Meet The Comedian Who Warms Up Oliver, Colbert, Fallon, & More
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
For more than 10 years, WNW Member #84 Craig Baldo has been splitting his time as a stand-up comedian and a copywriter. In our interview below, Craig tells us why he introduced copywriting as a way to support his comedy career: "I wasn’t comfortable packaging myself... Turning my comedy into a business was starting to drain the fun out of it. That’s where copywriting came in. I could have a creative career (writing for products that weren’t ME) while I did comedy for myself. And I wouldn’t have to be in Indianapolis or Rochester every other weekend at a Funny Bone missing my kids’ soccer games. Plus, the idea of me yuckin’ it up in the Catskills at age 65….just no."
Clearly the balancing act suits him well. His portfolio is full of hilarious ads for brands like Nike, Wendy's, Dos Equis and Verizon. And as a stand-up comedian, Craig was a finalist on Last Comic Standing before booking Conan and landing as the warm-up act for the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and currently John Oliver on each of their historic shows.
Craig tells us what the experience has been like, and how the worlds of comedy and copywriting inform one another: "Stand-up was a great training ground for copywriting. Both camps are about having smart insights. As a comedian if you find fresh insights/life truths and you’re a good technician – timing, delivery, etc –you’re golden. Same in copywriting... Though I’m not sure how stand-up informs dealing with frigid clients, acorn budgets and choked timelines while genius ideas get flushed into the Gowanus Canal."
Below is Part 1 of our interview with Craig. Read Part 2 here.
Tell us about your creative background. Who is Craig Baldo and how did he get here?
Real name: Craig Balderston. Baldo is a stage name I took from a life-long nickname. I’m from Madison, NJ, divorced parents, older brother, pets, public school. Dad was a grade school gym teacher so I know a shit-ton about dodgeball. Spent lots of time watching Three’s Company, listening to Yes, Night Ranger et al, learning to play songs on my Casio CT310 keyboard and recording 4-part harmonies on my duel boom box – like the cheerleaders were doing. I still love harmony, in music and in life.
I devoured comedy. The VCR was my best bud in Junior High, always set to tape SNL, Budd Friedman’s Evening at the Improv or an HBO stand-up special. I memorized comedy bits and dazzled the kids at school. Was voted class clown senior year and it was all down hill from there. Or is it uphill? Which one is “it never got any better”?
I excelled in math so I thought I’d end up etching parabolas for a living, but what I loved was making people laugh, writing songs, creating stuff, so in college I pursued the arts and the crafts. I never thought of a rhombus again. Until now. Ew.
When and how did you get into stand-up? What have been some of the challenges along the way?
I started doing stand-up around age 26 because I couldn’t afford therapy. It was just a hobby at first, but as my writing improved and my nerves calmed, I began to realize it was a real thing, not just something to admire of others at a distance. I booked my first TV gig for Comedy Central and started performing in clubs and colleges across the country, until one day I wasn’t waiting tables anymore. More TV gigs came, I was a finalist on Season One of Last Comic Standing. Old girlfriends started emailing. It was fun.
My biggest challenge came from club owners and agents asking, “Who are you, Craig?” I resented the question, mainly because I couldn’t answer it – “Who cares who I am? I make the whole goddam room laugh.” It was a branding question they were asking. They were trying to sell my sitcom. But I wasn’t comfortable packaging myself. While most comedians capitalized on the thinnest shred of success, I was blasé about booking Conan, Montreal Comedy Festival and Bonnaroo. Just seemed like fun stuff I got to do. And I loved every minute. But turning my comedy into a business was starting to drain the fun out of it. That’s where copywriting came in. I could have a creative career (writing for products that weren’t ME) while I did comedy for myself. And I wouldn’t have to be in Indianapolis or Rochester every other weekend at a Funny Bone missing my kids’ soccer games. Plus, the idea of me yuckin’ it up in the Catskills at age 65….just no.
You’re currently the warm-up act for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. You’ve also had the chance to do the same for Colbert, Stewart, Fallon, and others. How’d this opportunity come about? What has that experience been like? Any funny anecdotes working with these hosts?
Lots of funny stories. First time I warmed up Daily Show, Jon Stewart said to me, “Good luck out there, and remember, every third word say ‘cunt.’” Personally I think that’s good advice for any job. Stephen Colbert once grabbed me in the hallway after a show and compared my warm-up to a Rush pentagram sticker (that was stuck to the wall behind me): “You didn’t warm up the five points of the pentagram tonight, you warmed up the entire star. Nice work.” I was like, “Uhhhh thanks---” and POOF he was gone. I love Colbert. I love his advice for people starting in comedy: “Get in trouble.”
