Joe Stapleton Takes to the Stage at the World Series of Poker

  • Paul SeatonPaul Seaton
Joe Stapleton
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  • Joe Stapleton speaks about the commonalities and differences between stand-up comedy and poker.

Presenter and comedian Joe Stapleton is a welcome addition to this year's expanded World Series of Poker coverage. Known to millions for his roles as dual-anchor of the PokerStars Championships coverage with James Hartigan as well as The Big Game and Poker Night in America, Stapleton has been at the front of the poker world for many years. He's now splitting his time between poker and stand-up comedy. If Stapleton was an animal, he might be a duck. Not because of a huge bill, but in the way he seemingly glides along effortlessly, while below the surface he's paddling like crazy. We spoke to the funny man backstage in the Brasilia Room on the commonalities and differences between poker and stand-up comedy.

"Stand up is rehearsed," Stapleton said. "The goal is to make it sound unrehearsed and sound like it's off the top of your head. I'm still working on that. The WSOP coverage is tough to rehearse. I came into the studio this morning with a bunch of pitches of things I thought would be fun, my boss was like 'I appreciate the effort you made on this, there are some really good ideas and some really bad ones too. Here are the ones I like'. So we did several of them today."

Stapleton has a quick wit and winsome humor that has attracted fans on both sides of the Atlantic by laughing at himself before ever targeting anyone else. In today's world, it sticks out. It also doesn't happen on the fly.

"You need an almost infinite sample size in poker and that's also the way your jokes grow and evolve. You're always tweaking it."

"I'm an over-preparer. I was up at 7:30 a.m. this morning looking at the player list, sending over another group of pitches. Players who I saw today, what angles we can take with people and what fun stuff we can do. Unfortunately, despite all the resources here, we can't do all the things I want to do all the time. There's poker to be covered and that has to take the main stage. Some of my ideas are grandiose and require props. Both here and on the EPT and PokerStars Championships, I really trust the people immediately in charge of me. They have good sensibilities and say if something will work or if it's too far away for poker. Preparation, though, is huge for me."

Having studied comedy for years, Stapleton has something akin to a musician's ear for the right tone to take with a joke. Even as we speak, I get the sense he's trying to make me laugh for nothing other to hear my laugh, prod the funny bone and have fun.

"It's an evolution when it comes to stand-up. It's similar to poker in a couple of ways. Your friends are also your competition and you're secretly hoping that they'll fail. Well, you might not want them to fail but you want to be the best person in the room. It's also like poker in that a small sample size does you almost no good. Anyone who came to see my show last night in Vegas might not think I'm very good at stand-up. I'm not that bad at it, but if that's all you ever saw based on the conditions at the venue, you might think I was terrible! You need an almost infinite sample size in poker and that's also the way your jokes grow and evolve. You're always tweaking it. The really good stand-ups do five or six sets a week minimum. I do at most two a week."

James Hartigan & Joe Stapleton
James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton

Having previously lived in Los Angeles and New York, Stapleton lived in England for several years, during which time he had easier opportunities to run the gauntlet of comedy venues in London and the home counties.

"In England, I was doing a lot more. It was much easier to get open spots and also I was living closer to my work. I also had a good work/hobby balance whereas now, in L.A. when I get work, I'm gone for 20 days. When I get back, the last thing I want to do is go out five nights and do brutal stand-up rooms in L.A. Audiences are so much kinder in London. In Los Angeles, everyone's jaded, they're so sick of comedy and acting and music and one-man shows."

Tough crowd. Maybe it helps to get people you know to come along, maybe even bring their friends, right? Well, most times.

"This guy came to my show who was with three girls I knew from the show. They invited him off Tinder. First I was happy, it was another butt in a chair paying $20 to see me. However, about halfway through the show, he got stereotypically-British drunk and lost all control over the volume of his voice. All of the comics addressed him at some point and I was mortified. After the show he came up to me and said 'Wasn't that great?!' I was like 'What the fuck are you talking about?' I was trying my best not to yell at the kid, but he said 'I provided so much more comedy, everyone got to make fun of me and I gave them so much more material. Wasn't it great?' I looked at him and was like 'No! They had to take out material from their acts to waste time on you.'

"It was crazy, his face immediately changed when he realised, he felt awful. It was so bizarre. He was fine, I took him out for a burger, he came back to my house and we after-partied, but he just had no clue."

Plenty of Stapleton's stand-up fans in England came from the fanboys and fangirls generated by his co-leading role in the EPT and PokerStars Championships teams.

"I've had weird situations where poker fans have turned up and heckled me. They're doing it from a good place, but they're also being obnoxious and want attention from me and I don't know what to do. I don't want to destroy a fan, but it's not an interactive show. OK, it sort of is, because I want to make you laugh, but that's it. Come in and shut up but not too much, still laugh. And don't laugh too weird, either, just a normal laugh. Also, don't smile. Actually, laugh verbally, then stop while I'm telling my next joke. Applause breaks are fine."

That's the ideal, but the reality? Somewhat different.

"What ends up happening is that I don't know how to address it. If you address a heckler you can ruin the mood. But when an audience know that you can hear the heckler but you aren't addressing them, they lose respect for you. I'm not very good yet at that delicate balance between not wanting to put someone down and dealing with it."

This summer, Stapleton got the call of a lifetime in terms of poker coverage. He may front up a blasé attitude to life, but the truth is that he appreciates the magnitude of the job he's working in Las Vegas this summer.

"I've never officially worked for the WSOP before and it really is an honor. I was in a group email with Lon [McEachern], Norman [Chad], Antonio [Esfandiari] and Kara [Scott] and I was like 'Hey I just want to say it's a huge honor and I'll keep the reply-alls to a minimum but I'm really excited for this.' Two people wrote back and told me to stop kissing ass – I'll let you guess who – when I was being earnest for the first time in my life! I do really appreciate PokerStars letting me go for this, though. Technically, there's some competition between tours and it's really big of them to say go for it. I've always thought on a personal level that they like me and want me to succeed. I just really appreciate them being cool. I have aspirations beyond poker, but as far as poker goes, it doesn't get any bigger than this, it's the WSOP Main Event. It's the crown jewel in all of poker."

Despite not having been so front and centre, Stapleton was once at the Main Event a long time ago in a very different capacity.

"I'd rolled out of a strip club at 11:15 that morning and from certain angles of that coverage, you could see glitter on my face."

"I took a bunch of years off the Main Event. I've not been here working in any capacity since 2009, when I was on Joe Cada's PR team. I love that kid, he's so happy-go-lucky and has no worries. He's not even a kid anymore. I have tons of great memories before 2009. I now have probably the best job in all of poker. Back then, although I had some of the worst jobs, there was a lot less pressure and I partied more. Now I get up really early and even if last night had been a great stand-up show and everyone wanted to party, I'd have had to walk away."

Stapleton's first ever presenting gig wasn't nearly so slick.

"The first time I was on camera I was on at noon for CardPlayer. I'd rolled out of a strip club at 11:15 that morning and from certain angles of that coverage, you could see glitter on my face. We were a lot more irresponsible and got into situations that now I would be mortified to be in, but back then I was so young and nobody cared what we were doing. I can't even be seen out late at night because they'll assume I'd be wasted and not on my game the next day. I want to tell everyone now, I'm often not on my game for no good reason whatsoever."

One final swipe at himself and Stapleton is back at it, hammering jokes into shape and plotting the next chance to make people laugh. The irony is that for all the ways he can make the one person he's talking with lose themselves laughing, Joe Stapleton's audience is getting bigger and bigger every day — whichever stage he's on.

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