Friday, December 5, 2014

Comin' 'Round Again

yeah, I know, it's been a while. I've been coastin' on residuals, spinnin' the previous hits like a Golden Oldies station.

It's not that I don't have new inspiration, or pages of notes I haven't shared.

It's mostly because real life changed a lot this year, and writing paid the price.

But I have still been seeing some great shows, laughing hard at real artistry and cleansing my brain's palate with all the dark comedy matter I can take in. I've been failing to give back, though, failing to share. And today I was given the greatest eye opener when I was telling someone who knows me professionally about this blog and my addiction. I was told, "You have such a cool life!"

The truth is, I DO have a cool life. And awesome friends who do amazing things. And moments of sheer joy that leave me breathless from laughter. This blog started as a notebook. It evolved from some really straight, brief reviews that are hardly worth reading, into a collection of pieces that try to blend my voice with the comic's, that I enjoy writing and sharing and that feel like a real part of my own art.

So, tomorrow night, I'm going to the Syracuse Funny Bone to see Owen Benjamin for the first time. I'll write about it in the coming week. And then I'll head into my back pages, my napkin collection and my memory files and tell you about the most recent Jeremy Essig, Paul Hooper and Theo Von shows, the amazing time I spent at Laugh Your Asheville Off last summer and more recently at Lucy Fest, the fact that I love taking comedy road trips and would happily spend a week or two as a chauffer for one DUI-hindered comic whose material moves me.

This blog has brought me some unexpected moments, and maybe it's become less of a notebook and more of a road map, a way to trace a journey I wasn't necessarily aware that I was on. I chastise myself quite a bit for only half-committing to following my passions, but that's partly because they pull me in such different directions that I haven't found the way to fully integrate them. In my real life, we talk all the time about working with the whole child, taking a holistic approach, and I don't see myself approaching my own life that way. Here I am, blessed with this natural curiosity about so many things - or adult ADD, I'm not completely sure yet - and I sometimes don't see what a cool whole I'm creating when I crazy-quilt them all together.

So. Owen Benjamin, and one of my dearest comedy friends, Austin Lafond, tomorrow night at the Funny Bone in Syracuse. Then back here for a meet-up with you guys.

hopefully, you'll dig the new playlist.

 

Monday, July 28, 2014

June/July 2014 Loser – A Live Action G(sh)ame Show

Like so many of these blogs, this one starts with a familiar scenario: something I watched or listened to as a kid. Because comedy has been in my life a long time, the points of reference are extensive, and I think it's probably typical of people my age to be nostalgic for the comforts of youth. One of mine was my parents' 8-track player. It sat on a small, dark brown record stand that housed the family vinyl collection. Sliding open those doors was like slipping through a magic portal into cathedral halls and polka tents, maritime museums and, thanks to the 45s of my older siblings, the occasional classic rock concert. While the vinyl ultimately turned me into the woman I am today – and inspired the new blog I'm working on – there came a point where the hassle of unstacking crochet patterns, school yearbooks, extra pillows, the green glass rooster candy dish and all the other stuff we kept piled on top of the stereo console, was too much effort. A Sears solid-state 8-track player became our primary sound system. Despite the range of acts we had to tolerate to listen as a family, there were a few classics that made everyone happy.

Zingers From the Hollywood Squares” was one of those tapes. A collection of the funniest bits from the classic tv panel game show, Zingers was released by Events Records in 1974. The first quip on the tape, after Peter Marshall's intro, is a question to Paul Lynde. “In Alice in Wonderland, who kept crying 'I'm late, I'm late'?” Paul's response? “Alice, and her mother's just sick about it.” Innuendos and double entendres with some of the funniest comedic actors of the time: Rich Little, Rose Marie, Red Foxx, Karen Valentine, Charlie Weaver, Burt Reynolds, Mel Brooks. Heck, there's even a clip from Freddie Prinze. My family loved this tape and played it most weekends, when the actual show wasn't on the air. At some point, though, the tape heads dried out and I had to give up this precious piece of comedy history.

According to Wikipedia, that bastion of genius juice formed from our collective kool aid and the occasional splash of actual research, “a panel game or panel show is a radio or television game show in which a panel of celebrities participates.” Panelists may compete with each other, play with/for guest contestants, such as on Hollywood Squares, Match Game or Password, or do both. “The genre can be traced to 1938, when Information Please debuted on U.S. Radio... The modern trend of comedy panel shows can find early roots with Stop Me If You've Heard This One in 1939 and Can You Top This? in 1940. While panel shows were more popular in the past in the U.S., they are still very common in the United Kingdom.”

And those shows are how I get my Brit wit fix today. Thanks to 8 Out of 10 Cats, Mock the Week, Have I Got News for You and the one I adore most, QI (Quite Interesting), my list of favorite comics includes Jimmy Carr, Bill Bailey, Dara O'Briain, Ross Noble, Jo Brand, Sue Perkins, Phil Jupitus, Sandy Toksvig, Sean Lock and a bunch more to whom I may otherwise never have been exposed. It's my personal belief that these regular appearances on panel shows help comics stay in the public eye and build their fan base. I often wish some producer would revive a few of the classics, so I could spend the 7 pm hour watching a Keith Alberstadt or a Tom Simmons try to match a contestant's fill-in-the-blank answer, or hear a Paul Hooper rant from the top left corner and a Pat Dixon innuendo from the center square. Alas, those shows are still just playing in my brain, but Loser – A Live Action G(sh)ame Show is a great substitute.

Created by Jeremy Essig and Chris Ward, Loser combines a little singing, a little acting, some trivia and video gaming into a comedy event. Part scripted, part improv, the show uses volunteer contestants and, at least in the touring edition, local comics and improv performers to bring to life a twisted episode of some popular tv sitcom that may leave fans of the actual program permanently scarred. Personally, I'm grateful. The episode of Loser that I had the pleasure of seeing at the Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Indiana, removed all traces of “Saved By the Bell” from my memory banks – with the possible exception of season 4, episode 22. Because once you've heard “Snow White” rapped by that cast, nothing short of a traumatic brain injury will take it away.

I've known for some time that Jeremy Essig is a comic I'll see live every chance I get because I really dig his material, and he's a great guy, to boot. He and Chris have been performing Loser regularly at the Heavy Anchor in St. Louis, which is a little farther than I travel for a comedy show on a weeknight. When Jeremy mentioned they were planning a one week road tour, I knew I just had to pick a city and go. Having a little history with Bloomington made it the logical choice.

I gotta' say, The Comedy Attic is worthy of all its recent hype. Low-ceilinged, intimate, with tables in front and off stage right, there doesn't seem to be a bad seat or dead spot in the room. A screen is lowered for tonight's accompanying slides over what appears, from my vantage point, to be a real brick wall. Maybe it isn't. I didn't go cop a feel. I'm simply saying, from where I sat, it looked real. And I've been in plenty of clubs where the bricks look like a backdrop from a middle school musical. Most people wouldn't care, but if the comic doesn't grab me, the scenery will, and I tend to notice the details. Open for only fiveish years, The Comedy Attic is a great venue to see a favorite, as well as a yet-to-be-known, and Dayna and Jared should be proud of the job they're doing.

Ok. On to the show. For those of you who read my blog, be aware I'm not going to do my usual set-quoting analysis here. At 7, I wasn't aware of Bruce Vilanch and the writers' room. Part of the joy of Hollywood Squares, for me, was thinking all those celebrities were just that quick and funny. And so it is with Loser: I don't need to know who wrote what, who made what up, everyone seems quick and funny. On this night, Chris tells the audience it's good to be in Bloomington for the first time, and asks “What's your main export?” Someone yells out “Graduate degrees,” and I know the audience is ready for this ride. Jeremy serves as the host and welcomes everyone to this “game show done poorly” where audience participation and enthusiasm are required. On the screen, fake sponsors' ads are like Wacky Packages on meth. Six contestants take the stage, and we get underway.

Part one is all about music. First, a progression of clues are given about a particular performer or band. This is followed by photo identification of the band members. Finally, a team member sings a song from the band, accompanied by Jeremy on guitar and Chris on a tiny drum kit. Audience vote awards points for getting the lyrics correct. As someone who spent most of her late teen years hanging with guy friends and their garage bands, I've been waiting for this. It's one thing to hear someone described as a rocker-turned-comic; it's something else entirely to watch them play. Tonight's contestants got into their performances and the audience dug it. 

