Before iTunes and self-releasing and numerous indie outfits dedicated to stand-up releases, there was Jack Vaughn’s Comedy Central Records. The son of Peace Corps head Jack H. Vaughn, Sr. started a swing-music label in college; since 2002 he has highlighted Comedy Central favorites (Dave Attell, Mike Birbiglia, Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt) and spearheaded more than one hundred fifty Comedy Dynamics projects (Craig Ferguson, Marc Maron, Eddie Pepitone, Bill Hicks and Richard Jeni reissues). Last month Vaughn returned from Los Angeles to NYC to begin his new gig as Senior Vice President of SiriusXM Comedy Programming.
What are your duties at SiriusXM? What new initiatives will you introduce, and what goals do you hope to achieve?
I oversee all of SiriusXM’s comedy channels, which include Comedy Central Radio, SiriusXM Comedy Greats, Raw Dog Comedy Hits, The Foxxhole, Jeff & Larry’s Comedy Roundup, Laugh USA, and digital channels like the George Carlin channel, Carlin’s Corner.
The mandate is simply to air the best comedy content, which means making sure we have the most up-to-date material, the best guests, the best shows, the most exclusives and generally the most interesting stuff available or yet to be dreamed up.
What challenges do you anticipate facing? How is it different from previous positions at Viacom and New Wave Entertainment?
In every other job I have had, I’ve been responsible for creating something, selling it and collecting the money. This job is very different, in that because it’s radio, the goal is just to get the best comedy on the air, period. And I’ve got to say I’m loving it. The team is great, and everyone knows and loves comedy. There are a lot of channels and comedy is really important to SiriusXM, so it’s a priority for everyone to make sure what we’re airing is the best possible.
It’s never easy maintaining such a high level of quality, so that’s the challenge. It means keeping an ear to the ground for the newest, funniest stuff and maintaining strong relationships with the biggest and best names in comedy.
You traveled constantly during your childhood. How did that prepare you to work in the comedy industry?
It was less the traveling than the danger and boredom. Growing up in dangerous places overseas, a lot of the time I was relegated to staying indoors because it wasn’t safe outside. We generally had a stolen cable signal from the States, so — I’m ashamed to say — at times I watched a lot of TV. My tastes tended towards the comedic, so I watched a lot of the HA! Network and the Comedy Channel before they became Comedy Central, and soaked up a ton of comics and their material, memorizing routines. That was so critical in stoking the flames of my love for comedy.
In the early days it was Jake Johannsen, Margaret Smith, Eddie Murphy, Rodney Dangerfield and Steven Wright, among others. I was a fan of old comedy records and had a bunch, but I feel like comedy is of the time, so I really gravitated to the contemporary material.
I wanted to start Comedy Central Records because I had heard a Mitch Hedberg set in ’97 or ’98 and found his self-released CD, and couldn’t believe there was anything that good out [but] not in wide circulation. That was really a revelation.
Of what Comedy Central success stories are you most proud?
This might sound like a cop-out, but I’m just proud of the whole damn thing overall. I didn’t sign a lot of acts every year, and really focused on the records we released to make sure they looked and sounded great, and had strong marketing support behind them. Most of the comics weren’t household names when they released their first albums with us, which I think a lot of people forget. But if you look at the big names of today from Jim Gaffigan to Daniel Tosh to Amy Schumer to Dane Cook, they all did their first records with us, and our failure rate was really, really low.
Why and how did you make the move to Comedy Dynamics (previously New Wave Comedy)?
I had worked for a decade at Comedy Central and loved everyone there and everything we had done, but I wanted to take on a new challenge and work on the TV and film production and distribution side that I hadn’t been able to in my position running Comedy Central Records. I had known Brian Volk-Weiss for a long time and the opportunity presented itself, so I took it.
Louis C.K.’s Live at Madison Square Garden made five won so far and a lot of nominations – probably a dozen or two. I’m always surprised by who wins (though I probably shouldn’t be). The biggest challenge with the comedy category in the Grammys is that it’s really far down the list of genres. It’s quite literally after Hawaiian and Zydeco, and I feel like a lot of the Grammy voters aren’t as knowledgeable about comedy as they could be. And it’s not their fault — the Grammys have always been and should always be music-focused — but as such, the winners tend to be the most recognizable names. But I assume that’s an issue with any smaller category.
How has the recording process of albums changed since you began working in the comedy industry?
I’m not that old, but when I started producing records, we were cutting tape with razor blades. The digital technology that has come in the past twenty years has made a huge difference in how quickly and well we can make records. We can swap out the end of a flubbed word from one set and replace it with a better version of it from another set. We’ve been able to create a beautiful-sounding record from terrible microcassettes. Regardless of the tech, though, if the material isn’t there nothing will help.
Digital technology increasingly helps comedians retain control over content and foster direct connection with fans. Are there any pitfalls? Has personal branding usurped hard-won experience?
Comedy, like horror, is a meritocracy: If you can make people laugh or scare them, you’ve won. Good comedy will get found thanks to all of this new technology, and it puts artists on a much more equal footing.
There are pitfalls, of course, and I know a common refrain from comics is that with everyone having cameras on their phones, it’s very difficult to workshop material and hone a set without it going up on YouTube prematurely. That must be insanely frustrating, and it doesn’t do anyone any good. As someone who loves and curates comedy, I want to hear the final, worked-out bit that comes from lots of trial and error, and present it in the best, highest-quality context.
Your last question is a really interesting one. The last decade has really been an unbelievable era for comedy, and as such, there are so many more comics than there have ever been. How do you stand out from the noise? What might be termed “personal branding” in the context of cynically developing a stage persona is sort of objectionable, but from the standpoint of, “How do I make myself distinct from the thousands of other stand-ups and trying for the same slots I want?” it is absolutely critical, for better or worse. However, once that persona, voice or point of view is established, the comic can really start to gain popularity quickly through nationally curated platforms, where their work can be presented in a cohesive, thoughtful and compelling way, which is how we handle many comics at SiriusXM.