Tom Shillue tells stories.
But he always has to cut down his long-form tales when he appears on TV shows, such as “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” He wanted to make the full versions of his stories available so fans could hear them the way he tells them in live shows.
“Sometimes I go out into a club and I’ll tell a long story, and then I just never tell it again,” Shillue said. “It just happens once, and I think, gee, that’s a good story, where am I going to use that?”
He has been a “Daily Show” correspondent and has made appearances on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and with Fallon, where he has sung barbershop with Justin Timberlake.
He also is a semi-regular panelist and fill-in host on Fox News Channel’s irreverent discussion show “Red Eye” and has starred in national commercials ranging from Staples office supply store to K-Y Touch Massage.
One day in 2012, the comedian/storyteller was talking to his manager when they decided it was time for Shillue to record a new comedy album.
So he told his manager he wanted to do five albums.
“And she said, ‘I think you should do three.’
“And then I said, ‘I can do 10.'”
It was part joke, part dare to himself and to his manager. He ruminated on it a bit, and decided to do 12 because, he reasoned, “it sounds way bigger than 10.”
So he announced he was going to do 12 comedy albums – one each month – for a year. He hadn’t recorded anything, and didn’t even have a complete concept nailed down, but he had already sent out a press release, so he couldn’t back down.
“Ideally, I would have had three in the tank,” he said. But he didn’t, so he started editing some recent sets and just planned it out as he went. He had about eight concepts to start with, and added more as he went along.
“I have big stories and then little stories,” he said. “The big stories are usually longer, but they just have kind of a heavy theme to them, something you can kind of hang your hat on. Each album has to have one big story that can kind of carry the album. Then I’ll stick some other little stories along with it.”
He had another goal: grow his audience. He would do that by making the albums affordable.
People are willing to pay 99 cents for a song, but may not be willing to buy an entire album by an artist they are unfamiliar with, he said. Perhaps they would take a chance on his comedy if they didn’t have to invest a lot of money.
He settled on $1.99 – it was the least iTunes would sell an album for. Each album, except one, has two or three tracks of his signature stories. The album “Big Room” is the one that takes a different tack. It features two sets of different material of him doing standup as he opened for fellow comedian and longtime friend Jim Gaffigan.
Otherwise, it’s all stories. They include readings from the diary of teenage Tom that show he had the flair for storytelling even then. Today’s Tom flips open those pages onstage to share with audiences his quick progression from Dungeons & Dragons master to ladies’ man.
The one-time game geek met a girl and instantly left D&D behind. And a second-hand after-five jacket turned him into the guy who attended dances with every girl who asked. Today, Shillue is married with two daughters.
His last album sold about 900 copies, he estimates, so he wanted the 12-album project to multiply that number tenfold. His goal would be 10,000 sales.
“It wasn’t necessarily money,” Shillue said. Mostly, he just wanted to take every sale that he would have made anyway and add nine extra people to it.
If they liked him, they could buy more.
“I wanted people discovering this stuff,” he said.
He farmed out the cover art and the distribution, but recorded and edited the albums himself. He got a good lapel microphone, clipped it to his jacket and plugged it into an audio recorder that he then slipped into his pocket.
He walked onstage and talked. The audience responded. He had his master copy.
He admits the quality will drive sound engineers crazy, but said it doesn’t sound bad to the average listener. Most of the clubs he works don’t have the ability to record his routine directly from a mixing board anyway, he noted. But the one time he did have access to such technology he couldn’t resist using it.
No record labels were interest in the 12-album concept, so Shillue self-released them. He did all the recording and editing himself and farmed out the cover art and distribution. The entire cost was only $2,500.
Shillue touched on gonzo career advancement on his podcast “Funny Story,” telling of New York comedy legend Danny McDermott who was a pioneer of starting his own comedy rooms when he couldn’t get bookings. At one point, McDermott had set up at the second floor concession area of a movie theater and ended up getting his name and face on one of the marquee signs alongside the movie posters.
Shillue admits to having one foot in McDermott’s world and one at the “cool table.”
In his appearances on “Red Eye” over the past year, host Greg Gutfeld made jokes about the fact that Shillue had a new album out even though he had just promoted another album weeks earlier. Some viewers thought the albums were one of the shows many running gags.
So Gutfeld interviewed Shillue on the show, explaining that it wasn’t a gag at all. It led to new spike in sales.
But the big question is: Did he hit his 10,000-album sales goal?
By early November, just after the 12th album was released, Shillue had sold 30,000 albums and had another 20,000 listeners on music subscription services such as Pandora.
In addition to auditioning for more TV appearances such as Letterman and Fallon, and angling for a one-hour TV special, he wants to explore bringing the material on his 12 albums to video. He doesn’t have a definite idea nailed down yet … but that’s another story.
Tom Shillue talks about how he made 12 albums in a year:
Tom Shillue sings barbershop with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake: