was the only show. There wasn’t cable; there wasn’t anything. It was it. That was the Holy Grail. And, so, Johnny was very moved by that when he saw our film. So that’s the story. They gave us a nice break. That was probably the most expensive piece of footage I had to buy. A lot of the other stuff…we still had to clear a lot of other stuff and pay for a lot of other footage here and here. I mean, licensing…I’ll never do another documentary again! (Laughs) I mean, the only way I’ll do a documentary now is if I shoot everything and own it all, because, I mean, we re-scored the whole movie, we only bought the one song – “Dirty Water,” we bought that song, and we had to re-record it – but it was expensive, man. Clearing some of that news footage and some of that other stuff, it ran into some money.
BE: But I would think, certainly, that Steven Wright piece was so crucial to the film that there was no way around including it if you could.
FS: Absolutely. It’s a lynchpin. It’s the centerpiece of the film, and it comes about 30 minutes in, and it’s a crucially important piece. I looked into getting Bobcat Goldthwait on “Letterman,” and, in rough cut, we had Bobby on “Letterman” doing a set, but NBC – which is ironic, because that’s my day job – but their licensing department wasn’t giving me much of a break on that. And, also, David Letterman has outlawed any footage of him past the point of years ago. He doesn’t want it out there. So I couldn’t even have gotten David introducing Bobby; I could only have gotten Bobby doing a little stand-up. And I just thought, it’s just not worth the 25 grand or whatever they want to have Bobby doing one joke on “Letterman.” So we found some other material of his that I actually think is more interesting, anyway.
BE: And even though, obviously, so many have gone on to huge success, is the group still relatively tight even now? Certainly, they came back for the benefit (for Crimmins), but…
FS: You’d be surprised. I mean, that was sort of one of my super-themes for this movie, and I really hope it came across. We did a screening, a little DVD release party, last night here in L.A., and people really seemed to walk away with what my theme was, and that’s loyalty. These guys, that’s another thing that separates them out: because of what they created together and then endured because of the crap that went on…the drugs, the people succeeding and then some people not succeeding, and all the different problems…there really is still sort of a respectful bond. Absolutely. And some of them really are really, really tight still. And that’s kind of cool.
BE: And it seems like nobody really had any problem with coming back to contribute to the film.
FS: Not at all! In fact, the comedians and their honesty and their humor and their humility are what makes this movie good. We put it together, and it was labor-intensive; I’m not gonna lie to you, it wasn’t easy. When you make a documentary, your options are limitless; basically, you can go in any direction you want. Our goal was to not make it a small movie but make it a movie about bigger themes. Make it a small movie in the sense that it’s about a niche scene that really was created out of the dust and happened outside of the realm of show business, and that’s why it was special. One of the things that’s different, too, is that now, because of the internet, anything happens, it happens globally instantly. Where are you right now? You’re in Tennessee?
BE: No, I’m in Chesapeake, Virginia.
FS: Okay, so you’re in Virginia. Something happens in Virginia right now, I’m gonna read about it on CNN.com or YouTube. Instantly, I’m gonna know. If there’s a music scene happened in Cleveland…all of a sudden, there’s this new punk scene or a ska band…I know about it immediately. 25 years ago…if we didn’t do this film, no one really would’ve known that this happened. And I think that was our goal, too. It’s almost like a historical document, but also a story about a bunch of guys.
BE: How is Barry Crimmins doing nowadays? I checked out his website recently, and I see he’s got a new album out, but, health-wise, how is he?
FS: He’s better. He’s much, much better. His illness was, luckily, not terminal, but he’s doing a lot better…and, obviously, he’s working harder than he’s ever worked and is funnier than he ever was. He’s got a lot of good stuff going on.
BE: It was a major coup to get Dane Cook to contribute to the special features. How did ya’ll pull that off?