Part two is called “Move out of my fucking basement!” After a few questions about video games, one member of each team goes head to head playing some obscure title while trying to down the most Totino's pizza rolls (who, by giving the guys a bunch of coupons for free product, have become a tour sponsor). Tonight, due to some wild miscalculations about the portability of delicious frozen snack foods, The Comedy Attic has graciously provided fried mozzerella sticks for the challenge. The contestants are a couple, who both manage to play admirably and swallow a decent number of cheese sticks without the need for medical attention. We are rightfully impressed.

Part three is a little number they call “Shitty Accent Superhero Charades”, and it is just what it sounds like. Two team members are given superhero identities, regional dialects and a scene to improv, and the third team member has to guess all three elements. Part four brings to the stage the Intergender Sitcom Theater to perform a parody sketch from an '80s or '90s tv show, filtered through the skewed views of Jeremy and Chris, and presented by a collection of local comics and improv actors. During this tour, the sitcom was “Saved By the Bell”. The sketch was hilarious, fun for both the audience and actors alike, and the final questions resulted in the spewing of the not-so-secret green room antics of Dustin Diamond. Prizes for the winning team included second-hand bras, Easter candy and pictures of the Pope (Chris, thanks for the Sinead flashback!).

With Evan Rowe as their technical director and Kelsey McClure in the role of tour manager, Loser hit seven cities in seven days and had some cool adventures along the way. You can go to http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/rftmusic/2014/06/losers_on_the_road_day_1_-_days_of_wine_and_rosie.php to read their own account of the journey.

As I said way back at the beginning of this blog, I have a warm spot in my heart for panel game shows and the comics who make them so entertaining. I have every episode of QI in my collection. I watch repeats of Match on the Game Show Network. I even bought the rereleased “Zingers” on cd. And now that I've seen Loser live, now that I know Jeremy and Chris can move a room full of people to unbridled laughter with a few instruments, some random trivia and a suitcase full of meaningless prizes, this show will fall into my “must see” category every chance I get.

I hope they tour again. I hope the clubs are packed. I hope they start the comic game show revival.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Classroom Assignment

While cleaning out the overstuffed, disorganized drawers in my roll-top writing desk, I found some relics that distracted me from the mission at hand. The story collection from 3rd grade was expected; I've carried it from home to home for nearly 40 years, a reminder that the most constant relationship in my life has been the one I have with words. Behind its faded purple construction paper was an unmarked manilla folder; inside, a dozen English Comp assignments from my senior year of high school. Tucked among compare/contrast, incident and example paragraphs was the following:


Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Buster Keaton, thought to be one of the best comedians of the silent film age, spent his childhood being brutally abused in his parents' vaudeville show. He made his fortune by suppressing his pain behind a dead-pan, unreadable face. The Marx Brothers, comedy's first family, had many painful years of altercation, yet created some of the funniest moments in film history together. These men, as well as such greats as Fanny Brice, Lenny Bruce, Freddy Prinze and John Belushi, knew how to transform their hard knocks into knock-knocks, their punches into punch lines and their troubles into cream pies. Someone once said that humor is the instinct for taking pain playfully. The comedians most responsible for keeping America laughing seem to support this statement. Despite personal tragedies such as child abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse, mental breakdowns, marital problems and suicide, the humor keeps coming out from within them. When I see Pierrot's painted face with a tear resting in the corner of its eye, I can truly appreciate his playful antics, knowing it is his pain that keeps my smile in place.


Besides proving that my level of pretension hasn't changed much over the years, it was still a bit surprising for me to read what I had written and turned in for grading on May 29th, 1984. I know I've loved comedy for as long as I've loved anything, but I thought my compulsion to analyze it, to write about it, came later in life. Came maybe from my friendship with Tiny or my first time meeting in person a comic I'd only known from television (Tom Rhodes, who is pure magic and whose weekend in Rochester will always be among my top ten live comedy experiences). I thought One Girl's Giggle was a place to keep notes for something seemingly more relevant than a blog, that these brief pieces were all just put here to pin them down in time, to make sure the thoughts were accessible when I had a higher purpose for them. The early reviews aren't even well written, because I wasn't thinking of them so much as anything that needed to do more than recount a show. When my friend Anna said some of the pieces made her feel like she had been there, I was flattered. And then I felt it was important to do better, to not only share what I'd heard, but also how those jokes moved or maddened me.

Finding this paper was a reminder that comedy has held value and meaning for me for a long time, and trying to communicate that with others isn't a recent development. Sure, it wasn't a very deep analysis. Who was I to call the Marx Brothers “America's First Family of Comedy?” That title went to the Wayans in 1990, and seems to have stuck. Recently, Judd Apatow and his wife, Leslie Mann, have been called comedy's first family in an article or two. But there I was, in 1984, bestowing it with absolute certainty, to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and the other one. Ok, I know it's Gummo, who stopped performing with his brothers before they hit Broadway, but had a lovely career after his release from the Army as a woman's dress/cloth salesman, and followed that up by becoming a talent agent who successfully represented his brothers for many years.

I loved the Marx Brothers. I remember watching Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races and Room Service with my father on our console TV, an awkwardly twisted wire clothes hanger standing in for the antennae one of us kids probably broke off and hid somewhere. My father was not the most emotional of men, though not unusual for his generation. Our Saturdays were full of the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Keystone Cops, and Benny Hill. Nearly all the memories I have of his 6' 3” frame shaking from laughter are associated with those movies. And Hee-Haw, but that's a whole nother story.

I have always been able to express my opinion on a topic with certainty, with a resolute belief in whatever I am saying. I just wasn't aware, until this morning, that I had applied that single-mindedness to comedy so early on. Even in such an innocuous piece, written as a weekly assignment for a class I'd long since forgotten.

By the way, my final composite stanine score was 9 out of 9, and the teacher wrote “Very Good!” in what is now faded red ink. You all know how much I love that positive reinforcement!

More blogs coming, I promise.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Giggling Again

Hey, I know it's been awhile. Just when you were starting to believe I was gone for good - ta dah! I'm coming back with SO much to tell you. I've got a series of Quickies - comics whom I've only seen do short sets or features, but who deserve some attention. I've been to some cool live shows lately - can't wait to tell you about Jeremy Essig's Loser show. You'll love it! And tonight, I'm off to see Gilbert Gottfried at Helium, with my own dear Austin LaFond in the MC role. Plus, Tom Simmons blessed me with a stack of his cds and I am looking forward to sharing them with you.


And, oh yeah, I've been writing some stuff of my own, too. I'll throw a little of that into the mix.


So, sorry for the gap. Life got real and busy and all sorts of other things. But I haven't stopped laughing, thanks to the wonderful comics who give this girl giggles galore.


Off to the club. See you soon!

Friday, August 23, 2013

8/19/13 Chicks Are Funny: July

In the weeks leading up to this show, there seemed to be a lot of conversation in the local comedy groups about an all-female line-up. Or maybe it only felt like a lot of conversation because I found myself in the midst of most of it. In person, by text, in our Facebook Playground, we were discussing the merits of funny women. The opinions seemed to fall into a few specific categories.

1) Women are funny? Don’t even get me started. That was not a happy chat.

2) If women are so funny, why do they need their own show? This was a legitimate exchange, with good dialogue and a willingness to explore the whys and wherefores. Ultimately, I shared my thought, that all-female comedy shows serve much the same purpose as the Apollo and Motown did for black musical performers. To get the attention of the money holders, invariably men and mostly white, it didn’t hurt to show that you could fill a room, sell out a show, bring a fan base. And sometimes it’s just fun to be with your own, to talk short-hand and share insider moments. Besides, it isn’t a question of needing a single-sex show. It’s just the reality that most of the shows we see locally have a 1:10 female to male ratio; usually there are 5 male comics and an audience of supportive wives. At the club level, female headliners are becoming more frequent. And some of the women you’ll read about in this review will be among those ranks one day.

