St. Louis Standup
A few years ago, a close friend of mine decided he’d stop procrastinating, and try to realize his dream of becoming a stand-up comic. Already a wonderful writer and an horrific punster, as well as having just a soupçon of narcissism, on-stage comedy really was the next logical step for Chris.
I didn’t know much about stand up comedy before he got into it. I loved Doug Stanhope specials, and I remember having a huge affinity for Jake Johannsen back in the day, but comedy, especially stand-up, had such a close relationship in my head with people standing on a stage and being cruel and needlessly nasty. The only news I saw about comedians was when they were telling rape jokes or making fun of audience members or both. Or else comedians would get themselves in trouble on Twitter, saying things that were hugely offensive and then claim that nobody “got the joke.” Comedians felt like they had some special license to offend and hurt people, and that we all had to consider it part of the art form.
I didn’t think much about how or why comedians practiced their craft, or how jokes are written and refined, and learning about that process from someone who is doing it, and watching other comedians as they hone their acts over time, has been really educational.
Five of the people above are there to make you laugh. One of the people above is there to talk really loudly through everyone’s set.
Think about what a comedian does. Especially a fledgling stand-up comic who has no name and no audience yet. This person gets up on a stage in front of a crowd of strangers, and challenges themself to make those strangers laugh. Without knowing them, without knowing anything about them —make them laugh. Get that crowd of strangers on their side somehow, rooting for them. Because the more I watch comedy performed, the more I see that’s the heart of it. Get people to come with you on a journey, to let their defenses down and see where you’re leading them. It’s like the suspension of disbelief required when you see a movie, but with comedy it’s more like… suspension of scorn. You think, Ah, this person can’t make me laugh. What do they have to tell me? And then sometimes they CAN make you laugh, and they do have a lot to tell you. You learn about them and their experiences, you learn about yourself, you learn that most of the world is ludicrous, really, and well worth laughing at.
The other thing I never considered about comedy is how whole acts and individual jokes are sculpted over time. Not just the words, but the timing and the delivery style—comics change these elements over and over. They perform them to different rooms, to different audiences, all different sorts of people. It may kill with your friends, but fall flat on open mic night. You tweak it, and it kills at open mic, but it falls flat again at the coffee shop show. Over and over they need to mold their bits into the bits that will get them the most consistent laughs with the most audiences. And then anything can go wrong and knock the entire train off the rails. Someone’s talking in the audience. The comic loses their place in the joke for a moment, or uses the wrong word. They emphasize a wrong syllable, and the entire joke is lost. It’s a delicate process.
It helps me understand why comics get so defensive about their jokes, and how easily something can go from being hilarious in their head or onstage to being just plain un-funny or offensive on another stage or online. I understand why they claim people who are offended “just don’t have good senses of humor,” when the line that brought the house of drunks down the night before gets a Twitter mob calling for your head in the light of day. Instead of re-examining that joke that they’ve worked on for months, they just blow off anyone who’s offended for being “PC*.” I understand that inclination a lot more, now that I know what goes into their process.
I still don’t think they’re any more right in doing it, they should listen to people they’ve potentially hurt, but I do understand a bit better why they are so defensive, and why other comics also rush to their side when those things happen.
Because what they do is potentially soul-crushing stuff. The courage it takes to get up there and grab that microphone and make a bet with yourself that you can get that audience on your side—that’s the stuff of lunatics. I really do think you have to be some Venn diagram intersection of crazy, masochistic and narcissistic to even entertain the thought of it. Even then, think of all the famous comics who end up with drug and drinking problems from just how soul-crushing it can be. I totally see how a little smoke or a little drink or a little something to take the edge off would seem beneficial—give a boost of courage to someone who was facing that audience. Combine that with the late night atmosphere of comedy and the need to go somewhere and wind down after a show, well, I see where the alcohol abuse comes from, for sure.
OK that got a little dark. The point is that I’ve seen some really cool things while following my friend’s career. I’ve seen people bomb, and then seen them a month later and they’ve brought the house down. I’ve seen people on their first show, and on their 20th show, and have been amazed at how they’ve grown. I’ve heard people tell the same joke five, seven times, and I see how they keep working it until it lands with the audience. And I’ve stood next to them while they’re gearing up to go on stage, minds racing, hands sweating, all the while wondering if they’re going to have a good set.
There are also TONS of comedy related things going on in St. Louis. I wasn’t even aware we HAD a comedy scene, but we do! My friend hosts two shows, one weekly at The Crow’s Nest in Maplewood; that one’s called Wild Card Comedy. The other is monthly at The Crack Fox and is called Impolite Company. I also really enjoy the weekly open-mic show at Fitz’s on Delmar, and have really liked several of the shows I’ve seen at Foam on Cherokee. They even have a show called No Straight White Guys, for those who may have noticed that overwhelming trend in comedy and want some relief.
I suggest that if you don’t follow your own local stand up comedy scene, you give it a try. You may see some bombs, but you may also see some funny stuff. When you belly-laugh at a joke told by a fledgling comedian, you make their night. Plus, if you get into the scene and watch the same people regularly, you’re not only supporting local artists but you will get to see that progression I talked about above, and it’s a really cool thing.
To end, here’s a video I shot of Chris doing a Christmas song at his Impolite Company event last month – hope you enjoy (warning for language and adult content)
Go out and see some local comedy, people, it’s a good time.