headshot 2I heard you just got married. Do you really think you two were old enough?

I know, I know. I’m forty-five. Everyone’s like, What are you doing? You’re just kids. You don’t even know yourselves yet.

 

You wanted to honor your fiance’s large Chinese-American family, as well as your own family, which comes from places in the heartland where mofungo might be something people would treat with Gold Bond. How did that work out?

Well, we did spot our florist on the day of the wedding foraging for flowers on the side of the road.

Also, we catered it with food trucks. Mofungo featured prominently.

Please explain what just happened.

Not sure, but whatever it was, I’m sorry.

 

What is your earliest memory?

I remember riding in the very back of my family’s station wagon, with the back window down and being tired and cold. My dad wouldn’t roll the window up so I tried wrapping myself up in whatever I could find–blankets, coats, towels. Don’t know how old I was but I still love going to sleep a little chilly.

If you weren’t a comedian, what other profession would you choose?

Blackjack dealer in Vegas.

The title of this piece comes from the 1993 Rush album of the same name. It’s not about Rush, but it’s an apt title for a conversation between two college students in their early twenties who study at college, enjoy the music of Rush, and engage in the barbaric sport of stand up comedy. However, whilst we’re similar, we live on either side of the Atlantic ocean. We’re counterparts, geddit?!

This discussion was carried out two months ago. I am a British person, and my words appear in bold. Riley Fox is my American counterpart, and his words appear in italics.

When did you do your first stand up show, and what prompted you into doing it?
 
The first time I performed stand-up was May 26, 2006, although I don’t count that as my official start date.  For the last few years I had been really getting into comedy.  I watched stand-up on TV constantly, I bought CDs, DVDs, books by stand-up comedians, books about stand-up comedy in general–I got my hands on everything I could.  Sometime after I started educating myself on it, I just started writing jokes.  Every day after school, I would go home, sit at a desk, and write jokes in a spiral-bound notebook.  I wasn’t going for any kind of Seinfeld-ian level of discipline–I was just constantly writing.  Granted, whenever I go back and look at those old notebooks, I realize that nothing I wrote really resembled jokes.  They were more just goofy ramblings of an American high school kid, but of course I found them all hilarious at the time.

Haha, I think that, the old notebooks, are part of the territory when it comes to writing jokes as a kid… Where did you go form there?

I was wrapping up my junior year of high school, and I had some friends who were in a band.  They knew that I was writing these jokes (even though they’d never heard anything I’d ever written), and we were all young kids who didn’t know any better, so one of them basically said, “Hey, we’ve got a show.  You wanna open for us and tell your jokes?” Amazingly, I didn’t even think twice about it before saying yes.

One of my early shows was like that. My first time telling jokes on stage was the 2003 school talent show where my friend George and I were the only acts not doing an Avril Lavigne cover version (Avril was pretty big at the time…). That went okay but I didn’t do it again for about four years and it was kind of like your thing— a guy I knew was desperate to pad out this high school concert and put me on despite my lack of experience. I absolutely died onstage, but somehow got paid for it…

I’ve heard so many comedians tell stories about their first times onstage–usually they KILL, or they DIE. It’s almost never anywhere in the middle.  I got lucky, and I killed.  Not only that, but I somehow managed to do a 25-minute set. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and in an odd way, I don’t think I’ve done that well since that night. To some extent, my whole career since then has basically been a collective attempt to do as well as I did then. The jokes don’t hold up anymore, but it’s more about going for that feeling of connecting with the audience mentally to the point that they are completely onboard with everything you say. It’s only happened to me a couple of times since that first show, but not to that level. However, after a few more of those gigs opening for friends’ bands and a couple of bar shows— gigs that didn’t go very well in comparison to the first—I kinda drifted away from comedy for a little bit when I left for my first year of college.

