The exaggerated version of Joe Stapleton’s life

The exaggerated version of Joe Stapleton’s life

A big-name, high-stakes poker pro once told me about the first time they ever felt starstruck at a live poker event. It wasn’t when they sat down in a tournament next to Daniel Negreanu. Or strolled past Phil Ivey in a hallway. Or stood behind Phil Hellmuth in line for a roast beef sandwich. 

It was when they first saw Joe Stapleton in the flesh.

“Pretty much the only place I get recognized is at a poker event,” Stapleton tells me from a hotel room in the Bay Area. He’s in town for the RunGood Poker Series and is enjoying some quiet time before heading to the card room to play. He’ll undoubtedly be one of the more celebrious figures in the venue.

“For the most part, it’s great,” he says when asked what it’s like to be famous within a somewhat niche industry like poker. “People are genuinely happy to see you and want to take photos. It’s nice to be appreciated. But it happens only once or twice a year outside of a casino.”

Stapleton’s career output certainly warrants such admiration. For 17 years, the 39-year-old has possessed one of the most recognizable voices in poker as a presenter for PokerStars alongside James Hartigan; a reporter from the side lines of the World Series of Poker for ESPN; and as a color commentator on popular poker shows including The Big Game and Poker Night in America.

All the while, he’s pursued his passion for stand-up comedy, recently performing a week-long stint at the famous Edinburgh Fringe festival. And over the past few years, he’s dipped his toe further into Hollywood (outside of the celebrity-filled home games he frequents) as a poker consultant on legendary filmmaker Paul Schrader’s intense thriller, The Card Counter.

Now, after making a career calling the action of others, poker’s renaissance man is calling his own in a soon-to-be-released comic book that he’s working on alongside TPub Comics. On its surface, the story seems close to home. 

It’s about a successful poker commentator who longs to be famous, rather than just poker famous.

“It’s like an exaggerated version of my life, a hybrid of a bunch of things that really happened to me,” he says. 

But after talking to Stapleton for close to an hour about the comic book, his upbringing, his comedy roots, and his approach to poker commentary, it becomes clear that he doesn’t share the “chip on his shoulder” mentality with his fictional lead character. Rather, more than ever before, he’s embracing the poker world and the community that embraced him.

“Go be happy”

As a kid growing up in upstate New York, Stapleton loved comic books. The thing is, he didn’t like reading them.

“I liked buying them. I liked looking at them. I liked the stories contained within them. I just wasn’t very good at going from panel to panel to panel,” he says. “I took in the whole page at once.”

He got picked on a lot during his early formative years but grew tired of being a “weak, shy, easy to cry, sensitive little boy.”

Stapleton, directly behind the sign, in 1991

A change of schools at 15 years old gave him an opportunity to reinvent himself.

“It didn’t happen right away,” he says. “It was something I really had to work on.”

Stapleton was raised in a “super conservative” household. His father worked at the post office. His mother was a teacher. He remembers having to dig through the car seats to find loose change. “I was the poorest kid in the neighborhood,” he says. “My parents were pretty no-thrills. We didn’t have the money to go out for dinner. We went on one vacation a year. That kind of deal.”

While his friends were enjoying Spring Break festivities, Stapleton stayed home and worked odd jobs. In the evenings, he’d stay up late and watch Late Night with Conan O’Brien (“Conan was a huge part of my life growing up.”) On Saturdays, he’d stay up to watch Saturday Night Live and revel in the comedy of Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and Norm Macdonald.

And when his friends took a gap year before going to college, Stapleton went straight to Boston University and graduated a year before all of them. He didn’t see the point in taking a year off and instead saved himself a year of tuition fees and student loans.

All his parents expected of him was to go to college and get straight As. Having lived up to his end of the bargain, he revealed he wanted to move to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a comedy writer for film and television.

“They were like, cool. Go be happy. Go live your life,” he says. “That was really surprising. They didn’t know enough about [my ambitions] to be overly supportive, but they definitely didn’t try to stop me.”

Quite the opposite. His parents gave him a $5,000 inheritance that his grandmother had left him before she passed away, and then he packed up his car and headed west.

Again, he was taking everything in at once.

The comic’s comic

In reality, Stapleton is happy that fame doesn’t follow him out of the casino doors. He likes being able to take his girlfriend out for dinner and his nieces to the park without being stopped for selfies.

The same can’t be said for his comic book’s lead character. “He needs the ego boost and goes to play poker for a couple of hours, waiting to be recognized,” he says.