FS: Well, I did a special about five years ago…Denis Leary invited me to do his “Comics Come Home” show…and I met Dane there. I’ve been friends with Dane’s manager, Barry Katz, for many, many years, and Barry is now Dane’s manager. Dane respects where he’s from. Dane Cook has built an incredible, incredible following organically, using the internet and stuff, and he’s really a vanguard in what he’s done. There are people who say, “What’s he doing on this DVD?” Well, he’s a gigantic star, A, and B, he’s from Boston, and, y’know, he’s young and he’s going to appeal to a younger crowd, so that might help us a little bit. All those reasons are why he’s on it, and how I got him is because Barry Katz, who’s his manager, is an old friend of mine. And, also, once Dane heard about the movie…he saw us shooting it four or five years ago, and he’s, like, “What are you guys doing?” “We’re doing this thing about the history of the Boston comedy scene.” “Oh, that’s really great!” His only thing was, “Just don’t sell the movie like I’m in it. Just make sure it’s just me in a featurette, so you’re not exploiting me.” Hold on one second.
FS: (Vanishes for a few seconds, then returns) Thank you.
BE: Do you have any theories as to why Kevin Meaney never really made it beyond cult status? Because I used to see him all over the place on cable and he was hilarious, but it seemed like he never was able to take that and become a household name.
FS: I absolutely do. I think Kevin…first of all, just to throw a shout-out to Kevin, he’s on Broadway now, starring in “Hairspray.” And he’s incredibly at home on the Broadway stage and deserves all the success he’s now getting. Kevin, I believe, was either mismanaged or was overlooked for reasons beyond me. And, now, he’s got a great manager…he’s with George Shapiro, who is Jerry Seinfeld’s manager…so now I think he’s going to have an incredible career. Again. His career was great. There are a lot of comedians who would’ve loved the career Kevin had in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I know what you’re saying, and I agree with you. I think he could’ve been the next John Candy. And I think there was just something going on in his camp back then…I don’t know who it was, I don’t what they were doing, but I will openly tell you I think he was mismanaged. I think he should’ve been a huge star ten years ago. Huge! I think when he broke on “The Tonight Show” and he did his thing and Johnny loved him…’cause he did “The Tonight Show,” also, and Carson thought he was insane and loved him…and it was a wave that should’ve taken him all the way up, y’know? So there’s a reason for everything, I guess they say, but without a doubt, he’s having a really nice resurgence right now with Broadway, and he’s actually helping us promote the movie a lot. He’s gonna on “Conan O’Brien” and “The Today Show” in the next couple of weeks and help us out…not to mention (Denis) Leary’s also been very helping out with the promoting.
FS: Yeah. It means a lot, old friends coming back and helping out like that.
BE: Absolutely. There’s your loyalty again.
FS: Right! But I must tell you that I’m not the kind of guy who likes to ask for favors, and I’ve had to humbly sort of reach out to these guys, you know what I mean? It’s interesting.
BE: And on a note kind of related to Kevin Meaney, any thoughts as to why Steven Wright never released anything after (his lone album) I Have A Pony? Because everyone I knew owned that record, but it felt like he never really built on the momentum.
FS: Well, Steven… (Sighs) Steven is a guy who’s very comfortable being the writer, director, producer, and actor in his own play every night. And that’s what standup comedy is. No one tells you what to do, ever. The only person who tells you what to do is the guy who points what stage you’re going on, and the rest is up to you, man, you know what I’m saying? And that’s a wonderful control thing. It’s a good thing. He won the Oscar (for Best Short Film, Live Action) in 1989 for “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings,” and he is a brilliant, brilliant writer. And, once again, he’s one of the most original comedy voices of my generation…
FS: …and will go down in history as that. He’s just one of these guys…you know, TV shows and movies, there’s a lot of waiting around, and there’s a lot of doing stuff that’s not necessarily coming out of your mind, and I think Steven just likes doing his own thing. He did a few movies. I’ve been pushing him to direct more and to write more; I think he should write a feature. He’s got a new standup special coming out on Comedy Central in the fall, and it’s phenomenal. My buddy just called me, who manages him, and says the rough cut’s just fucking hilarious. And it’s all new, all new material from the last two specials he’s done. And he pulled me aside, and he was nervous about it when he was first going to do it. He said, “Should I do this thing?” And I said, “Steve, there’s a whole generation of people who don’t know who the hell you are, and I think it’s time you tell them. And everybody who does know who you are wants to know where you’ve been.”
