Profile: Laughing Matters
From attempted murder to a career in comedy, Brandt Tobler’s life wasn’t always funny — until he made it that way
Murder is bad. It’s a commandment, it’s a crime, it often makes a mess. Murder rides high on any list of the most horrible things people do to each other. It feels odd to root for someone trying to kill someone else. More so when a potential murderer is the potential murderee’s son.
Comedian Brandt Tobler didn’t succeed in killing his father. But he certainly tried to.
As Tobler explains on an upcoming episode of Comedy Central series This Is Not Happening, he used to work as a Las Vegas gambling runner. His job was hitting sports books at a moment’s notice to make high-roller wagers. He kept outlandish amounts of his bosses’ cash in a shoebox under his bed.
Tobler’s father was an abusive ex-con addict. Four nights after his son’s 23rd birthday — which he’d forgotten — he snuck into Tobler’s room, withdrew the shoebox from under the bed, and removed $80,000. Though Tobler’s boss was forgiving, Tobler, his younger brother, and his cousin agreed: This man’s lifetime of deceit had to end, the sooner the better.
Things didn’t go as planned. Poison and blunt objects failed. (Best to watch the episode for full details; it airs early next year.) Bottom line: His father hasn’t reappeared in Tobler’s life since. Which was more or less the desired outcome, anyway, and this way no one got charged with manslaughter.
“Some people don’t have stories in their life that immediately pique your interest,” says Eric Abrams, This Is Not Happening co-creator and showrunner. “This story, how could it not pique your interest?”
Tobler dreamed of doing TINH since its 2013 debut online. He submitted numerous sample tapes, receiving feedback each time to help him improve his chances. “They were pretty honest with me through the back-and-forth process, like, ‘You’re just not famous, and we get so many famous people who want to do it,’” Tobler says. “Then one day, Eric called me when I was driving back from Flagstaff. He said they were ready to send over a contract.” Tobler’s episode filmed June 21 at Cheetah’s strip club in Hollywood. This season, the show’s third, also includes longform stories from Drew Carey, Tommy Chong, and Carrot Top.
“He was a kid who really, really wanted to have a good father, and whose father is incapable of being a good father,” Abrams explains. “There’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in it, and he did a really good job of conveying that. It takes an intelligence onstage, and also takes a lot of work. He figured out the real meaning of the story, and how people would connect to it.”
Originally from Cheyenne, Wyoming, Tobler was voted class clown in both junior high and high school. In 1998 he moved to Vegas from Phoenix, where he’d abandoned his third attempt at junior college. In addition to his father’s theft, as a runner he was mistaken by the TSA for a bomber, had an office raided by the cops, and was robbed at rifle-point in his living room for $4,000.
Not that Tobler didn’t sow his own karmic track record. Despite “looking like a stoner,” he’s never done a single drug, including pot. Yet at various times he’s spearheaded shoplifting rings, got tossed in Imperial Palace casino jail for mouthing off to security guards, broke into Mike Tyson’s house for an entire summer, and hoisted a pair of framed Pro Bowl jerseys from a Florida sports bar owned by former NFL kicker Mike Vanderjag.
“I think I have an authority complex,” Tobler confirms. “I would never steal from a mom-and-pop shop, but I just hate corporate America. Later in life, I also realized a lot of things I’ve done were just plain douchey. So the only way I can explain it is half immaturity and half this authority complex toward authority, managers, security guards …”
After one final runner gig ended when his bosses skipped town for Costa Rica, Tobler reexamined his priorities.
No specific, thunderstruck moment of awakening drew him to the stage. Comedy was less a calling than another crazy feat he’d always wanted to try. There was only one comedy open mic listed in Las Vegas Weekly: Sunday nights at Boomers, a dive in a lonely industrial stretch just west of the I-15. He signed up, then chickened out at the last minute. Repeatedly. Supportive friends and the right amount of alcohol finally emboldened him to take the plunge.