3) Who said women aren’t funny? I love this. It means either there’s a new generation coming up that just doesn’t think so hard about the gender differences, or it means a number of the open micers just don’t know enough history to realize what an issue it’s been. Both of those possibilities speak to a brighter future.

In the present, however, there is this awesome show at Funny Bone, co-produced by Anna Phillips and Pam Werts. These ladies have been creating showcases for some of the funniest women on the east coast - and a few from across the border - to entertain intimate rooms and packed clubs alike. And on this night, the house was sold out. The box office was turning away anyone without reservations – even being in Pam’s entourage barely got her husband through the door. With solid promotion and the obvious support of management, Chicks are Funny was a win all around.

It’s no secret that both Anna and Pam are my girls. And, the same way I told you that I had to try to check my bias when reviewing my male comic friends, I would struggle having to tell either of them if they hadn’t delivered. Fortunately, they both consistently bring the laughter.

Pam is a naturally funny storyteller. Sitting across the table from her over Saturday afternoon scallion pancakes at Chen’s Garden, I hear every detail of the past week; even without the accompanying texts and photos, I can envision the myriad expressions, locations and situations she’s experienced since our last lunch and I spend most of the meal trying not to choke on my steamed dumplings. Tonight, I get to hear her take on graduation parties, the Amish Mafia (Drive-bys must be epic fails. Can’t they hear the carriage coming?), the ridiculous world of insurance advertising and the importance of getting smart people to start fucking again. Not only is she a funny chick, but she’s also a great MC. She’s good at reading the crowds, working the room. Just like Santa, she sees us when we’re sleeping, and uses her energy to push us back up to the proper laugh level as she ushers each comic to the stage.

First up is Anna Phillips. It would be hard for me to imagine, among my comedy chick friends, a greater contrast of energy. Anna is low-key, her wit is desert dry and lightning fast. She starts by commenting on the entrance music (Spice Girls? Really? Is that ‘cause I have a vagina?), then goes straight into breaking down some very new personal information: getting a mammogram and being diagnosed “prediabetic”. (Isn’t everyone pre-diabetic? It’s a little like being pre-dead.) The interactions with the registered dietician (She’s talking to me like I’m five years old. Eat healthy fruits – watermelon is bad. Oh, that’s bullshit, man. That’s probably why black people have diabetes in the first place.) and the x-ray tech (I don’t like nudity. I take a shower in my clothes. When she put that slime on me, I felt awkward, started moaning.) feel like time-treated bits, even though the mammogram had happened mere hours before the show. Because she’s my friend, I can tell you that this is her natural state, this is how her brain processes.

And I love that she is fearless when it comes to discussing race. She talks about white-on-white racism (I can’t co-sign on it, but I enjoy the “fight amongst yourselves” approach.), the racially divided reaction to her not voting for Obama (My black friends were like, Nigga’, explain yourself, while my white friends were like, Explain yourself, Nigger.) and the way she uses history against her supervisor (She asks me to bring her a cup of coffee, I say “yes, Massa, right away.” She says never mind, let me get you some. I like my coffee with a little white guilt.) She ends by addressing her black guilt: I tip 70% to make up for those who came before.

Anna and Pam will both be on next month’s show. See them in person, because I don’t really do justice to either of them here.

Next on the bill is Anne Lin. She dives right in with the difficulties of growing up Asian in a small town (I went to a small school where I was ALL the minority.), having a dad who she describes as a Chinese redneck (pick a different American dream, one with fewer Jeff Foxworthy jokes), waiting ‘til college to have sex (I’m Asian. I was an overachiever. I didn’t realize freshman 15 was about weight….). I really like Anne’s joke writing. “My dad has a deer head mounted on the wall, with Samuri swords crossed underneath. Like he’s saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re still Asian.’ Yeah, but not Japanese.” Or this one, about a guy who is hitting on her: “’Taiwan? I love Thai food!’ Never mind. I don’t have time to explain fifty years of Cold War history.”

Anne seemed a little nervous, and the audience was restless. Talking to her after the show, I learned that that was her biggest crowd to date and that she didn’t know where the light was, so wasn’t sure when to end. Those are performance mechanics, and I am confident they will improve over time. Right now, her strength is in her very smart writing; I am looking forward to watching Anne grow as a comic.

Martha O’Neill reminds me of an actress whose name I still can’t recall, but she’s boozy and blowzy and full of confidence. She begins her set by telling the audience how gorgeous they are (I’ve been married to my husband for 19 years. Anyone who isn’t him is doable). After struggling to get into her jeans, then looking down to discover they were her husband’s, she’s started the Cayenne/Maple Syrup/Lemon diet (My piss makes an awesome salmon marinade.). She has a nice bit about aging as an attractive woman (I walked by a construction site. Silence. I doubled back, got nothing. The third time, I actually walked into a guy who said, “Sorry, I didn’t see you,” to which I responded, “Hey, buddy, my breasts are down here.”) that leads to an Orange is the New Black reference (I walk past prisons at lunch. Incarceration makes this look attractive again.)

Martha’s style is powerful without being in-your-face. Sometimes, as women, we push too hard to sell ourselves; Martha gives out a very solid energy that basically says, I know I’m funny, you know I’m funny, so why pretend otherwise? Her closing bit about reading stories online with her son and searching for “big brown bear” (Mommy, what was that man doing to Santa?) is killer. Check out www.marthaoneill.com and listen to her pod cast, “The Joke Merchants with Martha O’Neill.”

Next on the stage is Suga Mama, a Rochester comic whose act I have been watching develop weekly at Comedy at Acanthus. Suga Mama’s style is audience-friendly, light hearted even when the jokes skew a little dark. She tells the crowd to give themselves a hand for coming out and supporting live comedy, and it’s a well-deserved acknowledgment, considering the house is packed. She jumps right in with Anthony Weiner jokes (speaking of hard…this Weiner’s a real dick. His wife is sticking by him. I hear she’s getting counseling from Hillary.), followed by a Rhianna reference (I went to her concert because I wanted to see where she was punched) and the new way she has to justify calling off work (I think my grandmother has died like three times now. My boss says I have to bring proof…I don’t care. I’ll walk into a funeral home and snatch a program, no problem!). Her closing bit tonight is about the couple who were born on the same day, eloped at 18, spent 75 years together and died a day apart: She’s up in Heaven, he shows up. She’s like, “Damn, I can’t get one day to myself?” Catch Suga Mama at open mics and local shows in the WNY area.

Thanks to Pam’s orchestration, Becky Bays takes the spotlight to people chanting her name and cheering; because of her own wit and wonderfulness, the laughter and cheering continue throughout her entire set. This is my introduction to Becky.
      

I’m visiting from Toronto. I was approached by a homeless guy asking if I could spare some change. I said no. He told me to go fuck myself. “Sir, that is never my first choice. I may have to, though, given our lack of chemistry.”

I honestly spit water on myself. Here is this very petite, proper woman tapping my shoulder with these simple premises - did you know birds eat one and a half times their weight in food each day? – and then landing the punch – I DO eat like a bird! – right upside my brain. I struggled not to miss a single joke while scribbling like a mad woman so I could do her justice in this review. I’m going to offer you a few of my favorites, then compel you with all my psychic strength to go to www.beckybays.com and watch her video clips. This one, you need to see for yourself!

“I can’t date younger guys. The judge was very specific….”

“The trainer told me, Becky, I never want you to do a regular crunch again. I’m waaay ahead of you. I stopped years ago.”

She’s in a museum in Croatia when she overhears Joanne from Nebraska say, “If I hadn’t run into you ten minutes ago, I would have missed this. That was God – God wanted me to see this.” So Haiti and Darfur fell through the cracks because God was too busy helping Joanne set her travel plans.

While sharing her one great skill (spelling and grammar) which has no modern application except being a complete asshole on blogs and Facebook: Oh, you “alluded” them? Hahaha. I think you mean “elude”. Oh, you should “of” done that? Perhaps you mean should “have.” When you say you allowed your seven year old to do something and you spell it a-l-o-u-d, aren’t you just really saying she’s already exceeded your level of education?

“My mother said, never assume. It makes you a bitch.”

Go to Becky’s web site and listen to her tell the tales of meat chunk showers in 19th-century Kentucky, people who believe everything happens for a reason and Haida beds. Follow her on twitter. Personally, I’m waiting for the “Becky Bays Quirk-A-Day” desk calendar.

