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The Jester Interview: Bob Wiltfong

A veteran of both TV news and the improv comedy world (with former Upright Citizens Brigade house team Neutrino), Bob Wiltfong has made his mark in appearances as a correspondent on The Daily Show and on Chappelle’s Show. And right now, he’s bringing all of these experiences together as he presents Talk Show With Bob Wiltfong at The People’s Improv Theater. Wiltfong has designed this show, running regularly at 8 p.m. Thursdays, to showcase unusual performers and to challenge conventional notions about the Internet as a means to present comedy. In five or ten years, you may very well be reading about him bringing his take on talk shows to network television.

Jester: How did your past experiences in television as a news reporter and anchor inform what you do as a performer now?
Bob Wiltfong: It informs it in that I know exactly what I don’t want to do for a living. That’s probably the biggest way. I got into TV news because I knew I had an interest in performing in front of a camera or an audience but I also grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and didn’t necessarily do acting or comedy, so this was one outlet to do that. People in Omaha, at least in my family, that wasn’t something to pursue. It was a hobby. So when I reached college age, I figured broadcast news on TV would satisfy my desire to perform in front of a camera on a regular basis but also satisfy my interest in current events and history, while doing something more legitimate as a career. So I went down that track for a long time, 10 years, but the whole time thinking that I really liked doing comedy and acting.

Long story short, [after jobs in Kansas and Louisiana], I came to New York for a TV news job on Long Island in 1998 and was finally was at a place where I could pursue it at least as a hobby, and started taking improv comedy classes at UCB as something to keep me sane -- a nice diversion, a stress break. From TV news, I got to visit with a variety of people across the spectrum. I interviewed incredibly poor people to incredibly wealthy and powerful people. I’m thankful for that because it gives me incredible grounding in the real world -- a real good cross-section of the real world. That informs what I do. I am much more of a dry, real-based comedian. I don’t find myself called to absurd type humor. I hunger for real and human, and explore the funny in that.

J: Talking about real comedy rather than absurd comedy, being from Nebraska, how is it a different view of comedy than New York and L.A. have?
BW: I appreciate after living in New York that the ‘flyover’ part of the country is the part that embraces Jeff Foxworthy, Larry The Cable Guy -- that brand of humor does very well in most parts of the country where I come from, as opposed to New York or California where they have much more of a niche audience and are less mainstream. In that regard, I have an appreciation or grounding in humor that is much more mainstream and clean. At the same time, I like avant garde, off-the-wall humor. But when you go to Omaha what will sell out the auditorium there is Jeff Foxworthy over Demetri Martin, because they can identify with that and it speaks to them. Demetri is much more of a New York or L.A. guy.

J: So how did you get the idea to do “Talk Show”?
BW: It had been in the back of my head for a long time. I can’t point to one Eureka moment where I said that’s what I want to do. But all along while I was doing TV news, even in college, getting that degree in TV news, I always admired and looked up to and thought it would be a great job to be like Johnny Carson or David Letterman. I also took a lot of inspiration from those two guys because they started in local TV news. They were Midwest guys who found their voice with a talk show and got a national audience. So I’ve been inspired by those guys all along. When I was building up experience in TV news, graduating from being a reporter to an anchor hosting and interviewing people on air, I started to develop skills interviewing people, dealing with a teleprompter and someone talking in your ear at times with instructions and making a conversation real and informative while you’re doing all that.

I kept track of that and as I built up a resume in comedy too, I’m developing in my mind a pretty unique skill set for someone who would want to be a late-night talk show host. That I would really challenge anyone in this industry to find anyone as uniquely skilled as I am in this world of talk shows because of my TV news experience and my improv comedy experience. With that all going through my head, my acting profession and career pursuit, that’s ultimately where I want to position myself -- as a legitimate candidate -- I’m not saying I could ever fill that seat -- but I want to be in the conversation when people talk about who’s the next Jon Stewart, or Conan or David Letterman. I want to be one of those guys that’s in the conversation.

That became a louder voice as I started doing acting and comedy. Each year I have a pow-wow with my manager and ask what my goals are for the coming year. This drive to become a talk show host became a louder and louder goal. Last year in my year-end meeting with my manager, I said let’s start doing this. My hesitation was there’s a ton of talk show formats in New York comedy. I don’t know if it’s a recent thing or I just started to notice it. But there’s a lot of people doing the talk show format in these comedy sketch theaters. My hesitation is I want to bring something new to it that’s not only challenging and fun for me but also new for an audience coming to see the show. So I had to give some thought to how to position the show and what kind of voice I was trying to come at with through the talk show.

J: The selection of performers is a big part of it.
BW: We’re tweaking our definition of what we’re trying to accomplish with guests and the voice of the show each week. The latest incarnation of what we’re trying to accomplish is -- I don’t want to be a star-fucker show, meaning I don’t want to book people you see on TV just so you can come see them in person, because that’s not the type of show I personally enjoy watching. I want to see someone generally interesting and has something new to say, not just getting up there and plugging their latest project. That’s one main focus of our guest bookings.

The other main focus that has come clearly into focus in the last few weeks is that we’re trying to book the Internet stars and establish ourselves as a place where you could see ‘Lonelygirl’ in person, talking about what she’s done on the Internet, or ‘Ask A Ninja’ -- giving them a forum in a talk show format, saying these are the stars of the Internet, that the younger generation can identify with more so than Larry Bud Melman 15 years ago. I want to bring a platform for those kind of guests.

The final thing we’re trying to do is be a forum for circus freaks [deadpan]. We want to be a place …
J: [laughs] Really?
BW: We want to be a place … where you see acts of talent and weird people that the next day people say, ‘Holy shit, I saw a burlesque troupe do something to the theme from ‘Chariots of Fire,’ that was cool. I don’t see that anywhere.’ Those are the three main things we’re trying to focus on in booking our guests.




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