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 (not, 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.


  1. Thank you for this review. I was considering going to see him at my local Looney Bin tonight, but have not heard of him, so I wasn't sure if I should go. Appreciate it!

    1. Revolving Spark, I'd love to know what you thought of the show. Hoop truly is one of the best loved comics in my personal comedy pantheon. Anxiety-riddled quick wits have always made me laugh out loud.

      Feel free to share your experience with me, either here or at