Working our way to tonight’s headliner, the audience has been engaged, excited and expressive: Erin Judge comes out swinging. “Lots of promises in hip hop music to do it until the break of dawn. Guys don’t do that. Maybe if you start at, like, ten minutes to dawn.” “I’m bisexual. If you don’t know what that means, is, you’re my type. Unless you’re a type that wouldn’t like me back, like gay dudes or the Amish.” People can’t seem to wrap their mind around her bisexuality. “’You have so many choices, oh my god, Erin, how do you deal with it, so many choices, so many choices.’ There are two, okay? Dudes and chicks. Dudes are dumb and chicks are nuts…with chicks, I end up saying stuff like, ‘honey, please stop crying. sweetie, I’m sorry, don’t cut yourself’…with dudes, it’s more like, ‘Don’t pee on that!’”

Erin is a skilled balance of all we’ve seen on this bill. She has an assured manner, a bright presence, an invigorating energy and funny material that she weaves from personal to political, like Arachne building a flawless tapestry. When she says she doesn’t want to be a maid of honor (can’t I just write a check for $800 and avoid the fake nails, horrible hair?), it feels like a conversation you’d have with your sister. When she kicks it up a notch (Brides wear veils. I’m pretty sure we declared war on people for that…our women only do it on the day when their property and rights get turned over from their father to their husband….), it feels more like an Advanced Feminist Theory lesson taught by an ultra-cool grad student.

Here are a few of my favorites from this show. “In case I get mugged, I carry two iPods. One is loaded with songs about stealing and remorse.”  “People say, ‘I don’t mind God – it’s his followers I can’t stand.’ That’s how I feel about Dave Matthews.” “My mom showed me how to put condoms on bananas, which is great because most bananas I have sex with don’t know how to put it on themselves.” “This car doesn’t run on fear of abandonment and low self-esteem.” “I personally have never understood the appeal of 69. For me it’s like this. I either want to be at work or on vacation. I don’t want to be getting emails from my boss while I’m at the beach.”

There’s so much more about Erin that I’m sure you will love. Go to www.erinjudge.com, where you can pick up a copy of her cd, “So Many Choices.” Follow the link to her blog, So Make It Up.

I am so grateful to Pam for batting her lashes – or bobbing her breasts, whichever – to get us into this show. I hope every last one of the naysayers who seemed puzzled at an all-female line-up will come check out the next Chicks are Funny on August 28th. Carlisle Carey, Jaye McBride, Sabrina Davis, Anna Phillips, Pam Werts and headliner Liz Russo will provide another much-needed night of laughter, and Funny Bone Syracuse is a great room in which to take it all in.

Back to question number three. Who said women aren’t funny? Not this girl. A month later and I’m still giggling. Glad you joined me.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

8/15/13 Jeremy Essig in 3-part Harmony

Prologue: This piece was pulled together from notes taken December, 2012, and July and August 2013. I apologize in advance if some of the jokes aren’t exactly as he tells them, but my memory and my notebooks are redefining their relationship with each other, exploring other options. I trust that I’ll do well enough but, let’s face it, I’m no Jeremy Essig. Enjoy!



I first saw Jeremy Essig live when he featured for Brian Posehn at The Comedy Club last December. I dug his material and was looking forward to telling you all about him. As the night progressed, it became apparent that I enjoyed his act more than Brian’s. (Subjectivity, people! I liked Brian, I swear. I just liked Jeremy a lot more.) Posehn himself said “Jeremy’s super smart. Now you can take off your thinkin’ caps….” If you know me at all, you know smart is one of my trigger words. Anyway, long paragraph longer, I never finished or posted anything about the show. I kept my notes and looked for an opportunity to see Jeremy again.

And, lo, it came to pass that the weekend of July 25th arrived, bringing Jeremy back to the Comedy Club, this time as a headliner. Real life had me booked until the Saturday late show, but I made it. And what a show it turned out to be.

You know that classic Lloyd Bridges running gag from “Airplane” where he picked “the wrong week” to quit drinking coffee, doing drugs, sniffing glue? As soon as Dario Joseph took the stage and gregarious drunk guy started heckling, I knew I picked the wrong week to wait for the final show. Admittedly, the whole audience was strange and gave tepid responses to Dario, Sarah Benson and Austin Lafond. I expected Jeremy to be able to win them over, to handle hecklers and deliver a good set, which he did. It’s just that, if you read this blog much, you know I believe absolutely, and without wavering, in the role the audience plays in a live show. This random group of people disappointed me. Jeremy did not.

He began talking about porn, saying he doesn’t watch a lot of it. And that dudes shouldn’t send other dudes porn. “She knows where the cum is at!” Dudes also shouldn’t end sentences with prepositions. She needs to go back to school to learn where the cum is, period. I love this. Anyone who can turn a porn promo into a grammar lesson is my kind of guy. And that’s what I enjoy about Jeremy’s material. It’s like he’s standing at the crossroads where common thoughts meet ideas best kept transcribed by monks and, without haranguing you for not knowing the tough stuff, makes it all accessible. There’s the inanity of a person of power in a Catholic school telling him he has to cut his long hair that’s inappropriate for a Catholic boy, while he glances at the picture of Jesus hanging on the wall. Or the thought that the real drug problem we have today is not too many drugs, but a mismatch between type and location. (Small towns, where there’s nothing to do so everyone decides to brew up a drug that keeps them awake for three days in a row. “Ain’t nothin’ goin’ on. Better not miss it.” Small towns are meant for ‘shrooms, acid, so they can see shit that’s not actually there: things like money & hope and opportunity.)

His bit about his dog hitting on black guys is one I really enjoy, because it takes a friendly path to a potentially bad place. His first thought was that he doesn’t mind that his dog is into interracial relationships. His second thought: why did he assume his dog was white? (You assume your pet is your race, but you adopt them. I have a friend who adopted his daughter from Korea. “What’s her name?” “Ashley.” “I don’t think it is.”) Race perceptions, our need to remake things in our own image, these thoughts can strike deep, when you care to let them. Personally, the way our brain and society handle differences is one of my favorite areas in which to provide training: high risk, high reward, when done well. Jeremy makes it look easy.

And that’s what I meant when I used that crossroads analogy earlier. Jeremy’s approach to difficult topics, like homophobia and misunderstood sexual communication, is to make them funny, less personal for the audience and easier to process. When he talks about dating a dude once by accident (invited to dinner, chicken was delicious, the problem was post-chicken), he takes what could feel threatening and turns it into a common experience. (It’s one thing to think I’m gay, but I’m not easy. Think I’m gonna’ put out for chicken? You didn’t make a side dish, sir.) Everyone can relate to being undervalued in a dating scenario. His concept that all relationships end (because one of you will die first) was something I heard from my Social Psychology Professor during a horrible college break-up. On his cd, Monque, he talks about people using culture as their excuse for wrong behavior (Can’t blame Michael Vick – dog fighting is part of his culture. That’s an excuse now? Because I’m German….), and chastises Cincinnati for making rules that protect racists. (Your school system passed a rule that students can’t wear Confederate flag t-shirts. I say let ‘em. They’re only gonna’ wear ‘em once. Stop making laws to protect idiots. Let nature do the job for you.)

His literary/pop culture references are rock-solid. Starbucks is like a caffeinated Lord of the Flies. In response to Build-a-Bear’s Make and Take model, “Don’t think so, Tom Sawyer. Not whitewashing your fence.” When asked to be Godfather to his niece? “Neat! I just saw a movie about that.” Buying her 3 American Girl dolls after telling her she could never have one because of her diabetes. Drunkenly giving some playing pointers to Joe, and then finding out he’s the guitarist for Fall Out Boy.  Referring to the show inside a McDonald’s as dinner theater for poor people.

For his shorter sets, he’s constructed a great framework from the simple notion that his five-year old self would be so impressed by who he is now (Wow, you have $20 in your pocket?) He doubles back nicely for closure after sharing a great Gary Sinese/Chuck Woolery tale, and I’m paraphrasing here: if five-year old you knew that someday that guy on the tv would call you an asshole, he’d think you really made it. There’s something so oddly endearing about that joke, about much of what Jeremy says in his act, about Jeremy himself.