I think I know the feeling. Up until last year I could practically count the number of shows I’d done on my thumbs. I’ve only done one really good show, but I felt it validated the effort spent trying to get onstage. It was a twenty minute story, rather than traditional jokes, about being painfully rejected by a girl. Just as I was about to start the routine I had to deal with a heckler, who I managed to silence. Weirdly that helped give me focus and authority. I could see people on the edges of their seats, and each punchline in the story killed. It’s an incomparable experience. It’s that feeling, or at least the search for that buzz that makes it worth the effort… what keeps comics coming back, even if they’re bombing most nights…

I don’t think I’m ruining the suspense by saying you drifted back to stand up…

Fast-forward to Fall 2008.  I almost flunked out of college my first year, and I had just gotten out of a fairly heavy relationship, so I moved back home outside of Nashville to regroup.  Over that summer I had slowly started reconnecting with a couple of comedians whom I’d met during my previous stint in stand-up, and they encouraged me to start doing it again.  I needed something to fill the void, so I started performing regularly at open mics and comedy clubs in Tennessee the week after Barack Obama was elected.  I remember it that way because Nashville‘s most popular open mic show is on Tuesdays— and so was Election Day of 2008.  I wanted to stay home and watch the election results, so I decided that the next week I would begin doing comedy for real.  Haven’t stopped since.

On your Facebook page you claim your job is better than everyone elses because you can drink at work if you want to. When we started hanging out in that old MySpace group in 2007 neither of us were old enough to drink. But now that you are old enough to drink on stage, do you ever make use of the opportunity?

There are two things that go into that:

1. what kind of show it is, and 2. what my role in the show is.  If I’m emceeing/hosting at a comedy club, I usually don’t drink during the show. I like to be in control of myself when I’m performing.  And as the host, you’re essentially the person in charge of controlling the show.  If you can’t control yourself because you’re drunk, you can’t control the show.  I might have a beer or two at most, but I try to stick to the whole professionalism thing because I think its important starting out, especially in comedy clubs.

That was my attitude when I started, on and off stage actually. I used to be quite sensible…

Now, if I’m just performing at an open mic at a random bar, then it doesn’t matter.  I’ll have a few drinks before I go on if I feel like it.  It’s a much looser atmosphere.  The only thing that will stop me there is if I’m really focused on workshopping a specific piece of new material— this goes back to the whole control issue.
 
I never did, but then I started getting free drinks from the management of the place where I run a comedy night. There were mixed results… the material I’ve been doing fit with drinking, but drinking didn’t fit with being a good host. 

I try not to overthink that kind of stuff, as far as the whole “comic persona” thing goes.  I try not to have a particular “attitude” or what have you.  I’ve always tried to present myself as myself in the sense that if I’m telling a joke about something that happened to me, I want to tell the joke in the same way that I felt when that thing happened to me.

I’ve been wrestling with the ‘comic persona’ thing since I got back into doing it because I wanted to be a ‘cool’ stand up. Which is ridiculous, because there’s nothing funny about being cool— some, if not most, comedy comes from awkwardness and being an outsider.

Exactly.  There’s an American comic named Jimmy Dore who has said in interviews and podcasts that comedy should always aim upward, in that your targets should always be above you in some sense-like making fun of political leaders rather than the homeless bums around the corner.  To him, comedy is about being the underdog in every situation, and I think that’s the right perspective to have.

You host an open mic, right?

Yeah, I host an open mic in Knoxville, TN, where I go to school.

How did that come about? 

Quite frankly, it just fell into my lap, and I wish the story was much more interesting than it is.  The open mic had already existed for a couple of months, but another guy hosted it.  Then the workload from his day job got too heavy, so he handed it off to me.  That’s it.  I should make up some outlandish behind-the-scenes story. (“Yeah, another guy hosted it and said that if anyone could pin him in a no-holds-barred backyard wrestling match, he’d give them the show.  Well, a couple of chairs and a figure-four leglock later, I hosted the next show via Skype from my hospital bed across town.”)

Funnily enough that’s almost exactly how I came to host one over here…

With the one I run it was a total accident. I e-mailed the one venue in town asking how much it might cost to hire a room to do a stand up show and ended up with free reign over my own series of open mic shows. I wasn’t the most qualified candidate, but it would take an unambitious and/or honest man to turn that down.

