Zak Toscani [Interview]

Hello Folks! We have an incredible interview for you all today, which actually happens to tie in with the interview we had go live on Wednesday with the great comedian Mike Mulloy. Today’s guest is another extremely talented stand up comedian and writer, the great Zak Toscani! Zak is one of the cofounders of the previously (and soon to be again) mentioned L.A. based stand up shows that I am dying to one day trek the 10,000 miles across and ocean and an entire country to one day check out that is known as Faded. He is also a frequent guest on the incredible podcast we all now and love known as All Fantasy Everything, which is hosted by Ian Karmel and our dear friends of the site, Sean Jordan and David Gborie. Zak has appeared on AFE numerous times, but if you were looking to get a quick glimpse into the (somewhat insane) mind of one Mr. Toscani, I can not recommend enough that you go back and listen to Episode 54 entitled “What To Do with a Billion Dollars”. Zak’s picks on this episode are absolutely incredible, and have been lodged in my brain since I heard it, almost 2 1/2 years ago.
Zak is also a terrific comedian who regularly performs in the Los Angeles area, as well as all across the country. He is an incredible human being with a so many wonderful stories to to tell the world. And we are so happy that he was able to carve some time out of his schedule to share a few words with us here today! If you are in the L.A. area, tonight is the night you should head to Blue Rooster Art Supply to check out what I feel like has to be the greatest comedy showcase of all time. The show happens every Friday, and you need to find your way there!
So Folks, please enjoy some incredible words from the even more incredible comedian that is the great Zak Toscani! Enjoy!
When did you first discover your passion for the world of stand up comedy? Was it something you that you always knew you wanted to do? Or did you happen to find yourself in this world one day?

I cant claim to be a lifelong fan of stand-up comedy. A common story you’ll hear is a comic growing up watching stand-ups late at night with their parents. That wasn’t my experience. I was certainly aware of stand-up but my early affinity for comedy came from watching films with my family. My entire family introduced me to a wide variety of comedic heroes. It wasn’t planned or organized, but as it turns out a lot of my family found comedy to be a fundamental part of life. My mom always tells me “sometimes if you dont laugh, you’ll cry.”

My father and I watched a lot of Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and John Candy. My mother and I shared a love of Diane Keaton, Lily Tomlin, and Woody Allen. My stepdad blew my mind when he showed me Coming To America, Bull Durham, and Wrongfully Accused. And I have a distinct memory of actually pissing my pants laughing at Happy Gilmore with my Uncle David.

I never thought about stand-up until around senior year of high school. My best friend at the time John Walters, decided on a whim to start writing jokes and trying them out at the local comedy club’s open mic (Go Bananas – in Cincy). I was blown away, I had never considered that you could just START doing something like that. I believe thats a common trait amongst most of us, sometimes it takes someone trying to do something out of the ordinary to remove the mystery of it. I tried my best to help him write jokes, but neither of us knew what we were doing. After a few odd gigs he booked – including many places we needed to be chaperoned, since we were still underage – he hung it up and we continued being teenagers. But that short time did plant a seed within me, I can’t say for certain but I dont know that I would be performing right now if it wasnt for my friend John.

A few years later I was on a spiritual retreat that my older sister begged me to do with her at Ohio University. During the retreat, the chair was opened to any and all to talk about whatever. Eventually I worked up enough guts to sit in the chair and say some things that I thought were funny. I started with two Steven Wright jokes to set the tone and then talked about my sister and I. Not technically an actual stand-up set, and the fact that I did someone else’s jokes is not a great look. But, if nothing else it removed a little doubt inside of me and I was able to live in that fantasy of promise for a few years.

About 5 years later I was moving from Ohio to Portland. I desperately wanted out of Ohio and Cincinnati especially. Its a great town and a lot of friends still live there, but I felt stuck there. The most common question you’ll hear if you are from AND still live in Cincinnati is “what high school did you go to?” You feel as though you are locked in amber at 17, who you are then and there becomes your entire identity going forward.

