Josh Womack is the comic force behind Laugh Staff, a new Cleveland-based company with one aim: writing you a hilarious wedding speech. Womack pairs up flustered best men and maids of honor with local comedians to help them craft thoughtful, funny remarks before everyone gets plastered and does the Cha-Cha Slide. Mothers across the region are skeptical of Womack as "husband material"—who wouldn't raise an eyebrow at a 5-foot-4 pro-wrestling aficionado who works for the National Kidney Foundation?—but he's a man who "takes jokes seriously," and he's serious about making Laugh Staff another success story in Cleveland's thriving nexis of entrepreneurship. He met Scene at Brgr 9 on West Ninth for a happy hour bite to talk about Laugh Staff and Cleveland comedy. Right now he's telling the story of how Laugh Staff co-founder Cameron Amigo got the idea in the first place. Naturally, he was at a wedding:
Josh Womack: So the groom came up to Cameron, and he knew Cameron did some standup and stuff, and he goes, "My best man—I love the guy, but I know he's gonna fall flat on his face. I know he's gonna go up there and tell a bunch of embarrassing stories. He's gonna put the room in a weird spot... What I need from you is an impromptu two- to three-minute comedy routine, in essence a toast, to kind of win the room back a little bit. And that's exactly what happened. And then later on that night another one of the groomsmen came up to Cameron and said, "I really like what you did. I'm gonna be the best man in a wedding in two months. Would you mind sitting down with me and helping me write my best man speech?" And the guy goes, "I'll pay you. I'll give you fifty bucks."
Sam Allard: Not bad for a few jokes.
Well, at the time, Cameron was like, "No, no, no. Just buy me a beer and we'll call it even." But once that happened, that's when the wheels started turning. I had actually met Cameron a few years before. I was doing a standup show at Brother's Lounge and Cameron was in the audience. Afterwards he came up —we had a mutual friend —and he goes, "Hey man, I've always wanted to try standup. Would you mind maybe coming over to help me write some jokes?"
I'm seeing where this is going.
Yeah, that's kind of how the idea got started. And I guess why he reached out to me —I told him flat out that I don't have any money to put into this. I work in nonprofit, you know, resources are limited. And he goes, "Don't worry. I just need you to write for it and get comedians." And I said that I could do.
So what's your background in comedy?
I was doing an internship at the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. I went to Bowling Green and my degree was in sports management—I don't know why I got that degree; it was a time when everybody thought they were going to be Jerry Maguire—and I had a supervisor come up to me and she goes, "I'm gonna be honest with you: You're not that great of an intern. But you're funny. You ever think about doing standup?" And she very gently would suggest it like every few days. So I did some research and ended up taking a comedy workshop down at the Improv. And then for a year or two, I just messed around, did an open mic every month or two. And then I started getting hooked up with some of the local guys, Mike Polk and Mike Farrell. I think an ah-ha moment came when I saw my face on a comedy flyer. That was cool to me. And then the shows started happening more frequently.
Like how frequently?
My goal in 2011 was to do 100 shows, and I did like 120. In 2012 I did right around 100. This year it'll be in the 70 to 80 range.
And how do you leverage your standup when you write best man speeches?
I think, well mostly what we do...
I have to interrupt you to ask —I just thought of this: How much if any inspiration do you draw from the musical artist LeeAnn Womack.
I think I draw more inspiration from Bobby Womack.
Excellent. Now back to the speeches.
We have like four different packages. And on the lowend, the $25 one, that's just like a speech punch-up, so that person will actually send us what they have and they'll have a rough framework and we'll insert some jokes and take some stuff out. But we have a $60 package and a $100 package and with both of those we send them a questionnaire. That's to get names, hobbies, two or three funny stories from when they were dating, parents' names, wedding venue. And from that, we get a really nice start.
Ever get any bizarre requests?
I've gotten this from a couple maids of honor where they say they don't care for the groom that much, so, you know, "Help me to make it sound genuine." Or, one guy put that the groom's dad had dementia and he goes, "We could probably do jokes with this, but let's lay off." We've done one father of the bride speech, this guy from Viriginia, and we follow up with everyone afterward, just saying "Hey, how'd it go?" And when I sent him an email, he's like, "My daughter called off the wedding so I'm just saving the speech for a rainy day." That's the only time when a wedding didn't actually pan out.
So wait—you have clients in Virginia? I didn't realize it was a national thing.
We've had a little over 40 customers, and I would say about 20 to 25 have been from Cleveland. The other ones —we'll shoot out press releases, and they'll get picked up for some reason and we've had people from New York, Chicago, two people from Australia.
But one of the things I'm super pumped about is that we can start this thing from literally our own backyard. I've had one of my buddies tell me — he's like a big entrepreneur type guy — that we should move to Vegas. This is like a "Vegas company" with a clientele that makes and spends more money. And I agree with him on that, but there's something organic about starting it here.
And, I mean, are there competitors?
There are a couple canned speech writing things, easyspeechwriting.com, but those are almost more like...what are those things when you fill in the words?
Yeah, like that kind of format. But comedians are the best of both worlds. They're great performers and they're great writers. I remember one time I was watching a Brett Hart documentary, Wrestling with Shadows —I was a big wrestling guy back in the day —and he said, "Professional wrestlers are never given credit for being great athletes or great actors, but usually they're the best of both." I just applied it to standup.
Any professional wrestlers at Laugh Staff?
No, although I attended a wrestling school for four months. Firestorm Pro Wrestling. They had their practices out at the Phantasy Theater in Lakewood. I show up one day in February and the place had no heat. No heat and no running water. I never had a live match in front of people, but one day we were taking bumps, basically doing shoulder tackles and I was up against a guy who, I"m not gonna say he was 500 pounds, but probably 230, 250, and at the time I was about 130. And when I woke up the next morning, the room was spinning. I knew right away I had a concussion, and that's sort of what ended the professional wrestling career.
Well comedy's just as fun, and safer, right?
I did show choir in high school. My buddy always says, everyone has skeletons in the closet. Ours just happened to have sequined vests.