Danny Livingston of Eastland Shoe: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Comedian
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As a part of our series called “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Comedian”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Danny Livingston.
Danny Livingston is a natural storyteller and comedian who has developed a stand up routine as a side hustle to his full time role as VP Sales for Eastland Shoe. He launched his comedic career at the famed New York City Comic Strip Live for 5 years under the tutelage of comedy impresario Gladys Simon. Danny’s comedy is based on his encounters with people and being in situations that somehow connect in strange and wonderful ways. He performs regularly at The Comic Strip Live, Governor’s and Broadway Comedy in New York City and Mohegan Sun, Three Keys and the Queen Bee Coffee Company in Connecticut.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood called Lindenwood in Queens, New York, which is famous for being in the flight path of John F. Kennedy International Airport, and for also being the first town of the Brooklyn, New York diaspora.
My family — me, my parents, and older sister — lived with 24 other families in a circular courtyard of 2 and 3 bedroom apartments which created a very social environment for kids. All of my friends were literally outside my door, and from dawn to dusk we played games, from hide and seek to box ball to relay races to chalk drawings on the sidewalk. We were almost always outside with something to do, even in the rain and snow. In the winter storms of 1968, we built igloos. Parents in the courtyard would look out for each other’s kids; it was a kind of utopian, communal atmosphere that still seems perfect to me.
I was tall, very skinny, quiet, and athletic — a good Little League pitcher and shortstop and during the winter months, an avid basketball player in 2-on-2s and in the back of the buildings or across the street at our local elementary school. My mom was a full-time substitute teacher, which made it easy, or at least possible, to come home for lunch. My dad was a trimmings buyer in NYC’s iconic garment district, which made all the components we take for granted in the manufacturing of clothing — zippers, buttons, clips, and pins. He consistently hated his line of work. To make it worse, because we lived in the southeast corner of Queens, about 90 minutes from Manhattan, my dad would walk three miles to get to the subway and then take two trains to his office, always with The New York Times and a library book under one arm, and an umbrella in the other. This was especially grueling after living in the noisy flight path of JFK International Airport which drove him crazy. Watching my dad struggle and still trying to make the best of things, always gave me the perspective that you have two choices: a) Grin and bear it and b) You don’t have to grin.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path as a comedian?
I was a very hyperactive kid, but also very quiet — a funny and awkward combination from the start — and a major late bloomer — I didn’t even learn to drive until I was 19. I skipped a grade because I tested high, but when it was time for college, as ridiculous as it sounds, I wasn’t paying attention to application deadlines, and my parents forgot. At the last minute, I was accepted into The State University of New York at Cortland, a liberal arts school about 4 hours from home, but I never found the motivation to go to class and eventually dropped out. Not knowing what to do next, I followed my sister and some friends to the City of New York at Queens College where I wrote about sports for both student newspapers, yet I was still unmotivated. Since I had already worked part time in a local shoe store, a friend’s brother found me a job at a high-end shoe store on Madison Avenue in New York City. This was a different world. Our customers were sophisticated and fashion conscious, and I was like a fish out of water. Previously, I worked in a shoe store that sold low-end plastic and faux-leather shoes, and now I was selling the most expensive handmade Italian shoes to a global clientele, including lots of celebrities. I knew I had to figure out how to master it quickly or I would have to move back home with my mother. I bought all new clothes and changed my posture. After listening, watching, and picking up the idiosyncrasies and traits of the shoppers, I began coming out of my shyness and started talking to everyone as if they were friends and relatives. Over time, I found that what customers wanted was for me to listen as a friend, confidante, or substitute grandson, and I could do all of those things really well. With my dad’s photographic memory and my mother’s problem solving skills, I developed a natural ability to initiate conversations with people by simply asking, “Where are you from?” Inevitably, I’d discover some common ground, and I began to develop strong personal relationships with many of our high profile customers. In fact, through the store, I became friendly with a number of them including Candice Bergen, Ed Bradley of CBS 60 Minutes, and the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I even became a surrogate grandson to a well-known character actor named Lou Jacobi, which was extremely special. Mr Jacobi had a wonderful ability to spark my imagination and creativity. We’d spend hours talking on the phone or in person while visiting NYC museums and seeing Broadway shows. I felt comfortable enough with him to share my creative writing work, which he liked enough but had a hard time giving me constructive criticism on. Still, he kept me close and encouraged me to write about what I knew best — my own life and experiences with my customers. He used to say, “Write it out — forget punctuation and grammar — get the truth out and then rewrite and rewrite it — and rewrite it again.”