I moved my sister to Oregon for law school and during the weekend met with a few friends who had been living in Portland for about a year. It only took a weekend for me to pull the trigger on moving to the PNW. No longer tethered to my high school, my subdivision, my city opened up all new possibilities for me. Around this time, a friend of mine from Ohio called me to tell me he started stand-up. After that call I went to the Helium Open Mic in Portland for 3 straight weeks and just watched the show. I can still remember seeing baby Ian Karmel, Sean Jordan, and Shane Torres each of those weeks. I saw people who seemed 1,000x’s funnier than me (aforementioned), saw some people I categorized as “around me”, and saw comics that I knew I was funnier than. Not the best way to view it, but when you dont know anything delusion is the only source of fuel you have. I eventually signed up, did 3 minutes which were are still are a complete blur. But a positive blur. I havent stopped since.

Photo by “Super Producer” Marissa (@marsmel), taken at Faded

What was your very first paid gig as a performer? And was there anything thing taken from that experience that continues to influence your work to this day?

My first paid gig was a hosting gig. I was hosting for Don Frost’s headlining show at the Wooden Chicken in Gresham, OR that he would do annually. Shane Torres was the feature and the one who recommended me to Don. Either Shane saw something in me pretty early on, or he just needed someone with a car. It was a good sum of money at the time, $50.I can’t ever forget that night. It was the night of the then undefeated Oregon Ducks vs Stanford on the last game of the season. I don’t watch college sports but you couldn’t avoid knowing about the game, as the entire population of the Wooden Chicken were glued to the game. If Oregon wins they’ll play for the National Championship. They lose. They lose at the very end. The show starts immediately afterwards. No joke. Game hits 0 seconds, the tv’s are turned off, and there I am walking in front of what are for sure 150 pissed off people. I did know better than to ask “how we all doin tonight?” Anyways, I think they wanted to be nice so they were patient during my forever seeming ten-minutes-of-jokes-im-not-sure-were-jokes and then I introduced Shane. There was supposed to be a football collectables auction happening after the show, and I remember after a few minutes Shane spotted the auction items and started riffing on how bad they were, how everyone was getting swindled, and even started joking about the talent who had signed the items. They loved it, and they loved him instantly. He got the most out of those people in that situation. I’ll never forget it. I’m not often kind to myself, but one thing I will say is that I have always been happy that when I experience a moment like that, I make a note of it, and apply it to myself.

More than anything starting comedy in Portland, surrounded by the staggering amount of talented people all of whom seemed to not only have a strong self of self but also actively tried to make it a better community for the younger comics (myself). I tried to soak in all I could.

My first set (unpaid) was at Whitney Streed’s Weekly Reoccurring Comedy Night at the Tonic Lounge. It was the first show I had been booked on. Whitney always made it a point to give young comics their first shot at a show. I’ll always love Whitney for that. During my set, the power went off, and to my amazement I did not freeze or just go on telling my jokes like a broken teleprompter. I made a few self depricating remarks about the timing of the blackout before transitioning back to my prepared material. Not a monumental step I understand, but before you are in that kind of situation you don’t know how you will react. The first time I did a mic I honestly put my chances of fainting at 50%. So the fact I didnt panic and addressed the situation was my first indication that maybe I should be doing this. It’s something I would have never thought possible of myself.

Like some of your friends and our past guests here, Sean Jordan and Shane Torres, you made your way to my beloved homeland of the Pacific Northwest. Was the move prompted for comedy? What made you decide to make the move to PDX? And how was your experience working in the city during this time?

Portland will always be very dear to me. I have three hometowns, I was born and lived most of my life in Cincinnati, OH. I lived in Hawaii from about 5th grade to sophmore year of high school. And Portland was the first place I moved to on my own. It was the first place I performed at, my comedy hometown. I dont remember being scared or really that nervous. I was very much looking forward to the opportunity to see who I was and what I wanted to do.I started stand-up a few months later. Met people who would become my best friends. People I am certain I will know for the rest of my life. And because Portland isn’t LA or NYC I was able to really be patient with stand-up. I was relatively a late starter at 26, there were comics in the scene that started at like 15 (Phil Schallberger). There was a plethora of stage time thanks to the comics before me who helped create and cultivate the scene. There were at least two shows and a mic happening every night of the week. I was allowed to fail over and over again. The scene as a whole was so robust, no comic was the same, that kind of freed everyone up to be exactly the comic they wanted to be.

