Justin Hires at the Los Angeles premier of 21 Jump Street. Photo courtesy of Justin Hires.
When comic legends like Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and Dick Gregory rose to the spotlight, and even years later with the next generation – Eddie, Dave, and Mitch – the road was paved fairly well: Get up on stage, own the mic, wait until someone took notice and then, if you were so lucky, they’d put you in the movies.
Times have changed in the new era of course, but particularly in the field of stand-up, where working the comedy houses is no longer enough to launch a career. It’s certainly necessary, and an invaluable part of the journey, but in an age where old and new media work hand-in-hand, learning to find a greater extension of your reach becomes essential to the game.
Justin Hires knows this well. The actor, writer, and comic has navigated this turf from every angle, recently making it to the big screen in the new film, 21 Jump Street, starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. Hires, handpicked by Hill for his role as a student at the school being patrolled, was able to avoid a lot of the casting rigmarole after Hill discovered a video of Hires performing.
Hires explains the necessity of new media in the field of being funny.
“Back in the day, there was literally only about four channels available, so as long as you got on one of those channels, that could solidify you as a star,” says the comic, who is also in the midst of writing a script for Rainforest Films, and regularly hits the open mic circuit in Los Angeles. “Now, there’s so many networks – there’s cable, YouTube, films. There’s just a wider variety of talent that people can choose from so you have to do even more and be ahead of the curve. So many people do standup; I could list a thousand comedians I know, and no one would know who they are. The other ones, using YouTube, they get 300,000 hits a day.”
Hires started as an actor in Florida when he began to notice people took a liking to his sketch routines. He enrolled in acting classes and got on a radio show in college. Eventually, Hires began shooting videos of his acts and putting them online, finding great reception from the 100,000 new fans who would likely have never been able to see him on stage.
When it comes to being a great comedian, however, Hires believes old practice has, by no means, been replaced by new technology.
“You have to get on stage several times a week,” Hires insists. “But I do think it [new media] has changed some of the good comedians’ thought processes, as far as what is accepted. Some people put out YouTube videos and think they’re great comedians, but they go on stage and bomb. Other comedians call themselves Twitter comedians; they bomb live too. At the end of the day, Chris Rock, Louis C.K., all those guys will tell you, you must get on stage.”
Louis C.K. made headlines recently by offering a video of his stand-up performance in New York as a $5 download on Amazon. The one-hour special went on to earn him over $1 million in profits. Taking the lead, and graciously giving him credit, Aziz Ansari similarly put a performance online for a few bucks per download. As Hires points out, it’s another way to build a brand. Comedy begins and ends behind a microphone – one voice with a good way to interpret the world. Where old media collaborates with new though, is through expanded outlets and greater depth of power.
“For me personally, taking acting classes has been the biggest boost, and learning how to audition,” adds Hires. “It depends on your ultimate goal; mine is to star in and produce films. Being able to do stand-up has helped me with timing… And after those YouTube videos, good comedians respected me. They were comparing me to Keenen Ivory Wayans…You have to keep up with the times, have to know the Internet is an important component. Numbers do mean something.”
In comedy, it’s part and parcel. It’s not an art-form that can be completely renovated; part of what makes something funny is its organic relationship between control and emotion. It’s an understanding of the world and life that can’t be replaced with codes. Old does meet new, though, in the expansive growth of the network. Thus those who want to garner the most laughs, must aim for the most hits.