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Q&A: Bobby Slayton

The Pit Bull of Comedy headlines Tommy T's in Pleasanton this weekend

Comic legend Bobby Slayton—aka, the Pit Bull of Comedy—has been headlining nightclubs across the country for 25 years, and he’s no stranger to the East Bay. Local comedy fans will remember his frequent runs at the Punchline Walnut Creek and Fubar’s in Pleasant Hill.

Slayton recently stopped to our backyard with a string of showsat Tommy T’s in Pleasanton. Slayton says these shows were his final run through of a new set of material before he goes to Cleveland to film a new cable comedy special.

I caught up with Slayton at home in Southern California to talk about his approach to stand up, his interesting forays into film acting, and his love of classic horror films.

Pete Crooks: Bobby, nice to talk with you. I wanted to start by asking if you could tell our readers how to tell a joke—give them a starter kit for their next cocktail party.
Bobby Slayton: I see, you’re looking for a hook for your story. You’re looking for an angle. I got ya man.

The thing is, there are some people who know how to tell a joke, and then there’s most people, who just can’t do it.

It’s amazing when people try to tell me a joke—they still come up to me all the time, and say, “I’ve got one for you.” And, usually, I’ve either heard it, or it just sucks. Once in awhile there is a gem

So, if I were teaching a beginner lesson, I’d say start off slow, see if you can keep someone’s attention. Start by telling the joke to a dog, then work your way up to a child, then go from there.

PC: Ok, then. Let’s talk about your relationship with the East Bay. You’ve been playing here for years. What is funny about this suburban backyard we call home?
BS: I have to say, as angry as I am about American culture in general—and there’s lots to be angry about—the East Bay is a place that keeps getting better and better.

Out in Pleasanton and Livermore, there’s wineries and Costco, so I have everything I need right there. And, compare it to San Francisco even: There’s less traffic, its cheaper to park, and there’s beautiful weather. Downtown Pleasanton, in particular, is a beautiful place. I love to walk down Main Street, which has a bunch of great little restaurants.

I would love to live in Pleasanton—my priorities have changed. My hatred for the world makes me appreciate places I like so much more.

PC: The dining scene has definitely improved over the years, as it has in the greater East Bay.
BS: I used to play the Punchline in Walnut Creek and there was this one great restaurant in town. Spiedini, under the BART tracks. Fantastic Italian restaurant, and I would eat there every night I was in town. But you’re right, now there’s a bunch of great places to go, all over the area.

PC: There have been many comedy clubs in the East Bay over the years but the one that’s stuck around is Tommy T’s. Even though the club has moved around from Concord to San Ramon to Pleasanton, Tommy Thomas is the one guy who has been booking national headliners here since the 1980s.

BS: Tommy has been doing this for a long time. I know him from the 1980s, when there was a comedy boom not just the Bay Area but across the country. San Francisco had a thriving comedy scene, and out there in the East Bay you had Fubar’s and the Punchline.

I think the first Tommy T’s was in San Leandro. I worked with Jay Leno there one night, before he had the Tonight Show. Leno would sell out two shows on a weeknight back then, which was unheard of.

I opened up for Leno, and I would always have a few drinks and a line of coke before I went on stage. But Leno would sit back there in the green room, eating a piece of pizza, and just wipe his chin and get up and do the sharpest hour of stand up you’ve ever seen. And for the second show, he’d do an entirely different set. It was incredible.

PC: I’ve got to ask about some of the movies you have done. First of all, Ed Wood, which is certainly my favorite movie by Tim Burton.
BS: I don’t always like doing movies all that much, but Ed Wood was a thrill.

I wanted to be in that movie so badly. I was in Sacramento, sitting by the pool, reading Ed Wood’s biography Nightmare in Ecstasy when I got the call.

Shooting that was terrific; I was on stage for three days talking with Martin Landau and Johnny Depp. I remember watching the set designers working meticulously on this set to recreate one of Tor Johnson’s scenes. I’m sure it cost them more to make that set than it cost Ed Wood to shoot all of Plan 9 From Outer Space.

PC: Another great movie you did was Get Shorty, which many consider to be the first film to really get Elmore Leonard’s dialogue right.

BS: Elmore Leonard told me how much he liked the movie, so that’s a pretty good evaluation.

PC: You played a Vegas guy in that, and in The Rat Pack you played Joey Bishop, one of the all-time great Las Vegas characters.
BS: Now that was really cool. HBO put me through the ringer to get that part. I couldn’t have been more perfect than Joey Bishop. He looked like me and sounded like me. I went in for the audition in a vintage suit, cut my hair just right.

It took forever to find out I got the part. I think someone at HBO wanted someone more famous than me, but in the end it was perfect, because Joey Bishop wasn’t as famous as Sinatra and Dean Martin and all those guys.

PC: You also got to play a retro nightclub comic in Dreamgirls. It was interesting to see how casually racist jokes were just fine for the audience in that film, even though it was not that long ago.
BS: Well, that was the Fountain Bleu hotel of the 1960s—you could say, “These black entertainers can sing and dance, and mop up the place after the show. You could see Jamie Foxx give me a look, like “What did he say?” Back in those times Sammy Davis Jr. could not even walk through the front door of some places.

PC: The director of Dreamgirls, Bill Condon, also made the great film Gods and Monsters. Did you talk with Condon about the legendary horror film director James Whale?
BS: Of course! I’m such a huge fan of classic horror movies. So, not only did I talk to Condon about Gods and Monsters, I had these great vintage photographs of Elsa Lanchester drinking coffee and Karloff smoking a cigarette sent to him after we finished.

PC: What’s your favorite of the classic horror fims?
BS: You know what my favorite is? Not just of horror films, but just favorite films period. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It’s a movie I can watch over and over, I’ve probably seen it 100 times. Dana Carvey has told me it is his favorite movie as well. It’s the perfect combination of horror and comedy.

PC: That’s going to be shown at a Classic Film Festival here in Moraga on May 11. So, Bobby, bringing it back to the East Bay—what are most looking forward to about your trip to Pleasanton this weekend?
BS: Getting paid.