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A chat with Zach Damon of 'Ann Arbor Tonight'

On his variety show, what inspires him and the town that's 'always buzzing'

(Photo: Zach Damon)
(Photo: Zach Damon)

ANN ARBOR – Zach Damon is an actor and host of Ann Arbor's first late-night variety show "Ann Arbor Tonight." 

He grew up in Ann Arbor, and "Ann Arbor Tonight" had been a dream of his for years.

In many ways, he is a one-man show, though he doesn't like to take all of the credit. He writes, produces, hosts, and in some cases, directs the show, which is filmed once a month at the Community Television Network.

The show is not funded and Damon relies on volunteers to pull each episode together. But he says he enjoys the challenge, and is looking forward to season 2, which begins filming in January.

We caught up with him earlier this week and his enthusiasm about his show and the city of Ann Arbor is infectious.

How did "Ann Arbor Tonight" come to be?

"It was a vision of mine that I had had in high school. I really loved watching Johnny Carson and Steve Allen and Jay Leno, and all the late-night TV hosts. I was like man, those guys, not only are they dressed to the nines but it looks like they’re having a great time. That looks like the best job in the world!

"So I said to myself, that would be really cool one day if I could do something like that. I would love to call it 'Ann Arbor Tonight' and I would love to have it be this really great show where people can walk into the State Theater and buy a ticket and be able to come to a show every week."

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(Photo: Zach Damon)

What does the show look like now?

"Right now it’s just a local public television show and we just have a lot of fun. We have a lot of comedic monologue that’s written by two writers that I work with, and they're great guys. We have a live band and then we have local comedians that come in and do a comedic set. You can come watch it live, too. We have about 15-20 people in the audience."

If someone wants to come watch it, how do they do that?

"All the information is on our Facebook page so they can go to @A2Tonight and check it out. And if they join the group and follow the group, once we have a taping there’s an events page that pops up and they get the show lineup and all that stuff.

“We’ve been really lucky. We’ve gotten food scholarships in the past. Sometimes we’ll have munchies for people that come and for the talent. But the real perk is getting to see the behind-the-scenes workings of a television show."

What are the challenges of putting on the show?

"There are definitely challenges, but good challenges. I always like to say that if you’re not challenged, then why do it? The challenges we face are just consistency and having a crew that is consistent. And making sure that you have all the pieces that you need and having them there for every episode. Because when you do public television, it’s all volunteer-based. So our entire crew is all volunteering, none of them get paid, but we do give them credit at the end of the episode and that’s huge. If they want to start out and have a career, I’m all about that. I’m all about building people up."

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(Photo: Zach Damon)

What are some of your favorite moments from season one?

"During our pilot episode last October, we had a great group on and they’re friends of mine called Three Men and a Tenor, and the tenor was coming on to do an interview and he jumped on the desk but I neglected to tell him that the desk itself wasn’t solidly held together. It’s a set piece.

"Everything flew up in the air and my water spilled all over my notes and they got sopping wet, but you just have to keep going. So my desk was off balance and my notes were soaking but you keep going and make it happen."

Is season two going to be different? What can we expect?

"Being a project manager and producer of the show, I said, ‘We’ve got a season and if we’re able to get episodes finished in the format that we’ve got at the moment, then why fix it if it’s not broken?’

"So there is intent to mix up a few things within season 2, but as of right now with that volunteer crew, I just want to communicate each vision for each episode the best I can so that everyone’s on the same page. As of right now, the format is still going to be variety and we’re still going to block it the same way. Live bands come in and we have them talk about Ann Arbor and where they’re playing. We have comedians perform, and then we have an interview guest.

"We had Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s come on the show during the first season. He loved the show he was super encouraging – he thought it was the coolest thing."

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Damon and co-founder of Zingerman's Ari Weinzweig (Photo: Zach Damon)

How have locals reacted to the show?

"I think generally people have been very receptive. The biggest challenge I would say is timing because we film on a Thursday night. And even though we film once a month, Thursday night at 6 o’clock is generally a tough time. Not only is traffic an issue, it’s just not a day where people are free. But that’s when we can get the studio."

You grew up here. Why do you feel there should be a show dedicated to Ann Arbor – why is it so special to you?

“Ann Arbor, in my opinion, has a very specific beat.  Every metro city, whether it’s Ann Arbor, whether it’s Chicago, whether it’s New York, every city has a unique feel and a unique presence. And Ann Arbor is one of those.

And it’s a very neighborly city -- everyone is very open and they want everyone in the city to be better and blossom from coming and visiting the city, and I think that’s very special. The city wants itself to be inclusive and giving to everyone.

"There’s a lot to do in the downtown area. It’s always buzzing -- not just during the athletic season, but all year round and I think it’s important to highlight that. It's important to highlight the great chefs that are cooking up great food on Main Street, to highlight the wonderful bartenders that are making the craft cocktails in the city, to highlight the comedic acts that are coming through the wonderful Ann Arbor comedic showcase as well as some other wonderful comedy venues. But also to highlighting the great atmosphere.

"It's known as Tree City and I look at it like this: I hope that everyone can develop roots in Ann Arbor, and continue to grow their roots in the city. And this doesn't just apply to Ann Arborites and townies, but also people that visit and end up coming back and living here."

One last thought?

"Even though I’m the host of the show and even though it says 'Ann Arbor Tonight with Zach Damon,' this is really Ann Arbor’s show, this isn’t my show. I want to put that out there and say that I am a facilitator of the great things Ann Arbor has to offer."

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