How does acting as MC compare to a usual slot in the show? I find I almost prefer it… it’s almost less pressure… if a joke bombs you can just bring someone else on to repair the damage and you get plenty more chances to win the crowd over again…

I like emceeing.  Its fun, but the amount of pressure depends on where you’re doing it.  I don’t know how British comedy clubs are, but in the US, there are some clubs where as the emcee, you have to do four or five minutes’ worth of announcements to plug their merchandise, social media (Facebook, Twitter), drink specials, upcoming events, etc., in addition to performing your material.  That can be a pretty big challenge because now you’re thinking about eight different things in your head that you gotta juggle alongside your jokes.  It’s great experience, though— a bit of hosting boot camp, if you will, and it makes it easier to handle in other situations.

I guess I’m pretty lucky. It’s not strictly a comedy club, and the managers don’t really give a fuck what I do as long as I include an interval so they can sell drinks…

There are other clubs that might just want you to maybe throw in an announcement for upcoming shows and then let you do whatever you want with the rest of your time.  Obviously, this scenario is much easier to deal with because you can focus mainly on the material.  The only other challenge as an emcee at a comedy club is keeping track of time.  The shows have to stay within a certain length, so you can’t spend 5-10 minutes in-between acts doing more material— you gotta keep things moving.

I don’t have official time constraints with mine. I sort of throw in a little joke here or there if it feels like it’s a good time or if the previous act maybe killed the mood a bit. I do tend to find there’s a natural time limit with the audience. Once it gets to about half past eleven people start leaving…

At an open mic, or an independently-run comedy night like yours, the emcee has a lot more leeway.  You can makes jokes in-between performers–which most comedy club shows prefer you not to do.  But you have no time constraints (unless there’s some other event happening after your show), so you can do pretty much whatever you want.  At a comedy club, you’re basically running the club’s show.  At a bar open mic, you’re running your show.

Another horribly clichéd question: influences. We could both probably talk about Bill Hicks at length at this point, and probably Carlin too… but let’s go more contemporary… which current stand ups do you admire right now?

Haha, you and I have gone on for way too long about Hicks and Carlin in past conversations, and I could keep going if I had to.  But I love discussing more contemporary comics too.  Lewis Black is probably at the top of my list.  He was actually the guy who sparked the whole thing for me.  I saw him on Comedy Central when I was a teenager and thought he was the funniest guy in the world.  I remember once actually recording a couple of his old half-hour specials on the network so I could transcribe his act and study it.  I’ve always had an affinity for the social commentary-types–although my act isn’t nearly as far in that direction as I’d like it to be–and he was the first one I latched onto.

I’ve only ever really seen Lewis Black on The Daily Show which doesn’t air over here any more. I remember he did a particularly long segment on Glenn Beck’s obsession with Nazis which was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Lewis Black’s stand-up is hysterical.  If you have to start anywhere, you have to start with his first three albums-the White Album, The End of the Universe, and Rules of Enragement-they were recorded back during his comedy club road-dog years (he mainly plays big theatres now).  His pace has slowed in recent years, but on those records he is in full-on rapid-fire pissed-off rant-mode.  Top-form. (I think I’ve hit my hyphen quota for the decade.)

Another big favorite of mine is Marc Maron.  He has a podcast called WTF with Marc Maron that is required listening for anyone with an interest in comedy.  He mainly focuses on American comedians, but he’s done a few episodes abroad, such as England, Ireland, and very recently, Australia–each featuring comics from those regions.  His stand-up is top-notch as well.  One of the most emotionally open comics I’ve ever seen in my life, and his podcast reflects that as well.

I remember you recommending that podcast. I don’t have a good excuse for not listening to it either. The main internet place for British stand up, Chortle.com, has had a link to it for weeks. I suppose my excuse is I’ve been kind of busy writing recently. It’s not a good excuse, but it’ll have to do…

And then, as far as simple jokes go, I am a huge Todd Barry fan.  He is one of my favorite joke writers.  He has one CD that has 55 tracks–one joke per track, and most of the jokes are the length of about a minute or less.  He’s not a one-liner guy like Mitch Hedberg; he’s just a bare-bones set-up/punch kind of guy.  No filler; no fat.  Every joke cuts right to the chase, and they are all fucking masterpieces.

I just watched [British stand up] Stewart Lee’s latest TV show which is inter-cut with conversations with his producer apologizing for the lack of jokes in the episode. He tells four deliberately bad jokes right at the end in a weird send up of his lack of conventional joke telling. He’s one of the few British stand ups that I take influence from/totally rip off. I know we’ve spoken about him before; did you ever get around to checking him out? 
 
