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Justin Schlegel is relatively new to the DC/Baltimore comedy scene, but in a short time he's made a big splash. He's a regular on 98 Rock (and a natural at radio, having worked as a DJ) and makes regular rounds of local open mics and showcases to hammer out new jokes for his ever-growing arsenal. Currently residing in Baltimore, Justin combines an animated, bordering on goofy delivery with a striking bluntness -- there is a morbid, dark undercurrent to many of his stories and observations. From July 7-9 he'll be the feature act at the Comedy Factory with headliner Rob Cantrell. He tore himself away from his Xbox just long enough to answer a few questions via e-mail from Dcstandup's Chris White.
You’re originally from Waldorf, Md., so we need your advice: what’s your favorite strip mall?
Ohh, that's an easy one. Smallwood Village Shopping center. It hassomething like 30 vacant stores and a Safeway that never seems to be open. One corner of the shopping center is also apparently on some sort of sink hole, so when you drive by it, the Jerry's Subs and Pizza looks like it's being swallowed into the earth by Satan himself. It's Jerry's punishment for the crime against nature that is the $4.99 large pizza. Something with that pie ain't right in the eyes of the lord.
How much did you venture into DC and Baltimore growing up? One thing that amazes me about the region is how startlingly different the communities are even a few miles outside of the beltways – you can drive 10 miles from either downtown and you’re in another world.
I agree with you 100 percent. I grew up in Waldorf, specifically south Waldorf, which is VERY redneck, very rural. But get closer north towards PG, and it starts to get more urban, and then once you get into D.C./Baltimore, you just get shot at. You get shot at in Waldorf as well, it's just with an old 12-gauge filled with rock salt as opposed to a Mac-10.
I used to venture into the city from time to time, mostly to skateboard with friends from Charm City Skateboards here in Baltimore, and I'd come into D.C. to skate with guys at Freedom Plaza before it was frowned on by the city. Nothing says "To Protect & Serve" like a Metro Cop with a hangover trying to yank a 13-year-old's skateboard out of his hands. I can't wait for the ED-209 series to be put into service in the District.
Skateboarding is not a crime! But Robocop references are. How hardcore were you -- was skating something you just did for fun, or would you say you were a skater?
No ... "Robocop 3" was a crime. We speak of that atrocity in hushed tones in the Schlegel house. [EDITOR'S NOTE -- Actual quote from "Robocop 3": "I thought you said your ninja could destroy Robocop."] I used to be pretty hardcore into skating, and at one time even wanted to go pro at it (though in hindsight I realize I was nowhere NEAR that good).
Ever cripple yourself?
One of the reasons I stopped is that I broke both of my knees while skating a vert ramp (the type of ramps Tony Hawk rides). After some physical therapy, and some reflecting inward, I decided to be an entertainer. I apparently reflected too far inward though, and came to the shocking realization that I love anything and everything William Shatner. I'm what you'd call a HUGE Shat-fan. He's Shat-tastic!
Hmm ... your taste in this regard is impeccable. Shatner IS the world’s greatest living celebrity. We’ll have to talk more at the fan club meeting next week. But moving forward – you grew up around here, but was your college experience local?
I dabbled in Charles County Community College (a.k.a. "Chuck U"), but found myself to be FAR too stupid to continue. I promptly dropped out and moved to Baltimore to attend the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. It was a school built on the remains of an old funeral home, and all the floors smelled like embalming fluid. Best $8,500 I've ever spent.
And from there you went into radio … What sort of work were you doing?
I was originally on air at WYCR 98.5 out of Hanover PA. I drove 2 hours each way for $5.15 an hour to do a midnight till 6am radio shift. Little known fact here too...I was the guy who got on the air right after Larry Poon got off the air. I can't remember the name that he used on air, but we were always so tired, we hardly uttered 2 words to each other. Like two ships, passing in the night ...
So you were spinning records? What was the format? And who listens midnight to 6 a.m. in Hanover PA? Besides the people at the Utz factory …
I was a DJ who went by the name of "Patrick Terry", a combination of my father's and brother's name. The format was CHR (Britney, Maroon 5, Shaggy, etc.), so me being a heavy metal fan, I wanted to take a DeWalt cordless power drill to my ear-drums every other song. From midnight until 6am, the only listeners we had were truckers, and Agustus ...the "boy" who lived in the attic of the station ... but we don't speak of him ... when we do ... people disappear.
Why did you decide to leave that behind?
I left radio when I saw that radio was a dying medium, and the industry was inbreeding itself. By that I mean, when the Telecommunications act was passed in 1996, companies who used to only be able to own 1 broadcast medium in a market were now allowed to own as many as they could snatch up, and overnight Clear Channel and Infinity owned more than half the radio stations in the country. Major shows were syndicated (Stern, Imus, O&A, etc.) and local talent was given the heave ho (why pay 40 morning shows, when you can pay 1!). I saw that being so young in the business, with very few feathers in my cap was going to make it a VERY hard uphill battle. So like a rat on a sinking ship, I bailed out. I also stole a white cassette single of Jefferson Starship's "We Built This City (On Rock & Roll)" from WXYV. Don't tell anyone. It totally screwed up the "Top 4 at 4!" segment.
How much did radio prepare you for stand-up?