Over the course of our friendship, I shared with Mr. Jacobi the comical, minute details of my day-to-day work, how people walked, their accents, the language they would use to describe the fit and style of the shoes they were buying. We would laugh out loud about the different reactions people had toward him, recognizing him from a film but not knowing his name, a common problem with character actors. Our friendship and his mentorship meant the world to me. He helped me grow up and aim higher.
After working at retail for 16 years, I was recruited into the wholesale side of the shoe business. Today, I serve as Vice President of Sales at the Maine-based Eastland Shoe company, traveling the country and meeting with our retail accounts. I continue to collect the idiosyncratic stories of my peers and elders while navigating planes, trains and automobiles and schlepping two 70-lb. duffle bags of shoe samples. My unique and crazy work life inspires my stand up routine.
My foray into the comedy world started at a cousin’s apartment. There for a family gathering, I met up with my cousin’s oldest childhood friend, Gladys Simon, who for 30 years has run the comedy showcase at NYC’s iconic Comic Strip Live — the first stage of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler etc . Gladys has shepherded the careers of Jim Gaffigan, Zach Galifianakis, Darrell Hammond, and many others. Over bagels and lox, we spoke about one of the crazy coincidences and comical happenings of my business travel and my life. I shared a story about the time when I as a teenager profiled in YM magazine (my sister was an editor), I received two fan letters, both from the same girl, Denise Cantrell, in far away North Platte Nebraska (the opposite of Lindenwood, Queens, where I was from) Not only did I still have the letters, with pin pricks from all the times they were pinned and unpinned above my bed each time I had moved, I found out that my daughter’s teacher, Mrs. Lynch, had a connection to Denise. We had a conversation I initiated that went like this:
“Where are you from?” “ North Platte, Nebraska.”
“Do you know Denise Cantrell?” “She was my next door neighbor — we were cheerleaders together.”
“Was she cute?”“Very — married the local Fire Chief.”
“Well, tell her Danny said ‘Hey’”
At the end of the story, Gladys laughed out loud. And then asked me — no,demanded — that I tell this story on stage at the Comic Strip Live that Thursday night. It had to be THAT story
because, she said, it had IT — the kernel of something really funny and relatable.
Gladys Simon has continued to mentor me over the past five years as I’ve honed my craft. An insomniac, it’s not unusual for her to call me at 11:30 pm and then again at 3:30 am — but always to talk about comedy and “schmooze.”
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
That very first night, that Thursday I went onstage, I was calmer than expected. I did my 5–7 minutes — and was followed by a guy named Brian McKenna, who looked familiar. I soon realized he was someone I hadn’t seen in 45 years, since he drove with my mom and me to my own Bar Mitzvah; and then he moved away, never having said goodbye. Turns out, he had been lurking on my Facebook page for years and was up-to-date on what was happening in my life. My life has been filled with similar connections and coincidences.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The mistakes can be small but significant. Gladys Simon will say, “No white shirts, lose some weight, stand up straight, speak to the back of the room.” To me, that’s funny. The biggest mistake I make at times is letting an adrenaline rush affect my timing. You have to surrender to the energy of the room and let it take you places, but you can’t let small things, such as where the mic stand is, or if the host keeps talking instead of letting you take the stage as your mind sharpens, distract you; you have to be loose and resilient. This may sound easy, but is actually extremely difficult. Like a lot of performers, I imagine the audience naked. Doing this helps me to relax on stage.
One of the greatest lessons you learn as a stand up comic is being flexible and resilient, skills I carry with me to all kinds of situations and lessons I learned from selling shoes. Most people start in stand up comedy by doing “open mic” events, but I took a different route, going from being a shoe salesman — my “open mic” — to going on to a professional stage on Day One. That was a huge jump because you can’t bring any notes with you on stage. And anything can throw off your concentration — the emcee, an audience member, outside noise — of which there’s a lot in New York City! Ambulances kill lots of punchlines.
Although I lack computer skills, performing stand up has led me to become pretty adept with social media; I’ve been highly effective at publicizing my shows and building a decent fan base. One of the fun things about doing this is reconnecting with people from my childhood and reuniting with them at my shows. All of them remember me as a shy, quiet kid; I’m very different now! Suddenly, I’ve gained a kind of popular kid vibe — which is so opposite from how I was growing up.
Now, when I’m on the stage, it’s become easier for me to think on my feet in front of the audience, which used to be jarring and throw me off. Sometimes your adrenaline plummets and you freeze. It’s like being up at bat and suddenly they change pitchers. Now when that happens, the audience actually helps me to get back on track.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Gladys Simon has been my comedy mentor from the beginning. In the comedy business for more than three decades, she saw my natural talent for storytelling and insisted I give it a shot.