I still need to get into Stewart Lee.  One of these days I’m just gonna go on a big YouTube binge and watch everything I can find of his.  Anyone I’ve ever known who’s talked about him–yourself included–has done nothing but sing the highest of praises for the guy.  He’s like your Winston Churchill of comedy or something.

I should probably absorb more from British stand ups, because frankly I sound too middle class and well spoken to pull off the same sort of delivery as those American stand ups. It’s one of those weird situations, like with sitcoms I guess, where Americans can come over here and we relate, but it doesn’t work so much the other way around. Are you familiar with any of our comics? 

I’m aware of several British comedians, though I still am ridiculously behind in my knowledge of modern British comedy.  I know of guys like Stewart Lee, Bill Bailey (I’ve got a friend who is REALLY into him), Tim Minchin, and then of course your heavy hitters like Ricky Gervais, Eddie Izzard, etc.  However, I’ve only seen very small snippets of things from each of them, so I don’t have as much to draw on as I do the American comics. (Bill Bailey’s “oud” bit is pretty damn funny, I can say that much.)

I feel I should add, for any Aussies that might read this, that Minchin is technically one of yours.

It’s interesting you mention Gervais. I read an article by a professional stand up who doesn’t think Gervais can be counted as a true stand up. I’m sort of inclined to agree… his shows are very funny, but it’s hard to imagine them being so successful if he’d started out before writing an incredibly successful TV show. Some stand ups over here consider it almost cheating…

Yeah, there’s some debate about whether Gervais is really a stand-up over here too.  There’s a small group of comedians in the States who started off as television or film actors and then used their success to fuel a second career in stand-up after their acting career went bunk.  Hell, I think there are even some soap opera stars touring comedy clubs in the US now.  They aren’t really regarded as legitimate comics either, because they never had to work their way to the top in the stand-up industry (and therefore, don’t really have the chops for it).  Case in point: Michael Richards.  And, I guess, Gervais.

Finally, you’re one of the people to blame for me liking Rush. I hated them, but between you and the radio DJ with a Rush obsession who kept playing Far Cry every twenty minutes I ended up totally reversing my opinion. I’m still not sure what it is about them that I like… can you describe the appeal?

One of the reasons Rush resonates with me so deeply is because all three of them are social outcasts that never really belonged in the framework of the mainstream. Their music doesn’t fit into a neat little box, and the three of them as people are even a little eccentric. But rather than complain about how they’re not more popular, they’ve pretty much come to terms with their cult status and even embraced it. I think most comedians are wired the same way— we don’t fit in with the sort of generic cookie-cutter lifestyle that the rest of society leads, and comedy is our way of circumventing that path.

But I don’t blame you or anyone else for hating them at first.  Hell, truth be told, I hated them at first too.  

I think it’s mostly Geddy’s voice… that or all the talking trees…

They are definitely an acquired taste, but in my opinion, it’s a taste worth acquiring. Like really good beer.

Kind of like Guinness…

EXACTLY!





Shortly after the completion of this interview I semi-retired from semi-doing stand up to focus on re-writing and directing my first play at a proper theatre.

Meanwhile Riley is a better and more accomplished stand up than I am because he does regular shows. This is a list of his upcoming shows.

 


Please explain what just happened.

I was playing Nintendo 64 College Basketball with my five year old son. I was Kentucky and I dominated Utah. I got him this Nintendo because I helped a guy move and he gave me the entire unit and about twenty games.

What is your earliest memory?

I was maybe four and gave my little sister Jennifer a rubber band to play with in her crib. She had it wrapped around her finger a bunch and it was turning an awful blue color. Someone in the family saw it and there was general chaos in the house for many minutes.

Or maybe it was the time I wrote all over the walls and stuff with a permanent marker and my mother was super furious… beat your ass with a wooden spoon furious. She yelled, “What is THIS?”

“It says I love you mommy,” I said. Then there was a moved heart that couldn’t possibly punish me. So I guess my earliest memory is using others’ emotions to get myself out of trouble.

Please explain what just happened.

I just read over my bio thinking that I should be wealthier.

What is your earliest memory?

