"I'm constantly trying to be as honest as possible, with myself and my audience" --DJ Hazard | Photo: Adam Woodworth
DJ Hazard is a veteran of the comedy, acting, writing and music world. His warped sensibilities offer a platform from which he often teaches his audience how to wreak playful havoc on their neighbors, while his gleefully perverse folk-song parodies ultimately sound more immediate and truthful than the classics they skew. Nearly 30 years ago, DJ Hazard was a founding member of the Ding Ho Club in Cambridge, Mass., one of the earliest capitals of standup comedy and historically celebrated in the documentary "When Stand Up Stood Out." The Ding Ho Club -- today the Ole Mexican Grill -- was a playground for some of the most notable Beantown talent, including Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait, Paula Poundstone, Jimmy Tingle and Denis Leary. The Apiary recently caught up with DJ Hazard to discuss the "other" DJ Hazard, the importance of honesty, the history of The Ding Ho and his dream of starting his own school.
Who is DJ Hazard, the New York comedian (not to be confused with the U.K. drum & bass musician)?
Too late not to be confused. The hilarity ensues with the two of us being on the same planet. I'm also a musician, so that TOTALLY lobotomizes the search engines, I imagine. I get some of his e-mail from time to time. Apparently he is highly revered, and I have no reason to doubt that. He's also very prolific. It looks like he puts out a new CD every week. I don't ignore the emails. They're from all over the world, and they're VERY respectful:
"DJ Hazard, Sir, I know that you're very busy and I'm very sorry to disturb you. If you have any advice for this up-and coming-DJ in (insert country), I would be very grateful."
I have to write them back. They think they just e-mailed their hero. I explain the mistake, that they reached DJ Hazard the comedian, actor, writer and musician guy. I tell them it's cool, it happens. Then I direct them to the other DJ Hazard's MySpace. Some people say I should fuck with them -- man, that would be such a douchey thing to do. Not to mention bad karma. I think this also answers the "Who is DJ Hazard?" part of this question.
What was The Ding Ho and how did it get started?
The Ding Ho was a Chinese restaurant/bar that set up shop on the premises of what used to be a Country-Western motif saloon. They didn't bother to change the decor. The walls were paneled with big slabs of sawmill wood, there were wagon-wheel chandeliers, the tables were made of the same crude wood, with the bark still attached. They were trying anything and everything to make their front room, the bar room, make money -- reggae bands, swing bands, whatever.
In the autumn of 1979, The Comedy Connection was the only comedy club in town. But they were in the middle of a "strike" against their home court, The Charles Playhouse, and they were doing shows in different venues every night -- Wednesday night being Lenny Clarke's constantly sold-out, six-hour open mike night at the Ding Ho. So, The Connection kissed and made up with the Charles Playhouse and moved all their shows back there.
Barry Crimmins, who is now one of the nation's leading political satirists, commentators and activists, had blown into town from San Francisco and was doing the door for the Connection the nights they were at the Ding Ho. When the Connection pulled up stakes, Barry went to Shune Lee, who owned the Ding Ho, and told him he could make that Wednesday night crowd happen every night... and he did.
So that's when you began doing standup, too?
I was just starting out. I did two open mics a week. One at the Connection, one at the Ding Ho. I'm proud of the fact that I did 13 totally different 5-minute sets during my first seven weeks. They weren't all gems, but I guess Barry took a shine to me and asked if I could help out around the Ding. The sound system was atrocious, so the first thing I did was totally redesign the sound for the room. Then I tackled the lights. I was trained in commercial art, having gone to the Art and Design High School in Manhattan, and I started making all the ads and posters for the club. I became the Assistant Manager and House MC and lived in Shune Lee's basement. Six months later, I also started a public access cable show showcasing the comedians on stage at the Ding.
What was it about the scene that drew so many high-caliber comedians?
I think Steven Wright said it best in the documentary "When Stand Up Stood Out." I'm paraphrasing here, but he said that the Boston comedy scene in the early eighties was an isolated island unto itself. We weren't aware of, let alone influenced by, comedy scenes in other parts of the country. Several transplants, including Kevin Meaney and Bobcat Goldthwait, blew into town thinking they were just going to play Boston for a week and move on.