The character in question is a successful poker commentator who longs for real fame outside of the industry. “He’s got a chip on his shoulder about just being poker famous,” says Stapleton. “And he’s ungrateful for everything poker has given him. But in the blink of an eye, he gets fired from his job, takes a bad beat at the table, and ends up down and out on the streets of L.A.”

From there, the character runs into some “unsavory characters” who happen to be big fans of his. “They have money, and they suggest he goes to play in some Hollywood home games where he’ll not only be a favorite to win but he could also further his non-poker career,” Stapleton says. “It’s filled with thrills and kills and laughs and romance along the way.”

The project began when a company called TPub Comics contacted Stapleton’s PokerStars colleague James Hartigan, who then suggested they get in touch with him. They asked him if he had an idea for a comic book in him.

“They said, if your idea can be a movie, it can be a comic book,” says Stapleton. “And I said, well, I’ve got lots of those.”

But even he couldn’t have predicted they’d go for something quite so personal. 

“When writing it, there was a big learning curve,” he says. “The guys I co-wrote it with (TPub co-founder Neil Gibson, famous for his horror anthology series Twisted Dark, and Kenny Diack, the other co-founder of TPub) both really taught me a lot about what it takes to write a comic book. 

“When you write a screenplay it’s dialogue, action, dialogue, but there’s not a lot of description outside of costumes or decor. But in a comic book, the artists want to know what’s on the walls, what’s on the desk, what’s on the floor etc. Between the writer and the artist, you do all of the jobs that hundreds of people would do on a movie.”

With such imagination and detail required, it’s safe to say Stapleton spent countless hours brewing this story. Looking inward. Reflecting on his past experiences. Imagining what the future might hold, for the character at least.

Becoming Stapes

Upon arriving in Los Angeles, it didn’t take long for the then 20-year-old Joe Stapleton to land a job as a production assistant on the long-running sketch comedy show MADtv. The role allowed him to get his feet wet in the world of television and form relationships with cast members including Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key (who gave him the nickname “Stapes”) and Bobby Lee (who “forced” him to do stand-up for the first time in 2013).

“I wasn’t making a ton of money, but within two or three years I was a production coordinator and doing fairly well for myself,” says Stapleton. “I remember my dad used to call me and go: Well, son. On the Ellen show, her production assistant is there on camera. And I would be like, Dad, I’m not a production assistant anymore, I now make three or four times what a production assistant makes. They thought that because I wasn’t appearing on camera, I wasn’t doing well.”

Joe Stapleton with MADtv’s Bobby Lee in 2004

Up until that point, Stapleton had never pursued an on-camera career. His dream was a more noble and intelligent undertaking, he told himself. The life of a writer.

“I always felt kind of dumb chasing on-camera dreams, even though it was secretly what I wanted,” he says. Ultimately, he didn’t spend much time working towards either of those goals. 

“In L.A., everyone is trying to get your attention, and everyone is trying to make you laugh and everyone’s trying to be the funniest person in the room,” says Stapleton. “And so, I reverted back to being the shy guy. Everyone at MADtv was very nice to me but I didn’t have the confidence to speak up in a big group. I’d say something, no one would hear me, then five seconds later one of the cast members would say the exact same joke to uproarious laughter. But they would own it and present themselves as someone to be listened to.”

He had to begin his reinvention process once again. Then, in 2005, feeling stifled in his job, he decided to spend a summer interning at the World Series of Poker for Card Player Magazine. He’d discovered poker in L.A. and loved it.

“Poker is incredibly exciting and there are things about it that we all know and love and find romantic,” he says. “But obviously there are aspects to it that are crazy, crazy boring.”

Feeling like there was a lot of room to entertain people in between the action when the poker itself wasn’t doing it, Stapleton left MADtv and dove headfirst into poker media, first as a podcast host, then as a video producer, and ultimately as host of the PokerStars-sponsored, FOX-syndicated show, The Big Game.

“When Season Two premiered I met my parents in New York for dinner and the waiter recognized me,” he says. “It wasn’t until that moment that my parents had any idea what I was doing. Then, years later, they came to the set of Poker Night in America. It was only when they saw the set and the production crew that they were like, oh, holy s—, you’re actually doing fine.”

He felt like he’d finally found a home for his talents. “It wasn’t until I got into poker that I was like, wait a second, I have the opportunity to be the funniest guy in the room again.”

