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An Interview with Jay Potter - Not Your Average Guy
Jay Potter, a comedian and an actor. Maybe you've seen this stand-up comic live or on Rescue Me? Or perhaps you saw him in his latest theatrical debut, Children at Play? Either way, you know him and if you don't know him just yet, get to know him because he's someone you don't want to miss!
"A vanilla milkshake with just a squeeze of chocolate" is what Jay Potter ordered when we sat down at the diner for the interview. Me? I had a cup of apple cinnamon tea and fumbled around with my mini tape recorder to ensure I captured every word he said. Mr. Potter picked it up and fondly reminisced his early days of using a recorder in his comedy routine. A nice feeling to know that I'm not the first one to use a recorder starting out. I'm a stickler for details. Especially when there's important information involved from a very important person. Here's what he had to say:
JP: Cool. I had these (the tape recorder) for stand-up comedy. (He put the tape recorder to his mouth.) That's how I started in the business.
MDG: You started with acting or comdey?
JP: Stand-up comedy is how I started in the business and I knew that it was something that I always wanted to do from going all the way back when I was in college. I saw friends doing this and I knew that this was what I should be doing.
MDG: Did you have an inkling beforehand?
JP: I was always kind of funny. A bit of a class clown, troublemaker, good student though. Definitely a good student.
MDG: Tell me about Jay. Where is Jay from originally?
JP: Alberquerque, NM, but then I grew up in Santa Monica. I was born in New Mexico, grew up in Santa Monica, Malibu, and then we moved to Arizona.
MDG: How old were you?
JP: I was 17, it was at the end of highschool. I was in Arizona by then. I started working at the Playboy Club in Phoenix doing stand-up and clubs around the Phoenix area.
MDG: How did you book your first show?
JP: The Playboy Club had open mic nights once a week or once a month.
MDG: Really? How was that? Did you ever meet Hugh?
JP: No, I never did. It was fun, it was good. It was a great place to start and good audiences and then I moved to New York. I have a lot of family history and roots in New York. It was easy to come here. My mom was born here in New York City. My grandfather lived here; a couple of aunts. One of them worked for the United Nations. It was really easy to come to New York. It wasn't like "Oh! Woah! Skyscrapers and everything." It was just like I pictured it. It wasn't scary. So, I started doing comedy here. (I) Did lots of comedy here at the Comic Strip, at the Improv, The World Famous Original Improv, which is gone now, unfortunately, Catch A Rising Star, Comedy Cellar, Who's On First. Those were all kind of the big clubs back then. They were great roots for comedy. And, the Comedy U Grand.
MDG: So you were just working the stand-up circuit?
JP: (I was) Doing comedy and then the commercials kicked in.
MDG: What made you decide to go that way? Was your comedy taking off at that time?
JP: Yea, I was doing great, but then commercials started coming in. I started making a lot of money doing commercials, so I stopped doing as much comedy.
MDG: What kind of comedy do you do?
JP: Ranting about living, life, politics, the city...
MDG: How did you get your commercials? Did you have an agent?
JP: Yeah, I got a commercial agent.
MDG: While you were doing comedy, did you have a comedy agent or did you have an agent in general?
JP: Somebody said, "Jay, you should do commercials" and they introduced me to a friend who was an assistant back at the Jay Michael Bloom Agency in the 80s. So, I went in and interviewed at the Jay Michael Bloom Agency and they started working with me. It took me about a year to get a commercial and I was for sure thinking that they would not want to work with me anymore because it took me so long to book.
MDG: So you did feel that there was a period of uncertainty?
JP: Yeah, but then when I started booking, I made a ton of money for them --and for me.
MDG: Were they non-union spots?
JP: No, they were all Union.
MDG: You were automatically Union?
JP: I did the non-union thing for a while.
JP: Because I wasn't in SAG yet and I could get a lot of work.
MDG: Do you think that's better than being Union?
JP: It gave me the comfort and knowledge of working in front of a camera.
MDG: You learned a lot on your own then?
JP: I learned a lot doing non-union commercials. Then I started booking a lot of Union commercials, and subsequently film, television and theatre. I'm doing theatre now, but that's sort of the last piece of the puzzle.
MDG: You are now starring in Children at Play. How new is this play?
JP: It's brand new. It's the first time it's been done and is being performed at The Living Theatre and running for 4 weeks with only 2 weeks left. It's a limited run, equity approved showcase. It's really wacky. It's wild. $18 bucks a ticket. Are you an equity member? If you are an equity member you get in for free.
MDG: No, I'm not, but $18 is a good price for a show.
MDG: What's it about?
JP: It's a comedy, so it's not as harsh as it could be in a straight drama. One of the characters, the father, always wanted to be a comedian. So, there's a stand-up segment up there where he's really a bad comedian. He's trying to be funny and he totally trashes his daughter who he raped when she was 5. It's a really intense monologue and it's fun to do.
MDG: What's your role?
JP: I play all the male adult roles which are 5. I play a coach, a principal, a teacher, a dad and a husband, as well as a factory worker. Three of them are pedophiles.
MDG: Wow! Are you the only one who has 5 roles?
JP: No, there's another adult female and she plays all the female adult roles.
MDG: As a Union person, what would you advise to the actor just starting out?
JP: Study, take as many classes as you can; that's where you develop the musculature to work professionally. You gotta know, you gotta have your skills.
