Saturday Six Pack interview: Karl Zahn
Karl Zahn is 55 and lives in Milford. At the age of 23, he started an excavation business, and after decades of working 70-hour weeks with no vacations, he has begun to wind down his business so he can take on the less stressful life of a real estate agent for Keller Williams in Nashua. He is the father of five (four boys and an adopted daughter, age 7), and his 88-year-old mother still lives nearby in Milford, where she was born.
Though you probably have never heard of Karl Zahn, you might have heard him. Three New Hampshire radio stations carry comedian Dennis Miller's nationally syndicated radio show. Zahn is the periodic character "Karl from New Hampshire." In a second career as a stand-up comic, he has appeared at comedy clubs around New England, opened for Miller in New York City, and been a guest on Fox News Channel's late night chat show Red Eye. As an aside, he decided one day that New Hampshire's child sex abuse statutes were not tough enough, so he started a campaign to fix them, and New Hampshire wound up making national headlines for its package of better sex predator laws. I'm happy to have him on this week's Saturday Six Pack.
1. You went from being a Milford guy running a small trucking/excavation business to doing standup comedy. How did that happen?
After years of living the small-business dream of 70 hour weeks and no vacations, I decided, about 10 years ago to fulfill my "dream" of trying my hand at stand-up comedy. I had thought about it for a long time but had no idea how to get started. One day I saw an ad for open-mic at the now-defunct "Grill 93" in Andover, Mass. I picked up the phone and in two seconds I was booked for my first-ever five-minute spot. I recall thinking, "If I had known it was that easy, I would have done this years ago."
I knew, after that first five minutes that I was hooked. After four or five years of driving three hours all over New England to do free 5-7 minute spots, I got my first paid gig at the infamous Comedy Vault in Boston. The first time you get paid to tell jokes, it's a big deal. Now I work steadily, make decent money, and love every second of making strangers laugh. I've been fascinated by stand-up for a long time and remember watching Don Rickles, Alan King, guys like that with my late father, who had a great sense of humor. It's a pure art. Technology can't change it. It's you, a stool, a microphone and your wit. Fun stuff.
2. How did you get involved with Greg Gutfeld and Dennis Miller, and how fun is that?
I did a weekly talk radio program at WSMN in Nashua for five years or so and was a regular on the former 96.9 Boston Talks at WTKK with Michael Graham, Jay Severin, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. I was known to all simply as "Karl from New Hampshire" and offered the quirky, New Hampshire take on things. I began calling Dennis Miller's show the first week he was on the air. I've been a big fan of Miller's since day one. Smart comedy, one-third jokes, one-third lecture, one-third "rant." I had called in two or three times a week for three years or so, and it was always a thrill for me to make him laugh. One day, on the air and out of the blue, he suggested I do an hour in-studio with him if I was "ever passing through L.A." I suggested I would only be "passing through L.A." had I been drugged, abducted and stuffed in someone's trunk. After the show, I emailed his producer and told him I would fly to L.A. at my cost to do an hour with Dennis. It turned out that Dennis was coming to New York City the following week, so I ended up going there, to CBS, and doing an hour in-studio. The thrill of a lifetime.
It was during this visit that Dennis first learned I did stand-up. Since then, I join him in New York almost every time he comes there, three or four times a year. In May, for the first time, I did the entire three-hour show with him, and he invited me to open for him next time he is on the East Coast. A kind, generous, down-to-earth man, Dennis is, and I have really grown fond of him.
I managed to appear on Red Eye with Gutfeld simply by hunting down the show producer and convincing her to let me send a demo dvd of my comedy and some samples of my radio stuff. I was truly shocked when they wrote back and said Greg would love to have me on. I did the show that first time and Gutfeld wanted me back once a month. I did another four appearances, but the monthly thing never became reality. No hard feelings, I was blessed with the opportunity. Great people, Gutfeld is a mensch, and Fox News employees love where they work. Everyone I spoke to there really spoke highly of the organization. Other than an awkward advance by Bill Schulz in the Green Room, all of my appearances there were great fun.
