Saturday, April 14, 2007 | Russell Stolnack is a fake and doesn’t care who knows it. Actually, he hopes as many people know it as possible because it’s good for business.
Stolnack is a professional “executive imposter.” He makes his living livening up conventions, seminars and corporate events by pretending to be an expert with legitimate information. He gets the audience to believe he’s a serious speaker, then gradually slips up until the whole audience gets in on the joke.
For instance, Stolnack occasionally will perform for two companies or divisions that are either merging or meeting for the first time and no one knows which group he’s with. He’ll be introduced as, say, the guy who could be deciding your future with the company.
However, since very few executives make off-the-cuff jokes, play guitar or imitate Joe Walsh or Tom Petty, audiences quickly figure out that his appearance is a gag meant to lighten the moods of employees at an otherwise boring meeting.
It’s the latest reinvention for Stolnack, who under the stage name “Russ T. Nailz,” has a successful career as a comedian and disc jockey for radio stations like 91X.
Stolnack recently met up with voiceofsandiego.org in Grossmont Center to discuss what it’s like to get paid for lying — without being an elected official.
What was the situation where you became, specifically, the Executive Imposter? Did someone suggest it to you?
It was suggested to me by a guy out of Palm Springs, a meeting planner. He was looking for someone like that. He knew I was a comedian. Asked, “Could you do that?” I said, “Sounds interesting. Yeah.” He said, “There’s a couple of guys on the East Coast who do it, and they don’t want to travel much. They’re getting older, and I think this would be a good niche for you to kind of go into with the comedy.” And I thought, “Why not?”
And I took out the logo for the E.I. — the Executive Imposter — and I got the copy points, put out my one-sheet and started the branding process with all the bureaus. Then I found out they’re not thinking of me as a comedian so I had to pull back on that and do “Comedian Russ Stolnack AS the Executive Imposter.” That’s how I phrase it now.
How many gigs do you do in an average month? Is it cyclical?
It is. You know corporations and associations take their breaks during the summer because their kids are out of school, so it slows down during summer. But right now, I’m probably doing, uh, five or six a month. I’m to Cincinnati, Florida, Phoenix, Fresno. Anything with a “fff”‘ sound.
Do they use you mainly as an emcee?
No. Mostly as the keynote, talking, uh, doing humor and then … they call it a “takeaway” message. Something these people can remember after they leave the room. I don’t know if it works or not.
It’s usually on the benefits of humor. Try to find it and make yourself laugh, make others laugh, how to make it PC, and all that stuff.
For instance, you have a speech about change in the workplace, right?
Yeah, watch your P’s and Q’s. All that stuff.
Same web page. What happened is, when I started to niche myself in the speakers industry as the Executive Imposter: Russ Stolnack, people didn’t realize I could also do other things.
Like you’re an auctioneer …
Well, yeah. But the key, the thing that drives it, is I’m a comedian. So, some people didn’t place me as that, so I had to rebrand myself before things got out of control, so now I push russisfunny.com.
People here in San Diego know you as a disc jockey from 91X; from your work on KUSI; but you did have some national shows as a comedian, right?
Half a dozen of “Evening at the Improv.” George Schlatter, who did “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” had a show for awhile. Did a couple of them. Never did a “Tonight Show” or “Letterman,” but never really knocked on that door. Did national commercials with Di-Tech. I did a commercial for them that people have seen me in for sure. National radio. Regional radio. Commercials for insurance. Fry’s Marketplace, but I’m not sure their in California.
But anyway … I keep my hand in a few different fires. I’m a Screen Actors Guild member. AFTRA member. I do voiceover work too, but people down here just think of me as Russ T. Nailz, the comedian. It’s hard for me to get work down here. It happened just recently, where the producer, “Well, Russ is funny. I need a serious voice.” You know, I can talk serious, but the first thing people think locally is comedian.
You’ve said that one of the things that being an executive imposter allows you to do is play to your strengths. The writing and, especially, the acting.