Since I was a kid I’ve had this lingering memory of me being in my mother’s womb thinking, “I will do things differently this time.”

 

“So the Death Star is the woman?” Sam asked.

“Yes!Finally!Someone else finally gets it.I’ve been trying to say that for half an hour,” the stripper said.She had to be a stripper.I had been passively sitting at a table in the back room of the Laff Stop, sipping on a Jameson and watching this nuclear winter of a conversation for the past twenty minutes.

Hard Eight

By Slade Ham

Memoir

Las Vegas would probably make my head explode.  I’ve been hiding in my hotel room as much as possible, huddled away safely distant from the blinking lights and the clanging bells of the casino floor beneath me.  I walked to the showroom earlier to see the layout, and then out to the pool to avoid the mile wide marketing ploys of my temporary employers, but now I have to go back down there.  I have a show tonight at one of the Choctaw Nation’s properties in Oklahoma.  The flashing neon flytrap I have to walk through to get to that show brings me mixed emotions.

Despite my own penchant for risky behavior, I am not a big gambler.  Blackjack amuses me because it offers the most control but poker is my only real temptation.  Even then, I prefer to stay out of the casino poker rooms and would much rather shuffle my chips amongst a group of friends.  It’s just such obviously orchestrated bullshit, the casino experience as a whole.  My job tonight is to make no bets at all.  Tell jokes, collect a check, soak in the hot tub, and go home.

It’s hard though.

Maddening patterns on the carpet floors keep your head up and moving.  Just when you focus on one thing, another thing blinks or pops out of the corner of your eye.  Look at this!  No this!  No that! Ancient, wrinkled women and men lie propped up, possibly deceased, against rows of slot machines.  The bars spin and stop, another loser.  Occasionally a distant bell signals a big winner, prolonging the myth of victory and encouraging the living dead to feed another twenty into the slot.  Somewhere a grandchild goes without college.

A man and woman pass me in hallway.  He is furious.  She is staring blankly ahead.  There aren’t enough lights in the world to distract her now, and even if they could, she has just cleaned out their bank account.  I know this because the man just said, “You realize that you cleaned out our entire motherfucking bank account, right?”  This poor guy.  God, have I been there.

He must be new at this.  He obviously hasn’t gone through it enough times yet to keep a separate, hidden account.  She still has access to his money.  You’re dating an obsessive gambler, I want to tell him.  You can’t share finances with her.  You have to hide your cash like Anne Frank at Oktoberfest, you dummy.  Believe me.  I know.

* * *

My ex was the queen of the casino.  Beaumont, Texas is a little city thirty minutes west of the Louisiana border.  Louisiana law makes it easy to gamble.  As long as a casino isn’t on actually land the government allows it so, scattered throughout the state are riverboats, perched inches away from shore and welcoming anyone that wants to lose a few dollars inside.

Table games are forced into the waterways but video poker is allowed everywhere.  There’s not a gas station or restaurant in the state that doesn’t have a series of eight-liners against one wall or another.  Brittany found them all.  She bet just to bet.  It was a compulsion.  She had VIP player’s cards at every one of the major casinos and the pit bosses all knew her by name.

I went with her for a while in the beginning, before I realized she had a problem.  I quit going the first time she bit me.  She had run out of money and thought she could somehow win back the six hundred dollars she had just blown – if I would only give her a twenty.  When I refused she leaned in and bit me, violently, then pickpocketed me while I inspected the wound.  She went on her own after that.

She would walk past security like the cast of Ocean’s Eleven.  I don’t remember if that ever happened in the movie or not, but I imagine it did, and encourage you to imagine it as well so my comparison will make sense.  Guards waved at her when she sauntered by and you could actually see wind blow through her hair in slow motion, even indoors.  Music played.  Employees greeted her by name.  She strode past the patrons at the five and ten dollar tables.  The common folk.  The riff raff.  Back to the high roller room, the casino staff practically carried her on their shoulders.  She wasn’t there to lose small amounts, dammit.  She was there to lose it all.

And this wasn’t a girl with a trust fund to squander or someone with a lawyer’s salary and a pricey vice.  Brittany was a waitress.  She took a week’s worth of tips and spun it into gold… before spinning it right back into nothing again.  It’s the gambler’s dilemma, not knowing when to stop.  Brittany was good.  Very good.  She just couldn’t quit while she was ahead.

