FOR MANY OF US, doing one thing our entire lives can be a bummer. But for comedian/writer/actor/musician/author Wayne Federman, the journey has been wrought with satisfaction given his illustrious talents and decision to keep his career diversified. Beginning in stand up (yet studying acting at NYU) Federman has dabbled in acting, music, writing, authoring a book, and of course, a continued path in comedy. He’s a true lover of show business, having been featured in some of our favorite television shows, films and even commercials. Just last year he began the Wayne Federman International Film Festival which just completed its second successful go around just a couple of months ago.
Wayne was kind enough to speak with TSJ about going into stand up, his film festival and how he figured out a way to not burn himself out.
The Smoking Jacket: I was watching the “Brief History of Wayne Federman” on your website. I loved it because I realized how much you’ve done and have been in. You’re an accomplished musician, writer, actor, author, and comedian, obviously. I’m curious, when you entered the business 30 or so years ago did you go in thinking I’m going to do as much as I can or was it just stand up or acting at first?
Wayne Federman: I went to NYU drama school so I think my strategy was to do stand up but to also be a strong actor, as strong an actor as I could possibly be. That was the strategy from the get go. I loved stand up. I was a comedy nerd before that term existed, I think. I even loved radio comedians. I loved Jack Benny, Fred Allen, all of them. I also was really into Pryor and Carlin and Klein. I was just really into comedy.
I noticed that the comedians I liked also acted. Pryor was a film star as well as a stand up. His real breakthrough with stand up happened after his film success. He had been in three or four studio movies in 1978 alone before his concert film came out in 1979. Woody Allen too, I loved him. So thinking about it, I wanted to be an excellent comedian but also act.
TSJ: You did something I think is very cool. You were one of the first writers of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” the head monologue writer, actually. That was a unique experience: a brand new show, a new host, etc. No one knew what it was going to be. How was it working there?
WF: For me, it was thrilling. As you know, they were redoing studio 6B for Jimmy and everybody was ecstatic because that’s where Johnny Carson first broadcast “The Tonight Show.” For me, I was thrilled because they used to do the “Texaco Star Theater” there in the late ’40s, early ’50s, which was Milton Berle’s huge Tuesday night show. So because of that history I was so happy to be there and at Rockefeller Center.
I toured with Jimmy as his opening act for a while and he eventually said I was a good writer and asked me to be on his show. I told him I’d do it for a year, see how it goes, because topical stuff isn’t my strength. I do more observational and musical material. But I’m so glad I did it because it was such a great experience to be part of a show like at the start.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF WAYNE FEDERMAN
TSJ: Oh, definitely! And to see what it’s become in such a short amount of time. Obviously it’s been positive considering he’s taking over “The Tonight Show” next year.
WF: Yes, I’m going to take most of the credit for that. That was all me.
TSJ: [Laughs] Was that the only time you were a staff writer?
WF: Well, I wrote a little bit for Bill Maher when he had “Politically Incorrect,” but as far as a regular staff writer, “Late Night” was my first one. Though lately I have been writing for a lot of award shows, which are really fun. TV writing was never one of my goals, honestly. I sure like being on camera and being able to perform.
TSJ: That’s where I was getting to actually. I know those late night shows can be pretty long hours for the writers. I remember being at “Late Night” when Conan was the host. The writers were there all the time. And if you’re a stand up, it hinders on your time to write and perform. Was that hard for you?
WF: It was very hard. I really wanted to do more stand up when I was in New York but I couldn’t because I was just too tired. I know that sounds insane but I had to be up early and couldn’t be hanging around comedy clubs until 11 or so at night. But also, I knew I wasn’t going to be there a long time. Jimmy just wanted me there at the beginning while he was getting his bearings. He needed somebody he could trust comedically to just bounce stuff off of and run through the monologue. Once it was up and humming I was done. But even today I still open for him from time to time. It’s been great to watch him. I love that guy. The public does also.
TSJ: I was listening to an interview with you and in it you had mentioned that two of your greatest moments in performing have been when you were on “The Larry Sanders Show” and on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
WF: That is absolutely true. Those are two of my favorite acting moments, no doubt. Obviously, there’s that episode of “Dear John,” but that was on a whole different level.
TSJ: [Laughs] What do you think made them so memorable? Everyone mentions “Curb” and “Larry Sanders” as being these immense and legendary comedies.
WF: That’s a good question. I think they are just two state of the art comedy shows created by stand ups who knew exactly what they wanted. It’s great to be on any show but to be on one that operates on that level is fantastic. I think “Louie” is falling into that category now.
