Comedy Veteran Shaun Eli Breidbart Talks Standup During COVID
Stand-up comedian Shaun Eli has rightfully been called one of America’s smartest comics. His jokes have been quoted everywhere from the New York Post to Readers Digest to Healthcare Finance News. Cool, right? We were lucky enough to sit down with Shaun to ask burning questions about the journey to a successful career and ask for some industry advice.
What’s your full name and occupation?
Shaun Eli Breidbart, though I go by Shaun Eli on stage. I’m a stand-up comedian and I founded a company that is now the largest independent producer of stand-up comedy shows for theatres. Or at least it was before covid shut everything down.
Tell us about you and your career.
After college I started working in finance. When Jay Leno first took over The Tonight Show I’d read the newspaper, think of something funny, and then see him saying the same thing that night on his show. I called and pitched myself as a freelance writer and was accepted to send him jokes. I did that for almost the entire run of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. In 2003 I was on a date with a woman who said I should try stand-up. I’d had friends who were actors and I was never interested in performing, not since an annoying experience being in the fifth grade play. She suggested I start by taking a class that she’d taken, and invited me to see a performance by graduates of the class. They were funnier than I’d expected so I took the class, started performing, started getting paid, and six years later I left my day job. I say that leaving Wall Street for stand-up comedy is the best trade I’ve ever made.
Tell us about your credits.
Just before the pandemic we shot our first TV special “The Ivy League of Comedy” at the Emelin Theatre in NY. I worked with five other comedians. I’ve headlined comedy shows on five continents (so far). For almost two decades I sold jokes to Jay Leno for his Tonight Show monologue, and also to two other late-night talk show hosts. And I was a semi-regular on the nationally-syndicated Joey Reynolds Radio Show (which was syndicated to over 100 markets in the U.S.).
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Convincing my “You should be a doctor, or if not that, a lawyer or scientist or college professor, or maybe it’s okay to work in business” parents that I was leaving all that for something in the arts wasn’t easy. Before telling them, I put together a business plan showing them how much I was making and estimating how much more I could make without the limitations of a day job.
As far as lessons learned- they say that if you invent a better mousetrap people will beat a path to your door. That’s totally wrong. If you check the Patent Office database you’ll see a zillion great mousetrap designs but most people still buy the basic snap traps that have been around for a hundred years. It’s really hard to get people to try anything new, whether it’s a mousetrap, a food or having a comedy show at their organization or theatre. Even if you plan to work in the arts, take a few business courses. Unless you’re both supremely talented AND super lucky, you’ll need selling skills to succeed.
What advice do you have for people looking to break into the industry?
For stand-up I’d give you the exact same advice every comedian would give you- write some jokes and get on stage anywhere you can- open-mic nights, comedy club new talent nights, your social club’s dinner, etc. And prepare to fail, over and over again, because no matter how funny you think you are, it won’t be an easy journey. Learn from your mistakes- what jokes worked, which ones didn’t. Try to eliminate anything extraneous from your jokes. You’d be shocked at how much useless information new comics include in what they’re saying. Unless a detail is necessary for getting to the laugh, cross it out.
One thing I would add would be to start with a comedy class. There are comedians who say you can’t teach comedy, and they’re wrong. You can teach anything. We can’t make someone funny who isn’t, but we can steer them in the right direction, give pointers in writing and performing and teach the basic structure of a joke. You’ll also be learning in a supportive environment. I would say that a class will teach you to avoid about half the mistakes you’d otherwise make in your first six months. And you’ll make friends- people who can help you out and that you can work with. Most of a new comedian’s breaks come from other comedians.
What are your favorite shows/film?
I like watching stand-up comedy and used to enjoy the late-night talk show monologues but since covid they haven’t been that interesting- especially the hosts who had no stand-up comedy background aren’t doing well performing without an audience. But as a comedian it’s hard to watch stand-up because I usually see where they’re going before they get to the joke. So I’m a tough audience member. Sometimes, though, I’ll be laughing at the premise because it’s clever and I know what the punchline will be.
What’s is been like working during COVID19?
Work? What’s that? I’ve barely had any shows and I don’t plan to perform indoors until it’s safe. Other comedians are working in clubs. I’ve said I don’t want to become the funniest comedian in America because everyone else died.
I’ve done some outdoor shows and some internet shows. The outdoor shows went way better than expected. I say that the secret to comedy is 100 people in a room that holds 70. It’s not just the comics who need to hear the laughter. The audience also needs to hear other people laughing to be comfortable laughing out loud. So we need a room where the laughter echoes. You don’t get that outside- the laughter dissipates. So I was pleasantly surprised that my outdoor and drive-in shows went so well. I guess people really need comedy right now.
I’ve also performed out on the street for my neighbors. They’d been asking me to and initially I resisted but then I realized I had all these new jokes and had no opportunities to try them out and fine-tune them. That also went really well.
What's the plug?
www.BrainChampagne.com is my website and has a few videos, both stand-up and other stuff I’ve done. My website also has a ton of comedy content, over 50,000 words worth of jokes. To give you an idea just how much that is, a typical novel is around 100,000 words.