That comes into play when I do the Imposter; where I have to pull off the persona of a government liaison, a Stanford graduate, MIT professor. I’ve been introduced as some pretty amazing people.
People you’d like to know, huh?
Yeah. If you read the write ups … I’m amazed, and that’s what you want the crowd to feel as well. They want to know that this guy is it and you better listen. I had a guy in Boston introduce me as a doctor. … It was a medical group of people. Lot of money there. Beautiful home right on the waterfront. Private party. Fundraiser. Introduced me as a doctor. And this doctor was pretty well-recognized and known in Boston. He introduced me as his mentor. Said, “During college, I relied on this man,” and so they’re like, “Wow. Who’s this guy?”
I get up, and start telling jokes, and doing this stuff. I never went into what I was introduced to speak on. Afterward, a lady said to me, “You’re funny. You should really be a comedian. I don’t know how your practice is going, but you should really consider it.”
Alright. I guess she didn’t get it that the whole time.
Sometimes, I’ll tell people, “Yeah, I’m the Executive Imposter, and I’m not really the marketing director,” and I’ll do my set and go home.
But there are times when you start out serious and share serious information …
And you’ll kind of pull it out and slowly but surely let them, uh, freak out?
It’s funny, because I used to write it out. I’d try and script four or five pages, and try and be “veddy serious.” I’d give a lot of information. Really try to fake them out. Now, I just study up on it. Whatever I retain, I can spit out, and that’s about enough. You don’t need to script it because they start getting bored. You start putting your foot in your mouth, and it gets awkward when you’re trying to fake it that much.
But they’ll listen for that first couple of minutes, then their heads start turning, “Wait a minute. How?” and, little by little, people start catching on, until the whole audience has. It’s a real fun way to warm up a crowd, relax a crowd, surprise a crowd. Energize them to start their seminar, or to close out a conference.
If you’re going to be at a convention, do you blend with the people beforehand? I try and keep it as separate as possible because the hardest part is that cocktail hour before. You’re sitting at the table before you speak, and they’re saying, “So …” ’cause they know the industry and they think I know it more than them. And they start picking my brain and I’m like, “Uhhh, that’s very interesting. Are you married? Is this your wife? Do you have kids?” And I try to steer them off the other way. I try to stay in my room until it’s time for me to speak.
In the past, you’ve done some edgy stuff, but one of the reasons you decided to become the Executive Imposter is because you got a little sick of dirty for dirty’s sake in terms of performing for people.
That’s it. The training ground I had for comedy was the comedy clubs. I worked with Robin Williams, Dennis Miller, Roseanne and those guys. Seinfeld, who was always clean and very funny.
Sometimes, in those clubs it’s just easier to get a big laugh by shock value or foul language. But it’s still timing, and that’s, maybe, what I picked up from that. I cleaned up the jokes, and I’ve been married 20 years with three kids, so I’ve got plenty of material that doesn’t have to be dirty. Doesn’t have to be about partying. My genitalia or whatever.
And I’ve worked with comedians who just hold onto that. They want to be blue and shocking, and it’s too bad because they have great timing, and a great presence, but their material is just not acceptable for the corporate world or another level of comedy.
But you can do better with this that you might at a single night at the Comedy Store.
Oh my God. I’m probably paid three times the amount in one hour of a corporate show that I would earn in a week at the Improv. In Vegas.
Is there any reason for you to perform at Comedy Clubs then?
Therapy. You can just let it out again. You can stumble for a while. … It’s kind of like a painter who just starts throwing paint on a canvas. It develops that way. You just can’t plan out a set — I can’t. I can’t go up with a planned set, and to go up with no guard rails, no pressure, is kind of fun.
I’m not a daredevil with regard to physical activities. I don’t like riding motorcycles fast; jumping out of airplanes, but standing up in front of an audience anytime and trying to make something happen is a thrill.