One-On-One with Fritz Coleman (Part I)
Fritz Coleman was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 27, 1948. Growing up in Radnor, PA, he attended Salem College in West Virginia and Temple University in Philadelphia. Presently single, he was married for six years and has three children. He has been the weatherman on KNBC, Channel 4, in Los Angeles for 27 years, has written and performed three one-man theater acts, and received the 2004 EMA Community Service Award for his involvement with KNBC’s 4 Our Planet, a children’s program. While he studied radio, television, and film, he does not nave a meteorology degree. He is a member of the Los Angeles 5 Rotary Club and is active in community service.
TONY Were you the class cutup at school?
FRITZ Yes, one of those clichés. An inordinate amount of negative attention coming my way always made me a happy kid.
TONY Were you the one who made everybody laugh?
FRITZ Yes. That was my intent. I always enjoyed performing. When I was in college the first time, one of my two mis-spent times in college, I did a performance called “Reader’s Theater,” in which you would perform plays but you would never go off script. You would sit up there with the cast and read off the script and create this theater of the mind. I won a West Virginia award when I was going to Salem College. That was the first of getting organized laughs in front of a large audience in an appropriate way. It started about then.
TONY When did you first know you wanted to be an entertainer?
FRITZ It all started when I was in the radio business. I went to college, the first time, and got through my sophomore year and had no idea why I was there. This was before they had the lottery for service in the military. They had the draft. If you dropped below a C average, around 1969-70, you’d get a letter from the defense department saying we’d like you to come for a physical; you’re being considered to join us. So I had a sense I was going to get drafted, so I immediately enlisted in the Navy. The Navy sent me to radio school and I went to Armed Forces Radio & TV and worked there for 3 ½ years on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea, so I had my first job at broadcasting in the Navy.
Then I transitioned into a 15-year career in the radio business. I was a DJ, a music director, a production director, a talk show host, every radio job you could imagine. Then I would get invited to host various events out in the public at night clubs and so forth and I had a regular job as an MC at a jazz night club in Buffalo, NY. Part of this responsibility was entertaining the audience, so I started to build a little repertoire of material for myself that expanded over time and I got a little bit of a following. So the owner of the jazz club gave me my own evening to do a night of comedy on a Monday, which was typically a dark (closed) night. We built a nice reputation, myself and several other comedians, so I was smitten by doing standup comedy. I just loved to do it.
I moved out here in 1980 to pursue that career, to do standup and see if I could make a little living writing for other performers. I was a staff performer at The Comedy Store. One night the News Director for Channel 4, Steve Antoniotti, and his wife were in the audience with a bunch of my friend. After the show he asked me if I had any interest in auditioning to do some fill in work for him on the air. He was desperately in the need of someone to do weekend work and fill in for the main weatherman, Kevin O’Connell, who hadn’t had a vacation in about a year. At this point I was making $45 a night at The Comedy Store, so I said, “When do you want me to start? Let’s go!” So I auditioned for the job and I got it. For two years I did weekends and fill in. Then when my predecessor moved, I was bumped up and I’ve been there 27 years.
TONY Are you married?
FRITZ No, I’m not. I was single when I came out here. I got married. I was married for six years and now I’m single. I have three children.
TONY So when you moved out here you weren’t taking much risk because you had no obligations except to yourself?
FRITZ Right, but it was a tremendous chance. I gave up a fairly lucrative career in the radio business. I was doing afternoon drive on a 50,000 watt radio station in Buffalo, which at night covered 13 states. So that was a fairly nice radio show, so I gave up the security of that. I had never been to Los Angeles before but I knew that this was the Mecca of standup comedy because the Comedy Store at that time was where you had to go to be seen. This was during the era of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Freddie Prinze, and Billy Crystal, all working at The Comedy Store. That was the place you had to go. So I said, “Well, I’ve never been there but I’ve gotta go.”
So I came to California and I knew one person out here, a lady with whom I had done some commercial work. She let me sleep on her floor for a week, until I was able to get my own apartment. And off I went.
TONY You were only making $45 a night?
FRITZ That was the high end of all the comedy clubs around town. All the comedy clubs around town are called “showcase clubs.” They don’t pay you to be the draw. They are paying you just a little tip and they are giving you the opportunity and privilege to perform on a stage in the entertainment capital of the world in the hopes you will get discovered. So they have seven or eight comedians on the bill on every show and you are just one of a group of comics. People come to places like the Comedy Store or The Improv or The Laugh Factory; they may not go there with the intent of seeing anybody specific, but they know that they are going to have an evening of comedy, so you don’t make a lot of money. You just get an opportunity to work out your material and showcase yourself for the entertainment business.
TONY So how did you get the gig to work the comedy clubs in the first place?
FRITZ I had to audition. In order to become what they call a paid regular at The Comedy Store, I had to do open mike nights for two years. Then Mitzi Shore, who is the owner, would showcase you every few months to see if you were improving. Then after a period of time if she thought you had polished up enough she would make you a paid regular. That means that you could phone in every week and get one or more spots on the regular lineup in one of her rooms, the Original Room, the Main Room, or the Belly Room.
