It’s a familiar response from people who’ve just met someone that calls comedy their full-time job.
On the surface, it’s glamorous: laughter, bright spotlights, and traveling the world. But like sausage-making, the real action is far from pretty. What goes unseen is the struggle undertaken by comedians to perform on that stage.
In his new mini-eBook, Go Home Happy, stand-up veteran and Rooftop contributing blogger Nathan Timmel leads the reader through a funny, pride-swallowing journey navigating the minefield of club owners, booking agents, drunken hecklers, and unexpected friends.
Part fun and games, part sobering insight, Go Home Happy takes the stand-up comedy fan behind Oz’s curtain to reveal the tedious struggles—and rewarding moments—that come with this spotlighted territory.
Here’s an excerpt:
When people cannot handle a particular performer or joke, they sometimes feel the need to offer their opinions loudly, and in the middle of a show. Hecklers, as they are known. These people are instant critics. Hecklers have something to say, and in an age of Twitter and Facebook updates they can share feelings instantly and constantly. They forget what discretion is and demand their opinion be heard, even if it is in direct opposition to the 200 audience members surrounding them, people who happen to be enjoying themselves.
The most odd moments of my act bring out objection in people. Three of the strangest events are:
Upon the birth of my daughter, I commented on the fact I’d rather have a gay child than one with a food allergy. I happen to love peanut butter, and I’ve always been a friend to the gay community, so I’d rather my daughter be attracted to the same gender than have to give up my vice. Because of that statement, a woman handed in a note stating their son had a food allergy and that she didn’t find my thoughts on the subject funny in the slightest.
After visiting Iraq and performing for American soldiers stationed in a dangerous war zone, I made the suggestion that to keep the people we care about safe—our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters in uniform—we should bring them home and use prisoners and gang members to fight our wars. My specific punchline was: “If they win, great. If they lose, fuck it, great! Either way, no one we care about gets hurt.” From the back of one comedy club, “Prisoners have rights too, asshole!” was shouted and an angry man stormed out. The crowd was stunned; someone was defending murderers and rapists at the expense of the American military?
While in the middle of a pro-immigration joke, I was interrupted by a Hispanic woman who began shouting that immigrants were hard-working people, and didn’t deserve to be made fun of. When I pointed out that I had just said exactly that, and that I was making fun of racists who believed otherwise, she went on a five-minute tirade about how wrong it was of me to be talking about immigration when immigrants built America. We were on the same side of the issue, yet she was too drunk (or dim) to understand that. I could barely get a word in edgewise as she babbled on incoherently.
The worst thing about people who cry “Offensive!” at any given topic, is they are generally only offended by their one, personal pet fetish. A comedian can say what they want about any subject, as long as it isn’t the one that “hits too close to home.”
Look at the movie Ted, for example. If you are unfamiliar, it’s a film by Seth MacFarlane, creator of the television show Family Guy. The humor is politically incorrect to say the least, and lewd, rude, and crude to say the most. I loved the movie and laughed to the point of tears throughout it. The film contained jokes about religion, gender roles, drug use, 9/11, and of course, one line involving Lou Gehrig’s disease. In a complaint that made national news, a patron with ALS stated he was enjoying himself up to the point Marky Mark’s character wished the disease upon Joel McHale, but that particular line went “too far.”
Examine that thought process: the man wasn’t upset by jokes about race, religion, 9/11, or homosexuality, because they didn’t apply to him. But when a joke invaded his personal space it was suddenly over the line. Hypocritical? Absolutely. But rarely do people take a moment to scrutinize the whole of any situation; they only understand what angers them, because that’s all that matters.
As a straight white male, Nathan fits neatly into the demographic most likely to fear the LGBT community. When ‘Gay Rights’ are being discussed on the news or in the world of politics, white males are generally those opposed to equality.
In his essay Same Same, Nathan describes how an upbringing devoid of homophobia—something unusual for a small Midwest town in the early 1980s—prevented him from falling into the trappings of bigotry. Though various forms of racism and prejudice governed many around him, Nathan maintained the strong belief that all people are equal.
With stories from childhood to current day, Nathan describes:
The intolerance he witnessed in small-town Wisconsin.
Gay bars he tentatively visited in Milwaukee (only to find they put straight bars and their testosterone-soaked clientele to shame).