But they stayed for years and honed their styles, immersed in the gurgling primordial soup that was churning in the comedy clubs. I likened Boston comedy during that time to being like Australia. We became kangaroos and platypi while everybody else became reindeer and beavers. Nothing wrong with being a reindeer or a beaver ... or a kangaroo or a platypus ... they're just different.
It must have felt like a pretty special time to be doing comedy.
There were no headliners during those first two or three years, inasmuch that everybody was a headliner. The order of the show was dictated by when you showed up. The other unique factor was that Boston also quickly took on what I called "The Boston Format," where a headliner hosted his own show every week on a particular night.
Martin Olson, who went on to become a very successful writer and producer, especially in cartoons, was our piano player. He cranked away for hours on this God-awful mouse-infested upright over to the right of the stage. He played everybody on and off. He accompanied anybody who wanted to sing on stage. He jumped right in with me or anybody who was playing an instrument on stage.
Steven had bought a guitar and was learning how to play it. He started closing his sets with the "Rachel" song and "Womb Death on Vacation." One night, he, a waitress and I were sitting around the Ding Ho after hours and he asked me to tune his guitar for him. After I did, I strummed a couple of chords and came up with the first verse of "The Ballad Of The Ding Ho":
"Shune Lee Came around this time last year,
Said, "I got myself a great idea!"
"Gonna build a Chinese restaurant right here in Inman Square, y'know?"
Now, it's bad enough he picked a cowboy saloon,
And he filled the jukebox full of crummy tunes.
But, why'd he have to go and name the place Ding Ho."
That became a total show stopping number, with packed houses singing along every time I did it. Hell, I closed every set I did with "The Ballad of The Ding Ho." It would really did blow the roof off the dump.
Tell us more about the documentary "When Stand Up Stood Out."
Fran Solomita, a Boston comic who moved on to become a producer in Los Angeles, wanted to do something to document the insanity, the unbridled comedy laboratory/opium den/Woodstock that was the Ding Ho. I donated tons of footage from my public-access show and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Thankfully, every local TV station had at one time or another come down to not just the Ding, but to all the clubs that were rocking round the clock.
While Fran was putting together the project, Barry Crimmins came down with Hepatitis-C and was very ill. A giant Ding Ho reunion show was being organized at a huge theater to help Barry with his medical bills. This dovetailed perfectly as the culmination of the documentary. It was a 3-1/2 hour show playing to a packed house in one of those old historical movie houses, main floor, balcony, the whole nine yards.Backstage, Steven asked if could borrow my guitar, as he thought he might do the "Rachel" song one more time. I said, "Dude, it's only fair... I wrote the Ding Ho song on your guitar." And he remembered that moment and we both just smiled. And the show went on and on and on.
How do you choose what shows to do? It seems like one week, you're in NYC, the next week, you're in Boston, Philadelphia, Canada, etc. Is there a method to your madness?
I go on the road to pay the bills. I have a terrible eating and apartment habit that I'm not ready to shake just yet. Most of my pursuits in the New York don't pay very much, but they are my passions. I've done four films since I've moved back three years ago, but they're mostly low-budget indies. I look at it as at least I'm building a body of work. I really like the New York-storytelling scene. I don't get to do that nearly as much as I'd like. I also really enjoy being invited to perform at the black box/back room alternative haunts. Both these art forms allow me to really stretch some good brain muscles. I'm also a charter member of the Hotsy Totsy Burlesque Review. I'm their crooner. My burlesque name is "Doctor Love." One of the high points has been becoming friends and working with the incredible Dirty Martini this past summer at SpiegelWorld.
I actually exist just above poverty level. Seriously. I travel just enough to pay the bills. I could probably really apply myself and be some kind of club circuit guy, but I really don't want to. I often get asked to do a particular storytelling show or a really cool comedy show run by some excellent and talented people. Then I look at my calendar and I see I'm in San Antonio or Vancouver that night. That's very frustrating. This will all change when I hit the lottery.
