Justin Golak has discovered a secret to human creativity and he’s sharing it. Not only is he sharing it, he is putting it on stage. The monthly show is Killing Your Darlings at The Den Theatre and you can see it this Friday, April 20 and every third Friday of the month.
Justin got started in comedy as a student at Ohio State University. Local media soon took notice. Columbus Alive named him the city’s “Entertainer to Watch” in 2012 and ColumbusUnderground.com raved he is “really, really, amazingly talented, crazy funny.” The Columbus Dispatch chronicled his contributions to the local independent comedy scene.
Justin’s comedy and talent is what drew the attention. But he was about to deploy another secret weapon. In 2015, he had just released his first album, Influenced, and that event prompted a vow - now that he had recorded those jokes, he would never use them again. His theory was that if he was forced to write all new album-worthy material, he would.
That determination became a fresh new concept, a show he called Fifteen and Killing It. Comedians - including him - were required to bring fifteen minutes of brand new material to the stage and never repeat it there again. The show was a hit, but Justin’s career soon reached a point where he needed a bigger platform.
He considered both New York and Chicago, but then a friend described the Chicago scene and its wealth of opportunity. He was sold. In fall 2017, after he had been in Chicago for three years, the Den Theatre approached him about developing a new show. He had just released his third album, American Apathy. He was about to embark on the hunt for fresh material. It was perfect timing. Killing Your Darlings was born.
Justin tapped Jason Melton (Yeah Buddy Awesome Time) and Ed Towns (Stand Up Stand Up) as co-producers. The three share a passion for writing and for turning new material into creative adventure. Lofty goals. But the three were also honest about it. Humans do not typically activate the grindstone unless they must. Inspired by the success of Justin’s Fifteen and Killing It, they decided that Killing Your Darlings would have one rule: each month, everyone – the three producers and two booked comics – would perform fifteen new minutes and thereafter, that material would be banned from the show forever.
The first show was last month. How did it go? Is it inspiring an onstage comic renaissance as hoped? Can human beings overcome busy lives, mental blocks and procrastination to write more than what feels possible? The answer is yes, but it doesn’t happen by itself. Justin kindly spoke with me by phone about how to write when your creative life depends on it.
Teme: How did you meet Jason and Ed?
Justin: We met doing comedy around town. Every time I saw Jason he was working on something new. He told me about free writing, which he does an hour a day. I thought he would be a perfect co-producer.
Ed is similar. He gets booked a lot. Often, the more you get booked, the less you feel you have to keep going to open mics. I've seen people's acts really suffer because of that. But I see Ed at open mics a lot. He’s doing comedy at least every day, if not a couple times a day.
Teme: What is a fact about each of you that the audience might not guess?
Justin: Jason Melton was a professor of philosophy. Ed Towns is a huge Prince fan to the point that on the day Prince died, everyone was like, “Make sure Ed is okay!” I started doing comedy when I was at Ohio State, but I look back and think, “I was such a boring person then!” I wish I could have gone to college between the ages of thirty and thirty-four. I would have done more stuff that the university had to offer.
WHY “KILLING YOUR DARLINGS”?
Teme: How did you think of the name for the show?
Justin: Jason and I came up with it. The phrase “killing your darlings” is about art being your darlings. It’s hard to kill any of it because it’s so precious to you when you create it. We're trying to exercise not getting comfortable. It would be easy to say, "This joke works. I’ll do it on the show again." But when you know you can't, you really have to push yourself. It’s like exercise or any job. It’s easy to take an easier path if it's available. We eliminate any possibility of ease. You adjust to it, but probably wouldn't have done it if you didn't have to.
HOW IS THIS MUCH WRITING POSSIBLE?
Teme: Fifteen minutes every month is a lot of new material.
Justin: Yes, for sure. But it’s possible because it has to be possible. It equals three hours of new material over the year.
It’s like athletes think “I can't run that far” or “I can't lift that much.” You have to get past what you think you can do and just do it until everything catches up. It's hard but if you really try, your brain will catch up.
