“Gail has become ‘kind of an icon’ in the field of corporate comedy.”
Ian Kirby, Publisher, American Corporate Entertainment
Perhaps the one word that describes Gail Stocker is “unique.” As a child, she determined that she wanted to work with kids. Comedy came out of her understanding of how difficult it was to be a teenager. Most of her free time during her high school years was spent in the library studying the humor section.So what happened to Gail when she finished school? She became a probation officer working with children. According to Gail, it was only a lateral move working with comedians. All of a sudden all the things she had done for fun became part of her work.”As a teenager I worked for Gregory Peck. It was a blind ad that ran at the junior college I was attending. I was on the lot at Universal one day talking on the phone with a gentleman and I remember telling him, ‘I’m sorry, I didn¹t get your name.’ And he said ‘F-R-E-D Astair.’ I felt like such a idiot.”
While it was exciting, the job ended and Gail went on to school and got a sociology degree. When she decided to leave the probation department, it was because she finally decided the words of the song were right, “there¹s no business, like show business!” She left her job and spent the next nine months looking for work. But nobody would hire her.
As it turned out, Gail’s best friend was dating a comic. He had a friend who believed that a job might be available with her manager. “It was a freebie. I worked for nine months for free for that manager. She left and moved to New York and I had a client. I felt I wasn’t nearly ready but I also knew I had to take that opportunity. That quickly I was in business.”
All this happened during the time when comedy clubs were becoming extremely popular. “Nobody knew much about them, so I knew as much as anyone else. All of a sudden there were a lot of comics who wanted me to work for them. I was very selective. My first client was Diane Nichols (Newsweek’s heroine of Nine to Five). I started as her manager and she couldn¹t say Œno¹ to me because I wanted it so badly.”
Over the years Gail has worked with a lot of comics. “…Worked with, hung with, traveled with and interacted with hundreds of comics. I had a thriving business booking people on the comedy circuit and managing some of them. But things began to change. All of a sudden comedy clubs weren’t successful anymore. There were many that were badly run and there were way too many to survive. Some of them are still in business. They knew how to treat comics. But there were horror stories too. One club owner made the comics who worked his club stay in his garage and wouldn¹t let them use the telephone.
“I was in New York when I heard about the corporate market. I had been doing mostly comedy clubs for my clients so this was a pleasant departure. It was around this time that I met a deejay who actually started the idea of the ‘five o¹clock funnies.’ I introduced him to all of my clients. This became a huge force in Los Angeles because he would play the comics and they would build a following. We started doing comedy concerts at the local comedy clubs using the acts he featured on his radio show. The comic that got the biggest response was Tim Allen. We did Tim’s first concert and we did a number of other concerts with Tim in LA.”
Now Gail was meeting comedians that she had not met before and this time as a producer. “I worked with Bob Fisher who owned the Ice House in Pasadena. That club has the distinction of being the oldest comedy club in the country.²
Out of all this came relationships with many comedians including Robert Wuhl (Arli$$). “I was Dennis Miller’s first agent in town and I worked with Richard Lewis for a long time. I worked at that time with Kevin Pollak and I worked with Paula Poundstone for five years, as well as Larry Miller and Arsenio was my upstairs neighbor..”
Obviously one of the reasons that Gail loves to work with comedy is that she considers it an extremely powerful force. “Comedy is one of the things that can actually change people¹s minds. When you get people to laugh and relax, they are more open to considering new possibilities. Take the Marx Brothers for instance. The movie Duck Soup was such a powerful force than Mussolini had it banned in Italy. Jack Benny did To Be or Not To Be, which was a spoof on the Nazis. So you see, comedy has always been powerful. It is a unique and distinctive point of view when it is well done.”
While many corporations look to agents for “clean” comedy, even in the 50s and 60s what we saw on television was not necessarily what we got at a stage show. “Television actors like Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway and Red Skelton were television comics. The standard for television was a lot different back then than what you might see live in a burlesque show and Vaudeville or in places like Vegas or the Catskills. Plus there were people like Red Foxx and Moms Mabley who were known for their not-so-clean comedy. What comedy does many times is stretch the boundaries. I do not think you have to be ‘blue’ to be funny. But the use of language and innuendos has never been confined to any one decade. There is ‘schlock’ in every decade. You take Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy. Most of that was just poorly done and used for its shock value. I don’t think it has ruined comedy a bit. Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle do some of that type of comedy and they are brilliant. It takes years to become a good comedian. It is both an art and a craft and very few are willing to work as hard as necessary. Most of the people I work with are twenty year veterans of this business.”
According to Gail, comedians will write their own material until they develop a character. “Once that is done, that character is you. At that point any good writer can write for you and you continue to develop that character. If some say it pigeonholes you, I think they are wrong. Look at Jack Benny, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Jerry Lewis or Jim Carrey – they all have a very well known persona and it works well for them. There is never anyone who can replace the original. Name any really successful comic and you have a ‘oner.’ There is only one like them in the world. They are an extremely valuable resource and when they leave us they can not be replaced.”
While most of us are influenced by trends, Gail’s tastes in comedy have not changed over the years. “Things I liked 20 years ago, I still like today. I liked Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld and those are two of my favorites still today because they are quality comics and very hard working people. There are some that I don’t like as much as I used to simply because they have gotten lazy and are not writing any good new material. The comics I came to as an absolute novice, I still like today.
“Let me tell you a Dennis Miller story. When Dennis first came to town, he tried out at The Improv. One of the owners, Mark Lanow, came up to me and said ‘I can’t use him. He’s a thief!’ I told him ‘He is not a thief. This is one of the most creative writers I have ever seen. Tell you what, you tell me what jokes you have heard before and he’ll do a set of new stuff that you have never heard.’ What was happening was that all the comics who came through Pittsburgh were picking up his material. Unfortunately, people will always steal your stuff if it’s good and there is not much anyone can do about it. I knew how smart and creative Dennis was and I knew the material he used was his own.
“My opinion is that you don’t have to do offensive material to be funny. But in some cases there is a gray line as to what is offensive and whose definition you use. In Corporate America, most buyers are looking for a clean show. But then you have an artist like Robert Schimmel, who is absolutely hilarious and certainly not clean. But he has a way of putting his own spin on things. He gets away with a lot more than most comics because he is so inoffensive looking. He looks like he can’t get laid.”
Most of the comedians Gail talks about are legendary performers, but as a comedy consultant she has the chance to discover a lot of emerging talent. “Some of the ones that I think show great promise include Buzz Sutherland and Jim Barber. I just did an IBM show with Steve Altman, who plays keyboards as well as being an excellent comic. I don’t see as many of the new comics because my emphasis is working with real pros. When I was a manager, I was looking for those new people who were breaking. You have to be a comic for at least 10 years before you have the skills to knock out an audience. And believe me, every comic I have worked with told me ‘that’s too long.’ ‘I’m going to do it faster.’ They are so bright and are so use to getting things done faster, they don’t believe me when I tell them that. But it is true. The Sklar Brothers have great potential. They are identical twins and have this chemistry. I am working with a lot of comics right now who are simply marvelous. You would probably recognize their faces but not know their names and they have been in the business for 10 or 20 years.”
First an agent, then an agent/manager now Gail calls herself a comedy consultant. “I sat down and wrote out the things that I liked and the things I was good at as well as the things I didn’t like and the things I wasn’t particularly strong in. I included many of the things that I wanted as possibilities. Then I designed what I’m doing now around my strengths and passions. Take this new IBM show I just finished doing. I was a talent scout for a large production company. I found talent they had never heard of. I was able to access this talent through my relationships with managers and agents as well as some of the comics themselves. One of the things I do now is searaches. A company will call me and say ‘ I want a such and such comic,’ and I will find them. Every time I do that I find a new client – a new comic. And I have found some great people. A company may come to me and say ‘I want a comedic host. We have a blue-collar audience and my budget is $10,000 or under.’ I can give them five or six excellent choices who I personally know are excellent comics and can play to a blue-collar audience. I an send this client a number of choices because I ahve almost endless possibilities. We proceed only when they have selected someone they like. No matter what the demographic, if it is available in comedy, I will find it and bring it to you. My job is to make everybody happy – agency, manager, comic, production company and the end client.”
Like most people in the corporate market, September 11, 2001 had a devasting effect on business for Gail. “It had already been a slow summer and everyone was looking for fall for things to pick up. It was cripplig for everyone. Our business depends on people flying places and getting together. We have had a flurry of activity early this year but things have tightened back up a little because the economy is tight. I think this is the reason for companies buying affordable comedy. The concept allows corporations the opportunity to buy seasoned professional comics who may have face recognition but not major name recognition at a very reasonable price. These folks put on an excellent show but are not seen on television every week. There is always going to be a place for comedy. People always have the need to laugh. It is one of the strongest tools we have in business.”
This article was originally published in the July/August 2002 issue of American Entertainment Magazine.