When did you first become totally no-nonsense and badass?
I am? When did this happen? Did I miss the swearing-in ceremony? Now they REALLY think I'm a bad ass, not showing up to get my plaque... or diploma... or whatever it is you get. I like to think of myself as no-nonsense, but I'm also very silly. That's two tough balls to juggle.
Have you gotten in any fights recently?
I've decided that my head stone will read: "You Should See The Other Guy." But that's going to be my next and last fight. I find the subway to be a great training ground for self-assertion mixed with restraint. It's funny, I didn't always look like this. I used to be a skinny, long haired rocker boy. I don't remember sweeping the floor in Bruce Banner's lab and accidentally hitting the 'on' button with my elbow.
What was a particularly fun scene you did for a recent video or TV show?
It seemed like my first film, "Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story" was going to be my first and last funny film. I've been relegated to noir and gritty crime films. I did a film (a short) that was in a film fest and up against a short with James Gandolfini, Joe Mantegna and Lou Gossett, Jr., and our film won. Man, how noir and gritty do you have to be to ever so humbly ace that crew?
However, last year, I was asked to be the newest cast member on American Misfits on Fuel TV. It's a skateboard-enthusiast show, but it's bookmarked or sometimes marbled with these segments where the hosts of the show have to come into the office and deal with the "Boss" of the show (me), who hates them and tortures them. It's very funny. Season three is on hold right now, but I'd love to get together with that gang again. I also just finished a really cool and very funny short that's a parody of a classic '30s film called Cold Calls. The rest of the cast is Blanchard Ryan (most recently seen in Beer Fest and Open Water) and Ben Bailey (from Cash Cab). It was directed by Jack Daniel Stanley and it won the audience award at the DVXuser's Twilight Fest.
What new surprises can we find on your latest CD "El Hazardo Rides Again"?
Funny you should bring that up. "El Hazardo Rides Again" is actually heading out to pasture. It's a good CD that contained some of the best parts of my first CD, "Lock Up The Planet When You Leave," along with a whole bunch of other stuff. It's served me well for the last year or so, but I'm actually in the super final stages of finishing my next CD, "Man Of Hazardium."
"Man Of Hazardium" is the best of "Lock Up The Planet When You Leave," plus a ton of other stuff. It's actually a 20-year body of work with excerpts ranging from 1988 to just a few months ago. I have it trimmed down to an hour and six minutes. It's going to be the first CD that I not only sell after shows, but will make available for sale online, as well.
You've performed comedy for a while now. Were there any moments you noticed where the comedic landscape changed abruptly (of its own accord -- not due to any current events)?
There was the glut of the late '80s/early '90s. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon and it just tipped over. I think the other noticeable change is the invention of the cellphone. Cellphones are the bane of live performance -- not just comedy. They sell cellphone blockers now. They look like old school Motorola walkie-talkies and cost about six hundred dollars. Now there's a model that's the size of a phone and costs half the price. I might get one. Not just for while I'm on stage. I also want to fire it up when I'm on the Chinese bus or the Greyhound. Let's not forget the movies.
How has your own style changed? What did you used to do that you no longer feel you can get away with?
I'm constantly trying to be as honest as possible, with myself and my audience. I feel I've come closer to this goal, but I'm nowhere near satisfaction. I'm still finding my voice. I hang with some comedians that are so right on. Louis CK is an old buddy of mine. He asked me to be his special guest at the taping of his last cable special. Sweet Jesus, he is such an inspiration. Such courage, such primordial insight. I also did "Lewis Black and Friends" last year. Another old chum. Those are two guys whom I couldn't be happier for. I am a fan of their talent to the point of envy.
If you could drop everything right now and focus on just one thing, what would that be?
I'm being serious here -- I would start a school. I would hire the best teachers in their respective areas of expertise and have them teach people how to be more independent, how not to get ripped off and to not live in fear. Home repair, automobile maintenance, cooking, computer stuff, finances and self defense. I would start as a little night class in some rented space and, hopefully, expand from there. I think I'd call it Acme Individual.