Sunday, January 27, 2013

Earl David Reed

I have not been here for awhile.

I have not been able to go to the club, watch a show and then come home and immediately share the experience. There have been requirements and distractions for weeks and I have been challenged to keep my commitment to you, to these comics, to Comedy herself. I needed a jump start, a palate cleanser.

I needed tonight’s show.

I knew far too little about Earl David Reed, but I adore Tim Almeter and Anna Phillips, both of whom would be taking the stage on this Saturday night. We got to The Club a few moments after the start and squeezed into the first booth as Tim was telling one of my favorite jokes. It’s the one about the black friend from the group home who is afraid of deer – check the September Ben Bailey review for the awesome punch line. The room was filled with people who came to laugh, and they did, with and for Tim, for his whole set.

My last few comedy encounters with Tim have all been open mics, so it was a blast to be reminded how polished he is, how easily he takes that stage and transforms from young friend to professional comedian. Later tonight, Tim will insist that he’s giving it up, that he can’t do it if he can’t start making money. The truth of that situation is that he hasn’t positioned himself to, yet. While I remain convinced that Tim is the real deal, and will do well once he dives in, he struggles with his pro and con list, and I respect his struggle.

Tim brings Anna Phillips to the stage with the introduction, “This is one of the funniest people I know,” and he is not just spouting host hyperbole. We both love this woman, for her quick, dry wit and her unassuming nature, her ability to move an audience and her genuineness. Tonight’s audience seems to agree with us; they are roaring for Anna. I marvel in her vulnerability as she talks about going home for family gatherings and hearing their reactions to her weight gain; I dig her serial killer routine (Any serial killer who wanted to cut me up would need to make a lot of trips to the car. Dexter would need a two-part episode…You all deserve to die, and when I get that gastric bypass…for now, the only cereal I’m killin’ are these Honeycombs.); I laugh out loud every time I hear her “balls to the face” bit. Anna, like Tim, tried to convince me she was taking a break a short while ago; and Anna, like Tim, should not walk away from comedy ever.

Tonight is just what I needed. Tim and Anna have me and this room full of strangers laughing loudly, ready to openly engage with the man formerly known in these parts as Brother Earl. And five minutes into the show, I realize how much he scares me and how glad I am to be in the back of the room.
Earl David Reed is an exciting comic, a lightning-in-a-bottle comic. He takes crowd work to a place most can never hope to go, and the room rushes along with him like second graders in a Field Day race. Starting with simple questions we’re all capable of answering – What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? – Earl builds his 50 minutes around the audience, and they love it. Tom loves being hung like a Tic Tac; his wife giggles knowingly when Earl says she has fresh breath. The guy who says he’s from Webster (oh, so you’re from here? Obviously. Obviously? You’re not from this room….) postures for just a second, then surrenders immediately. Travis’ future wife is thrilled to let him be the punch line (When you get a name like Travis, they gotta’ give you a truck.). Matt, the engineer, is almost bursting when Earl tells him he looks tired “from working on the railroad all the live-long day.”  A second later, he’s saying exactly what’s in my head: your wife named Dinah? Someone in the kitchen with her? I won’t say “will she blow?” The audience was howling from start to finish. I have seen very few rooms this engaged, this joyful to be part of the show.

Once I realized that what I was watching was not just the way Earl warms up a crowd, but his act itself, I had to switch processing gears. And it was a simple shift, because I recognized what was unfolding onstage. If you take a look back to July, you’ll find my first-ever review of Mike Dambra, a friend and comic whose photo makes me smile and whose act left me dazzled by its brilliance. I said this: “His written jokes…are delivered in and around audience play, which makes them appear more improvised than they really are. It’s what Robin Williams said he was doing in his stand up days: he wrote a lot of material that flowed so well with the stuff he was making up on the spot, the audience thought it was all improv. That style is a lot of work, no matter how easy Mike makes it seem.”

And here was Earl David Reed, with that similar gift, wrapping his jokes around the shoulders of whoever showed up tonight ready to play. I was at once impressed by his skill, and scared that he might eventually work his way to the back of the room. It’s a weird thing with me and, like most PTSD issues, one that I can trace back to a specific incident or two, but I absolutely hate to be engaged by a comic during his/her show. I watch differently than the average audience member. I’m listening to the jokes, but I’m also analyzing the audience response, the body language, the use of silence, the energy in the room, the wordplay, whether or not I’m laughing out loud. I once unintentionally derailed a friend’s bit because I couldn’t name a woman when she called on me. I was so busy admiring her body awareness that I couldn’t shift in real time, and the only thing I could utter was “Jesus Christ!”

I shared that with Earl between shows, that I enjoyed and admired his skill but was so grateful not to have been a part of it. He pointed out to me that he wasn’t asking for real engagement or deep thought; he was asking simple questions that anyone could answer, and then just riffing on whatever he’s given. He’s not making fun of his audience, he’s playing alongside them, sharing his toys. I see that, but it doesn’t alleviate my anxiety, and I’m grateful I was on the back wall. But I’m equally grateful I got to see Earl in action. He is truly talented, and a joy to watch.

I realize that I related to Earl on two other important levels. The first is his joke joke material: Time out was what my mother used to take when she needed a rest from beatin’ the shit out of us. Remarrying someone you previously divorced is like drinking sour milk, then putting it back in the refrigerator for the next day. These Civil War re-enactors asked if I wanted to hang out with them. I know my history, too. I told ‘em to call me when they get to the Motown years.

The second is the fact that he now lives about 20 minutes from my childhood, and for the first time in years, someone recognized the name of my hometown and didn’t smirk, giggle or roll their eyes. Anyone who knows Dillsburg and doesn’t immediately start in with the pickle jokes is a potential friend for life. I will make it a point to learn more about Earl David Reed, and so should you. You can follow him on twitter at @earldavidreed, check out his website,, and pick up a dvd or a tshirt. Earl gives at least half of the proceeds to breast cancer awareness projects, so you can help others while helping yourself to some serious funny.

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