Jeremy Essig embodies some of my favorite traits of smart comics. His material is witty, it resonates and it invites you to take a next step. It encourages you to ask a follow-up question. It allows you to look at some real, potentially explosive topics, shielded by the protective armor of shared laughter. It’s the heart and soul of what I find valuable in the stand up I love most.

Friend Jeremy on Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @jeremyessig. Check out his videos on YouTube. Go to www.jeremyessig.com to get tour dates, info on his upcoming moves and to pick up a copy of Monque. You’ll dig it. You’ll dig him.

Trust me, even though I’m no Jeremy Essig.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Room That’s Just Right: Rob’s Comedy Playhouse

When I have the pleasure of listening while comics talk shop, I hear a lot about bookers, managers, crowds in different parts of the country; I hear details of the business side of stand up that remind me how much of my experience of a particular show has nothing to do with the comic or his/her material. Going to a live performance of any art, I’m aware how important the setting is to my enjoyment. I’ve seen comedy in large auditoriums and college activity rooms, in VFW halls and cruise ship theaters. I’ve watched in brick-and-mortar clubs built for 24/7 stand up and hotel conference rooms converted for Thursday-thru-Saturday laughter.

Space matters to me.

Over the years, I’ve been in crowds that felt too big and clubs that felt too small. It’s so subjective and I can only explain how it affects me personally, but I think it’s worth discussing.

I’m 5’1” on my tallest days. I can easily get lost in standing crowds and flat-floor cafeteria-style seating. I don’t carry my own booster seat, and I am officially too old to flash my tits to get to the front of the stage (where I wouldn’t be comfortable, anyway). If I am so desperate to see a comic that I’ll go to a standing show, I prepare for a less-than-awesome time. I know I’m going to miss all the visual cues of the performance, that the audio could be muffled depending on the height of the people around me. I know Randy Newman will be singing softly in my brain all night: Short people got no reason, short people got no reason to live….

 Naturally, you’d think I’d love the intimacy and great visuals of the 60-seater, the room where anyone in the front row can tie the MC’s sneakers and play grab-ass with the comic without leaving their seat. But, no. That kind of room freaks me out unless I’m sitting in the very back. Because I never want to be part of the show. I don’t want you to know if it’s my birthday, I don’t want to talk about why I’m there alone. Hang out with me later, in the bar or at a diner, and I’ll be your straight woman all night. I’ll take your bait, laugh at all your throwaways and maybe give you a giggle in return. Not during the show, not in front of your audience. I’m pretty certain you had jokes prepared when you booked the gig, and that’s why I’m there. I am enjoying, analyzing, comparing, reminiscing, absorbing, processing – I am doing more than just listening to you, and I don’t move in and out of that state well when I’m really into the act.

Don’t misunderstand why I’m sharing this. I’m not complaining that I need optimal conditions to want to attend a show. I don’t. I just want to remind everyone that the environment plays a part in the live show experience, and it’s good to know your own personal biases. Because I know mine, I want to tell you how much I enjoy Rob’s Comedy Playhouse, in Williamsville, New York.

I’ve only seen a handful of shows at Rob’s, maybe three as a general audience member, and two as a guest of the comic. Still, every experience has been good for me because Rob’s is the “just right” for my Goldilocks syndrome.

 The room itself sits in an enclosed space next to the bar at dandelions, a great place to grab food before a show. Check out their menu at www.dandelionsrestaurant.com.

Rob’s, as a room, has a pretty simple set up: a small stage in the front, tables flowing out in three directions, a sound system that doesn’t overwhelm the space. There’s a feeling of comfort, like you’re about to hang out with a bunch of your best friends and watch another of your friends put on a show. I don’t mean that in a Little Women or Garland and Rooney way; this isn’t homespun, bed sheet curtain entertainment. The quality of the comics at Rob’s is worthy of your attention. With shows on Saturday nights only, the talent runs the gamut from local acts on the rise to popular road dogs passing through. Rob Lederman has drawn on his own years of experience as a comic, club owner and radio personality to create a space worthy of the very affordable $10 ticket.

I have watched Dan Pordum and Rob (and, on a few fun nights, my friend Chet Wild) warm up the crowd or transition between acts with improv games that, hit or miss, always allow for safe audience participation. I’ve watched Steve Burr keep the room in stitches for an hour, while I sat on a stool near the bathrooms off stage right (your left, audience). I’ve watched Austin Lafond and Chet both kill from seats along the back wall. And I’ve had the most unique, and therefore special, experience watching Paul Hooper from behind the black curtain that blocks light from the walk-in closet within the room that houses the sound system and glassware. I will tell you all about that in my continuing series of blogs about Paul. In the meantime, go to www.robscomedyplayhouse.com and find out what’s coming up. Take a Saturday to check it out.

I like this room.

And, though it shouldn’t have to be said, let me just add that liking this room doesn’t imply or suggest that I dislike another room. I love the Comedy Club in Rochester. I’ve enjoyed shows at Wise Guys in Syracuse, Comedy Zones in Harrisburg, PA and Charleston, West Virginia, Nietzsche’s and O’Connell’s in Buffalo, some bars and VFWs in random towns. I’ve seen Denis Leary at Harro East, Penn and Teller at the Auditorium Theater (or was it the Eastman?) and A. Whitney Brown at Yuk Yuk’s. I had the first greatest comedy weekend of my life at the Comix CafĂ© in Rochester with Tom Rhodes, and the most recent greatest comedy weekend of my life at the Comedy Zone, Charleston, with Paul Hooper. I shared some of my favorite laughs with one of my favorite comics in the basement of Edgerton Community Center, in a booth at the Liberty Diner and under a tree in Riverside Cemetery. Diner booths have also brought me wonderful comedy conversations with Theo Von and Carl LaBove, to namedrop just a few. Some of my favorite local shows happen at The Space, Dub Land, Boulder, Acanthus and even aboard the Mary Jemmison while cruising down the Genesee River.

I am not trying to start a riot, Laugh or otherwise (yes, Dario and Kevin! You’re welcome!).

I just wanted to get you thinking about the things that make a show memorable to you, that go beyond who is performing. Maybe it’s the free parking, the comfort you have with the wait staff, the friends who meet you there for shared laughter, the wing sauce and the funky cocktails. Maybe it’s the fact that you can see over even the tallest person in the room because that’s how the place is laid out. Maybe it’s not having to be pulled into a show because the comic’s knees are almost touching your nose and it seems antagonistic not to talk when you’re practically licking someone’s leg. We bring a lot of expectations with us to live shows, we bring habits and preferences and height – well, not so much, in my case. Every now and again, it’s important to acknowledge the role those expectations play in our enjoyment of a show.

 And, to my dear comic friends who love to believe that the whole thing rests on their shoulders, that they should be good enough to rise above a bad floor plan, an over-served crowd, a poor sound system or a table full of girls sucking more happily on plastic penises than they ever will the real thing, keep on usin’ the illusion. Do your best, adjust however you see fit. But don’t accuse me of trying to placate you when I say some of the responsibility of the show rests with the audience, the space, the universe. Live performance is like life, it’s a coming together of a number of elements to form a glorious, amazing whole. Like it or not, we’re all part of the show.

If your merch sucks, however, you can take all the blame yourself. Proofread, for God’s sake.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Theo and Me

It was roughly three years ago when my friend Crazy Julie asked if I could get tickets to go to The Comedy Club and see Theo Von. My initial response was, “Why?” I knew Theo, like the rest of America, from MTV’s Road Rules. I enjoyed him as a cast member because he seemed to be a little more grounded than some of his peers, more laid back and able to be awed. I agreed with CJ that he would be worth meeting, but it never occurred to me that that meeting should come on the way out of a room where I’d just finished watching him deliver a 45- to 60-minute stand up set. Still, CJ was a lot of fun to take to The Comedy Club, or any other room where a loud laugh is an asset, so I got the tickets. Before leaving my place, I posted a rather obnoxious Facebook status about going to see Theo and not expecting it to be funny. I say it was obnoxious because I try not to be so prejudicial about a comic if I have no experience with their work: 1) it’s foolish to assume you can guess a person’s act from some unrelated venture, and 2) I personally try hard to stay open to possibilities, to get out of my brain and let the Universe surprise me from time to time.

