Will Franken grew up in Missouri where he huffed Freon, took acid, and aspired to be famous. He came to New York, became disillusioned, and went to San Francisco to make a name for himself. He's been named "Best Comedian of 2005" by San Francisco Weekly and performed his one man show at the New York International Fringe Festival and The Comedy Central Stage in LA . Now he's coming to NYC.
Tell me about Sedalia, Missouri.
Sedalia was a town of about twenty thousand people. It's pretty much in the middle of the state. It's largely Christian, but not oppressively so, although I thought it was at the time. It's pretty boring, actually, which led me to a lot of pot and acid out there.
Was it a suburb?
We lived in the suburbs there. Its main feature was that there was a big fairground where they had the Missouri State Fair every summer. It was a simple rural town with a big Wal-Mart on the outskirts.
Young boys and free time often leads to mischievous behavior. What sort of trouble did you get into?
We broke into a community theater and took a couple of kegs of beer. That was the major run in with the law. Stealing Freon. I no longer do any drugs, by the way. I killed a lot of time out there doing that. You get Freon from air conditioners, you take a huff, and then you black out for about thirty seconds. We used to go churches and change the signs in front of them. We'd rearrange the letters and make them say things like Rush or Sales.
What sort of role did comedy play in your life growing up?
It was always the escape. It got me out of a lot of trouble, got me into trouble, and got me out of trouble that it got me into in the first place. It's kind of how Andy Kaufman used to talk about having that imaginary TV camera in his room. It was a lot like that.
What were you like in school?
I got pretty much straight A's until high school. The grade school that I went to was in a town called Dresden, which had about four hundred people living in it. There were only eight kids in the whole class. It was a traditional farmhouse school. When you graduated, you went to the school in Sedalia, which was a thousand kids. Once I got into high school, I learned about socializing and went in the opposite end of the spectrum. I became the class clown. I didn't graduate. I got a GED and went off to college early.
How'd you get your laughs at the time?
The first thing I did was learn to talk backwards, imitating the sound of a record. Sound effects, like Michael Winslow in the Police Academy movies. I did that as far back as kindergarten. There was a religious kid in school who was always trying to get my saved, so I did the backward record thing just to spite him. I started off with sound effects and then went into characters. I never learned how to do stand up stand up. I've tried a few times, but it was always difficult for me. Being a character comes easily, though.
What are some characters that you'd do in high school?
I would do a white trash guy who's kind of like a surfer guy in California. Just a real stoned, fucked up, meth addict. I also did a preacher, which is hack now. Anything to make fun of the local climate.
Were you in any clubs?
No. High school was all a blur, but I sobered up when I went to college. I went to a town called Springfield, which is pretty close to Branson. They have a pretty good university there. I went and majored in English literature. I was just in a hurry to get out of high school and go to a place where education was first and society was second. I got really turned on to Blake, Joyce, and education for education's sake. That's where a lot of different characters would start to appear, like professors and John Milton at a poetry slam.
What sort of aspirations did you have growing up?
I always wanted to be famous. We had a local station that would broadcast the seventies episodes of Saturday Night Live. Every night they would come on and I remember watching it when I was in the first or second grade and saying that that was what I wanted to do. I always knew it would involve comedy.
Why did you move to New York?
I moved to New York after getting a masters degree in Springfield. I'd toyed with the idea of becoming an English professor, but then it hit me that I had to do something. So, at twenty-four, I moved to New York. I'd never been there before. I packed up, got an SRO up there, and had this dream of busting into the club scene. I became a little disillusioned. Stage time was not easy to get. I was very naïve and thought that you could just walk in with your hat on your hand and say, "I'd like some stage time, sir." A lot of the rooms were bringer shows where you have to bring five people and they bring five people. It's a hard town, but I love it so much.
What was the first show that you ended up doing?
It was a lot of open mics. I did some experimental theater in the East Village. It wasn't until I came to San Francisco that I started applying myself, going to clubs on a regular basis, and really pushing to get a name out. I prefer New York as a town, but to break in was a lot easier in San Francisco- to get from five minutes, to twenty minutes, and eventually to having a one man show. Have you heard of Hamburger Harry's? It's right off of Broadway. They had an open mic that I did a couple times that I really enjoyed. It was at the back of this hamburger restaurant and they were really receptive to strange stuff. I did Surf Reality a few times in the Lower East Side. I loved the whole Alphabet City, East Village comedy scene. The open mics were hard. If they weren't bringers, it was a lottery where you'd draw a number and go up at four in the morning in front of three people. I left there with no idea of what the business was like. I still don't think I have an actual idea of what the business is like. I did a lot of stuff in the streets too, in Washington Park. It's hard if you're not doing tourist friendly stuff like juggling or magic.
What was your earlier material like compared to what you're doing now?