Radio helped me prepare for comedy by making me so unhappy in having my creativity stifled, that I HAD to muster the courage to find another outlet for it...and stand-up comedy was it. I also have more coffee mugs and t-shirts from radio shows and radio stations that don't exist anymore it's ridiculous.
Best piece of schwag in your possession (Starship single aside)?
Best thing I ever got from a station was from X105.7 here in Baltimore. It was a hardcore hip-hop station, and I was the only white kid working there. On top of that, I'm only 150 lbs., I wear Motley Crue t-shirts, and reference Caddyshack movies. Everyone there was SUPER cool to me though, and in light of the fact that I was a bit of an outsider, they made me an "honorary N****" card on my birthday. It stated that I was granted permission to say that certain word that would usually get a pale cracker like myself a lead pipe to the temple for uttering. If anyone ever wants to see it, just ask. I keep it on me at all times.
Let’s talk about your comedy. You’re very direct with the audience – a lot of your stories and observations are pretty colorful, and a few might border on raunchy. Has that directness always been a part of your personality?
My directness has always been apart of my personality, but I've never wanted to come off as mean. There are some comics, some of the N.Y. guys that, while very funny, seem to go out of their way to be hurtful and mean. I don't want to do that. I do, however, enjoy finding humor in some of the darker things in life that normally wouldn't be laughed at. It can be like walking a tightrope between being funny and offensive sometimes, but I'm getting better at it.
So where does that come from? Is it something that runs in your family?
My parents both had very twisted senses of humor and introduced my brother and I to very unconventional comedy at a young age, and a lot of it stuck with me. While growing up with friends who laughed at "In Living Color" and "Saturday Night Live", my brother and I were watching "Monty Python's Flying Circus", "Black Adder" and "Fawlty Towers". Very dry, and sometimes very off-color British color that just sticks with you, and makes you look for humor in places you usually wouldn't think to...like Spam!. No one in school understood why I was so bummed out about Graham Chapman passing away, but I didn't give a damn about "In Living Color" getting cancelled.
Great story about my mom's morbid sense of humor: She once came to school on a Friday morning to get me out unexpectedly, and told the Vice Principal that my father was in the hospital after a violent car accident, and we needed to rush out to see him right away. With tears in my eyes, she led me by the hand down the hallway of the school, and as the V.P was trying his best to console us, she whispered in my ear, "Just play along, we're going to the beach, Dad's fine.” I was blown away that she'd go there, but in hindsight, it was awesome to realize that she could make a joke out of ANYTHING.
Has your style ever gotten you into trouble?
I had a beer bottle thrown at my head in Frazier's on the Avenue in Baltimore once. I made a joke about the eulogy that President Reagan would have wrote for himself while in the grip of Alzheimer's, and there were quite a few, red-white-n-blue Ronnie Ray-Gun fans in attendance that didn't take to kindly to my material. You haven't lived until you've felt shards of a Miller Long Neck in the collar of your shirt. What did I do you ask? Ran. I ran so far away. Just to get away.
So what really inspires you as a comedian – what really makes you laugh?
My friend Pete makes me laugh, that goes without saying. If the world ever got wind of this guy’s existence, they'd put him in a glass bubble, or some sort of terrarium, and let future generations study him. Laugher inspires me to do comedy, because laughter is such a pure form of happiness. It's such a good and healthy thing to hear laughter as well as make it, so why not want to do it for a living?
How do you decide what you want to do on stage?
You've asked me that at a very interesting time. I recently have been going on stage purposefully unprepared, and seeing what I can come up with off the top of my head to get to bit I already have; "riffing" a lot as it were. Trusting myself and my natural sense of humor is something I'm working very hard on right now, and when it clicks on-stage, it feels great. It makes you feel like you could just go up there and do 3 hours. I have my friend Doug Powell to thank for steering me in that direction. He's one of the best ever at it.
OK, now on to the REALLY important subjects. I understand you’re quick the video game fanatic.
I am such a game nerd. I didn't go out to a show recently so I could stay in and watch the MTV unveiling of the XBOX 360. I giggled myself to sleep that night with images of 10,000+ polygon characters, fully bump-mapped with tri-linear filtering in a 50 player arena gunning one another down over XBOX Live dancing in my head. PS2, Gamecube, PSP, XBOX, Dreamcast ... even a Virtual Boy are weapons in my dork arsenal right now. Gaming has just been a passion of mine since I had a Colecovision as a kid, and it's cold, icy grip has yet to ever let my libido escape and see the light of day.
So YOU’RE the other person in the world who owns a Gamecube. And I thought it was just a myth. We’re like the last unicorns. What are you playing right now?
I'm currently playing Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri conflict on XBOX live right now. Gamertag: DanglerWFW. If you think you've got it, bring it! "You bleed like Mie Li!!!"
Finally, I’ve heard rumors that you live alone with cats. How long have you been a 400-pound woman in her mid-40s?
I do, and if you'll excuse me, "The View" is about to come on. You know where the door is.
Justin Schlegel is at the Baltimore Comedy Factory July 7-9 with headliner Rob Cantrell. You can get more information at baltimorecomedy.com. Justin's Web site is justinschlegel.com.
Feature acts are the backbone of the comedy industry -- the aspiring stars who travel the country while trying to build up their acts, their reputations, and their bank accounts. As they pass through the DC/Baltimore area, we'll be doing our best to chat with them and share the conversation with you.