When Stapleton first entered the world of poker commentary, he admits there was a dearth of suitable candidates. He was able to fill a void, invent his own style of color commentary, and forge a successful career. Now, he says, there’s a surplus of talent in the space and more poker broadcasts than even the most exuberant poker fan could ever consume. I ask Stapleton, do he and Hartigan ever feel competitive with the other commentators?

“Without disrespecting anyone else, no, not really,” he says. “I think James Hartigan is the best poker commentator who’s ever lived. I might take all of the attention when awards season rolls around, but he’s just so good at the job and I’ve learned so much from him. And my boss Francine [Watson, Executive Producer] and everyone at PokerStars, we just have this insanely good production behind us.

“There are obviously other partnerships that work very well. Lon and Norm. Ali and Nick. And there are so many talented people in poker content. Marle. Greg Goes All In. Matt Berkey. Hustler Casino. PokerGo.

“Am I a little bit jealous that Ali and Nick have fewer restrictions when doing their commentary and can drop F-bombs during the late shift?” he asks himself. “Sometimes, of course. It would be fun for me to take the leash off once in a while. But I understand that’s not the brand I work for and I’m very proud of the work that we do.”

Can the real Joe Stapleton please stand up?

It was eight years after he first moved to L.A. that Stapleton first tried stand-up comedy. Now, when he’s not in the commentary booth, writing comics, or travelling to poker events, he’s trying to get as much stage time as he can, whether that be at the Edinburgh Fringe or the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip.

“The risks and rewards for stand-up are different to writing comedy,” he says. “You learn how terrible it feels to say something to a roomful of people and have them not laugh. You learn how great it feels to say something to a roomful of people and to have them laugh. You can watch a rollercoaster on YouTube and see how much fun people are having, but you can’t experience it until you get on yourself.”

Stapleton uses stand-up as an outlet through which he can say all the “silly stuff” he could never say on a PokerStars broadcast. And yet, interestingly, it was again poker that helped him find his path.

At the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) in 2019, the company wanted to host a comedy night for players and staff. They turned to Stapleton to help them book the line-up. And he turned to one of his heroes.

“I had just started my friendship with Norm [Macdonald] and I said, hey man, you think you might want to come to the Bahamas and play the PCA and do some comedy? And he said yeah.”

The show, which this writer attended, was side-splittingly funny. Stapleton crushed it in the opening slot. And Macdonald? He absolutely murdered. The two formed a friendship and Macdonald invited Stapleton out on the road as his tour opener.

“He was crazy generous with me as far as stage time,” says Stapleton. “Taking me under his wing. Generous with his stories. Generous with his time. You know when you’re interviewing a famous person and you really want to ask them about their shit? What was this like? What was that like? Norm was so happy to talk about all of that, he’d tell you things you couldn’t believe he was telling you.”

Macdonald sadly passed away in November 2021.

“It was so surreal for me. I spent my childhood thinking Norm was the funniest person in the world, now he was telling me he found me funny enough to take me out on road, spend time with me, talk comedy with me…” he trails off. “We did that a lot.”

Poker fans might not be used to hearing Stapleton talk so emotionally, but they are used to hearing him talk candidly. He tends to tell it like it is.

When filmmaker Paul Schrader sent his script for The Card Counter to a mutual friend of Stapleton’s who was working on the film, she asked Stapleton if he would read it and make notes to ensure the accuracy of the film’s poker scenes. Stapleton didn’t hold back and scribbled on the page like he was marking an exam, not realizing his friend was going to forward it to Schrader without any editing.

When he received the script back, Schrader instantly hired Stapleton to be his poker consultant. 

“I thought I was genuinely just doing my friend a favor,” he says. “So, on set she could go, hey guys, they don’t really say Big Slick anymore, that kind of thing.”

Instead, Stapleton spent time on set advising Schrader and the crew on how to shoot certain poker-related scenes. “The people working on the film made me feel so appreciated,” he says. 

For a career with so much yet to come, Stapleton has already accomplished so much within poker. He feels lucky to be able to dabble in so many different aspects of the industry. He feels lucky to have landed at PokerStars.

“But it’s cool that I got to do a lot of other things before I got there,” he says. 

“Even though I might wish sometimes that I was out on the road permanently doing stand-up with Norm Macdonald, if it weren’t for poker, I wouldn’t have been doing it at all.

“It’s just another way to show that every single good thing that’s happened in my adult life has happened because of poker.”

We will have to wait to find out whether the fictional character in his comic book comes to the same realization. 

Author: Steven Coleman