The Opening Act centers on the stumbling blocks in the beginning stages of becoming a new comic. Silicon Valley's Jimmy O. Yang plays the lead character Will Chu, who quits his unfulfilling nine-to-five job to follow his dream to break into the industry as a new stand-up. Comedian Steve Byrne wrote and directed the movie, which also stars Alex Moffat, Cedric the Entertainer, Jermaine Fowler, Neal Brennan, and Debby Ryan. The film features guest appearances from Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings, Ken Jeong, Tom Segura, Russell Peters, and Iliza Shlesinger. Fortunately, we had the opportunity to interview Steve Byrne on the various facets of his experience writing and directing 'The Opening Act,' which is currently available On Demand and Digital and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on December 15, 2020.
Photos courtesy of RLJE Films
The Opening Act features some of the most recognizable names in stand-up, improv, and television. In the beginning, Bill Burr stars in a cameo role as Will's tough boss before he quits. What was the casting process like for The Opening Act? How did you choose the lead to play Will?
The casting process was a lot of fun for me, as the director, because I'm also a comedian. We decided early on we'd like to cast comedians throughout the film. Obviously, we wanted comedians to play the emcee, feature, and headliner but I really wanted comics to play the morning deejays, club manager, and anyone you'd meet along the way over the course of a weekend on the road. With an actor, I'd have to explain what morning radio is like but with comedians, we've all no brainer. Once Will (Jimmy) hits the road, everything that happens in the film happened to me. I also happen to be Korean/Irish, so we collectively thought, it would be fun to have an Asian comic play me. Jimmy was our first choice and it couldn't have worked out any better. He's got a great special on Amazon and I got to see him in action before he filmed it. Pretty fortunate it all worked out because this kid is constantly working.
Will (Jimmy O. Yang) is a new comic who faces realistic struggles that other inexperienced comics are likely going to face - such as telling bad jokes, problems handling hecklers, bombing on stage, and getting told flat out that "stand-up isn't in the cards for you". Can you tell us about your writing process? How much of your experience as a comedian came into writing the screenplay?
My writing process was pretty simple: write about what I know. I've been a comic for 23 years, and the hardest part was trimming down the best and worst experiences I had on the road early on in my career. There's just too many. I had a sitcom for a few years, and when it got canceled, I was back on the road. In the downtime, my phone wasn't ringing off the hook, not at all, to be honest. I thought the only way I'm going to work again is if I put pen to paper, just like I did with Sullivan & Son. So, I thought, what's the one film I'd like to see? I had never seen a great film about stand-up comedy. That was my mission. I wanted to write a great film about stand up and why not start off at the beginning, when everything is fresh and new. Blind optimism. I'd rather watch a film about a young kid in his 20's driving to Vegas for the first time, rather than a film about a 50 yr old driving home from Vegas. The beginning of the adventure when everything is fresh, new, and exciting.
Everything I knew or learned along the way as a comedian was put into this film. I was Will Chu, the doe-eyed believer that I could do this but had no idea how it was going to unfold, so I had to learn about radio, the light, and introductions. I was Chris Palmer, confident with the lay of the land and indulgent in the nightlife. Enjoying being a big fish in a small pond and days of no responsibility. There's certainly elements of Billy G, our headliner in me. There are weekends, it's a job, and I don't necessarily feel like chatting with the younger comics on the bill about how I got started because you have those chats every single week and, it's another reminder you're getting older, less relevant. I tried to expose a stereotypical version of what each of these characters could be on any given weekend in clubs across the country.
Was there an element of improv involved during production?
To be honest, no. There was some improvising along the way but I tried to keep the comics on script because it all tethers together and I wanted to keep the story intact. I think most of the improv came from the comics doing their own material. The only stand up I wrote was for Will's last set on Sunday when he goes for broke.
How long did production last?
The shoot was I believe 19-20 days. We were doing 10-12 pages a day and I remember a week or two into production, a designer said that we were really moving at a rapid clip. I asked a bit more and found out that we were doing a lot more pages than a typical production. It was my first time, so I had no idea. I thought it was normal. I was just petrified every day, to make my day. I took it as a badge of honor, we did keep our days. There were some close calls for sure but thanks to the crew and cast, we did it.
At the diner, Billy (Cedric The Entertainer) provides Will advice to refuse to give up on his journey to become a comic and speaks poignantly - that scene could comfort and inspire any new comics who're watching the movie and currently struggling within the industry. Can you tell us more about writing and filming this scene?
