Ken Garr, Stand Up and Sacrifice

“I’ve learned more about comedy in the last year than I did the previous 12.”

-Ken Garr

I met stand up comedian and fellow Chicagoan Ken Garr on the set of Love. Meet. Hope. Our communal friend, Brad Fowler, is acting in and producing the independent film.

Ken and I have similar backgrounds:

  • We both were “late” bloomers to our art
  • We both fell into our respective art
  • We both walked away from high paying corporate jobs to pursue our art

After sitting down to grab some Chicago style deep dish at Hollywood Pies, I got a sense of Ken’s comedic sensibilities.

“I hate the little red reminder numbers on the iphone,” he said. “I have three voicemails.”

Ken started doing stand up when he was 24. A friend was joining the Navy after 9/11. They were out drinking and his friend bet him to do stand up. Ken took him up on it. Tony and Tina’s Wedding was doing open mics at the Rugby Bar across from Second City.

Like most comedians, he had a rough first set.

“I did a bad joke about the Olive Garden. An uncle visits from Italy and the best place his family can take him is Olive Garden. Another joke was about how I wanted to be African American because they were cool and knew how to talk to women. It bombed awkwardly. I could only get through two minutes.”

Bitten by the bug, Ken forged ahead. He did corporate sales during the day and stand up on the weekends and once or twice during the week. He left a small firm and ended up working at NASDAQ managing relationships with listed companies (one of most sought after sales jobs). He liked the job, but knew he wanted to do stand up full time. After more than a decade in corporate sales, he quit.

“If I wasn’t happy in the greatest sales job,” he said, “I knew I couldn’t do sales any more.”

Ken is the son of a fireman and has two other brothers and older sister. “I tried to be something I wasn’t,” he says.

He comes from a funny family. “I’m the least funny,” he says. “Our Thanksgivings are hilarious. We almost had to call an ambulance one year because my sister had an asthma attack from laughing without her inhaler.”

His style is a hybrid between joke teller and storyteller. “I’m a storyteller with a lot of punch lines,” he says. “The things I talk about are everyday things I can call ‘bullshit’ on.”

His influences include Johnny Carson, from the time he was six years old, Seinfeld, Jon Pinette, Kevin Meaney, etc., a lot of old school 80’s comics. “Eddie Murphy blew me away,” he said.

“I saw Dane Cook’s half hour Comedy Central special,” he said. “I thought, ‘This guy’s having a blast. He’s having a really good time. That’s what I want to do. That looks like so much fun to me.”

After 12 years of doing stand up in Chicago, Ken reached a ceiling and was encouraged to make the move to one of the coasts. Last summer, he visited LA and reconnected with Brad Fowler over lunch. He opted to move to LA.

Ken is paying his dues. “I came out humbled,” he said. “I’m nobody. The first show I did, the MC was on Letterman. Twice. I knew that I was basically bacteria in an ocean. And I’ve slowly made my way through the community.”

The best advice he received was it takes three years for comedy. The first year, you get to know LA. The second year LA gets to know you. The third year things will start happening.

In just a year, Ken has been cast in three clubs. He runs the open mic at The Ice House in Pasadena on Wednesdays, which is arguably one of the best open mics in the city.

“I decided it would be a huge mistake to wait for something to happen,” he said. “I did as many open mics as I could to get to know people. LA is about people supporting and helping each other. I’m already giving back to newer comedians who are introducing me to people I would haven’t otherwise met.”

LA’s comedy community is large, but small. The open mics have expanded his network and subsequently provided new opportunities. “I booked a lot of art gallery and bar shows,” he says. “I also did a bong shop show.”

Ken’s advice for anyone interested in doing stand up:

  • Get as much stage time and write as often as you can. Stand up is the only thing you gain experience. No training manual. You have to do it.
  • Be patient. Don’t get frustrated. You can’t look at other people. Focus on what you’re in control of and work as hard as you can. And it’s about luck. The harder you work, the luckier you’re going to get.
  • Keep creating. I wasn’t going to define what making it was. I wasn’t going to put that pressure or timeline on myself because the people that I’ve talked to, the ones that have made it, are hustling every day. The idea of making it isn’t really there. You’ll never be satisfied.
  • Accept who you are. Those are the ones that get something done in this town.The more I do this, the more I realize I need to be myself.

Ken also delved into acting. Acting allows me to do standup at a more professional level.

“I’ve learned more about comedy in the last year than I did the previous 12,” says Garr. “LA weeds out the weak. Moving here gave me more credibility. It’s the ultimate sacrifice. I’m doing whatever it takes to be the best I can be.”