The cliché goes something like this: the aspiring comedian hits the road, crisscrossing the country, playing to tough crowds in dingy clubs for very little money. Then, after a particularly hot set in New York or Los Angeles, a network executive wants to discuss a sitcom.
Greece-born comedian Jamie Lissow certainly lived the first part of that scenario. But ironically his big break happened on a stage in Rochester, a few miles from his home.
Lissow, who will be playing his fourth Rochester Fringe Festival, had crisscrossed the country and been a hit at festivals. He'd even done the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno." But it wasn't until he was back in his hometown as the sidekick to Brother Wease that he was tapped for bigger things.
Saturday Night Live alum Rob Schneider had called Wease to promote a local appearance. Lissow opened for Schneider who liked what he saw. The two comedians started a collaboration that resulted in "Real Rob," a Netflix sitcom starring Schneider and Lissow.
Of course, success does not mean freedom from the road. City caught up with Lissow by phone while he was wandering around the vast Mall of America where he was playing at a comedy club. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
City: When did you first realize, "hey, I'm funny"?
Jamie Lissow: I think I wanted to be a comedian literally when I was 8 years old and I saw comedy on TV. Other kids wanted to be ninjas and princesses, and I wanted to be a comedian. As I got older, I realized that mine was the only one that was a real job.
Who did you grow up admiring?
I was listening to a lot of Bill Cosby cassette tapes, and sometimes staying up very late and watching David Letterman with my dad. "The Young Comedians Specials" that Rodney Dangerfield used to do -- they were life-changing. When I was in middle school, that was the only thing anyone was talking about.
Early in your career, in the late-1990's and early-2000's, I've heard you were pretty much living out of your car.
I didn't have a home, so I basically would travel from town to town and I would only accept gigs in comedy clubs where they were open every night. I didn't need to have a mailbox or anywhere to store my things because I just had everything with me. If I had a week off it was because something got cancelled.
I had a mini-refrigerator and mini-microwave I could bring into the hotel and pretty much all my necessities. That was kind of the only way to do it at the time. I was making about $250 a week.
Looking back on it, I think it's crazy not to have had a home. But back then, it was the best life, living from club to club, getting better and better, meeting new people, and trying out jokes all around the country.
So how did you break out of that?
I ended up doing a really pivotal festival in 2001, the Montreal Comedy Festival. It's still a big deal but it was an even bigger deal back then because there wasn't as much comedy on television. I did one set and it was a complete game-changer. I did "The Tonight Show" two weeks after that.
How did it feel to be up on that "Tonight Show" stage?
You hear stories about guys getting bumped [postponed]. You have a date on the books, you're all excited, you tell your family, and then you get bumped. I got bumped twice. I got nervous and excited twice, and then I found out three hours prior that I was not doing the show. So by the time I did it, I was so ready, I was done being nervous.
After your monologue Jay Leno asked you to sit down. Was that a big deal?
I think so. They told me ahead of time to be ready with something else to talk about. Leno was such a nice guy. When Leno came into the green room, I was with my manager and agent and the place was packed. Leno kicked everybody out and said, "I want to be in here with just Jamie." So everybody left.
He said, "Hey man, there is nothing to be nervous about. There are a couple of actors and you on the show. No one else is even going to try to be funny. This is like an open mic where you're the only comic who's professional. This is going to be fun. You're going to kill it." I think Leno did everything in his power to make it a successful night for me.
Rochesterians might know you from your time with Brother Wease. What did that experience mean to you?
I grew up listening to this guy. I was a fan, and then I was offered a job to be on his show. I have my current TV show 100 percent because of Brother Wease. Rob Schneider called the Brother Wease show to promote a show he was doing; the radio station asked me to open for him. I met him and started writing for him.
How do you like working with Schneider on the television series "Real Rob"?
It's great. And we got picked up for season two. Before, it was a Netflix exclusive, which means Rob financed it and we made it before Netflix bought it. This year, it's a Netflix original series, financed by Netflix. It's such validation.
In 1972, George Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee after performing his "Seven Word You Can Never Say On Television." Here we are 44 years later and after watching you on YouTube I'm wondering if they would arrest you if you didn't say at least five four-letter words per minute.
You're probably referring to that Gotham Live show that's online. Because that show is the only show on television where you are not totally censored, you kind of go overboard because it's like, "Oh, my god, I can say whatever I want." So you tend to say too many F-words and be a little too loose because you finally can.
I do corporate shows and I do festivals and you have to be really clean, you can't do any of that material. So when you do a Gotham Live or a comedy club, the first couple of nights you swear a little extra because you can.