She has been extremely generous with her time, inviting me to
comedy showcases to develop stage presence and provide tips to improve my physical performance. The one thing I love about Gladys is that she’s very honest and direct. She has identified my strengths and steered me away from my weaknesses. She pushes me to get on stage as much as possible, and now when I travel for business, I try to fit in a performance because getting on stage every night, even for a five minute set, is excellent practice.
I’ve also been incredibly inspired by the other comics who I’ve been on the docket with. It’s a small, intergenerational community; we all learn from, and support, each other. Regulars at the Comic Strip Live include Jim Maywalt and Robert George,as well as Gaye Lirot. Another regular was George Saltz, a former psychologist, who at almost 90 years old and in a wheelchair, was killing it. He passed recently but was absolutely hilarious and lived for doing his stand up.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
I’m not daunted by the prospect of failure, and in fact, the challenge of performing live is a huge motivator. Should one of my stories not resonate with the audience, I can now think on my feet and move on to the next story. Performing stand up comedy later in my life goes along with my father’s creed to “always be an opsimath” referring to someone who learns later in life. This has inspired me to learn something new every day and not waste a minute on the small stuff that can derail us.
For me, stand up comedy is my passion and side hustle; it’s a wonderful creative outlet. So, I’m grateful to have my full-time career in the shoe industry as a foundation. Most of the comics I’ve met are also working people who perform comedy as a hobby with the dream they get struck by lightning. I would recommend that if you’re thinking of stand up comedy, start at it for art’s sake, not for the prospect of making money. If you’re good, and you’re different, you will be found. Challenge yourself to be creative in every situation and schedule time to write everyday. I carry a notepad around with me everywhere and also use my phone to remember situations that make me laugh that I could add to a performance. Take note of the people around you, especially their idiosyncrasies, because their tics, physicality, how they style their hair, eat a meal or take credit cards out of their wallet is what makes stories golden comedic fodder. Also identify your own comedy heroes — the comedians you love to watch. Study them carefully. Who makes you laugh out loud and why? What is it about them — their voice or accent,cadence, patter, manner of storytelling — that speaks to you?
My comedy heroes are: Steve Mittleman, Al Lubel,
Woody Allen, Richard Lewis, Kevin Pollack — of course, Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Pryor. I like John Mullaney and Louis CK, as well as Sarah Silverman.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
Doing stand up comedy has opened up a number of other performance opportunities and I’ve developed into an impresario of sorts. Since I live about 60 miles outside of New York City, I’ve started local stand up comedy showcases by initiating relationships with restaurants, which have led to sold out crowds. Restaurants are usually slow a few nights a week, so we offer places the opportunity for comedy nights, usually Tuesday and Wednesdays. We bring in a handful of comics and the restaurant feeds from 30–40 people they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and everyone has a great time. We do these shows without a formal emcee, which is unusual. Comics, like shoe salesmen, are good at deductive reasoning — at reading the room. As a result, the performances are free flowing and it becomes a team effort. Also, it’s common for the restaurant patrons to get to know the regular performers; they often stay long after the show is over to meet and chat with them. It’s an overwhelmingly positive, joyful experience. This format has been successful at the Three Keys restaurant and the Queen Bee Coffee Company, both in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
As I’ve shared my standup on social media my colleagues in the shoe business took notice. They now have me performing at national shoe industry conventions across the country. It’s become a great way to bring people from all aspects of the shoe biz together and is fun for all.
What do you do to get material to write your jokes? What is that creative process like? The comedic formula tends to be a mix of history, tragedy and comedy?
I get material for my jokes and stories from my own life experiences. The process of writing helps me to make sense of it all. For me, the creative process critically involves observation of people, places and things; how I felt when I saw something happen and how I reacted to it. I make my formal living reading people and knowing how important it is to be aware and to understand body language of people. I have a knack for noticing peoples’ idiosyncrasies and the funny, oddball things they do, as well as the humor and irony in situations. I’m constantly making mental notes or jotting things down that I think can turn. I tend not to curse a lot — I think you can be creative without it. But if needed, it can make that much more of an impact when being selective. Mostly, I like the details and silliness of everyday life, just walking down the street or realizing that something pretty mundane can be hilarious.
For example, when my older sister and I were teens and living with our mother, we all wore the same pants — waist size 31/32 navy blue corduroy pants from The Gap. So I had to be very careful about what I pulled out of the closet or hamper or else would risk being called out at school for an obvious red stain on the pants — although emotionally painful, this story has great humor in it.
Super. Here is our main question. What are your Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Comedian and why?
