Most comics can hardly wait to appear on "Late Night With David Letterman," but Drake Sather wishes he had waited.
Despite the exposure, prestige and financial rewards that come with a Letterman gig, there are dangers in accepting one too soon.
"I was still living in Seattle and did a TV show that (comedian) George Miller, a friend of Letterman's from Seattle, saw. He thought I'd be good for the show," Sather recalled. The show approached him when he had only been performing for about 2 years, was at the opening act level and had maybe 20 minutes of material.
After viewing his audition tape, the show's talent bookers felt that he needed more experience. Nevertheless, "out of the blue, a couple of months later, they called me and said, 'We want you to do the show.' "
Within the next year, he returned two more times, which sounds great, right? Not exactly.
"I was kind of running out of material on my third one, and it didn't go very well," said Sather, 26, in a recent interview at an Irvine restaurant. "I did all my big shots first. Then I went back and started over. I felt like I had jumped the gun because I couldn't really headline."
"I had 15 minutes (of material) and a few places tried to headline me," said Sather, who will perform this weekend at Coconuts in Anaheim. "They wanted me to do 50 minutes.
"The position I was in made me kind of a phenomenon, but I wasn't able to profit from it correctly. If I could do it over again, I would put off the 'Letterman' shot."
Short of borrowing Peabody and Sherman's Wayback machine, it's impossible, of course, for Sather to actually change that decision. But about a year ago, he made the next-best decision: "I decided I'm not even going to take any more headlining gigs until I feel good about it. It just ruins your reputation."
It should be fairly easy to repair whatever damage his reputation may have incurred--and resume building a reputation as one of the brightest, if more unusual, young comics in stand-up.
For one thing, he's a skillful, impressively concise writer. If Sather comes up with a joke that takes about 10 words to tell, he will never use 11 words, and he might get it down to nine. Or eight. Sather believes that this severely lean approach to fashioning material was the outgrowth of his previous literary efforts, mostly writing plays, scripts and short stories.
"I always had a pretty crisp prose style," he said. "My stories would be pretty tight and every sentence led up to the next one. That style of writing really lends itself to good jokes. You don't have any unnecessary information. It's just bing, bing, bing--you get the laughs every 5 or 10 seconds."
If a guy rattling off tightly constructed lines and getting laughs every few seconds suggests a contemporary Henny Youngman, a few of Sather's jokes might strengthen that impression: "My wife thinks I'm too nosy--at least, that's what she keeps scribbling in her diary."
But much of Sather's work suggests some wildly improbable hybrid of Jerry Seinfeld and Sam Kinison.
Sather's word choice and command of language certainly recalls Seinfeld, probably the pre-eminent writer in stand-up. So it's hardly surprising that Sather greatly admires Seinfeld--or even that the feeling is mutual. (Seinfeld praised Sather several months ago in an interview with The Times.)
For all of Seinfeld's verbal wizardry--the almost unparalleled ability to turn out clean, clever observations on everyday subjects--his stuff tends to be emotionally hollow, rarely tapping into the darker, more painful side of the human existence.
Not so Kinison, whom Sather admires for his no-holds-barred honesty, subversive point of view and explorations of shadowy behavior ("I think he's the only (comic) really saying something right now.")
Sather, however, doesn't traffic in the gay-bashing or misogyny that many people identify with Kinison, and his relatively stationary, monotonic delivery is a far cry from the way Kinison prowls the stage, bellowing with blast-furnace intensity.
"I like very subtle, yet violent humor," Sather said.
"I've always had kind of a morbid sense of humor, and I always liked morbid things," he replied. "I think it's just from growing up in a nice suburb in Seattle: I was always drawn to things that were kind of the opposite of my life. I had a very nice family life, everything was rosy, and I always wanted to see the dark side. I wanted something sinister.
"A lot of comics just do what works," he continued, becoming as close as he gets to animated, "but I have to do what I think is funny in my routine. I do have some harmless stuff that works really well, but if I just do that, I don't feel good when I'm done. I (want to) make people laugh at things that they wouldn't normally laugh at.'
He realizes that this objective means some of his rougher, dirtier material--indeed, maybe his act overall--won't be for everyone. But he wants it that way. That's part of the objective, too.
"I think a comedy club should be like this dark underground place, where people go to hear things that they can't hear in their normal life, to hear something that you haven't heard before. I don't care if it upsets you, I just want you to have this experience. That's the way it used to be, I think--comedy was much more of a subversive art form. . . .
"There has to be mixed response. Of course, I want the majority (to respond), because nothing is more fun than just destroying a room.
"But when the whole room laughs at everything, I get very suspicious. I start thinking, 'These people are not discriminating at all or maybe I'm not so clever anymore. Maybe I'm getting too normal.' "
Drake Sather will perform Friday and Saturday at 8:30 and 10 p.m. at Coconuts, in the Ramada Inn, 1331 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. Tickets: $5. Information: 714-978-8088.