Boy, did it kick my ass that night.

I found myself laughing, if not as loud as CJ, then at least as often. I loved his material, his delivery, everything about the entire show. Once the room had cleared, I walked up to Theo and bought one of his cds. I also told him I owed him an apology. I explained the status update and how absolutely wrong I’d been about his act. I promised I was changing that sucker as soon as I got home, that I would come back the next night for both shows and buy him a beer afterwards, if he would let me. With what I now recognize as true Southern grace, he handed me the disc and accepted my offer.

Those three days became more than just a great comedy weekend. I had a front row seat to watch this guy give honest consideration and helpful advice to two kids, barely old enough to be in the bar, about going for their dreams, pursuing their art with purpose and smarts. He talked to us about the opportunities that were unfolding before him because of the MTV affiliation, about being pulled to try so many things and needing to narrow his focus. He seemed to be genuine and in the moment. I didn’t want to miss a second of those conversations, even after one of the young boys spilled a full beer into my lap. By the time we said goodbye late Saturday night, I knew I was a real fan.

The following year, I couldn’t wait for Theo Von weekend. More great comedy, a few hours of lunch conversation across a diner booth, and I was once again grateful that CJ had wanted so badly to see that first show. Not only do I like his jokes, but it has been another life lesson entirely to see Theo finding his way down a path that only a year earlier seemed so unclear. He had ideas that he wanted to explore, but wasn’t sure where he wanted to end up. Yet, there he was, moving forward, seemingly fearless. And this guy’s work ethic is sick.

There’s the blog, In My Hat, where you can find both short, funny bits about random topics (Pony, the best circus meat) and photos from his Total Creepers site. Cranktexts.com, where he sends out texts to random numbers and engages with whomever is there to receive them. He released his cd, Midgets vs Cats (which you can get on iTunes or on his web site, www.theovon.com). He continued touring, hitting clubs all across the country. He crossed national borders to perform for the troops and appear at festivals like the South African Comedy Fest and Montreal’s Just for Laughs. And in the year leading up to his most recent return to Webster, he became the host of Yahoo’s Prime Time in No Time, made a brief appearance in InAPPropriate Comedy and recorded his set for Comedy Central’s The Half Hours. I have never seen such a beautifully woven tapestry of hyperactivity and ambition up close, and I am in jealous awe.

Making myself move forward, let’s talk about the actual stand up sets from The Comedy Club last month.

One sign that Theo’s star has risen significantly in the last year is that he was only booked for Friday and Saturday this time around. Awesome for him, but one less night of laughing out loud for those of us still trapped under gray skies and snowflakes here in upstate. Still, I was excited to be camped out in the booth, as this was my first time blogging about my road friend and I wanted to soak in every laugh line.

When I run down Theo’s joke topics in my head, I can understand how someone who hasn’t seen his act might assume it to be – in the words of funny woman Brett Butler – a bigot’s buffet. Tonight starts with a shout out to white folks. (We’re still here. That’s our motto in America. Mexicans bang faster, blacks bang better. No one wants to bang white people anymore, not even white people.) He moves on to Asians and, although there don’t seem to be any in the room, Theo’s got a line ready to go, anyway. “For every one you don’t hear, there’s 40. They’re quiet.” On to Mexicans, covering their ability to sneak into the country (I bought a blow up doll. Took her home, blew her up. She was Mexican! She made me blow up three of her kids. Now I got the Inflatables family living in my house. These motherfuckers snuck in through my lungs!) and their rapid reproduction. (Mexican women can make a baby in about an hour…c’mon buddy, let’s go to work. Say “ladder.”) Soon we’re discussing the clothing (Black guy looks good in anything. They can wear a t-shirt down to here. What size is that, forever? If I wear that, I look like a lesbian about to take a nap) and candy shelf nicknames (Dewey, Pookie, Payday, Rolo, Snicker, KitKat, Oh Henry – that’s a gay black guy) of blacks. Lest you think it’s all about the color with Theo, there’s also very funny material on midgets, a stab at himself for looking like he has Down Syndrome and some great lines about aging, homosexuality and drug use. Theo started the set by saying we were gonna’ make fun of everyone, and that was no joke.

Just about every other line out of his mouth was, however, and they were hysterical.

Theo’s take on dating (You gotta’ have money. I don’t blame you ladies. Who wants to fuck some poor guy? That’s disgusting. You get done banging and you’re just laying there, all poor. “Can I get you a towel that won’t match any of the other towels?”) and chasing hos electronically with Match.com (I asked if she wanted to meet for coffee…”Didn’t you read my profile? I’m adventurous! Coffee’s boring. I wanna’ go sky diving”…nowhere in my budget is there skydiving for unknown bitches) had the whole room laughing uncontrollably. His describing himself as “Tom Brady & Shrek had a son” or “the Grinch that stole Matt Damon” made my booth mate spit her drink onto my notebook. I nearly joined her over his children in sweatshops bit (Why doesn’t one sew a message for help into the pants? Knowing us, we’ll make it a fashion statement. Like these new “I’m thirsty” jeans? What are those, “a lion ate my brother?”) and his trip to court. (This black guy in court pleaded “my bad.” So I pleaded, “Blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-al-co-hol and blame it on the weed,” that’s when they got me for possession of marijuana. But I blamed it on the black guy and they rearrested him. That’s the system.)

So, what is it that lets Theo Von tell these types of jokes and not be walking part of the room?

Maybe it’s the fact that many of us have seen him in action on Road Rules, Last Comic Standing. Those glimpses of “reality” may have tilted us in his favor. He seems like a nice guy. None of it seems to come from anger. He has a smile on his face the whole time, and the dimples can be seen from the farthest booth.

There’s also that way he has of peppering his accented speech with phrases that could pass for colloquialisms, if there were more than one person on Planet Theo: “I don’t know, Buddy Bear.”  “I wanna’ look tough vehicularly.” “I don’t know how to talk to her. I don’t know any demons firsthand.” “It’s like balancin’ a warm fish stick on your lips.” From now on, I only want to refer to my vagina as a “sweet little vase you wanna’ put your dick flowers in.” There is no way to hear those lines, honey-dipped in that Louisiana lull, and get uptight. Combine that with his wit (Funata, where Mexicans keep their fun.) and pop culture panache (Blacks are some of the most athletic people on the planet, yet you still can’t swim? All you need is to make a dance out of it. “Teach me how to dougie, te-teach me how to dougie paddle…all this water love me, all this water love me”) and it’s easy to understand why the audiences adore this guy. Each show, all weekend, there was nothing but love for Theo Von.

There are jokes that stick in my brain. There are people that live in my heart. And there are those moments when the stars align and I am blessed with meeting someone who bridges those two places. Theo Von is, to the best of my knowledge, a truly nice guy. I didn’t grow up with him, I don’t know him from church, we’ve probably not spent more than 48 total hours in shared space over the last three years. Still, I’m not the worst judge of character you’ll ever meet. In moments offstage, in quick and quiet conversations and those prolonged by boys with beers, I’ve heard kindness, consideration, confusion. I’ve seen gentlemanly gestures, gratitude and grace towards fans. The Universe kicked my ass to see the first show. And it’s given me a gleeful gift every show since.

Theo Von is a comic who can make me laugh out loud every time I see him; I root for his continued success when I read about a new opportunity, like his recent deal with TBS to host its new hidden-camera show Deal With It, premiering on Tuesday, July 16 at 10 pm ET. Please check it out, along with all the great projects I mentioned at the beginning of this review. You will not be disappointed.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Paul Hooper and Taylor Ketchum

There are times when I inexplicably need to go home, to see my mother who no longer knows me, to hang out with sisters and nieces and great nieces, and visit the farm, the creek, the playground. I need grounding, so I go home. In the past year, however, I’ve been able to bring a little of my big(ger) city life with me when I discovered that the Comedy Zone Harrisburg is located only 3.53 miles from a house where the Auntie Carla suite is always waiting.

