Joe Stapleton: The Bearded Walrus Who Wants All The Jobs

Joe Stapleton: The Bearded Walrus Who Wants All The Jobs

Lee Davy sits down with European Poker Tour and Poker Night in America co-host, Joe Stapleton to find out where he gets his material, what he would do with 10,000 spare hours, and much more.

Poker dragged me into its heart after watching the World Poker Tour (WPT) on TV. I wouldn’t miss an episode. Then, one day, I got a job working at the final table as a live reporter and everything changed. I never watched another show because it’s pointless once you know who wins.

It was the same when I started working for the European Poker Tour (EPT), and the World Series of Poker (WSOP). And this means I have never listened to Joe Stapleton doing his thing.

I did tune in to watch the Global Poker League (GPL) Draft because I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was my first taste of Stapleton in action, and I have to admit, I thought he was great. I particularly liked the way he would pull the pin out of the hand grenade and drop it between Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth at precisely the right time.

I wanted to learn more.

Here it is.

Give the listeners the elevator pitch on who Joe Stapleton is and your background in poker.

Joe Stapleton: The Bearded Walrus Who Wants All The Jobs“I’m a poker commentator/comedian who desperately would rather be known as a comedian/poker commentator.  Unfortunately, until the last few years, I hadn’t really done anything to earn that distinction.  I guess being a comedian is like being poker player – at what point have you earned the title?  Because you made the decision to, or because you’ve hit some benchmark?  And if it’s the latter – what is it? For poker players, it’s usually something like “once you have no other ‘job’” for me, my job is to be funny (ish), but does that make me a comedian? I’d like to think so, but I couldn’t really argue with someone who disagreed. Ok, DAD?”

What did you do before poker?

“I moved to LA in 2002 5 days after graduating college to be a comedy writer.  But I was a very bad writer.  Not that I wasn’t funny, and not that my writing wasn’t good, but I was bad at actually writing.  Like, the act of sitting down and doing the thing I claimed I wanted to do.  I didn’t write very much, and I didn’t become a writer.

“I got super lucky and got a job on a show called MADtv as a production assistant within the first few months.  I got promoted pretty quickly there (on the production side, not the comedy side) and started making really decent money by the time I was like 22, and I pretty much never wrote.  I would just work 80 hour weeks and drink and get rejected by girls – lather, rinse, repeat.

“In 2005, my friend Scott Huff got a job as a Card Player intern for the WSOP.  MADtv was on summer hiatus, so I drove him there.  When we arrived, they asked him if he knew anyone else who could write.  He mentioned me, showed them some of my stuff, and they hired me on the spot.

“I drove home to LA that night, and back to Vegas the next morning.  It was my first taste of what working in poker would be like: “Don’t be too attached to your stuff.”

What do you do very well?

“I still think I’m a better writer than a performer.  That’s why I’m an over-preparer.  Every hour of EPT you see on TV I am usually prepping for 4-6 hours.  Writing jokes, and trying to squeeze in some analysis (but only because I have to).”

What don’t you do as well?

“I’m terrible at memorization.  Sometimes I will prepare a ton of gags for a particular live event – like EPT Live or an awards show, and I will totally forget to use some of the best ones.  I love cheat sheets and looking at notes. I’m getting better, but I still sometimes freeze up without them.

“I also put ridiculous amounts of pressure on myself to always be better than the last night I did.  I’m terrified of getting lazy, and so I’m always setting these ridiculously high (personal) standards as to how good something should be.  (See above where I prep every show 4-6 hours)

“Also, when something gets cut that I think is good, I act like an absolute child for a good 2 – 12 minutes – arms crossed, quiet, and occasionally refusing to participate.”

Talk about the good and bad points of being a personal brand.

“The hint’s in the name!  The best and worst thing about being a personal brand is that it’s personal.  So when things are good, and you take it really personally, that’s great.  You ingest and input every single compliment, and it’s wonderful yummy little warm cupcakes in your heart hole.  And then you get to the bad stuff and you want to write back to every single person and say “I think you’re wrong, sir, and also YOU’RE SO STUPID AND HAVE A STUPID FACE.”

“It’s also a little tough to have a real life when you’ve made your life so much a part of the act.  It’s hard to draw the line between what’s for public consumption and what’s not.

“It’s especially difficult when you say something someone might find offensive.  When I’m saying things as “comedian Joe Stapleton,” people just see it as coming from “Joe Stapleton, the person,” and the two aren’t always exactly the same.”

Where do you get your material?

“I think when it comes to poker stuff, it’s pretty clear that 75% of it is references/homage (aka – stealing) and the other 25% comes from self-deprecation, personal experiences, and trends – which is about the only other place stuff could come from, I think.

“When it comes to standup, it’s all the other 25%.  I have a bit of a reputation for being perpetually single and, unfortunately, a great by-product of that is so much great material.  Not only are the experiences great stories, but I’m at my most inspired, comedy-wise, when I’m trying to make a new girl like me.  A lot of my jokes are born when I’m trying to make a pretty girl laugh.”

How do you prepare for a show?

“I watch it ahead of time, minute by minute, second by second, to see how much extra entertainment I can cram in there. I want someone who’s never seen poker before to tune and be entertained.

“The EPT shows are produced so well, I get a script that has all the images listed out, with timecodes, so I go through and make notes about what I’m going to say and when.  It’s timed down to the second, most of the time.”

Who are the best stand up comedians you can recommend?

“Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Mitch Hedburg, Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt – those won’t all mean a ton to European audiences, but I figure they already know a bunch of English guys.”

I believe that EPT7 Vienna was your first EPT; it was mine also. Talk to me about how you got the job and some of your more memorable moments from your time with the show.