The first place to pay me to do comedy in Southern California was The Ice House in Pasadena, where I was an MC and opening act for a year or two.
TONY How did you get that?
FRITZ I had to audition. I only had to do it one time and then they liked me.
TONY How did you find out about it?
FRITZ The comics all know about the various gigs around town. When you do these open mikes you exchange the information and learn where the openings are and who’s looking for what and what clubs have the open mikes night and who’s auditions.
See next week’s issue for Part II of One-On-One with Fritz Coleman
TONY How were you earning your living all this time you were doing open mikes?
FRITZ When I first came out here I lived on my savings, which was less than $10,000. The first night I went to The Comedy Store, I saw Garry Shandling, Jimmie Walker, Billy Crystal, and a wonderful Robin Williams-esque type of performer named Charles Fleisher. I was so devastated by how talented these guys were my first inclination was “I have come out here too early. I don’t have the chops to be in this town. Oh my God; what have I done! These guys are unbelievable!”
But I thought that I would give myself a chance to spend what’s left of my savings and then if I have to go home, I’ll go home with my tail between my legs and say at least I tried. However, awhile after I got out here my old boss from my Buffalo radio job was made the VP in charge of radio for Capital Cities Radio. They used to own KZLA here, which was an adult contemporary station that went to country. It was an automated country station, meaning that they play three songs automatically and then the announcer would announce the records and play more. He asked me if I wanted to come work for him and do mornings doing voice overs. Of course I bowed down and kissed his feet and said, “Absolutely!”
So I was doing morning radio at KZLA at 5-10 in the morning, go home and sleep, and then go out and do the open mikes at the comedy clubs from 8 to midnight, so I was sleeping at 2-4 hour chunks every night. It was just awful. I could never do that again.
TONY Where were you living?
FRITZ West LA.
TONY By yourself?
FRITZ Yes, then my girlfriend moved out and we got engaged and got married, which lasted for six years.
TONY You’ve been at KNBC for 27 years? You must enjoy it.
FRITZ I love my job. Employment is a wonderful thing. I love it because it’s one of the news positions that allow you to have a little personality. You’re not threatening. I consider my job to be the pallet-cleanser between the tragedy and the sports. A weatherman at a station is bigger than the job of being a weather reporter. You’re sort of a community participant. A lot of what I do is community outreach. I go out in the community. You become like someone’s favorite next door neighbor after awhile. That’s what I like about it.
TONY Were you here when Dr. George was on KABC?
FRITZ Absolutely. A friend and I love him to death. I spoke to him about six months ago.
TONY Why was he such a big draw on Channel 7?
FRITZ He was different. Any kind of success you have in any form of show business, and regardless of what people say about TV news; people who work in the business often consider themselves journalists, and get prickly when you analyze TV news as show business, but it is. We use all of the same tricks in our presentation that regular TV uses, like energetic people that people like to watch with some personality and a smile and something that makes them different from the rest of the product. That’s what we do.
Dr. George was this huge character. He was this wonderful, friendly, quirky uncle that people have. Sometimes he would launch off into some beautiful warm thing and never get to the weather until the last 30 seconds of the presentation. But he had a great way of breaking the fourth wall and appealing to people and drawing them in. He was the loveliest man. He’s been off the air for 15 years and people still ask me how’s Dr. George?
TONY What’s the fourth wall?
FRITZ In show business if you perform and are not conscious of the audience viewing you and don’t make direct eye contact with the camera, that’s not breaking the fourth wall. When you break the fourth wall you address the fact that there are people watching you from somewhere else. For instance, in a play if you break the fourth wall you turn and talk to the audience. In a drama you never address the audience and aren’t cognizant of them being present. But in TV we break the fourth wall. We make eye contact with the camera.
TONY Tell me about your new show.
FRITZ This is An Evening with Fritz Coleman. In the past, people have come to see one of my plays, which are one person presentations, that is, they are a monologue in three acts where I’m telling a story. This is just an evening where for an hour and 15 minutes I’m doing humor and I engage the audience and then I have a question and answer period at the end and it’s a lot of fun. I talk about the news business, new technology. We get into everything. Then we turn the lights up and I go out in the audience. People love to ask me questions about the news business. We don’t get political because I don’t want to turn it into a Tea Party rally. So we just talk about people’s questions about the news. They have a great curiosity about how it’s produced and who’s where and how’s this person. It’s a lot of fun.
TONY Where is it?
FRITZ It’s at the El Portal Theater for four nights, Thursday, August 19 through Sunday, August 22. The Sunday show is at 2 p.m. matinee. The other shows start at 8 o’clock. For Toluca Lake residents, if you buy the tickets online or on the phone and use the code word “Toluca Lake” you get two-for-one tickets, so that’s a pretty good deal.