His own near miss with gay bashing while walking with a friend in Boston.
A run-in with an overly zealous fella at his local gym, someone who held an all-too-obvious interest in Nathan.
Despite surroundings that should have tainted his point of view, Nathan turned a shoulder to the negativity, returning instead to the strong belief instilled in him as a child: love is love, no matter the gender of those involved.
Here’s an excerpt:
I was almost twelve years old when I first learned what homosexuality is. This would have been 1981, before the Internet gave humanity the availability to spread information worldwide instantaneously. I’m betting kids as young as four know what “gay” is today, but back then YouTube and Facebook didn’t exist. Social networking occurred on front porches or in the supermarket, and kids played baseball outside, not on videogame systems. (A truth that could, if I were so bold, lead me down a path involving the obesity epidemic America faces. But I’ll leave that be. For now.)
Though I may not have known what homosexuality was during the first decade of my life, it had still existed around me in a very open way. Every so often my “uncles” James and Tony would visit my family, or we would visit them. They lived together in Chicago, and to my wee little mind it was simply two of my dad’s many brothers living together. The arrangement made sense to me, and when we visited I never exactly put on a Sherlock Holmes cap and poked around: “Why, this apartment seems to have only one bedroom, and said bedroom doesn’t have bunk beds. How odd.”
I really liked Tony, because not only was he flamboyant and fun, he indirectly allowed me to see my very first R-rated movie; Tony has a small part in The Blues Brothers. Because of that fact, my parents allowed me to slide into the theater ahead of the age-17 restriction placed upon the film. Tony isn’t in the credits, which is odd, because he actually has a speaking part. In the French restaurant, when Jake and Elwood are trying to recruit Mr. Fabulous back into the band, Tony is the waiter who says “Wrong glass, sir” to Dan Aykroyd. Give the scene a glance; you can tell he’s gay just by looking at him. Not that it matters, but the second R-rated movie I saw was The Road Warrior, and my first PG movie was Orca, the Killer Whale. I may not remember my wedding anniversary, but I can remember these nuggets of useless information. Yup.
Regardless, as relationships do wane, eventually James and Tony parted ways and the next time we visited I was introduced to my “uncles” James, and Ray. Even as a child, I was not stupid and knew something was amiss. Apparently Ray had been hidden away in a Harry Potter-style closet for many years, my grandparents were adopting full-grown men into their family… or something else was happening. Something I didn’t quite comprehend at such a young age. As James was the constant variable in the two relationships, he was obviously my father’s actual blood relation. Now I had to wonder: who were Tony and Ray?
On Thursday, March 14th, 2013, I logged on to Facebook like it was any other day. I scrolled down the innocuous news feed of people talking of how there was only “One more day until Friday!!” and extolling the virtues of coffee, when a status update floored me. A former MWR representative from Kuwait posted, “I am shocked and saddened to learn my good friend Scott Kennedy passed away in his sleep last night…” There may have been more to it than that, but my mind was already too numb to read further. Scott was gone? Just… gone? The concept was too foreign for my mind to digest. He couldn’t be gone; he was my friend. Friend’s don’t die, death is something you hear about other people experiencing and grieving over…
I met Scott years and years and years ago, in the “delightful” little burg known as Modesto, California. Scott was headlining a comedy show; I was the middle act. The club was downtown, a location in the middle of an ever-evolving revitalization project where new stores were surrounded by old Bail Bond shops. Affluent yuppies stepped around bearded homeless men with little concern as they marched into the trendiest of trendy clubs.
Scott and I bonded over a mutual appreciation for one another’s comedic chops, as well as a passion for civil rights. I say “civil rights,” because if you didn’t know it, Scott was gay. He wasn’t in the closet by any means, and in fact, talked about his orientation in his act (and on television), but it was nothing he led with. No, Scott would drop that bomb right in the middle of his set: “Oh, by the way, this big, burly man that’s been talking football, family and relationships? Yeah… he’s gay.” Sexuality wasn’t something Scott wore on his sleeves like a less talented comedian might do—using “gay” as a crutch to get cheap laughs—no, Scott went up and performed comedy, winning the audience over using his wit and observational eye. Only many minutes deep into his set did he let the audience in on his secret, and it challenged the hell out of what stereotypes people thought “gay” was. Which, Scott would tell you, is exactly why he tailored his set the way he did. With his magician’s reveal, Scott became the everyman; “Why, he could be my brother, cousin, uncle…” It was a fantastic way of combating homophobia, albeit by not even mentioning homophobia or being confrontational. If anything, it was designed to be an afterthought. Which is made it all the more subversive, brilliant, and effective.
