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Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 12:01 am

Funny business

Mike Pittman’s long road from baseball to politics to his own TV comedy show

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Stand-up comic Austin Acree, master of ceremonies Mike Pittman and production assistant Liz Zalar.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

 

“When I get an idea I figure out a way to bring it into fruition,” says Mike Pittman. “I’ve always had that ability.”

First arriving in Springfield in the early 1980s as a pitcher for the Springfield Cardinals minor league team, Pittman has been a dynamic, multivalent local presence in the intervening decades, spending significant time in city politics and real estate development as well as founding the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce and the Capital City Courier monthly, where he continues to act as editor-in-chief. These days, the relentlessly energetic Pittman splits his time between running the newspaper, teaching baseball to young people at the baseball school he owns and operates, and his most recent venture, producing and hosting a stand-up comedy television show for WRSP FOX 55.

Recorded once a month in front of a live audience at the Hoogland Center for the Arts with a crew made up of volunteers from the Central Illinois Film Commission, One Mic Stand Comedy Show (which airs on Saturdays at 11:30 p.m.) is entering its second year of production, having completed a 30-episode debut season during which it showcased a total of 56 different comedians.

 “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like to laugh,” says Pittman, describing his rationale for pursuing comedy. “People might not like meatloaf, might not like cabbage, but I don’t know anybody who does not like to laugh.” The idea for One Mic Stand came to Pittman when he attended a taping of Laugh Out Loud St. Louis, hosted by a friend of his, attorney and comedian Lecia Rives. “I saw how she had it set up and just said to myself, ‘I think I can do this if I can just find the talent.’”

Put me in, coach! Mike Pittman gives a lesson to 12-year-old heavy hitter Logan Stanley.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

 

Finding appropriate performers remains a challenge, especially as Pittman does not pay comedians for their appearances. The fact that the show runs on FOX, airing in the Springfield, Champaign and Decatur markets, makes the show attractive to comedians looking to beef up their resumes, far more than would be the case if it appeared on Access-4. “I wanted to be on a major network,” Pittman says.

Another challenge when it comes to booking comics is Pittman’s absolute insistence on all material being clean. “There’s enough raunchy stuff out there,” he fulminates. “You can find that anywhere. If you can make people laugh without using profane language, I think that’s an art.”

Not every performer is able to live up to Pittman’s high standards. He recalls two comedians who traveled from Chicago to appear on One Mic Stand. They began cursing after just a few minutes of clean jokes, suggesting to Pittman that their indiscretions simply be edited out later. “I told them, ‘No, we’re not gonna just edit it out,’” Pittman says. “ ‘You’re just gonna get off the stage. You knew what the deal was before you came down, we told you it was a clean show. If you can’t perform it, don’t do it.’”

As for the reasons behind this strict policy, it amounts to personal preference. “I don’t use profane language and I don’t think you need that to be funny. I’m not going to knock somebody if they can be successful that way, it’s just not what I want.”
Mike Pittman in his early ’80s Cardinals days

For Pittman, the road to One Mic Stand has been long and circuitous. He first moved to Springfield from St. Louis in 1982 as a pitcher for the Springfield Cardinals baseball team. After his baseball career ended in 1984 he stayed in Springfield with his wife, Sherry, and for a while became involved in local politics. He credits Irv Smith, Bruce Clay and especially Russ Dixon with facilitating his entre to the Springfield political scene, which eventually found him working for Mayor Karen Hasara as her community relations director. He has since become disenchanted with politics.

“As we all know, Springfield is a very political city. I had never lived in a city as political as this place is and sometimes it’s disheartening because things aren’t really done for the right reason, they’re done for political purposes and I don’t know how you can ever get past that in a town such as this,” he says ruefully. “I used to believe in the system but the older I’ve gotten, I don’t like it as much anymore. People will look you right in the face and tell you a lie just to be able to get in office and it’s not good. Not good.”

One positive experience in the political world that has stayed with Pittman occurred in 2004 when a lobbyist friend convinced him to take a meeting with a young Illinois state senator making a run for the U.S. Senate. The candidate’s unlikely name:  Barack Obama. “We sat down for a couple hours, just talking,” Pittman recounts. “The more he talked, the more I thought, man, this guy’s pretty sharp. And so I said to him, ‘Let me get this straight. You’re a state senator now, you wanna be a U.S. senator, you’ve got a law degree from Harvard, you graduated top of your class, you could be somewhere making a million bucks a year – why would you wanna fool with this?’” Pittman ended up putting together a successful fundraiser for Obama. After that event, his contact with Mr. Obama has been understandably limited. “A guy that I know actually talked to Barack a couple years ago and said he did ask about me and how I was doing, so at least he didn’t forget me. Which is nice to know.”