“I hate my dad, and I hate vegetables,” his first joke began. “I wish my dad would get paralyzed so I could just say, ‘I hate vegetables.’” His second: “Two people walk into a bar … it’s probably my parents.”
The local comedy scene was nonexistent. A handful of mainstream clubs populated Strip casinos, where corporate structure booked all the “appropriate” national talent they needed. Not that tourists would ever waste their Vegas funds on newbies when countless (and far superior) entertainment options demanded their attention.
“The clubs didn’t have any use for the locals,” Tobler says. “There wasn’t even an open mic at any of those clubs, so there wasn’t even a way to get your foot in the door.”
In bars, fledgling comedy shows inevitably competed with overhead TVs and clanging slot machines. “Countless bars were like, ‘Okay we’ll try it. …’ Then, after the third comic curses for the 10th time and one gambler gets upset, they’re like, ‘Okay, show’s done!’”
Boomers remained Tobler’s only dependable outlet. His material favored fictitious scenarios with obvious punch lines: “I did the old drive-through wedding … when I got to my house I realized my order was all messed up.” He told “dumb jokey-jokes” in the vein of late stand-up Mitch Hedberg. There were even, he admits, puns.
Tobler cultivated a laidback, low-key onstage demeanor unique among his more boisterous peers. Making the same local comics laugh in a dingy side room felt like more of a hang out session than a learning process. There were no mentors to encourage him through the challenges of becoming better, performing for paying audiences, or getting booked on the road. Separated in a bubble from the rest of the comedy world, Tobler remained naïve to the professional craft of becoming funny.
In 2007, he read a MySpace post from Doug Stanhope, an underground social-critic comedian who in 1990 performed his own first open mic a mile and a half south of Boomers, at the Escape Lounge II. Stanhope’s post encouraged young comics to create shows for themselves rather than waiting for comedy clubs to notice them. Tobler was inspired. He messaged Stanhope, inviting him to perform in the yard behind his Green Valley rental house. Stanhope agreed. They set a date for February 2008.
Meanwhile, in the autumn of 2007, national headliners Tig Notaro, Martha Kelly, and Steve Agee were winding down their grassroots Crackpot Comedy Tour of house (and garage … and barn) shows across the country. Tobler contacted Notaro, dropping Stanhope’s name for validity. The trio graced Tobler’s backyard that September, followed by Neil Hamburger, Brody Stevens, and Morgan Murphy in November.
Attendees brought lawn chairs. Tobler substituted a short riser for a stage, rigged a couple area lights, and tucked a mini-fridge along the rear wall, where cars passed just feet from the performers.
In February 2008, Stanhope drew more than 250. “How about the neighbors?” he began. “This is for the neighbors … (shouts into the microphone with a German accent) Why we are here is to talk about the Jewish problem! Heil Heil!” The crowd raised their arms and conspiratorially heiled back. (Perhaps funnier 10 years ago than in light of recent news events.)
As Stanhope remembers, “It was everything in the world I thought comedy should be: Cut out the middle man, people brought their own booze and coolers, they could sit where they liked, even up on the balcony, and it seemed like this is the way of the future.”
Tobler’s neighbors complained about the noise and parking. (“If you don’t like my sense of humor, you probably don’t want it blaring over your Golden Girls at 8:30 at night,” Stanhope surmises.) He was kicked out two weeks later.
The shows marked Tobler’s first real comedy experiences outside of Boomers. “I thought I was kind of good, then when I saw comedians who were actually good I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m awful. I need to start all over!” he laughs. “I gradually got rid of my jokey-jokes and started talking about my real life more. I realized how much more fun it is for me to talk about real stuff.”
Short-lived as it was, the backyard series marked a turning point. It was time for Tobler to gamble on himself. He went all in on comedy, picking up small road dates in Barstow, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix. After the L.A. Comedy Club opened at Planet Hollywood in 2007, he hosted for headliners like Bert Kreischer and Aziz Ansari.