After those shows, Scott and I kept in… probably somewhat-annual touch after that; maybe checking in every 13 months or so, just to say “Hi,” and then like happens so often in the comedy world, we just forgot to reach out to one another. Somewhere in the couple years between exchanges, Scott got involved in military tours, and that is where his legacy will shine. Were I a better researcher, I would look up the exact number of times Scott put himself on the line to make sure the men and women who serve knew they were appreciated. As it stands, I know the number is north of 50, which means calling him this generation’s “Bob Hope” would not be too far off the mark.
I was lucky enough to tour Iraq with Scott in 2010, and it was unlike any other experience I had ever had. Scott was a man born without ego; everything he did was for the troops. No matter the situation, he was ready to perform for them. In a war zone, nothing is done under optimal conditions, but that didn’t matter in the slightest to Scott. “How can we give the soldiers the best experience possible?” was all he wanted answered. If there was an outpost in need of distraction, if there was any single person who needed to be reminded they were appreciated and cared for, Scott wanted nothing more than to make sure they got a show. His dedication to those in harms way was unparalleled.
I cannot for the life of me remember how it happened, but at one point on the tour, one of us referenced the Family Guy episode where James Woods exclaims, “Oh, piece of candy!” Like many little things that make up the best in friendships, that became our calling card. It was a running joke for the rest of the tour, and for months and months after, a random text would hit my phone, “Oh, piece of candy!”
My deepest empathy is with his family at this time.
On August 31, 2010, President Obama addressed the nation. He declared combat missions in Iraq over and announced a troop drawdown would begin. One day later, comedian Nathan Timmel boarded a plane as a part of the first group of entertainers to enter the war-torn country under this new ‘mission.’
Telling jokes to soldiers who face death every day is a different kind of performance – no stages, microphones, or spotlights. Rec rooms, dining facilities, and courtyards become performance spaces, and comedians use their best stage voice to tell their stories without the benefit of a P.A. system. All the while, armed escorts scan the perimeter for signs of danger.
A most notable—and unfortunate—difference is: when playing a comedy club in America, you don’t tour the local emergency room and receive information about the customer who died there last week. While being shown a medical facility outside Basra, however, that’s exactly what happened. A quiet moment that brought home the true cost of war.
Thought-provoking, sentimental, and an unflinching critique of a seemingly lazy mainstream media, An Inattention to Detail is a reflection on the unique responsibility of delivering punch lines to those who need laughter the most.
Once again I am returning from a light sabbatical. Last time, I was working on the release of my first full-length book, I Was a White Knight… Once. (Something you can check out by clicking the nifty link provided)
(Yes, that’s also a clickable link. Go ahead, check it out. You know you want to)
The tale is a split-story regarding the arrival of a new baby under my roof; half is from my dog Kitty’s point of view, half from mine.
Right now, it’s only available on the Amazon Kindle, but hopefully that will be changing soon. If you don’t have a Kindle, they have plenty of free reader apps available, and guess what? My download is less than a buck. 99-Cents is all it takes to take to read yourself to sleep at night, and keep this in mind: as it’s an e-book, no trees were harmed in the making of it. Sure, plenty of Chinese slave labor went into making the electronics device you’ll be reading it on, but don’t think about them. Think about the trees. The carbon-dioxide absorbing/oxygen-emitting trees.
They weren’t harmed at all.
Below is an excerpt.
(Oh, and if family-friendly comedy isn’t your style? Check out my first mini-book,Touched By Anything But an Angel. That’s about me getting a massage from a man. Disgusting, isn’t it?)
From The Four-Legged Perspective:
On December 2nd, 2012, at 1:10 in the morning, I awoke with a start. Something didn’t feel right, and it was my belly and body. I was warm, and immense pressure was pushing up from my stomach into my throat.
I was going to throw up.
Maybe. Suddenly the urge to purge was more the sensation I was about to make liquid boom-boom.
(I’m not sure which exit strategy frightened me more.)