There are a number of things I wish someone had told me when I first became a professional comedian, including:
1. The critical nature of taking improvisation or acting classes because they train you to think on your feet and face your fears about being in front of a live audience. A few years ago, I signed up for an acting class taught by Jeffrey Tambor to see if I had any talent.
Just being in that classroom with twenty other potential actors made me feel motivated and competitive. You also learn that performing works best when actors bring out each other’s talent. It was there that I discovered that I could actand also have a knack in bringing out the best in others. I also learned that I possessed the fearlessness and tenacity required to perform on stage, acceptance of failure and the ability to rework my material until I succeeded. There is no greater training ground for this than the improv and stand up stage. The sense of camaraderie and the peer feedback are priceless. Their reactions help you to edit and rework your material.
2. Develop your writing style by committing to a daily writing practice where you capture moments and anecdotes from your life. Writing and rewriting your material will tighten it upand as a result, it will get funnier. For me, everything starts with a story. I had written about a coincidence that happened and the more I wrote it out and revisited it, the more details emerged and the funnier it became. Pretty soon, I had a 5 minute set which morphed into another funny story I had forgotten about. When you can add more detail to a scene it becomes extremely personal and something audiences can relate to. For example, I wrote a piece about being ignored by my parents as a teen. It leads into how I go off to college and instead of being ignored on campus, I ended up getting a call from the Registrar’s office to tell me I’ve actually taken too many credits, way more than I needed to graduate. I was handed my diploma and asked to leave the campus. “ Now what do I do?” I ask the Registrar. “ I don’t know, but you’re not doing it here !” they answered. A small story turned into a slapstick statement because I continued to revisit and refine it.
3. Your parents may have been imperfect but their flaws can feed some of your best material because it’s so personal and authentic. Who raised you, where and how you were raised, the memories of your earliest years make the best and most relatable stories. In my case, I speak about how being ignored by my parents led to a lot of confusion in my teens and twenties, which although tragic, is also ironic and funny. For example, when I was seven years old, after a day away at camp, I routinely got off the camp bus with my backpack, baseball mitt and bat only to discover that my parents had moved! Our apartment was empty; they had forgotten to tell me that I needed to get off the bus at a different stop. The story is painful and damaging but also relatable and tragically funny. So, forgive your parents– they mostly meant well — but mine your personal history for stories.
4. Be tactful and avoid being demeaning to others, abiding by the Golden Rule — do unto others as they would do unto you. I wrote a monologue about going to a gay bar as a heterosexual male and feeling like a fish out of water but reacting in a somewhat obnoxious way to a man trying to pick me up. In my stand up, it got laughs but I realized it was mean spirited. I rewrote it so that I was the person who was the outsider looking in. While it’s okay to be self deprecating, it’s not okay to be hurtful or demeaning to others. You also have to respect the audience’s sensitivities in terms of your material because you want to keep them with you.
5. Start your writing and comedy career early.
I regret not taking a theater class in elementary school, middle and high school. At the time I was too shy and wouldn’t have thought of pursuing it. I also wish that I had read more of the classic books when I was in my impressionable 20s, because there’s so much to learn from those stories. Participating in the arts at any age is such a mind expanding experience. I remember reading in a book by the author Tom Robbins, “ Art provides what life does not.” I love that. The arts and creativity allow us to express ourselves in myriad ways.
Can you please give us your favorite Lesson Quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The musician and songwriter Elvis Costello has a great quote, “It isn’t youth, it’s fearlessness that’s wasted on the young.”
Don’t let fear stand in the way of self expression.
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would inspire a kindness and self-esteem movement to promote intergenerational understanding. I believe that kindness and lifting people up is ultimately the way to people’s hearts; it’s how you form a special and lasting bond. I’ve leveraged my position and resources in the shoe industry to give people free shoes. I mean, who doesn’t feel better about themselves when they put on a pair of new shoes?
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would like to have lunch with Joe Rudi, my favorite Major League baseball player and sports hero. He was an underrated and very timely player — solid, dependable and clutch when it matters.
I’m crazy about Jim Carrey who has the talent to do both comedic and dramatic roles. Interestingly, Carrey’s own father, who had comedic talent, never realized his dream of being a professional comedian. I admire Jim Carrey’s humble beginnings and interest in trying new things, in challenging himself. I remember when I was in college, he was playing local clubs and performing in a bowling alley in my local Queens area, and went on to become the biggest star. Always doing something different.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
The best place to follow me is on:
Facebook: Danny livingston
YouTube: Danny Livngston at the Comic Strip
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Danny Livingston of Eastland Shoe: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.