MDG: Where did you study?
JP: I studied with Joanna Beckson, a 2 year Meisner program. It's really brilliant. I would recommended it to anybody.
MDG: You recommend the Meisner technique then?
JP: Yea, I've done a lot of different acting techniques, but the Meisner technique is great. Especially for beginners. It teaches you how to listen, how to open yourself emotionally and trust your instincts.
MDG: Any other recommendations for someone starting out?
JP: I'd recommend people doing improv. Take an improv class. Do comedy and acting improv. It helps develops your skills. Study, study, study!
MDG: Is it hard to get into a play if you have no experience?
JP: I think so. I you don't have any experience, sure.
MDG: So, here's the never-ending question: How do you get experience if you have no experience?
JP: There's always community theatre. There's lots of non-union shows that are being done all the time here in the city.
MDG: Do you sing?
JP: I do.
MDG: Do you do any musical theatre?
JP: I have done musical theatre, but not for a while.
MDG: Would you go back to it?
JP: Yea, I love it.
MDG: What kind of music would you suggest when auditioning for shows?
JP: It's been a long time, but Broadway shows. Things that fit your profile. Fitting your profile is important.
MDG: Have you had any coaching for stand-up?
JP: Stand-up is something that came naturally to me.
MDG: What about coaching for voice-over or acting?
JP: Yes, I think coaching from people that you respect and like and who are good--those that you can learn from is a great tool for someone starting out, [and] knowing your type.
MDG: What's your type?
JP: I'm a tall, average-looking kind of guy from the Midwest. I sort of look like every man.
MDG: You think?
JP: Yea. Don't you think?
MDG: No, you look like Jay Potter!
JP: I look like I could be from Indiana, you know? Middle-American guy.
MDG: What about typecasting?
JP: I think in the beginning the thing to do is just to work. Expect to develop a resume and not worry about typecasting. The thing is to just work professionally.
MDG: You've been doing this for quite some time. You've been turned down, I'm sure?
JP: (Chuckles) Alot, more than I can say.
MDG: What would you say was your big break?
JP: I don't know that I've had one.
MDG: You don't think so?
JP: I wouldn't say that I've had a big break. I've kind of worked steadily for about 25 years. Starting in stand-up, commercials, radio, voice-over and some theatre, film and television. You kind of add it all up and it makes a living.
MDG: You must know a lot of people!
JP: Something else about being in the business, I think networking is important. Network with as many people as you can. They know your work; you know their work--it's how stuff happens. I play the role of Theodore Barrett, the former White House Deputy Press Secretary for George Bush, on the Onion News Network. That character has moved into roundtable conversations in a segment called "In The Know" and a woman that I worked with on that show recommended me for Children At Play.
MDG: It's no secret that you were on Rescue Me. How did you land that?
JP: Again, connections, you know? My friend, Peter, saw me in a commercial and was like, "Oh! We should bring Jay into this role." So, I went ahead and did the pilot and the show was picked up and continued through the first season.
MDG: How exciting! What was it like? Were you shooting every day?
JP: It depended, you didn't work every day. I'd work maybe one day a week; shoot a few scenes.
MDG: Did anyone help you with your lines?
JP: I did go back to my Meisner teacher a couple of times prior to shooting. I think a lot of actors or actresses have a role they continue to study.
MDG: Would you do anything different knowing what you know now back then making your way up the ranks?
JP: Probably. I think I would've continued with the stand-up with the same level of commitment and aggressiveness that I started with and I wouldn't have let all the great success I had with commercials slow me down from the comedy. When I started making a lot of money in commercials I allowed myself to not be as diligent with my stand-up career as I would have liked. It suffered.
MDG: That's great wisdom right there. Indirectly, a very good piece of advice to take with me. Thank you.
MDG: However, you're working the stand-up circuit now!
JP: Yeah, I'm doing it, but I wouldn't have lost ground and I would've stayed in doing some acting classes. I had the opportunity to study with some great teachers and I didn't do it.
MDG: Why not? What happened?
JP: Life. I didn't think I needed it. I was making money and getting work in film and television. Not enough, but I wish I would have built a little more time for legitimate theatre. I also have a lot of interests. I love working on ceramics. I had a photography show with my images from Cuba. I sold quite a lot of work. I love photography.
MDG: Wow, that's wonderful! Do you have a photography website?
JP: I'm putting one together.
MDG: We'll have to be on the lookout for that!
MDG: You recently got married!
JP: Yes, a year ago!
MDG: I just want to jump back to your early days in NYC for a moment. What did you do for work as you began making your way as a comic?
JP: When I moved to the city, I got a job waiting tables. I did that for 4 years. The restaurant's not there anymore, but it was O'Neal's on the corner of 57th Street and 6th Avenue owned by Patrick O'Neal, the actor.
MDG: When did you realize that you didn't need to wait tables anymore?
JP: Probably when my mom died. Life's too short, commercials were taking off and I left the restaurant job.
MDG: Your mom must've been really proud of you.
JP: Yes. She said something nice to me a few years before she died. I played for her, when I was out in Arizona, from a tape recorder such as this, some of my stand-up comedy from the night before and she said, "Wow, Jay, you're really on your way!" I'll never forget that.
Shortly after, Jay picked up and moved to New York City. And so, he is and has been living his dream. If you'd like to find out more about Jay Potter, check out www.JayPotter.org for more information.
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