YOUNG WAYNE PLAYS UKE
TSJ: Most definitely. And all of those guys seem to have gotten that show later on in life, and the network sits back and lets them do their own thing. I’d imagine it’s partly because the network knows the experienced comedian knows what they’re doing.
WF: Right, I would agree. That’s what’s great about the expansion of cable television today. Those shows can exist on HBO or FX or Showtime. Comedians can use that. It’s all very inspiring.
But getting back to your question, I just feel very fortunate to be a small part of those shows.
TSJ: Because I’m such a Larry David obsessed fan, I have to ask what it was like working with him.
WF: It was interesting because when I started doing stand up Larry was still dabbling in it so I knew him from then. I knew him back when I was Emceeing. I first auditioned for the role of the blind guy in the first season. Obviously, I didn’t get it. I didn’t know how to act blind. Do I close my eyes? Get a cane?
But they brought me back for the annoying neighbor. And if anyone’s annoying it’s Wayne Federman. But I think I did the sixth episode of the series. “The Wire” was the title. No one knew if it was going to be successful or what. That hour “special” that Larry did worked great but no one knew if the series was going to break out the way it did. Everyone was still trying to figure it out. But when I came back seven years later they knew what they were doing. It was a machine. I do a spot on Curb every seven years. I think in 2019, I’m going to have a big role there.
TSJ: [laughs] This year was the second annual Wayne Federman International Film Festival, which I think is such a cool idea. How did the second one go?
WF: It was very well attended. We sold out virtually every show. It’s a really great night and you learn about comedians. I’m also a film buff; I love movies. That’s my favorite form of entertainment.
TSJ: You get fantastic guests for the festival.
WF: Yeah! It’s really fun. It’s in a little theater in Los Angeles and I always feel like people are excited about it. Comedians are excited too because they get to reveal a little bit of themselves and watch their favorite movie.
I think people come to the Wayne Federman International Film Festival for multiple reasons. Mainly, they get to see their favorite comedian nerd out on a movie. They see their favorite comedians be fans.
TSJ: There’s something very cool to that.
WF: Yeah. It’s a blast. Dana Gould was so knowledgeable about “Dr. Strangelove” and Sarah had “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Bill Burr was there too. He chose a war movie from 1967 that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, “The Dirty Dozen.” It was great to watch it with him. Really illuminating.
TSJ: Something that surprises me about you is that you have always had stage fright.
WF: Yeah, that’s very true. Embarrassing but true.
TSJ: Somebody like you, a guy who does so much performing, how do you get past that? Is it just faking confidence up there?
WF: That’s an excellent question. It was a struggle. It’s under more control now than it used to be. At one point I tried to talk about it onstage but that didn’t really work. I’d say, “Hi, it’s nice to be up here doing stand up, or as I like to call it, suppressing a panic attack.” And that’s basically what it was. I had to push down a panic attack. I don’t know if you’ve had one or know what it is or have been at a party where you just feel awful…
TSJ: Yeah, I tend to get a little in my head when there’s a lot of people around. I start to think everyone is watching me and start to go a little crazy in my head.
WF: It’s all about being in your head. The key to getting over that is just that you have to concentrate on something other than that and the sound of your own voice. I heard that one of my favorite guitar players, Jimmy Page, from a little band Led Zeppelin suffers from it, but he did all right.
TSJ: I just found it interesting because you’re such an illustrious performer in many different fields.
WF: It’s not really a crippling thing for me anymore. I was talking to a comedian who takes medication that slows your heart to help cope with stage fright, but I can’t see me doing that. I don’t really want to mess with my heart. That’s the key part of being alive, right?
TSJ: [laughs] I believe so.
WF: I didn’t want to mess with it, and I’ve never taken anti-anxiety medication.
TSJ: So you just power through it.
WF: I don’t know if power is the word, I think it’s more I finesse and breathe my way through it.
TSJ: So because of that what do you think led to performing?
WF: Well, for a while I was the youngest kid in my family, and a lot of times that means you need to figure out ways to get attention. So perhaps that was the reason. I was a funny kid. When I was in school several teachers said I should go into stand up, much more than the family. And I found that interesting because I had liked comedy, so after trying it for a little I was like oh, this is working.
TSJ: Last question, having been in the business for 30 or so years, is it still as exciting as when you first got into it?
WF: Definitely. I’m very lucky because I diversified, and I know that’s a weird term to use to describe my career, but I have never burnt myself out. I didn’t burn out on the road. I’m actually the opposite of all of that. When I do the road I’m happy to be there. I think I just lucked out in the way I planned my career.
It’s very satisfying, that’s what I would say. And believe it or not, stand up is, at times, still challenging to me. I’m still trying to figure it out.