Naturally, when I saw that Paul Hooper was headlining there for a weekend, I knew it was time to plan a trip. I had no frame of reference for Taylor Ketchum, other than that my friend Austin had met him recently in NYC and told me he was both funny and nice. Hooper, on the other hand, is one of my favorites, as I mentioned in last August’s review from The Comedy Club. He was just returning from a tour of the Middle East, and I was curious to hear what that experience was like for someone who wears his anxiety like a medical alert bracelet. I also wondered how Central PA took to Paul Hooper. He told me he’d played that club a number of times over the years, even hosting New Year’s Eve shows, and felt good about it.

I was, admittedly, a bit skeptical.

While it’s true that New Cumberland is much closer to Harrisburg (and the urban horrors my father convinced me existed there) than my own hometown of Dillsburg, I couldn’t imagine that the wit was that much more sophisticated. I could barely imagine Central PA wit at all. I have the bias of someone who, as an adult, feels all kinds of nostalgia and warmth toward my childhood, but, as a child, felt the need to go somewhere, anywhere, that books other than the Bible had value. My overly-analytical brain was curious, charged and ready.

An East Coast transplant from California, Taylor Ketchum describes his look as “a lumberjack who read a book” or “a Juggalo that got his shit together” and I can’t disagree.  He starts tonight’s show by talking about the four hours he’d spent at Bob Evans earlier in the day, which didn’t bode well for his diet. He tells us he’s recently lost 50 pounds; that’s significant, he says, because for every 15 pounds a man loses, he gains ¼” of dick. “That’s a whole ‘nother ¾“ of me to disappoint you with.” Another 175 pounds and he’ll have his dream penis. He just wants to be all dick. Taylor covers some interesting topics in his set, heartland ignorance, Latin sideburns, and girlfriend grammar gripes (awesome bit!) among them. Some of those I enjoyed most were the political bumper sticker (“Obama needs to go. ‘Nuff said!” I think if you knew more, you’d keep talking), teen hubris (“No doubt, son, no doubt!” Just once I’d like to hear one of them say, “I got a little doubt. I am ambivalent about several things in my life.”) and the ridiculousness of fussy diners (“no, sir, they aren’t cage-free eggs. There’s no such thing. You have to contain the chickens or – you know – they leave.”).

The very best part of Taylor time, though, is when he talks about his past, and the way he’s transitioned from college football hero to heroin addict to stand up comic. “The E True Hollywood Story needs to be shown backward.”  We hear how he met his girlfriend in rehab, which takes off some of the pressure. He talks about people who try to over-sympathize (“Books are my heroin.” “Yeah? How many blowjobs did you have to give for that copy of ‘The Alchemist’?”) and we all laugh.  I want to point out to you that to turn your own unfunny history into real laugh lines is no small feat; that’s why there’s also a tragedy mask. Taylor seems to have found a good balance between the everyman and the only man material. I’m looking forward to watching him grow, and not just in quarter-inch segments. Friend Taylor on Facebook; follow him on @taylorketchum; check out his videos on Rooftop Comedy or Youtube

 When Paul Hooper takes the stage, I notice two things. One: the audience does seem excited, they do seem to love him. While I’m still a little puzzled, I am happy to spend the next hour laughing in the dark with the very people I thought I had to escape from when I left home more than twenty years ago. Two: Paul Hooper looks tired. He starts by telling us that Taylor is his roommate, that they’re both neurotic, and that the first time he stayed over, there was only one towel and it was dirty. “If you only have one towel, you cannot have guests.”  He lets us know he looks more tired than his usual baggy-eyed self because he had just returned from a tour of the Middle East, and was still jet-lagged. Performing comedy for the troops is no easy gig, and the audience showed their respect with applause. Hoop just pushed on, telling us about the mosquito that bit him in Africa, the anxiety he experienced during all the flights, and sharing a story-in-progress about what can go wrong when you put military vehicles and weapons into the hands of comics.

Paul launches into familiar territory, the jokes I love about children, his sense of self-importance (The Archangel Paul Hooper would like his driver’s license renewed. Who are you to question the chosen one?), the promised “incredible party” that somehow always ends up with him “stranded on a couch with an afghan and all this inner turmoil.” I hear some of my lifetime favorite punchlines, like “I don’t know where God stands on the issue, but I’m pretty sure he’s better than all of us at Scrabble.”

But I also notice what I’m not hearing tonight.

I haven’t heard much about his father leaving when he was three. I haven’t heard the Roman Polanski bit, some of the vehement indictment of hometown pride. And I haven’t heard the usual level of anger, the rapid-fire rhythm that previously told me I was listening to Paul Hooper. Tonight is different.

He’s still weird, dark and intense. He’s still snarky, insistent and polished. There are still great lines that just grab my brain and demand recognition: “Somehow my soul is just south of Iceland.” “I believe it was Mohamed Atta and Lisa. She ruined my 9/11. I don’t know if you can say that.” He’s still punchy and pushy and willing to throw down with the birthday woman who should have known enough to stop talking by now.

But there’s something else.

And he confirms it after the show. While it’s true that Paul is tired after all the travel and still trying to get his internal clock reset, there’s another element at play in this performance. He’s working on developing a new gear, another speed. It’s smart and intentional. It gives him a little more flexibility, an adjustment that doesn’t detract at all from his voice, his recognizable style. It’s just one more tool in his comedy bag, and it works. The audience loved it. Paul? Well, as with most comics, he’s playing with it, it’s in progress, he’ll see how it goes.

I can tell you, though, from sticking around for both Saturday night shows, that it’s definitely a choice. He hasn’t lost any of the sniper skills I have come to enjoy in his work. When the lady who forgot to take her meds made the late show tough for Taylor, he did his best to shut her down. By the time she and Hoop went at it, I felt like I was watching a show-within-a-show, an improv that was nearly as entertaining as the actual set he had come to deliver.

There’s a CD in the works. When it’s ready to be promoted, I’m gonna’ push with all my might to get everyone I know to buy it. It might even end up as a stocking stuffer this Christmas for a few of my hard-to-shop-for friends, and anyone who needs to lighten up and laugh, god damn it. I’ll be in Buffalo in April to watch his one-nighter at Rob’s Playhouse. And I suggest you all go to paulhoopercomedy.com (not paulhooper.com, unless you’re looking for a State Farm agent in Littleton, Colorado) and check his tour schedule. Go see Paul Hooper. You won’t be sorry, unless you’re a father of 8 pumpkin-headed berserkers. Then you’ll just wish you had seen him sooner.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Orlando Jones and the Power of a Single Joke

This review should have been written way before today. After all, it was the weekend of November 29th, more than three months ago, when Orlando Jones graced the stage of The Comedy Club. It was three months ago, when the man most of the audience recognized from 41 episodes of MADtv came to town. Three months ago, when the actor who created Clifford Franklin, Dr. Lee, Harry Block and Snack (a personal favorite, although if all of you shared my enthusiasm, there would have been more than 14 episodes of “Father of the Pride”), came dancing into the spotlight to some bumpin’, grindin’ groove and started the audience on a laughter frenzy.

I’ve noticed over the years that comedians who are known more for their acting than their stand up tend to draw the “curiosity crowd” their first night in town. A portion of the room is there just to see in person someone they’ve watched on television or on the big screen, curious about their actual height, true skin tone and general appearance. Another segment is curious about the sideshow: are there bodyguards? was there a limo? would there be a chance to connect and shake hands after the show? Finally, there are the hardcore comedy fans, curious as to whether the actor can make the transition to stand up, and usually having an expectation for success or failure before the show even begins. On this Thursday, there was a fourth group, of which I was a member, and it was comprised of people who had seem Orlando the previous year, at a gig he told us was only his 9th time doing stand up. I dug that show, and was curious to see how his act had progressed.

It did not disappoint. Beginning with a high-energy lip synch to some modern club hit, Orlando offers an exploration of the lack of love songs in today’s music. The revelation that his two-year-old daughter will grow up without love songs has hit him hard. He leads an audience sing-along of The Commodore’s “Three Times a Lady”, deconstructs Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” and gives a profound reading of LoveRance’s “Beat the Pussy Up.” (Marvin Gaye and Leonard Cohen didn’t write this shit!) Next, he talks about his mother singing the Lil’ Wayne song, “How to Love,” and getting a glimpse of what his father must have seen when they hooked up. Before women could get too comfortable thinking only men write these songs, Orlando reminds us of Kia’s “My Neck, My Back,” asking women in the audience who were singing along if they also knew the words to the Patriot Act or the Declaration of Independence. That line is representative of what I adore about his set: the way he weaves the smart through the pop. He finishes out this section with a shout back to Petey Pablo’s “Freek-a-Leek” and its finely crafted lyrics: Do you want it on the floor? Do you want it on the chair? Do you want it over here? Do you want it over there? Do you want it in ya pussy? Do you want it in ya ass? (Doesn’t that sound like Dr. Seuss for strippers?... That ain’t a proposition, that’s a threat!)

