When Jay didn’t call at the time we agreed on for the interview, we shot him an email reminder and the phone immediately rang.
[Jay calls New Jersey Stage]
My apologizes for not getting back to you at 11, I have the best excuse possible… I was asleep. I woke up, took my kid to the bus, said 'Let’s get a lot done today’ and then I went back to sleep.
That’s a good, lazy attitude for someone that works as hard as you! You first got into comedy just to impress a girl. I wonder how much of history has a story like that.
I’m pretty sure if you go back to every bridge built, fire being invented, etc., there’s some girl going 'Yeah, I know, but I was kind of hoping you could do more pushups.’
Tell me about how you met her. Did you meet her at the early open mic nights?
I was teaching high school English in New Jersey and I had just started dating her. I had been teaching "The Love Song of Prufrock," a poem about giving in to middle age and not having accomplished anything due to fear. The kids were like "You keep talking about this. What’s the thing that you want to do that you’re afraid of?" I’m like ok, God’s speaking to me through a high school kid...
So I went over to Philadelphia about a week after I started dating the girl who wound up being my wife and I began doing open mics. The rest, as they say, is history.
How long were you a teacher?
I taught for 7 years. I had been teaching for 2 when I started doing open mics, so there were 5 years of overlap. But my plan wasn’t to be a full-time comedian or writer, the plan was to teach high school and do stand-up on the weekends.
Did you begin getting too many gigs or too tired on Monday mornings?
A combination of the two. I was getting more and more gigs and I went on a college try out and wound up booking like 30 gigs from it, which paid me about as much as I would have made from a year of teaching high school. This gave me the guts to say, "If I do this and it doesn’t pan out, I can always go back and teach."
There were also more and more weekdays when I would come to school and say, "I’m not sure we’re going to do anything today, I’m really tired." And then I got on Showtime. I did a show called "White Boyz in the Hood" which sounds like it’s made up, but it’s not. It was all about white comedians put in front of black audiences to see how they make out. It went fantastic for me and I wound up getting a standing ovation on the show. But I went to school the next day not realizing how many people had Showtime. Kids were like, "Mr. Black, you were on TV last night talking about sex." I’m like, "What? No!"
All those things together gave me the wherewithal to say let’s do it. And two weeks after turning in my resignation, my wife was pregnant with our first child. It’s funny because if the timing had been reversed, I never would have left. There’s just no way. I’m too Irish Catholic to leave a pregnant wife to go do stand-up when I have a stable job in teaching. I thank God every day that she got pregnant after I turned in my resignation!
You still play colleges on a regular basis, along with club dates and casino gigs. How are the audiences different? Do you change your show?
I do the least amount of modification as possible because I have found out that the only thing worse than talking down to an audience is pretending that you know what an audience wants to hear. I think that if you say to yourself, 'Well, what could a college kid possibly know about raising a child?’ that it’s a form of dumbing down because college kids know what a kid is. They know what life is. The only real difference I have found between audiences is that college kids aren’t as cynical as older audiences. Older audiences have been through life a bit and realize it’s highly possible to love and hate your spouse in equal measure. College kids still sort of believe "Gee, if I get married I’m going to love my spouse forever." Yeah, that’s just not going to be the case.
I wind up having a lot of college kids coming up to me after the show asking if everything is ok with me and my wife or "What do you mean you hate your child? You should go see a counselor." I’m like, "No, I love my kid. I just wish he wasn’t around sometimes!"
When I was younger, I used to try to figure out what the audience wants all of the time. I think that you can’t do that. You can only do what you find funny and hope that the audience finds it funny along with you regardless of the age.
Is there a window of time for doing college gigs? Do they prefer booking younger comics?
I think there is a window of time, but I haven’t found when it shuts yet. I’m not counting on colleges for my retirement, let’s put it that way.
How did you get involved with doing shows with Kevin Nealon?
I was doing what they call a split week where I headlined Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and they bring in a celebrity on Friday and Saturday. Kevin had come to the club a day early to do his remote spot on the Ellen Degeneres Show. So, he just came to the club to see what was happening and he saw me headline on a Thursday. I didn’t know he was there thank God because I probably would have clammed up and been terrible, but when I walked off the stage he was like, 'Hey, you’re really funny, why don’t I know who you are?" I was like, "I live in New Jersey" and he’s like "Well, that would explain it!"
He said he wanted to help me out and have me open for him. I’m like 'yeah, yeah’, because he’s from Hollywood and everyone from Hollywood lies. But the Tuesday after the weekend he called me and said, "You haven’t gotten in touch with me, when are we going to do this?" I said, "Wow, you really followed through!"
When I’m on stage opening for him I sometimes say this means he’s either the nicest man in the entire world or I’m a positive kidney match and he’s just playing the long con.
Tell me about your writing career. Are you acting in the latest film?
Yeah. I wrote a movie called "Meet My Wife" which the studio changed to "Meet My Valentine" and then changed to "After I’m Gone." I sold the script along with my writing partner Brian Herzlinger. We went to elementary school together and have been friends for 30 years. He directed the film. There was a part in the movie for a stand-up comic in his 30s who is very goofy. A light bulb went off… I’m like, wait a minute, I know a goofy 30 year old stand-up comedian. He told the studio that he’d like to have me in that part. They looked at my tape and said sure.
I have found that if you’re dealing with actors that you shouldn’t say you just decided that acting might be a fun thing to do and you got the part because they will want to murder you! It’s like, "I don’t know what the problem is with a SAG card, I just got one the first time I asked for one." Don’t say that, ever.
I would categorize my acting as 'serviceable’ but against actors that actually know what they’re doing, I’m sure I look like someone who won a contest. I’ve discovered that stand-up and acting are similar in the sense that when you do stand-up, in New Jersey especially, you learn very quickly not to be self-conscious because the second you get into your own head is the second a New Jersey audience will eat you alive.
Is that true? Are New Jersey audiences really tougher than others?
I think we’re in an area where if they like ya they love ya and if they don’t like ya they hate ya, and there’s something about the amount of time they give you to make that decision. It’s a lot quicker here than other places. In the midwest, I’ve been on stage for 20 minutes and still don’t know if they hate me or love me. In Jersey, if you’re 3 or 4 minutes in and you’re terrible, people are pulling out newspapers if you’re lucky and weapons if you’re not.
You can always tell an East Coast comic by how fast they’re talking. I did a festival in Canada and there were all these comics telling stories. "Let me tell you a story about when I was a child." I’m like, I would already have been murdered if I started like that.
I’m addicted to stand-up. I’ll never stop doing stand-up. The hope is to get something on the writing side because it’s Hollywood and it can open a lot of doors. It’s the idea that if I get more famous, more people will come to see me doing stand-up and I can keep doing it for a little bit longer.