In what ways do copywriting and stand-up inform one another? What are the similarities and differences in how you approach each?
Stand-up was a great training ground for copywriting. Both camps are about having smart insights. As a comedian if you find fresh insights/life truths and you’re a good technician – timing, delivery, etc –you’re golden. Same in copywriting. Once you conjure a good insight, your compass is set, and you can let your technical skills as a writer/artist take over (hopefully you have those skills). Though I’m not sure how stand-up informs dealing with frigid clients, acorn budgets and choked timelines while genius ideas get flushed into the Gowanus Canal.
Have you tried your hand at improv or acting, or do you feel most fulfilled by getting up on stage solo with a microphone?
I’ve studied Improv at UCB. It was a long time ago. I’m thinking about getting back into it, though not psyched to be the old guy in class. I actually love to act. Wish I could do more of it. I’ve been in some commercials and a web series I created. Right now, I can’t find the time to do it all.
I’m a stand-up at heart, probably because I get to write the script (aka control issues). Though when I do warm-up, I don’t prepare anything. I just run out and work off the crowd. An audience loves that, I think sometimes even more than prepared bits. They’re into watching a person act naturally in front of hundreds of people. To them, that’s the scariest part about stand-up, so watching it I think a lot of people are captivated because they’re imagining themselves doing it. I’m not patting myself on the back here. I just think that’s part of the audience’s psychology. Invariably, when I tell someone I do stand-up, they’ll gasp and say, “Oh I could never do that.” Other careers don’t have that knee-jerk response (except maybe "copywriter for Pharma"). Anyway, I love the public speaking confidence I’ve garnered from stand-up. Definitely helps with presenting scripts.
How would you describe your copywriting style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
I prefer subtle humor. It’s tough to do in spots but can go a long way. That being said, I also love a good punch in the nuts. Overall, I like to think of my signature style as “just incredible.” I also like to come up with concepts that feel completely untouched – an ideal I borrow from my approach to stand-up. Those ideas are out there. To me, it’s what keeps the creative process exciting.
I also take pride in being a malleable writer, having the chops to assess any brief, pinpoint an insight and work with the client. But recently I’ve stopped making myself so available because I’ve been landing in roles that don’t feel right. Not that I’m ungrateful for the opportunities, but at some point, I believe a person who is unsatisfied should ask the questions: What do I like/not like to do? What am I good/not good at? And walk toward the light. You might take a pay cut at first, but I think you’ll be happier if you’re honest with yourself. For me it’s comedy. I think the world is best served when I’m writing funny things, so I’m gunning harder for those gigs. I got away from the question again, didn’t I?
What moment or project in your career so far has made you the proudest?
I moved to NYC in ’96 and discovered this amazing stand-up show in the LES called Eating It at Luna Lounge (Luna Lounge was demolished in ‘05). I would see comedians like Louie, Hedberg, Chapelle, Garofalo…amazing comics just letting loose. I eventually became a regular performer there. My most memorable moment in stand-up was Eating It’s first show back after 9/11. Six comics performed that night including me. I was third in the line-up between Marc Maron and David Cross. I wrote a whole set about the terrorist attacks, nothing disrespectful, just my twisted take, and I got a standing ovation. I think I had the best set in the room that night, even with all those big names in the room. Cathartic.
Biggest career failure?
On a dare, I attempted a “dick trick” on stage in front of 600 people at a Days Inn in Allentown, PA on the night of the Millennium. What that means is I pulled out my penis and stretched it around my wrist like it was a Rolex watch. Not a great judgment call. Next question.
What’s next for you?
Still trying to book another gig at the Days Inn in Allentown.
My focus right now is on rebuilding my brand as a comedic writer. I’m taking a lot of meetings, reaching out to old contacts. My friend, Dave Holmes, a very funny writer just pulled me in on a job for Gillette. I’m working with another pal creating comedy content for brands – we just finished a project for Jet.com. If we incorporate, I want to be called “PUN” because people HATE puns, but really, they LOVE puns. I’m an expert on puns, a pundit if you will. See how mad that made you? It’s called good advertising. I call my wife my “pun dumpster.” I digress.
I’m also trying to become proficient at Adobe Premiere so I can cut my own stuff. No more wasting ideas because I can’t edit film.
Also, I have these two small sons, August and Gordon, and I want to spend every waking moment with them because they’re so funny and amazing.