For the next 7 years I worked a day job at a law firm and lived stand up the rest of the time. It really transformed my life, like objectively, it will take over your life. When friends or family visited me in Portland, they’d ask “where should we eat?” “what should we see?” and I had to be honest and tell them that the only places I knew were venues where comedy happens or bars we go to after the comedy show. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The cult-like following that has developed around the hit podcast All Fantasy Everything is astonishing and wonderful, I have to say. And much like some previously mentioned guests and others (David Gborie, Amy Miller, Matt Braunger, etc.) you have engrained yourself into this world quite nicely. I heard you even received tennis gear back in Ohio? With that, I am curious to know what you believe it is about this show that has had such a great impact on you? What is different from this project from the plethora of podcasts that are out there?

All Fantasy Everything has been huge for me simply in that it gives me a much broader audience in which to showcase myself. I can never thank Ian, Sean, and David enough for that. Since the podcast started I have been recognized in public, which is still baffling to me. I’ve been able to sell out stand-up shows. And have been gifted tennis items which is maybe the coolest thing thats happened to me. The fans are amazing and so supportive.

I am not smart enough to be able to pinpoint all the reasons why AFE has made such an impact so quickly, but I have a few insights. Like any creative endeavor there is the order and the chaos. From the order perspective, the podcast’s theme of fantasy drafting anything and everything in life is such an amazing idea, just on paper its a home run. It’s an idea that as soon as you hear it you hate that you didnt think of it! I remember Ian talking about his idea for the podcast back when he lived in Portland. I’m sure the early incarnation would have been excellent as well, but that gets me to the chaos part. From the chaos perspective, the alchemy and chemistry that Ian, David, and Sean have together is undeniable and cant be replicated. Again I am speaking from someone on the inside. But, its a vibe and an energy that I haven’t seen anywhere else. It’s not just that they are friends, or that they hang out together, or are all great comics. It’s like the tri-force in Zelda, those pieces just fit perfectly. It’s been a joy and a pleasure to witness.

(L to R) Zak Toscani, David Gborie, Mike Mulloy, Sean Jordan. Photo by Ed Ballart, taken at Faded

I have closely followed your weekly show in L.A. known as Faded, sadly from a far. It sounds spectacular. For those of us who reside a bit too far, possibly with an entire ocean in between, what can you tell us about this show? What are we missing out on?

Faded is a weekly stand-up show I run along with David Gborie, Sean Jordan, and Mike Mulloy. It’s every Friday, 7:30pm at Blue Rooster Art Supplies in Los Angeles. I’ve known Sean since I moved to Portland. David and Mike are friends I made here in LA. We kind of all met during the time we were writing Ian’s Comedy Central pilot. Since that experience we always discussed working together. As we all performed around town, we kind of noticed the same thing. While there are great standup shows in LA there were also way more that were just kind of existing.

Not too belittle anyone else, but the way we saw it, if you’re going to start a show you have the responsibility to make it great. We didnt want another mic stand in the middle of a dive bar. We kept talking about it for months. Mike runs another show in LA called On Deck, which was previously at Meltdown Comics. Once that place closed, he was on the look for a new venue. On Deck eventually found a new home at Blue Rooster. It’s in a separate building out back from the arts store. Which was used primarily for painting classes and extra storage. It’s a giant open room, with a built in bar, a bathroom, and enough space for about 100 chairs. It was and is perfect. Before Mike even had the first On Deck there he had major plans for the space.

Shortly after Faded was born. We had a venue that would be completely ours for the duration of the show. We wouldn’t have to fight bar noise. No people wandering in accidentally. Everyone who would be there, would be there for comedy, nothing else. The possibilities of what the show could be or how it would look was endless.