Teme: It sounds like a good way to battle procrastination, too.
Justin: It is. If you want a good hour of comedy, you should write three to four hours of comedy. Between my first album and my second album, there was substantial growth in the quality of material. It had a lot to do with the fact that on my second album I recorded sixty minutes of comedy, but I wrote three hours. It's better to write more and trim. What's left after you separate the wheat from the chaff is going be even better. But without something pushing you, it's easy to be like, “I need an hour to go headline on the road, so I'll write an hour.”
Everyone has an inherent predisposition to take the easier route. Sometimes it’s important to put up barriers so you can't.
Teme: I think you found an ingenious way to combat human resistance. Is the only rule that you have to bring new material? Can you rework a joke and come back with it?
Justin: You would be surprised how when you're in the mindset of focusing on new material, that question really doesn’t come up.
Teme: So this show can actually rewire the mind in a way?
Justin: Yes. If you have material that's already working, it's hard to venture into the unknown with new material and possibly fail. When you do a show like this, you become less scared because you know you have to do it. It trains you.
KEEPING TRACK OF ALL THE JOKES
Teme: How do you keep track of comedians’ set lists?
Justin: I compile all of the producers’ set lists in a doc, screenshot that, and post it on Twitter and Instagram. That way, we know what jokes we’ve already told. It's a cool way for anyone that’s interested in the show to see the jokes pile up. It’s also a visual representation of the massive amount of new material that we’re creating.
We plan on not repeating our two additional booked performers because we want to give opportunities to as many Chicago comics as possible. But we do ask people to hold onto their set list if they want to be considered again so they’ll know which jokes they’ve told.
JUSTIN’S WRITING PROCESS
Teme: What are your strategies for getting new material written?
Justin: I think of ideas throughout the day and I jot down premises in the note app in my phone. Then I'll go to an open mic or if I'm booked for a show I might fit it in with tried and true material, just couch it somewhere in the middle and I'll work it out. I’m often “writing on stage,” as it’s called, and talking out an idea and polishing as I go. Once I've told it enough, which is usually two or three times, and know it’s pretty good, I’ll write it out in a notebook in a more detailed, but still outline format.
Then it’s a joke and I continue to work on it. I used to get on stage for shows or open mics at least three times a week, but now I try to push it to four or five. My goal is always to be polishing a joke that has potential or telling a new joke.
SHINING IN CHICAGO
Justin: Killing Your Darlings has more of a home in Chicago than it had in its first incarnation [in Columbus] because Chicago is about opportunity. Even if you're not booked on shows, even if you're someone that's new to comedy, you can easily get up at least twice a night if not more.
Killing Your Darlings is an ode to a city where if you really want to, you can develop fifteen minutes of material. I don't think you can say that about every scene in the country. It’s an ode to the city of Chicago and its stand-up scene that this show is even doable.
HOW TO DEFEAT WRITER’S BLOCK
Teme: Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, what do you do?
Justin: Definitely. When you get writer’s block it's scary. It's scary that you feel powerless to restart that creativity. When you're creating it seems so organic. But once it stops, you're like, “Is that it and I'll never say anything funny ever again?” I sit tight, wait it out and try to keep busy. If I don't have a brand-new idea, I think, “Okay, you could tighten this other idea up a bit.”
I recommend going out to open mics and keeping a forward momentum. Know that eventually you’ll get a new idea. Every time I think that's the last good idea I'll ever have, something comes.
With a show like Killing Your Darlings when you're on a deadline, writer’s block definitely ups that fear, “What if there's nothing there?” But there's always something to work on as long as you stay busy and keep your mind open and accepting of ideas and inspiration. The best way to get out of those blocks is to keep working on something.
THE MUSES OF THE NIGHT
Teme: What is a typical day like for you?
Justin: I try to start my day by getting stuff done. Normal boring stuff like running errands, going to the gym. I try to get out of the house. I think that frees up the mind. I find that driving and walking by myself allow my mind to wander and get ideas.
