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…
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.