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Jeff Silverman on the business of being funny

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Jeff Silverman, president of the comedy-club chain Yuk Yuks

Jeff Silverman knows a thing or two about funny.

In the business of comedy for more than 30 years, Silverman is the business side of iconic Canadian comedy club franchise Yuk Yuks. He recently published his first and only book, Funny Business: Business Lessons with a “Cents” of Humour (Burman Books).

The book is peppered with terrific anecdotes about the wackiness and unpredictability of the comedy world, particularly the business side as Silverman lived it.

It is co-authored by Drew Tapley.

As president of the comedy-club chain, Silverman has the less glamorous role in the upper echelon of management at the comedy club. His partner, CEO Mark Breslin, the public face of the company, is the one who hangs out with the stars of the comedic world and attends the numerous high-profile galas and events to shmooze with celebrities and politicos.

Missing out on all that glitz has never fazed Silverman. In fact, he prefers the role of second banana at the organization, as he’s more comfortable remaining lower profile, he said.

Speaking to The CJN after the book’s release, Silverman, 62, recalled how the world of comedy is a crazy one, populated with extreme personalities, unmanageable egos and also very generous individuals.

In the book, Silverman calls Yuk Yuks “Canada’s national standup comedy company.” And it’s hard to argue against.

With clubs in 18 cities across Canada – with the notable exception of Montreal, which the company is working on, he said – the chain is the de facto comedic farm system for Hollywood’s comedy big leagues. High-profile comedians such as Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel and Russell Peters, to name but a few, all started out at Yuk Yuks. No other comedy organization in Canada rivals Yuk Yuk’s scope.

While all have since departed for more lucrative careers, Silverman takes pride in the fact that all of them have remained on great terms with him and credit both he and Breslin with helping them become the stars they are today.

“Our hope is that we treat up-and-coming comedians right, and when they get to be bigger [stars] they treat us right,” he said. And that’s generally been the case, Silverman added.

Comedy is an “unconventional business,” he writes. And Silverman has had his share of unconventional experience in that world.

A native New Yorker, Silverman came to Canada in 1976 and almost immediately ventured out into the entertainment realm.

His CV lists an impressive roll of operating some of Toronto’s prime entertainment venues of the 1970s, including the 99 Cent Roxy repertory movie theatre, the New Yorker Theatre and, most notably, the Horseshoe Tavern.

Silverman had a hand in bringing top music acts to the city in the 1970s. Acts such as the Ramones, the Police, Tom Waits, Joan Jett and Patti Smith all played to appreciative Toronto audiences, thanks to his networking and business acumen.

In 1980, Silverman took a chance on launching the country’s first late-night variety TV show, The All-Night Show, which was described as a “fusion of zany experimental television.”

While it lasted only a year, the show convinced Silverman that comedy was the world he was intended to inhabit, albeit managerially.

Last month, The All-Night Show was added to the archival collection at the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation.

While working in the mid-1980s producing concerts for the CBC and the Molson Amphitheatre, and a brief career as the account director for the O’Keefe Centre (now the Sony Centre) in Toronto, he caught the eye of Breslin, who hired him in 1986 as Yuk Yuks’ vice-president of marketing and promotions.

Breslin then made Silverman partner and president of the company in 1990, the job he’s held ever since.

For Silverman, the expansion of Yuk Yuks across Canada and the United States, to cement it as the premier club chain in North America, is what drives him today.

In the book, he discusses how he’d considered retiring a few years ago. “I made my money, and I was hoping this company would run forever and just send me cheques,” he writes.

But a revolt by some of the company’s franchises in Western Canada made him rethink retirement.

“It then dawned on me that for 20- something years, those people ran our clubs out west and never tried to expand. So now I’m on a mission to open five new clubs out west,” Silverman writes.

   And so the business of comedy continues.

Silverman has the following advice to comedians and would-be comedy sector entrepreneurs alike: “There’s more to the business than just your performance. People have to laugh, yes. But you have to be a person who knows how to work with people off the stage, too.

“Know about your rights. What are you keeping and what are you giving away? There’s so much more to successful comedy. Every one of the people who’ve made it, Mandell, Peters, Carrey… they have a drive beyond just wanting to perform on stage.”

Asked who his favourite comedian is, Silverman said he’s “more of a Jerry Seinfeld guy.” But above all, he idolizes comedians of a bygone generation.

In one anecdote told to The CJN, he recalled how years ago he unsuccessfully tried wooing a then-geriatric Groucho Marx to come do his act in Toronto.

Calling him up at his home to offer the legendary comedian the gig, Silverman asked, “Groucho, do you travel?”

Marx’s snide response: “Yeah, from room to room.”

“That is one of my greatest memories. I’ll never forget that line,” Silverman said. “I love the younger comics that everyone knows now. But the real thrills in my job have been the chance to touch those [comedians] I grew up watching.”

For more information, visit www.burmanbooks.com.


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