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Beyond the Page: Funny Changes Everything

If you ask a comedian what it’s like to perform onstage, don’t expect a lighthearted response. “Doing standup is like walking on a tightrope over a tank filled with sharks while the audience is hacking at the tightrope with machetes,” notes J.D. Shapiro, a regular at venues including world-famous L.A. club the Comedy Store. Yet there’s a good reason why pros soldier through performance anxiety and unresponsive audiences. “When you get the reaction you want,” Shapiro says, “it’s better than sex.”

Performing standup comedy also provides the type of instant gratification that eludes Shapiro in his day job as a Hollywood screenwriter. Although his résumé includes the Mel Brooks-directed comedy Men in Tights and the well-reviewed indie We Married Margo (which Shapiro also starred in and directed), he ultimately has very little control over whether his scripts become movies. “At a certain point, I felt like I was writing in a vacuum because so many of the projects were getting stuck in development,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘If I write material and produce it and perform it, I’ll get an immediate response.’”

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Shapiro got serious about funny business in 2005, when he played about 25 sets to get used to being onstage. By his second year as a comic, he was up to nearly 200 sets annually. Today, he’s a member of the exclusive “paid regular” club at the Comedy Store, and he’s performed at venues across the country. “I still consider myself a baby comedian,” he notes. “I’m still learning.”

Born and raised in the New York City area, Shapiro did not set out to become a writer. In fact, he originally envisioned a life in front of the camera. In the ’80s, he studied acting at Uta Hagen’s studio in New York City and found sporadic work in TV commercials and small theater productions. However, the frustrations of scrounging for jobs and having no control over projects wore on him. “I wanted to be God,” he says with a laugh. “If you’re the director, you get to create the world. I was always drifting behind the camera, so to speak. I liked the bigger picture. Directing was more stimulating to me than acting.”

By the time Shapiro moved to L.A. in 1990, he had started writing screenplays as a means of generating potential directing projects, and he sent one of his scripts to a family friend who worked at NBC. Although the executive agreed to meet with Shapiro, their conference went downhill fast. As Shapiro recalls: “He comes out and says, ‘I read the first 10 pages of your screenplay,’ so I’m thinking, ‘I just read William Goldman’s book—they really say that!’ Then he said, ‘It’s very campy, and not good campy.’ He started to say, ‘You should take some screenwriting courses,’ and he stopped himself in mid-sentence. He said, ‘You’re not very talented. You should just quit the business.’

“For me, that was the best meeting I could’ve had,” Shapiro continues. “I became committed to proving him wrong. I would write a screenplay and put it aside and write another one and put it aside—I don’t think it was conscious, but I knew this was practice. For a while, I didn’t really show my scripts to anyone, but finally I met a producer who was looking for a writer, so I showed him one of my scripts and I got my first professional job. I got $750 upfront and $750 when I finished. I remember being beyond elated: ‘I just got paid to write!’ I was ecstatic.”

Not long after becoming a professional, Shapiro experienced the kind of fairy-tale career moment of which every would-be screenwriter dreams. Shapiro became friendly with his dentist, Evan Chandler, who had aspirations of a show-business career. Chandler mentioned that one of his patients worked for comedy legend Mel Brooks, the director of spoof movies including Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs. Interest in the classic Robin Hood character had recently been revived by the release of the Kevin Costner hit Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, so a light bulb went off: “Instead of Friar Tuck, I saw Mel playing ‘Rabbi Tuckman,’ and everything fell in place,” Shapiro recalls. He wrote the script that became Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which Chandler presented to Brooks’ associate.

Shapiro can’t help but grin when he describes what happened next: “Mel got the script on a Sunday, and the next day I got the call that Mel read it and wanted to meet me. I met him on Wednesday. The next day, Mel said yes to the project.”

A string of writing jobs followed Men in Tights, but most of the projects went unmade. Then came Battlefield Earth. Shapiro was the first writer on the notorious sci-fi adventure, which was based on a novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The project went so far off the creative tracks that years later, Shapiro wrote a public apology for his involvement in the picture. As (bad) luck would have it, however, Battlefield Earth was Shapiro’s first produced movie after Men in Tights. Eager to preserve his reputation, Shapiro took matters into his own hands.

In 2000, the same year Battlefield Earth was released, Shapiro completed his directorial debut, We Married Margo, a mockumentary-style romantic comedy featuring cameos by Kevin Bacon, Cindy Crawford, and others. The movie engendered such goodwill on the festival circuit that Star Wars creator George Lucas became a supporter, donating post-production services from Skywalker Sound.

It was during the promotional push for We Married Margo that the seeds for Shapiro’s stand-up career were planted: His pithy introductory speeches to festival audiences caught the attention of promoters. “When I look back, I realize I had put together a comedy bit to warm up the audience without really knowing it,” Shapiro recalls. Publicist Harry Klein liked Shapiro’s act well enough to pitch Shapiro as a replacement emcee for a Women in Film event at the Sundance Film Festival when the original host canceled, so Shapiro suddenly found himself booked to perform in front of about 300 of the industry’s most powerful females on 24 hours’ notice.

“I was so scared I kept hoping the snow would keep me from getting to the gig,” he says, “but it was an amazing night, right from my opening punchline. I could see all these women looking at me, and they’re thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ So I said, ‘Here were are at the first annual Women in Film Awards, and once again, women are getting screwed over because your emcee is someone nobody’s ever heard of.’“

Despite his encouraging debut, Shapiro concentrated on his day job until taking the standup plunge in 2005. And even though his entrance into the comedy world was accidental, Shapiro now has a clear idea of what he’s trying to accomplish onstage.

“I used to think I wanted to change the world, but I realize that’s a little difficult,” he says with a grin. “Now, if I can get people to think about other possibilities, that’s great. If can get people to forget about their troubles, that’s great. But, ultimately, doing comedy is for me—I’m exploring things because I’m trying to figure them out. The material really matters to me. One night, I was performing at a club on what I thought was an off night—I thought there were gonna be 20 or 30 people there, so I was gonna try out some new material. Turned out it was a full house, like 300 people there. I went out and did all old material and I crushed, but I felt rotten, because I didn’t say what I wanted to say.”

Beyond providing an outlet for insights that might otherwise go unheard, Shapiro’s comedy career benefits his Hollywood work. “The standup has helped me a lot with the writing,” he says. “A lot of times, I’ll write something that I think is great, but when I perform it, it doesn’t work. It could be a rhythm thing, like it needs a few less words or an extra beat. I’ve become a better writer because of the standup.”

Another plus of performing in comedy clubs has been learning how to work the room in a Hollywood meeting. “I now can pitch a story with much more confidence, knowing I can get laughs from the people in the meeting,” Shapiro says. “If they have fun with me in the room, not only do they feel like I can pull off the funny in the script, they feel like I’d be fun to work with.”

And even though Shapiro still considers himself a newbie at the comedy game, he’s hit a few milestones that suggest otherwise. “When I became a made man at the Comedy Store, a comedian said to me, ‘You know you’re a professional when you enjoy the silence.’ It means you’re not worried about losing the audience between laughs, because you’ve made a connection. The audience is in the moment and they’re listening to what you said. They’re not texting, they’re not talking on the phone—you’ve earned their respect."