3. What prompted your push for tougher child protection laws and, later, to get involved with the Kimberly Cates Fund?
I got involved with child protection laws in the wake of the Jessica Lundsford case in Florida. As a parent, something about that case tipped me towards feeling like I had to do something. I knew New Hampshire had lax laws, and no record-keeping of past offenses. We were really behind on our game here. Knowing a little about politics, I knew you can only get their attention with two things: money or lumps of votes. I didn't have enough of the former to make a splash, but I knew I could get signatures. We bought clipboards, drafted a petition, put them out in convenience stores, gas stations, diners, restaurants, you name it. Within six weeks I had over 5,000 signatures.
Gov. John Lynch was dodging, and through an article in your newspaper, Bill O'Reilly caught wind of what we were doing. He interviewed me on his radio show and got behind the movement. That was a turning point, as you might imagine. The governor quickly got involved, and a few years later, with the indispensable help of your newspaper, then Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, and Bill Wrenn, who was then the head of the Police Chief's Association, the New Hampshire Child Protection Act became a reality.
It was a valuable lesson for me, my children, and, I hope, other citizens, that you can make a difference with a little ingenuity and commitment. Voting is not enough. I had worked on the McCain campaign, and I got to know the senator a little, rode the bus and all that. I remember his mantra of "serving a cause greater than yourself." That became a guiding principle for me. Still, as you know, we have a long, long way to go in this country in terms of protecting kids. On the other hand, the moral and cultural decay is clearly getting the upper hand. It's easy to understand how many people feel powerless to it.
I got involved with the Kimberly Cates Fund when I was asked to emcee a fund-raising event. I didn't know David or Kim personally, though we passed each other and waved for years, as neighbors do here. Once I got to know David, he too became an inspiration for me. Anyone who has followed this knows he is as solid as they come, and there isn't anything I wouldn't do for him or his daughter, Jaimie.
4. What is it like being a conservative trying to make it in the entertainment business?
I knew early on doing comedy that I had a decision to make in terms of bringing politics into my act. My website, www.karlfromnh.com, clearly contains everything from my radio show, my work with McCain and other things. The No. 1 rule in comedy is to be honest and true to who you are. I knew I couldn't fake it, and I didn't want to avoid it, so there are parts of my act that are political. I know, too, that there are certain clubs, particularly in Massachusetts, that I will never work at strictly because of my conservative politics. I figure that's show biz. If I were to compromise what I do simply to get work at certain places, I think it would taint the entire premise of doing comedy in the first place, at least for me.
As Steve Martin said, "there's nothing funny about comedy." Truer words were never uttered. The business side of comedy is competitive and borderline nasty at times. It's all about the time on stage making people laugh. That's the little heart of the artichoke that we all pull back the leaves for.
5. Do you ever fly your comedian friends around just for kicks, or do you not joke about flying?
I got my private pilot license in 1989 after a friend bought me an introductory flight for my birthday. My late father had taken lessons with the legendary Sawyer family at Silver Ranch Airport in Jaffrey. I remember my first plane ride with my dad and Harvey Sawyer, and at 12 years old I knew I would fly airplanes someday. I don't fly with comedians unless it's a medical emergency. I'm pretty conservative flying because I don't want to die doing it. I'm also lucky because it's a big part of my life and some of the most moving, astonishing and beautiful sights I have seen have been from the cockpit of a Cessna over New Hampshire.
6. What is your favorite (clean) joke?
I recently lost an uncle to Restless Leg Syndrome. Poor guy was half-man, half-cricket. Died in a friction fire.
Or perhaps this one. I hear kids are snorting nutmeg now as a stimulant (I did read this in a newspaper). This explains why we could never catch the Gingerbread Man...and that snarky attitude..."catch me if you can!"...Hey...I'll bite your legs off! You're a cookie!
Something I just realized is that jokes, written in an email, don't seem nearly as funny as they do recited to a crowd...