BE: I was going to say that there’s certainly still a generation who loves what he’s done.
FS: Yes, and every guy or girl I know who’s a comedy fan, they go, “Oh, you know Steven Wright?” I say, “Yeah, he’s a very old friend of mine, and he’s in this film I just did.” And they go, “What the hell’s he doing? Where is he?” Everybody says that. Well, here’s what he’s doing: he’s got a new special coming out, he’s in this movie, and I think he’s going to be doing some really cool stuff down the road, because he’s starting to feel that creative itch again.
BE: And just as a closing question, in the midst of putting together the film – and you don’t have to name any names – but did you ever watch any comedian and go, “Y’know, I just don’t understand how they made it bigger than I did”?
FS: Um…there’s something that we didn’t put in the movie, and I think it was…maybe we did put it in! I can’t remember! No, wait, we did put it in…when Paula Poundstone says a lot of it was luck. Does she say that in the movie? I think she does. And Steven even says…I did an interview last week on ABC Radio with Steven, he did a call-in while we were on the air, and even Steven points out that what’s funny about all this is that a lot of people making it or not making it is just like everything else: it’s about timing, and it’s about luck. If you’re a genius and you’re onstage and the guy who has your career in his hands has to go to the bathroom and misses your set, that’s bad luck. And that happens to good people. I think there are a couple who I’m surprised didn’t make it as big…and opposed to some who did and I thought shouldn’t have. And I think those people, like Kenny Rogerson, who’s in the movie and talks about how he was his own worst enemy…Kenny is a fucking genius! He’s easily one of the best standup comedians I’ve ever seen in my life, including all the way up to the top of the ladder of standups. And he was the kind of guy who was very charismatic and comfortable up there, and he was a guy’s guy, but the women liked him. He was good-looking and funny and really could just deliver it and was a really good writer, but he just didn’t quite get that piece of the pie that I think he deserved. But who’s to know why? I so wish I had made it bigger at times. Of course. Every comic does. I remember auditioning for “The Tonight Show,” and I had to go back…I had just gotten married, and I had to fly back to New York for one night and just go on for, like, six minutes on a long showcase. It was terrible conditions, and I did pretty well, but I didn’t get it. It was just one of those classic bad timing things. I had just gotten married, I had to fly back in the middle of my honeymoon or put my honeymoon off or something…and it went well. I did very well, and the guy liked me, but he just didn’t think I was right for the show right away. And because I didn’t really push or pursue beyond that, it just kind of drifted away. And, then, Johnny left the air. So, yeah, I can be philosophical about it, or I can be bitter about it, and I choose to be philosophical because…what I said before is that if I had made it bigger, maybe I never would’ve made the movie. And I’m really glad I made the movie.
BE: Well, so am I.
FS: Well, thanks. I really feel like I did this thing, and these kind of things are just conversations unless someone documents them. They’re just memories. A lot of the comedians are saying, “If you didn’t make this movie, Fran, this would’ve just been something that we talked about it bars…and now that you’ve made it, it’s a real thing. It’s a piece of history now, that’s documented, where people can say, ‘Hey, that’s cool! I didn’t know that guy came out of there! I didn’t know that happened then!’” So that’s my way of justifying the fact that I’m not famous. How do you like that?
BE: I think that sums it up very nicely.
FS: Maybe I’ll become a famous director someday.
BE: I’d say you’ve got a good start on your hands.FS: Thank you kindly.