Stylistically, it's always been the same. When I was a kid, I was into Saturday Night Live first and then I got into Monty Python. Ever since Monty Python, which I found around the age of fourteen, I made the decision that that was what I wanted to do structurally. I wanted to do characters that move from one to the other. I've improved a lot and become much more selective, especially since I've gotten married. Before you get married, everything is funny and after you get married you want to test everything out on your wife. Moving from location to location, I was able to get new characters and new scenarios. Missouri was all the white trash and you go to New York and all of a sudden you have the Russian Deli Owner. So many scenes and situations. Last time I was in New York I wanted to do a mayor's whistle stop tour of the subway. This concept of someone in the back of the subway car never being able to get a speech out. He goes two lines and then they're at the next station. "People of Dekalb station," and then the train takes off. I've been in San Francisco for four years and I think I might have dried up all the characters out here. It's a big town, but it's a small town too.
What were you doing while in New York to support yourself financially?
I typed transcripts for programs like Dateline and Twenty/Twenty. They tape all these programs and interviews, send the tapes to us, and we'd transcribe them. It paid eighty cents a page. This woman on the upper west side converted the bottom half of her apartment into a big typing pool. People would always make fun of me because I worked on West 83rd Street. I always loved typing, so it was a nice gig. I did that for about six months and then I taught English and Social Studies in a school in Harlem for a year before becoming completely shell shocked. That was nuts.
How did you decide to eventually move to San Francisco?
That was a circuitous route. I stayed in New York for four years. I went to Charlotte, North Carolina completely at random. I was missing things like biscuits and gravy and I wanted to hear a Southern accent again. I was there for a year. I moved it eleven months out there. I moved in with a girl. She asked me to move in, I moved in, and two days later she said, "We need to talk." I loaded up the car, and drove out to San Francisco. I had never been to California and I didn't want to go out to LA. I heard that San Francisco was cold and I prefer the cold. It wasn't anything other than I had never been here, I think.
How would you describe the current state of the San Francisco comedy scene?
I don't do the clubs. I'm at a point now where I just put on one man shows at theaters. There are some experimental comics and there are some none experimental comics. San Francisco is very open to experimentation, which may have something to do with there not being an industry here. There's less to lose, so people are more willing to be goofballs. I don't see a lot of other shows because I have these rules for myself. I want to remain ignorant of what's going on so that I don't inadvertently do something that someone else is doing.
How long were you performing before you noticed some sort of difference?
I noticed out here that things started developing momentum. My structure has always been the same. Even while I still lived in New York I was still doing a Monty Python styled character bleeding into character thing. Out here, it got more political. Not saying that it was an Al Franken or Bill Maher sort of thing. I think I grew more teeth out here. This area is so politically correct, almost absurdly so. Political correctness is every comedian's enemy. Having lived in New York where I don't think it's as pervasive, I don’t think I would have grown the teeth to make fun of things like the guy who thinks he's Native American when he's not and the celebrate diversity guy.
What are some things that you know about performing now that you would have liked to have known starting out?
Knowing what I know now, I think I would have gone to San Francisco first. Even though there's no money here, there's open mics everywhere. There's no shortage of places where you can get up and do five minutes. I don't have any regrets, but I think I would have come here first, developed a name, and then gone to New York. New York is still the city of my dreams. Every time I go there I have a blast. The food's better, things stay open all night. You know, the public transit shuts down here at midnight.
Outside of this tour you've got coming up, what are some other projects that you're involved in?
I just started a Podcast
about two months ago. It's what I do live but purely audio. I've got three up now. I wanted to do one before I went out to New York, but I won't be able to do one for months. They're like the old days of the Firesign Theater or the Monty Python albums. I love it, but the problem is that it takes up so much time. I've been spending eleven hours a day in headphones, sitting at the computer, and recording. In a way, it's actually how I started performing. While I was still living in Missouri, I bought a four-track recorder. I did a lot of comedy for myself. That's how I learned how to have a conversation with myself.
What do you like to do after a performance?
I have little exercises in structured randomness, as I call them. I picked up this big movie review book last summer and I decided to start watching every movie that has three and a half or four stars. I have two Netflix queues. One is from the end of the alphabet working downward and one is from the beginning working upward. For example, last night was The Big Sleep and tonight is The Tree of Wooden Clogs.
Do you have some movies you'd like to recommend to readers?
Unfaithfully Yours. It's a Preston Sturges film from 1948. This movie was so ahead of its time. It's about a man who's having these fantasies that his wife is sleeping around on him. She's not, of course. He's a conductor, and he's conducting the symphony. He's conducting three classical movements and during each movement he conceives a different fantasy of how he's going to kill his wife, kill himself, or kill her lover. It's a dark dark comedy. When you watch it, you can't believe it's from 1948 because there are scenes where he's slashing her throat. So, I'd like the readers to look into Preston Sturges. That guy's a trip.
Visit Willfranken.com to get more info on Will's September 28th show at UCB, September 21st show at Mo Pitkins, and various appearances at Rififi.