American comedian Steve Byrne knows what it’s like to travel the long, tough road to success in the world of stand-up comedy. And that’s especially so when you’re starting at the bottom and get the most unenviable job on that night’s line-up: the opening act.
“At a comedy club, the comic who is the opening act on a line-up is like the canary in the coal mine or a fish out of water, especially when you’re just starting out,” said Byrne during a recent phone interview.
The Pittsburgh native transcended his personal experiences about starting out as a comedian into his first comedy film production called “The Opening Act”, which is scheduled to be released in theatres and digitally on October 16. And to celebrate its opening, Just For Laughs’ first ever virtual festival will have Byrne and several members of the cast — such as Cedric the Entertainer, Jimmy O. Yang, Anjelah Johnson and Roy Wood, Jr. — participate in a special panel discussion on October 10 at 6:30 p.m., in which clips from the movie will be presented, and the comedian-filled cast will share their own stories about breaking into the stand-up comedy scene … with tales of bombing, as well as comedy club and road war stories included.
Byrne, who has been plying his comedic talents in clubs, on TV and cable, on comedy road tours and festivals for nearly 25 years, got the idea for the movie following the cancellation of “Sullivan & Son”, the TBS sitcom that he created and starred in, which ran for three seasons.
“After Sullivan & Son was cancelled, the phone stopped ringing. So while I was wondering what to do next and licking my wounds, I thought that I would like to do a movie about starting out in stand-up comedy,” he said. “People want to see that world like they have never seen it before. Other movies that deal with that subject like Punch Line are good, but they never went the distance about telling those war stories that are so far fetched, yet they have a grain of truth to them.”
“The Opening Act” takes place in real time over the course of four days, and centres on Will Chu (Jimmy O. Yang), a passionate aspiring comic who has a humdrum day job. But when he gets the golden opportunity to emcee an upcoming comedy show in which he becomes the opening act for his favourite comic Billy G. (Cedric the Entertainer), Will has to decide whether to return to his everyday life, or dive in head first to pursuing his dream of being a successful stand-up comedian.
The movie features an impressive cast of some of the biggest names in comedy today, such as Russell Peters, Bill Burr, Ken Jeong, Iliza Schlesinger, Whitney Cummings and Neal Brennan. And speaking of big names, Byrne gives a lot of credit to Just For Laughs for their generous cooperation towards providing comics to perform in the film’s cold opening.
“The cold opening involves Will and his dad watching a number of well-known comedians perform on stage. And without the festival’s immense help, that opening would not have been possible. In fact, getting access to all that great comedy talent for the movie was almost like shooting fish in a barrel,” he said.
And any worries Byrne had about what other comedians would think of the film, especially those who were part of the cast, were quashed when they finally saw the film and liked how honestly comedians were being portrayed. “When Bill Burr saw it, he loved it. He especially liked how authentic it was, and how it regurgitated all those horrible memories about his early days in comedy,” he said. “In fact, the film is like a perfect conduit for them to relive those horrible memories. It shows the best and worst of what happens to a young comic who appears onstage for the first time, and what’s ahead of him on that hard road to success.”
Although Byrne has developed his skills as an actor, comedian and writer, being a feature film director was one career challenge he was hesitant to pursue. But thanks to actor Vince Vaughn, who was one of the producers of “The Opening Act”, he convinced Byrne to work behind the cameras for this project.
“Vince was happy that the film was being made,” he said. “But he said to me that because it was my story, I should be the one to direct the film. He also said that I was the sole conduit and purveyor of the story, and he had a lot of confidence in me as a director. For that, I owe him a lot. Directing The Opening Act was one of the greatest — and difficult — professional experiences of my life.”
“But in the end, you dust yourself off and enjoy the after party of life, where the whiskey tastes better,” he added.
To catch “Breaking In” with Steve Byrne and some of the cast of “The Opening Act” on October 10 as part of the Just For Laughs virtual festival, go to www.hahaha.com/en/2020festival. Admission to this and all the shows on the line-up are free of charge.