I create better at night. I'll spend five or six nights a week going out and doing open mics and booked shows and I write at night.
Teme: I'm always interested in the rhythm of people's days because I’m figuring it out for myself, too. It’s probably different for everyone.
Justin: I think it is. I know people who love getting up in the morning, having a cup of coffee, and writing. I need a whole day done before I can create. There’s something about nighttime that feels like a more creative time for me. I've never been able to work early in the morning or even the afternoon. It feels too bright.
There’s something about nighttime. It gets dark and all the normal people go to bed and all that's left is the people that can stay awake. It feels kind of dangerous and weird, and I think that's a great time for ideas to come out.
At night, ideas are these kind of specters. I can almost feel them arrive at night like they've been waiting. That's the virtue of creating at night. You get to create at a time when the ideas come out to play. It feels more synergetic with creativity.
The daytime is too normal. Too regimented. Daytime is what we give to the normal production of life. During the day, you have to deal with the hustle and bustle. I feel like creativity is this specter-y thing. It sees that in the day and doesn't want to be a part of that. Then, as the day quiets down and it gets darker and ideas feel safe to roam, they're out. Being a part of that energy feels more creative to me.
Teme: I love that so much. You may have just turned me into a night person.
WHO’S IN THE AUDIENCE?
Teme: Who should come to the show?
Justin: Our audience is anyone who wants to come out on a Friday and enjoy a great show and anyone who wants to see the comic process. We book the funniest people in the city. Our featured comics are people who are going on the road and headlining clubs.
It's watching creativity live in a beautiful venue. The show is for you if you want to see things being born. It’s also for anyone who loves having a story like, “Hey, you know that popular band? I saw them at this tiny venue when there were only twenty people there.” If that's your favorite story, you have the right mindset for this show.
BEHIND-THE-SCENES AT THE FIRST SHOW
Teme: How did the first show go? What went right and did anything go wrong or not as you expected?
Justin: Everything went great. We had a really good crowd. They were really into the idea. We had two amazing featured comics, Brandon Keifer, and Reena Calm. Ed, Jason, and I did our first fifteen and said goodbye to it. We keep the show focused on the material, the comics, and the creativity.
We do the show piggyback style. People sometimes call it “Boston style.” There’s no host. I start the show and then each comic brings up the next comic. It keeps the show flowing and focused on the material, which is what the show's about.
Not a lot of shows are run that way. One comic at the end of his set paused like he was going to leave the stage. It seemed like he forgot that he had to bring out the next comic. I understand because for comedians it is like a muscle memory to say, "Thank you very much!" and walk off stage. But then he remembered. So we'll just keep making sure people remember to bring up the next comic, but other than that, everything went great.
Teme: What did you do to celebrate?
Justin: We got together and thanked everyone for coming. Then we put chairs away and shut down the sound. After that, we gathered in the lobby and were like, “One down. How do we feel?” We all high-fived and that was it. If we do the show for a year we can celebrate. But now we gotta go and write.
It's like celebrating a win in the regular season as opposed to the playoffs. Alright, we won. Good job, but we have another game coming up. We know we’ve got to keep doing it month after month or it doesn't matter. We took a quick moment to be proud of ourselves, but then the next moment we're making sure that we have something to be proud of next month, too.
ONE MORE THING YOU SHOULD KNOW!
Teme: Anything else to add?
Justin: Killing Your Darlings is an exciting place to watch creativity blossom. Come out to the show!
Killing Your Darlings is at The Den Theatre, 1331 N Milwaukee Ave. on Friday, April 20, 2018 at 10:00 p.m. The show is every third Friday of the month. April’s featured comics are Chelsea Hood and Michael Robinson. Tickets here.
More about Justin: http://justingolak.com/
More about Jason Melton: https://jasonmelton.tumblr.com/
More about Ed Towns: https://twitter.com/EDGOTJOKES
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