“EPT 7 Vienna was the first EPT I ever went to, but I wasn’t working for the EPT at the time.  I was working on the Big Game and when Daniel {Negreanu} made the final table he offered to fly me out.  Certainly I couldn’t say no to that.

“I ended up getting the job because Black Friday ended the Big Game, and coincidentally the EPT had been going through color commentators like they were Doctor Who’s.

“The same company that was producing the EPT was doing some live streams of the NAPT, and they asked me to come as a guest with Hartigan.  I didn’t realize it was an audition. James and I had excellent chemistry, and I was lucky enough for them to offer me the NAPT & EPT shortly thereafter.”

Do you ever look over at Mike Sexton and Vince van Patten and think “One day I want that job?”

“I want all of the jobs.  I want to be on every show.  Do I specifically want to or think I could replace those guys (or Lon & Norm)? No way.  Would I love to see myself on more poker shows that reach even more people? Absolutely.”

A few years ago the late Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott called you a Muppet. What are the other most memorable forms of abuse you have received?

“I get far less abuse than I should. The spat between Devilfish and me was great because he was such an asshole. I didn’t have to feel bad at all about him being upset. We actually cut things out of that show to make him look BETTER.  If pretty much any other pro had an issue with something I said, I would have felt really really bad about it.  Not him, though. It was great.

“One time a guy on Twitter said “Who gives a **** what you think, you fat, bearded walrus!” and it was so funny I had to retweet it, and it still sticks with me years later.

“The most memorable abuse comes from the people in poker, though.  Martin Jacobsen once called me a “second rate comedian” and Tom Marchese and Haralabos Voulgaris have both publicly criticized me.  In all of their defenses – none of them tagged me in the tweets – which I think is totally ok. I only saw them because various shit-stirrers decided to inform me.

“So while I’m not angry at those folks, those criticisms sting the most because you want everyone to like you – especially the heroes.”

Talk me through the process of stepping into this territory i.e. Knowing that what you say may offend someone but you have a job to do.

“Everyone’s had to be more sensitive these days. We’ve had to be more sensitive from a business standpoint, and I’ve felt pressure to be more sensitive on a personal level too.  It does restrain comedy to a certain extent, but it’s not always a bad thing to evolve.  Most of the time I’m just not allowed to say offensive things.  When it comes to TV, those jokes get cut.  When it comes to live, I’m a little more careful, but for the most part I just try to be fair. I try not to ever say something that I couldn’t stand behind later.”

I thought you did an excellent job at the GPL Draft. What was it like behind the scenes?

“Behind the scenes was a little chaotic. I don’t want to take credit it for it all, but one time there was an actual fire, followed by a gator attack and I managed to both put out the fire and save the baby from the reptile’s mouth, all during a one-minute video package. The baby and the gator are good friends now.

“It was chaotic – but it was also exciting.  It was a great atmosphere. It’s cool to see so many people want something to succeed so much.”

What are the main values you look for in a co-host?

“To be honest, I’ve only ever looked for a cohost for TV once. It was for Season 2 of The Big Game and Chris Rose had left.  They gave me the opportunity to bring in my long-time friend and writing partner, Scott Huff.  He had to audition, but he eventually got the gig – annnnnnnnd then shows never aired in the US because of Black Friday.

“For a few other projects I’ve been allowed to suggest some names, but in the poker world, it’s hard because you don’t have a ton of options for people who know what they’re doing.

“In general, I like to work with people who are funny, irreverent, and have strong work ethics. My work ethic is nuts, and I don’t expect people to put the same effort in that I do, but you have to care almost as much. This is why I’ve always liked working with Matt Broughton and was constantly suggesting he be brought in when we need someone.”

What drives you nuts about a co-host?

“I’ve been really lucky and never had to deal with too much of this stuff, but: ego and laziness. They usually go hand in hand – along with tardiness.”

Is there anyone you have thought: “I can’t fucking work with that dick?”

“Ha.  There’s one guy.  Luckily I don’t think it will ever happen. And if it does, I will pretend like I’ve never thought it while I rub my face all over my paycheck.”

Talk about the biggest cock up you have made in front of the camera?

“I’ve done plenty. I’ve missed outs. I’ve forgotten the name of the city where we’re in. I announced all the wrong chips counts at the start of a final table once. In Dublin, I even started one take off by saying “Welcome to the weiner’s presentation.”

What about off camera?

“Ha.  I mess up off camera all the time.  Messing up my personal life is just about the only thing that keeps the creative juices flowing.  But as far as TV-ish mess-ups – I constantly forget shoes and jackets and have wrinkled clothes or stains.  There’s always some kind of problem with me. It’s like I’m 11.  If you listen to my podcast – EPT Not Live (iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud), I’m confessing this stuff on a weekly basis.”

What are the circumstances where you most resist change in your life?

“I’m having a hard time adapting to this whole new increased sensitivity we’re supposed to have.  I realize as a white, American male I’m not allowed to have an opinion, but sometimes I think people just need to get the f*ck over themselves.

“I’m also pretty resistant to new forms of entertainment and social media. It’s not because I think they’re bad, but I’m just tired of learning new stuff. I was just getting ok with the last stuff!”

What one word best describes your country?


What is your best daily ritual?

“I don’t think it’s suitable to print, but it involves the towel I keep next to my computer.”

What parts of your life is a complete train wreck?

“Bill paying and relationships. In both cases, I’m usually too busy to pay attention to either one and eventually, you get a red letter in the mail. But luckily, there’s always another one coming in.”

If I gave you 10,000 hours to work on anything what would you work on?

“Video games.  It sounds silly, but it would both be a vacation, and I’d learn to stream/commentate on them (DOTA, League of Legends, Hearthstone, etc.). Those guys make WAY more money than me.”

Give my 15-year-old son some life advice.

“Work hard; do the right thing.  As long as you’re white, everything will work out.”