That scene was written by every headliner I was fortunate enough to sit down and ask the same questions and was written by every emcee that I now work with. I literally had this conversation with a young comic just a few weeks before we went into production. This comic had seen the film and asked if I was running the scene on him, which I thought was funny. I really do think comedians will enjoy this authentic representation of our livelihood but it's the younger comics that will find a lot of their questions answered in this film. I also think, in those chats, that Cedric did such an amazing job, and are applicable to anyone pursuing a dream.
What was it like to work with Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards (To Die For, Kids) on the aesthetic for The Opening Act?
A blessing. I was not only honored to work with Eric but I learned so much from him. Look, it's my first film and you look at his body of work, I am extremely blessed to have worked with him. He was patient and very giving of his time and craft to this film. We would break for lunch and he'd want to ask me about the scenes we filmed and what it was like and I was like, "Can you just tell me about Gus Van Sant? What was x, y, or z like? What's it like to work with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers?" I think I annoyed him but I enjoyed hearing his war and victory stories. Plus, he's just an extremely kind guy. He's done so, so much, and yet he's as down to earth as they come. Eric is also very dedicated to his craft. He cares. He cares about every shot and while I was at times running to make our day, his dedication was a reminder that we get to do this scene once, so let's make sure it looks great. I love him.
Who are your Top 5 favorite comics?
There's the comics we all love because they're popular and for a reason. I respect Chris Rock as much as the next guy but I really laugh just as hard at comics that haven't broke through just yet. Comics like Monarey Martinez, Gary Cannon, Patrick Keane, Quinn Dahle, Camilla Cleese, Ryan Dalton, and Earl Skakel to name a few. There's just some comics, you'll want to sit in the back of the room and watch. I not only love to watch them but lucky to work with them too. Maybe, it's because I just did their podcasts but I love Doug Benson and Jimmy Pardo too. Look, there's too many to name. Every comic has at least one joke I love.
Top 5 comedy movies?
Swingers. This movie meant so much to me towards the end of college. We used to watch this all the time and then head out on the weekend. It was our pregame. Love it.
MacGruber. I fucking love this movie. Anything Will Forte does, I am game for. When I was younger, I would love to watch Dana Carvey, Bill Murray, or Farley, their mere presence alone would make me laugh. Forte is the latest for me. I loved his show The Last Man on Earth too.
The Nice Guys. I know it's not a comedy per se but fuck it, The Martian with Matt Damon won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy, right? Shane Black is a godsend. He's got such great buddy films. I have watched this film more than any other in the last 2 years. I just keep going back to it. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are so fucking good together. I love Shane Black's dialogue in all of his films but this one, this one is so fucking fun. Plus, Ryan Gosling is hilarious. He's handsome, talented, and funny??? Fuck him. Makes me sick. He gets to do everything? I really wish he'd do some more comedy. God, he's fucking funny. Plus Russell Crowe lives in The Comedy Store and Shane Black is from Pittsburgh, so right there, I am in.
Revenge of the Nerds. I know it's dated and yes, there are some cringy things in this film but god damn if it isn't the ultimate underdog story. The characters are all so rootable and sweet. Ted McGinley! He's such a great 80's jock. All the nerds. All of 'em. Fucking great! I love this film. Loved it as a kid, still holds up.
Impractical Jokers Movie. I watch this with my kids. They love it and again, you see the genuine chemistry these guys have. They're having fun and they're just a well-intended, good group of guys. It's a fun watch.
Which films/directors have influenced you?
Believe it or not, I spend a lot of time watching documentaries. It's a shame but there's just so few comedies that are released because Hollywood is so damn scared of offending anyone, so I pivoted to docs. I wanted "The Opening Act" to feel more like a doc. Once Will hits the road, I asked Eric if we could use more handheld, especially in the green room or in the showroom. I wanted the audience to feel like they were truly on the road with Will and the other comics. I love the Ivan Reitman movies I grew up with. John Hughes for sure! I'd love to see Shane Black do something soon. I'm a very big fan of his work. The films that inspire me are the ones that just tell a great story. I'm satisfied at the end, like "The Gift" or "Whiplash". I can not stand a Hollywood Hand Job, where I have to go home and google the metaphors and all that crazy shit. Sure those films look great but what in the actual fuck was that about? Why am I confused? Payoff. I just recently watched "The Color of Money". Damn. Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. Such a great film. Credits rolled. I was fucking entertained!