My cell phone rang one morning at 8:00 am.  She had been gone for two days and was finally calling.  “I’m coming home,” she said.  “And you’re not going to believe this.”

She pulled up to the apartment in a shiny new black Chrysler Sebring.  “What happened to the Escort?” I asked.

“I left it at the dealership when I bought this one.’

“You bought a car?  At 8:00 am?”

“Yep.  Told the guy I’d give him a hundred bucks if he’d unlock the door and sell it to me.”

“So you won then?”

“Thirty-five thousand.  Blackjack.  It took a while and I’m tired.  I’m going to bed.  ‘Night.”

“Goodnight?  It’s morning,” I started to say, but she was already inside.

No wonder they loved her there.  She partied with reckless abandon, flinging hundred dollar chips around like quarters and almost certainly out-drinking and out-cussing everyone else at the table.  When she was on, she was on.  She never played it safe.  Blackjack, three card poker, craps, it didn’t matter.  Pass line?  No thanks.  Put it all on hard eight.

She fell asleep for a few hours and was back on the road to Louisiana almost immediately.  She shouldn’t have gone.  She should have quit.  Forever.  She had thirty-five thousand reasons to stop, yet twenty-four hours after her nap, she had not only lost every dollar from the day before, but an additional twenty thousand that the casino had given her as a marker.  She threw the money away like a crack head mother tossing out an unwanted baby.  It couldn’t have been gone faster if she’d put it directly into a dumpster.  It was staggering.

Casinos put signs up displaying a phone number to call if you have a gambling problem, but no one ever calls them.  It’s a drug, that feeling of victory.  Doubling down and getting your ten.  Splitting aces and watching them both hit.  Seeing the dealer draw to a bust.  It’s an incredible endorphin rush.  But it is still a drug.

Brittany would bet on just about anything.  That was almost the only way to get her to not go gambling – to bet her that she wouldn’t stay home.

* * *

So yes.  As I pass this girl in the hallway, I recognize the look.  The empty stare painted on the face of this now penniless zombie scares me a little bit.  It sends a ripple of goose bumps up my arm as I walk past.

“What are we going to do about Tommy?” she asks the pissed off guy walking ahead of her.

I don’t know who Tommy is, but I’m guessing he was relying on a portion of their bank account for something important.  He might be their son or her brother or a loan shark with an itchy trigger finger.

“Fuck Tommy,” says the man.  “We don’t even have enough gas to get home.”

As the two of them make their way down the hall to the exit, I turn my gaze to follow them.  Are they really just going to go stand outside by the car?  Maybe they’re going to walk home.  Maybe he will sell her into slavery for gas money.  I want to be sympathetic, but that guy has to learn his lesson sometime, doesn’t he?

Right now, I have my own set of problems.  I have to go into a room full of shattered financial dreams and empty wallets.  I have to stare at seats filled with broken souls taking advantage of a free show, probably the only thing they can still afford, and somehow figure out a way to make them laugh.

The casino wants the show clean, too.  I don’t work that dirty to begin with, but I still hate having the limitation thrown on my shoulders.  “Our customers have high moral values,” the manager tells me.  “They don’t use language like that.”  I laugh on the inside.

I can see them through the curtain from backstage.  The disappointment drips silently down their faces like frustrated molasses.  Arms crossed, they sit in the showroom, waiting.  We’re out of cash, their eyes tell me.  We’re beaten and we’re broke.  Now make us laugh, Chuckle Monkey.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that even the holiest of these people have uttered the word “fuck” once or twice in the last few hours.

I don’t particularly want to walk out there right now but I have to.  My opening act just said goodnight and I’m about to be introduced.  The music is playing.  They can’t be that bad, right?  This show is going to be fine, I tell myself.

And then my subconscious answers me.  “Wanna bet?”


In 2005 I got a phone call to come to Shreveport and kill a dragon.Dragon slaying is a metaphor I adopted long ago – the origins of which are probably best saved for another story.Still, this was a mission.My friend Rachel ran the comedy club there at the time and thought I should come in for a particular weekend to “help her solve a problem”.She had called me more than a few times about it, actually, but that was all the information she would give me.