After getting out of politics, Pittman’s next major venture was in real estate, partnering with former NBA player Kevin Gamble to do extensive development on Springfield’s east side. “It was a side of town that had been neglected, just years of benign neglect,” says Pittman. While he feels that his work on the east side had a positive effect on the area, these ventures landed him in highly publicized financial hot water. This led to a difficult period for Pittman, and one that put his deeply held personal values to the test.
The One Mic Stand Comedy Show team, back row, l-r: Dane Brinkmeier, Dean Williams, LaWayne Johnson; front row, l-r: Liz Zalar, Mike Pittman, Leanne Unland, Mike Unland.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE


“I was at a point in my life where I had these foreclosures so I couldn’t go to the bank and borrow money like I used to,” he remembers. “I had a guy approach me who wanted to open a string of liquor stores and wanted me to be the face guy for it – I couldn’t do that. I could probably be a millionaire right now, if I would have done things that I considered to be immoral for the sake of money.”

Pittman credits this time of adversity with eventually leading him to the world of comedy. “Laughter kept me going – that and my Christian relationship with the Lord. I never lost my sense of humor and I never lost my faith.” In 2007 he started the Capital City Courier, another project with its share of challenges. “It’s tough doing an African-American paper in a town where you don’t have a huge African-American business population,” he admits. “A lot of businesses frankly don’t see the value of advertising in an African-American newspaper because they take it for granted that blacks are just gonna patronize them because they don’t have any other options.”

Never one to settle down with any single venture for long, Pittman soon after started his first foray into comedy in 2009 by opening the Clean Comedy Club in downtown Springfield. The club stayed open for a year and was fairly successful. It might still be operating today if Pittman had not once again been bitten by the baseball bug. In 2010, he was hired as a pitching coach for the Springfield Sliders and helped lead the oft-beleaguered team to its sole first-place season, after which he closed his comedy club and opened the Perfect Pitch Baseball and Softball School (500 North Street) where he continues to pass on his baseball wisdom to students from age four to 24. “I still love seeing a 5-year-old or 8-year-old kid when they learn how to hit the ball the right way or throw the ball the right way,” he says. “The smile that comes on their face – it’s very fulfilling.”

One Mic Stand began production in January of 2013, drawing largely on comedians from throughout the Midwest, with occasional outliers who happen to be passing though the area. Pittman is the first to admit that the level of comedic talent on his show is highly variable. “We’ve had some comedians who were just gut-busting funny and we’ve had some guys that basically shouldn’t quit their day jobs,” he says. “I think it takes a lot of guts to get up on stage and try to be funny, especially when you’re not funny.” This latter category includes one young comic who he remembers made a very odd request after his set did not go well. “He asked if he could tell his jokes over – he wanted to tell the exact same jokes to the exact same crowd, thinking that he would get a different response,” Pittman chuckles. “I think that’s what they call insanity.”
Mike Pittman engages with his audience.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE


As One Mic Stand Comedy Show enters its second year, Pittman is excited about his prospects. A big reason for this, he says, is the Internet. “The web makes you global,” he explains. “With a click of a button, in two seconds, you can be in 10 million households. We’ve all seen how stuff has gone viral, somebody sees something and the next thing you know – and stuff can happen overnight – there you are on the Jay Leno show, just by the fluke of something.” Respectable ratings at FOX have him optimistic about picking up endorsements, with the eventual hope of seeing One Mic Stand go national, without ever leaving Springfield. Not content with just stand-up, Pittman is also in the process of putting together a sketch comedy show.

While his hands are full, as usual, with multiple simultaneous projects in various arenas, it is clear that it would be Pittman’s fondest wish to see this comedy project take off in a major way. “I’m learning a lot,” he says. “I’m basically starting my own stand-up career. As MC for the show I tell jokes – some are funny and some aren’t,” he admits. “I like doing comedy, I like making people laugh. I’m at that stage now where I want to make a living doing something. Is comedy the road to take? Who knows? It could be.”

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.



Be a part of the studio audience.


There will be two tapings of One Mic Stand Comedy Show next month, on Wednesday, Feb. 12 and Wednesday, Feb. 26. On both evenings, taping will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Hoogland Center or the Arts at 420 South Sixth Street, Springfield. Audience admission will begin at 6 pm. Admission is free and seating is first come, first served. All comedy is clean. However, for some reason you must be 18 years old or older to attend.

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