Tobler lived in Vegas 11 years. In 2011, he stuffed his possessions in two suitcases and took a cab to the bus station. Los Angeles friends let him couch surf for a few months before he found his own place there.
L.A. provided another growing experience. Though Tobler became the regular road opener for Last Comic Standing finalist Jeff Dye, at home he struggled to make his seven-minute sets shine among the A-listers populating the Hollywood Improv, the Laugh Factory, and the Comedy Store.
“When the crowd walks in and sees the lineup, it’s like ‘Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Brandt Tobler third. I know when we’re going to the bathroom,’” he mimics.
Tobler was one in a sea of six-foot, chubby, bearded white guys. He wasn’t particularly attractive or inventive; he had no writing/acting/music skills. He failed to impress any industry members open-minded enough to grant him general meetings. “I did so many L.A. shows where there were five of us in hoodies who all looked the same,” Tobler says. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to somehow do something different. I have to be memorable.’”
He turned inward. Few had life journeys similar to his. Finally facing — and gleaning inspiration from — the hilarity and heartbreak he’d experienced felt somehow bigger than the standup stage.
This May, Tobler self-published a memoir detailing his father’s history and effect on Tobler’s life, generally for the worse. Free Roll concludes with Tobler’s commitment to a career in standup. Intimate and engrossing, it shocked friends and fellow performers alike.
Tobler says the book wouldn’t exist without encouragement from the MGM Grand’s Brad Garrett. One night after a show at Garrett’s comedy club, the Emmy-winning actor/stand-up/poker enthusiast invited Tobler to the casino’s Whiskey Down Lounge. “I got to know Brandt after he started playing the club,” Garrett recalls. “He began sharing some of his stories with me. When he told me about his life I couldn’t believe it.”
Tobler entertained Garrett for hours. As the night progressed and tales compounded, Garrett asked a waitress how much a shot of Louis XIII cognac cost. “A hundred-thirteen dollars,” she replied. Garrett, who doesn’t drink, promptly bought a round for Tobler and two employees.
“Like an idiot, I almost spilled mine,” Tobler deadpans. “It would have been $160 in Brad’s lap.”
Garrett suggested Tobler put some experiences down on paper. Thirty pages or so would give him a feel for the writing process. Maybe he’d want to continue onward from there as a movie script or book.
Known to regularly down quite a few, Tobler forced himself to remain sober for an entire month. He was certain his writings were sloppy, immature, and just plain shitty. Garrett had other opinions.
“He later sent me those first 30 pages, and I felt that his life would make an amazing book, especially because he’s such a wonderful storyteller,” Garrett enthuses. “I think Brandt’s book speaks for itself — what sets him apart are his life experiences. He’s gone through things most people can’t imagine, and those extraordinary events give him a unique basis for comedic material.” Tobler sent Garrett pages for nearly three years.
Until recently, Tobler was on the road some 40 weeks a year. He still performs in Vegas every three or four months. “It made me tougher,” he says of the city’s role in shaping his career. “I can handle any room full of drunk people.”
“It might have cost him his home that time, but still, he’s a man with vision,” Stanhope says. “Even if it puts his belongings next to a dumpster.”
Tobler is compiling a new book called You Couldn’t and You Wouldn’t. It concerns 10 girls he’s had sex with whom most guys couldn’t, and another 10 that most guys wouldn’t want to have sex with. A third project, Diary of a Piece of Shit, will contain wild Vegas stories that didn’t make the Free Roll cut.
There’s talk of producing a Free Roll TV pilot, or optioning it as a film. Both remain largely out of Tobler’s hands. His next personal task is adapting the book to stage as a one-man show. He’ll then get back out on the road, giving audiences new insights into family dysfunction. As with any good cathartic art form, processing pain through comedy is an experience best shared with others.
Brandt Tobler performs at the Stratosphere Oct. 23-29, stratospherehotel.com