A comic friend and I were recently having a spirited debate about the merits of writing versus performance in the current incarnation of stand up. He often compels me to listen, to sometimes close my eyes and just listen to the actual spoken words, and ask myself how the material holds up. If you ever see me sitting in the booth at the Club with my eyes closed or my head down, that’s what I’m doing. Seriously. I swear I am not sleeping through a live comedy show. I will confess to falling asleep during a Motley Crue concert, but I’m pretty sure I saw Nikki Sixx yawning onstage first.
But I digress.
I knew Woody Allen as a writer before I ever heard his stand up or watched his films. I used to borrow the Official Whatever joke books from friends of my older brother and read them cover to (flip it!) cover. Somewhere in my collection is a tattered copy of Arrow Book of Jokes and Riddles that I stole from our classroom bookshelf in second grade. I never saw live stand up when I was young – first, came words on a page.
At some point, the words started to exist outside my head, in their owners’ voices. I began collecting comedy albums. My second-hand vinyl stash contained Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Bob Newhart, Flip Wilson and a prized red Lenny Bruce disc that I have somehow misplaced in my current home. Comedy moved from the page to the air. Delivery became all about the cadence, the pitch, the speed, the timing. I fell in love with smart throwaways, the seemingly incidental lines whose appeal is elevated by how quickly they fly by and whose brain is processing fast enough to catch them. Sometimes the success of the throwaway is the line itself, and sometimes it is only funny because of the way in which it is delivered.
After college, with the birth of Comedy Central, stand up and I began video dating. I judged it differently. The image, the body language, the costume - all new variables that rolled into the equation and remain today. Still, I found the familiar in the new, like the throwaway “Shelley or Byron” line from This is Spinal Tap. It wasn’t that the line itself was all that funny, but Harry Shearer sold it and I burst into laughter in a crowded theater, loudly and alone. As a former drama queen, I know I pay a lot of attention to delivery; still, my writer brain somehow always gives bonus points if the joke is well-written.
By now you must be wondering if a review for this week’s show is ever going to materialize. Yes, it was a long ass introduction, but it sets the stage for what I want to share with you next.
This weekend, I had the pleasure of listening to some well-written, well-delivered stand up. One comic got me with delivery, one was an aural sensation. Together it was an awesome show.
Pam Werts is a local comic at the beginning of her career. She did very well in this year’s Funniest Person in Rochester contest and has a group of loyal fans who keep her going. I wasn’t initially one of them. And before you dash off to tell her I said so, don’t bother. I told her myself. When I first saw Pam’s act, I flashed back to Paula Poundstone’s Cats, Cops and Stuff. There was something about her delivery that felt kinda’ off, kinda’ old. I had no idea she’d only performed, like, six times at that point. There was enough of a natural ease and funniness about her that I assumed she was more experienced, which skewed my expectations. Thankfully, a friend provided enlightenment and the Comedy Club provided more opportunities to watch Pam. She has only been getting onstage for a little more than a year; in just four months, I’ve seen her act tighten up, her material get stronger and her audience grow. A year younger than me, her Bon Jovi, big hair and insurance salesman lines feel like thoughts from my own brain. After hearing her bit on the dumbing down of America, I hope you’ll think twice before your next sexual encounter. (Unless you’re one of the stupid people. In which case, find me after the show. I’ve got some condoms for you.)
I watched Pam’s set four times in two nights. When she speaks in her mother’s voice, I can see this woman I’ve never met, a woman almost as embarrassing as my own mother. Pam’s stage presence is natural, she looks like a woman confident in her container, which allows the audience to focus on the jokes. They are fully formed, shaped and shaded, tweaked with retelling and, most importantly, funny. Thanks to her appearance on Wease this week, I know she’s worth not just a look, but a real listen. Right now in her career trajectory, Pam hits strongest for me on a delivery level.
It’s very cool for Pam that she shared the stage with Kris Shaw. This is a comic who passes the “ears only” test, although I wouldn’t know that until Saturday night. The 7:30 Friday being my first exposure to Kris, I kept my eyes open. His presence is strong, focused, even though the persona he’s using seems slightly off. It disarms, it charms, it probably creates a little cognitive dissonance and allows him to be heard by people who might not initially know if they want to listen. The subjects are relatable: using MapQuest, women’s love of holiday gifts, getting head from a midget stripper. The delivery is familiar to Cosby fans, to Woody fans – it’s a storyteller style, told with quick bursts of quick wit and filled with solid throwaways, the kind that keep it really interesting for me. He’s a fast talker and, I would guess, a fast thinker, as well. Across four shows, while the core act stayed consistent and solid, the interactive bits were friendly and inviting. Early on, Kris tells us he’s proud of us as an audience, that we have a lot of potential. He plays with no meanness in his spirit. The gift of access I’ve been allowed has shown me that this is who he is offstage, as well. He encourages the younger comics, gives them support and direct advice designed to make them better. He does the same for the audience.
On Saturday night, I perform the test. I close my eyes and just listen. I hear a little Mitch Hedberg cadence, which is later seconded by Marcus Cox, the night’s local middle (see an earlier review of Marcus with Pat Dixon, and check him out when he’s at the Club. If you like smart comedy, you’ll love Marcus). I hear jokes that are now familiar, but aren’t losing any of their punch. I hear a variety of pace, tone, character. I hear controlled lulls, directed silence. Eyes closed, Kris’ act holds up. Aurally, I am impressed.
To write these reviews (and eventually the book), I try to stay in the moment of the show as much as I can. I jot down phrases that stand out, lines that get a strong reaction, so my notes can be a little scattered when I reread them. For most shows, I’ll fill one and a half to two pages in my little moleskin bible. For Kris, I’ve written four full pages, everything from “Find an off-duty carrier pigeon” to “I can hear enchiladas being sliced.” I find myself laughing out loud while reading the notes and I have that familiar feeling of sitting in my room and devouring “The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers” and “My Philosophy” from Getting Even. Though telling a good story does not always translate to writing a good book, I would gamble on Kris.
With the exception of one bit about the Jehovah’s Witness training program, you don’t need to see Kris to enjoy him. His is the kind of comedy I would be happy to read, if it wasn’t so much fun to watch him deliver it. You, however, will want to keep your eyes open. Between shows, while a few of us girls chatted in the back of the room, Kris had a quick photo shoot with Bruce, the house photographer. He was playing with the mic stand, making silly faces, the usual behavior you expect from a comic in front of a camera. At one point, he pulled the elastic band from his hair and let his shoulder-length braids/dreads – I’ll be honest, I didn’t look close enough to tell you which – fall around his face. All four women inhaled at the exact same moment and just stared. Where did THAT guy come from? For the first time in my life, I understood how glasses and a button-down shirt could hide the full nature of Superman. For the first time, Clark Kent made sense. Sure, Kris Shaw passes the “ears only” test. But he ain’t hard to look at, either. To take a peek, check him out on www.KrisShaw.com, friend him on Facebook or, most importantly, follow him on Twitter. He claims he only has 184 followers and wants to get 190 by 2013. You’ll also find him on YouTube and Rooftop Comedy.
So, there you have it. Another great comedy weekend here in Rochester.
Next week, Andrew Dice Clay!