We decided to stand ourselves and Faded out in a few ways. One, we would book mostly 15 minute spots. Usually in LA you’ll get around 7 minutes at most shows. Its not nothing, but we all felt like in a city plush with so many amazing voices why not give them more time?

Second, we all wouldn’t be doing spots on every show. The way we see it, Faded is for the other comics and the crowds. We of course host and do spots at times, but we didnt want to bog the show down with the same 4 people every week. Plus, no one would be able to turn over a new 15 minutes of material every week.

Third, we wanted to charge for the show. Not only because we pay rent each week for use of the space, but we didnt want to undervalue ourselves. $10 isn’t going to break the bank for anyone, especially in LA. And we’re of the belief that when audiences pay money to attend a show they in turn become more invested in the show. And thats been the case thus far with Faded. Because of the success of AFE and our reputations as comics we knew that we could get people in seats.

Fourth, we wanted to make it a fun fucking show. It’s not a mind blowing strategy. We wanted people leaving the show to be blown away. Not just at the comics, but the presentation and the thought put into every part. We’ve constantly experimented with almost every aspect of the venue and how we present the show. Every week we get better. We are constantly tweaking and not staying stagnant. I think – that- more than anything is the biggest reason for our success.

Since the first show in October we’ve been growing and growing. It’s truly been life changing for me. My experience in LA has been peaks and valleys, and I was truly getting a little lost in the ocean of life here. Having Faded every single Friday has been the highlight of my week and a place I can put my creative energy into. It’s so gratifying even on the weeks I am not doing a set.

If you find yourself in LA come visit us and see why we run the best show in town.

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to share with our readers?

I have no idea what the future holds for me, Zak Toscani. I love stand-up as much as I ever have and I feel like it will always be part of my life. I think it’s made me a better person. In terms of goals, I’m hoping I get the chance to perform on Conan, I’ve been in the process of getting a set on the show and it’s exactly what I said a “process”. I’ve always wanted the first thing I do on TV to be standup. So it’s important to me to make that happen.

Although, to be perfectly honest with you it’s very rare a late night set will really change anything for your life as a comic these days. You may get a few more offers to headline comedy clubs, which is no small event, but mostly it’s more of a feather in your cap within the comedy/industry. It introduces you to the world, so to speak. And gives you a logo to put on show flyers.

The interesting thing is that I don’t think the industry/nor the comedy clubs have caught on that podcasts are kind of the new late night. I know very funny comics who have done handfuls of late night sets but still find trouble getting tickets sold, whereas, if you have/or in my case/ happen to be a guest on a podcast with a big following those listeners will buy tickets to come see you. It’s a very real thing and it makes sense.

Typically on late night your set is 5-7minutes and its heavily audited by the booker of said show. It’s an important process but ultimately you feel as though its maybe not a complete or full version of who you are as a comic. Usually the perceived flaws or imperfections in someones act that are ironed out by the late night submission process can leave the set feeling flat and too studied. For podcasts, its so much different. Listeners hear you for hours, being exactly who you are, and they feel connected. That’s why they’ll drive 5 hours to see you, to buy a shirt or a poster. They feel invested in your career.

I’ve got a few different irons in the fire. Been kicking around starting my own podcast. Currently the idea is to tell stories from my life ala The Tobolowski Files. Something well thought out, written, and produced. Though this idea keeps feeling like the best idea and the worst depending on the day.

I REALLY am trying to bridge some gap between tennis and comedy, even if that bridge can only fit myself. To my knowledge I am maybe the only comedian trying to insert myself in the tennis world, so I’m hoping the lack of competition works to my advantage. Whether its a show on The Tennis Channel or writing a project involving tennis, sure enough I’m going to try all avenues.
TV and movies would be a dream. Writing for both is something I’ve been working on and always keep bubbling in the back of my head. I try not to put too much pressure on myself and just focus on doing one good thing at a time.
What was the last thing that made you smile?

The last thing that made me smile was when I was writing about Faded. It sounds corny but I love what we’re doing and to be part of it is completely my pleasure.

 

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: