2007_03_comedywise.jpg Frank Santopadre and Jim Pharo are Comedywise, a service that provides humorous speeches for CEO's, jokes for award shows, copy for advertisements, and things of that nature. So what exactly is it like to work in an office where your job is to write jokes? How do you even get the word out about such an endeavor? What's the dress code?

How did the two of you meet and how did your partnership come to be?
FRANK: We met at the offices of a now defunct humor magazine called Jest. I was the editor of the last three issues and Jim had been brought on by the founder to try to sell/save the thing. The magazine eventually went under, but we found that we enjoyed working together so we decided to come up with our own venture.

JIM: We found we had a similar sensibility about both comedy and work, and a shared desire to do something that was both fun and profitable. Frank had this great background writing all kinds of humor, and I had a background in professional services: advertising, law, accounting. It seemed like a natural fit: a professional services firm that provided comedy writing and producing. And so far, the response has been terrific. Of course, now we hate each other.

FRANK: And have no real respect for each other, either.

JIM: Plus he owes me money.

What's your perspective on comedy?
FRANK: Well, smarter is usually better, in my book. I've always been a fan of headier satirical stuff like Firesign Theater, SCTV, the early Lampoon, etc., and "absurdist" humor like Python, Steve Martin's standup period and even parts of the old Letterman show. You know...the kind of comedy that could be juvenile and sophomoric but also thought-provoking and even anarchic. The former Lampoon editor Tony Hendra used to call it "Boomer Humor". Of course, you can't always apply an absurd or even a satirical sensibility to writing for corporations and politicians, but you can have fun and push the envelope once in a while.

JIM: We both believe that comedy should come from an authentic place, and be respectful of the audience. We're able to modulate the style to fit a wide variety of contexts, but we don't get a lot of mileage from stuff that's really empty-headed or just sort of dumb. One of our goals upon starting Comedywise was to try to create smart comedy for smart people.

How did you first start getting clients?
FRANK: As a freelancer, I'd been doing this kind of made-to-order comedy writing for years. I'd written for TV, ad agencies, CEO's, non-profits, corporate gigs, comics, you name it. So it was just a matter of bringing some of those clients and that experience into Comedywise.

How long were you active before going public and, at the time, how did you advertise your services?
FRANK: Well, the truth is, there really is no way to advertise these services, except for our website, the occasional press release, industry networking, things like that. Like a lot of people, we get almost all our business from referrals.

JIM: In terms of going public, we've been "out" almost since the beginning. Of course, it's an important part of what we do to respect client confidences, so we have never -- and would never -- do anything to breach that trust. We just put the word out and people who know us and have worked with us do the rest.

You mention that you do punch up work on stand-up acts. What does that entail, exactly?
FRANK: It varies, depending on the assignment. While we contribute stuff that you might see in the performer's stand-up act from time to time, we're more often asked to write material for special appearances, like a TV guest shot, or if the comic is doing a special event like a roast or a charity benefit. Occasionally, as in the case of last summer's Meredith Vieira farewell roast on "The View," producers will bring us in to guest-write a particular special or show. Other times, the performer themselves will hire us to help out with a gig.

JIM: Whatever the assignment is, the process is generally the same. We get the initial call, talk about what's needed -- a couple of jokes, a monologue, an extended bit, an introduction, whatever. Then we do a draft, and have some additional conversations to hone the material. Sometimes the material needs more than honing, but so far we've been able to get it pretty close to right the first time out.

How do you coach a nervous CEO? What tips do you give them to combat stage fright?
FRANK: We urge them to just be themselves. You have to keep in mind that most of these people are polished public speakers. They might not have performed an actual stand-up set per se, but they usually know how to deliver a speech and most of them know their way around a joke. We don't try to reinvent anyone. We just work with who they are and try to make certain that they're properly armed for battle, so to speak.

JIM: We've had good success with tequila, as well.