Next, Orlando apologizes for believing what he’d been told since childhood, that black folk all look alike to white people, and goes on to claim that just that day, a black woman swore he was the little boy from “Everybody Hates Chris.” He does some great material on having a baby and the particular hardships of your daughter dating (When the dude walks up to your door, or the girl, it don’t matter to me… two words are all you need. ‘I’m here to pick up your daughter, sir.’ ‘Catch this!’ ‘Mr. Jones, why did you toss me a bullet?’ ‘Because if you bring my daughter back here any different that she is right now, I guarantee you won’t catch the next one, motherfucker!’).

The audience is completely engaged and laughing themselves silly. Orlando claims to be a weed genius (when you’re high, you think you’re smarter than everybody else), talks about the fear regular black folk have of thug-ass black dudes and shares one of his smoke-inspired ideas: we’d find more missing children if we put black kids on chocolate milk cartons, Asian kids on soy milk and mixed kids on the half & half. I find myself really following not just the punch lines, but the rise and fall of the set, the way he brings the audience along almost as if he’s conducting the laughter. In the moment of the show, I am with the rest of the room, laughing out loud, glad to be witnessing the skill. The body language, the voice work, the shimmying through space all make for a very amusing set and, in my desire to tell you about something else, something deeper and more meaningful for me, I don’t want to skimp on this part of the review.

But I gotta’ tell you about the single joke, the one that stopped me mid-laugh, the one that stayed in my head for the rest of the set and finally had to be addressed in after-show conversation.  It was during a bit when Orlando was speaking of things he found sad, but not surprising. (when you heard Whitney had died of a drug overdose, when you first read Michael Jackson was on trial for child molestation); this is the joke. “Nelson Mandela gets out of jail after 27 years in prison. The first thing he did? Divorce Winnie Mandela. That shit is sad. Not fucking surprising. This man spent 27 years in jail, y’all, and you want him to come home to some 63-year old titties?”

My brain just went, wait. Hold the fuck up.

All my life I have been a person who wants to know what’s going on in the world. I’ve subscribed to alternative and political publications, I’ve attended lectures, held signs at protests, joined support and solidarity groups, developed strong and lasting friendships with people from all over the globe. I remember that situation differently and with a great deal of passion that is flooding my whole body with overreaction. In my mind, based only on my understanding of the situation, Nelson had no choice. Winnie had done some horrible things, including being involved with the disappearance of four young boys, and possibly the murder of one of those young men along with a doctor who had seen him in her home. Two years after Nelson’s release, amid rumors of her infidelity, he filed for divorce. Later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reportedly confirmed her participation in a number of illegal, illicit activities and ultimately accused her of trying to intimidate those willing to testify against her in that forum.  I had some semi-informed and strongly-felt issues with her, and all of them came rushing to the front of my brain when I heard that one joke.

One of the greatest opportunities afforded me by Mark Ippolito’s friendship and generous support is, when the comics are willing, being able to hang around between and after shows. Orlando Jones is a very giving performer; he stayed each night, thanking fans for coming out, sharing war stories with the local comics and answering questions for curious onlookers such as myself.  Conversation was lively. He explained how he had met a comic who just blew him away and decided to learn from him. He shared his theories on how to construct a set, how to modulate the rhythm of jokes. He spoke of process, of artistry, and at no point did it feel like anything less than a dialogue, an exchange of ideas. He listened attentively to each of us, standing close and engaging in a way that felt so natural, we forgot we were talking to someone whose credits as a story editor, producer, writer and actor were punctuated by the sheer number of screen scrolls needed in IMDb to document them: 18 by my count, and that’s if you leave the MADtv, Roc, A Different World and the Sinbad show in compressed mode. This man was accessible, willing to talk. So I asked the question that had been rolling around my mind.

“Does the Nelson Mandela joke always hit?”

“Yeah, every time. Why?”

And that opened the gate to a deeper conversation. I shared my position, why that joke struck such a chord in me. And then he shared his.

Given the way women are treated in South Africa and much of the rest of the world to this very day, prioritizing divorce sent the wrong message. Orlando felt, maybe – and I hope I’m capturing this with absolute accuracy, because this is an important thought - by starting somewhere else, or perhaps waiting a little longer, Nelson would not have been seen as unintentionally reinforcing the cultural view of women as “less than.”  I shared my perspective, that her actions were so antithetical to everything he stood for, that not addressing her betrayal not only took power from his personal sacrifice, but would damage the entire ANC movement. I had accepted the compromise that, for a post-Apartheid society to empower African women, it must first secure power for African men. It is one view point. It wasn’t Orlando’s. But by asking him about the joke, and by him being willing to share, I was shown another way to consider the divorce. Then Orlando told me that he knew Nelson Mandela, that they had shared time together in Africa. If you think I sound ridiculously impressed and a little star-struck, you couldn’t be more right.

When I started writing One Girl’s Giggle, I provided a basic review, a play-by-play of the event as it unfolded onstage.  It was merely a place to keep notes on shows that I intended to work into a book about the local comedy scene. As I grew more confident that what I was doing was worth further exploration, I began to expand them, to include the concepts that make comedy so vital to my own existence. I can say, honestly and without exaggeration, that this single joke, more than any other in the past year, has had the most powerful impact on me. It did what I have told you Whoopi and A. Whitney and a handful of others have done for me: it moved me from simple laughter to examine something deeper, encouraged me to seek more information and then gave me a lens for reevaluating my personal beliefs. It sent me home with more than a punch line. It educated me.

Two additional thoughts I want to share with you about Orlando’s shows. Through the years, many of the actor-comics I’ve seen live have leaned heavily on their replication skills, doing a set that followed the same trajectory every time in words, in pace, in rhythm. That doesn’t take anything from the performance; it’s just a style, one that allows audiences all over to have a shared experience, to see something polished and worked out. A few have been more Godfrey-like, having a huge repertoire of jokes and a gift for in-the-moment selection that keeps any two shows from being exactly the same. The upside is a feeling of greater risk and interaction with the audience; the downside is that the set can feel random and not yet ready for prime time. Orlando falls somewhere between these two markers. While the jokes were rather consistently told, he played with and flexed the order each time, and it had an effect that was quite noticeable for someone watching all five shows. Saturday late show had, for me, the best flow of the weekend. The value of paying attention to such choices is the constant reminder that stand up is an art form, and that an added brush stroke, a second edit, an improvised scene can change my experience.

Toward the close of his shows, Orlando talked briefly to the audience about words and how we react to them. “I don’t give offense. You take offense. I throw bitch in the air, you claim it for your own.” Some might see that as a dodge, as a way of saying “fuck you if you can’t take a joke.” Depending on the day I’ve been having when I hear it, I might be inclined to agree. But on better days, it strikes me as a good reminder, as a mantra to become less reactionary. Reading these pieces, you may realize how personally I identify with jokes, with words that come from people’s mouths and pens. You might even feel yourself doing the same with my words. In the end, all of it is just a way for one being to share with others their thoughts and emotions and, in the case of comedy, their laughter. Orlando Jones does just that.

I’m certain no one will have any trouble finding Orlando, but I would recommend you visit him at www.orlandojones.com to keep informed about current projects, or follow him on Twitter (@TheOrlandoJones) and Facebook. Also, check out the documentary Looking for Lenny, where he shares his thoughts on Lenny Bruce and free speech. Go see him if he’s performing live in your area. He puts on a great show, even if you aren’t sitting in a back booth with your secret comedy decoder ring, hoping to discover life truths among the booty clap complaints and white fear footrace jokes.

 The next few posts will be less deconstuctionist, I promise. All laugh, no chaser.