How do you decide on what sort of jokes are appropriate to make?
JIM: Well, that's always one of the challenges. If it's a corporate assignment, we'll usually straddle the line and stay away from anything too irreverent or political. You never know where anyone stands politically and we don't want to ruffle feathers or alienate anyone. Whereas if it's an entertainment industry event, like an award show or roast, it's usually "anything goes." As I said, we do have a philosophy that respects the intelligence of the audience. So within that framework we've been successful in getting the "appropriateness factor" right. Getting that right is one of the keys to what we do.

When you write a speech, do you read it in front of the office afterward?
JIM: Sometimes we'll get feedback on a line here or there. But much of the work we do is confidential and we want to respect that. We can tell once we've met the person whether what's on the page is going to work or not. A couple of times we ended up reworking material because it turned out that someone we thought would be confident about delivering material gets a case of stage-fright. So we've had to come up with material that can withstand some pretty serious performance anxiety.

How many people work on each project?
FRANK: It depends on the size of the job and the deadlines. I do much of the writing myself, but we also employ working comedy writers on specific projects. We also work with graphic artists and occasionally with web designers, depending on what we're being asked to do.

Are projects worked on in like the writing room of a TV show or in cubicles?
FRANK: Neither, really. We do some brainstorming in the office, but it's very informal. Much of the actual writing is done wherever the writer is the most comfortable. Usually a bar.

JIM: We don't have a writing room like the old "Dick Van Dyke Show". Just a regular office with cubies, etc., in lower Manhattan . But I don't think anyone ever actually works there. It seems that comedy people like to work where they're comfortable, like Frank at the Blarney Stone. We work with one guy who likes to write from the belfry of a church in Queens where he sometimes pretends he's a sniper.

What's a typical day at the office like?
FRANK: Jim and I usually sit and stare at one another until someone blinks. Then we make a few phone calls. Then we make actual business calls.

JIM: Sometimes, we nap. Or have soup.

Is it always Casual Friday?
FRANK: Casual isn't the word. You've never seen so many people Xeroxing their asses.

Do you think humor in commercials helps move product?
FRANK: Hard to say for sure, of course, but we do believe that humor is an effective selling tool. A genuinely funny ad will disarm viewers and make them, generally speaking, more receptive and less resistant to the "sell". It may sound trite, but everyone appreciates a good laugh, regardless of the form it takes.

JIM: I think the challenge is to use humor to sell, not just to entertain. We see a lot of TV commercials that are humorous, but it's hard to see how the humor really helps the advertiser. I don't think just telling a funny joke and then showing the logo is very helpful. The humor has to be authentic to the brand. Apple's current PC/MAC ads do that successfully.

I've heard of Corporate Clowning, but I'm not quite sure what it means. Could you explain?
FRANK: I assume you're not talking about what Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling were found guilty of? Truthfully, I'm not sure what it means either, but if there's any money to be made we want to know about it.

JIM: I hate clowns. I think Corporate Clowning sounds like regular clowning, only worse. More corporate.

What's the process for applying at Comedywise? Do you send in a resume or do you send in a seven-minute set at Caroline's?
FRANK: We work with writers we know and have worked with in the past, but if someone wants to send writing samples, we'll be happy to give them a read. As far as comics go, we seem to have no problem rustling them up for corporate gigs or fundraisers.

Do you have any tips for someone who wants to work at Comedywise or get into the comedy writing business?
FRANK: If someone wants to work with us, as I said, they can always send us some sample material and we'll see if there's a match. It's hard, because this is a certain kind of custom-made comedy writing that takes many different forms and not every funny writer is up to that task. As for general writing advice, the best advice I can give is to do as much self-work, therapy, etc. as possible so if you're already a naturally funny person, your comedy will wind up coming from a deeper, more personal (and ultimately, more original) place. Also, it's a good litmus test to see if you have the stomach to do this for the rest of your life.

How about tips for ending interviews?
FRANK: We've found that faking a Grand Mal seizure helps.

JIM: Ack...Ack...Agghh!