I left the bedroom and went to the living room to assess the situation; was this a false alarm, or was I really about to be sick? The hot cocoa I had before bed was burning in me. I wasn’t feverish or achy, so it wasn’t the flu. Food poisoning, maybe? I had been in Mexico ten years earlier; maybe a sleeper cell of Montezuma’s Revenge had taken root in my colon and was finally coming to fruition? No, that’s just silly talk right there.
Twenty minutes later, at 1:30, I heard Hillary fuss in her room. My ears perked, but I made no motion toward her; she often makes little pig noises as she transitions between sleep cycles. As a new dad, when I first heard them months earlier, I would lay in bed petrified, horrific new parent thoughts running through my head: “Do these sounds mean she can’t breathe? Is she getting enough oxygen? Is she about to wake up and start crying?” Should I get a bottle ready? Should I go pick her up? I should probably pick her up. When in doubt, always pick the baby up and let her feel Daddy’s warmth to let her know she is loved.”
(I know that’s in absolutely zero parenting books, but I thought it just the same. And I did, thankfully, just let her sleep.)
Very quickly, however, Hillary’s transition squeaks became comforting. Once we discovered they were natural, they were a sign all was well in Hillary-world, which acted as a sort of melatonin to us: “Ah, she’s good. Now I can sleep, too.”
But, snap back to the present, a few seconds after her initial peep, I heard Hillary gurgle, then choke and spit up. As I stood to check on her, she started crying.
Before I could get around the chair I had been sitting in, Kitty burst into view; he was headed from the master bedroom to Hillary’s room. Kitty saw me walking in his direction, and paused…
When Rooftop asked if I wanted to talk to Steve Gillespie about his new CD release, Stever Fever, I said “Absolutely yes.” I don’t know the man well, but I had bumped into him several times on the road and really enjoyed his comedy.
The last time I worked with Steve, it was at a bar in Iowa. At least, that’s what our itinerary said. Upon arrival, Steve and I discovered the location was a supper club, and a fairly swanky (by Iowa standards) one at that. We looked at our clothes–we had each dressed our best for a dingy bar–and felt a little out of place. To make matters worse, the space was decorated for a wedding, one taking place the next day. The walls were adorned in white lace, and our “stage” was the altar.
Fortunately, the audience was in a laughing mood and not in any way confined or defined by our surroundings; they laughed with ease and the gig was a fun one.
With a wink to Justin Beiber, Steve’s new release is out now.
NT: Where’d the title and cover come from; was it a difficult process?
SG: The name was the easy part. The cover art was challenging. I like taking goofy pictures, I have quite a collection, and deciding which one I liked best and fit with what I thought the title is conveying, was difficult.
With that said, I am really pleased with how it came out. I thinks its look sharp.
NT: Any rejected titles you’d like to share?
SG: I overheard a women in a restaurant say “I’m a badass girl in a tough ass world” and I thought for a moment that A Badass Girl in a Tough Ass world could work, but I’m glad I went with Stever Fever. It fits well with the tone of the album.
NT: How long did it take you to write the material?
SG: I think all of the material on the album has been written over the past 4 years. Some of it within a month of the release.
NT: Is this your first CD?
SG: Yes, and some are probably hoping its my last.
NT: How long have you been performing; how long did it take you to find your voice?
SG: My first time on stage was on Jan. 17th 2006, so just over 7 years.
Find my voice? That’s hard to pinpoint and in a lot of ways I think you never stop finding it. It should evolve as you evolve.
For the sake of the question, I would say I started to notice a definite direction around year 3-4.
NT: Do you see yourself remaining in Minneapolis, or have you an eye on LA or NY?
SG: The plan for me right now is to remain in Minneapolis for the next 2 to 3 years at the most and then move to Los Angeles.
I have spent the past two summers in Los Angeles and have been slowly prodding in that direction.
NT: How has the Minneapolis comedy scene influenced you?
SG: The “scene” (fucking hate that word), has made an enormous impression on my work. I’d put this city up against any other in the world as fast developing comics. I know the rebuttal, “(whining voice) but, but, but Steeeeeve, what about LA and New York?”
Those are the places you go when you’ve developed into a professional.
Of course there are always exceptions. I have performed pretty much all over the country and there are a few good and a lot of bad comics just about everywhere I have been.
NT: Your disc opens with self-depreciating humor. Is that done with intent, to set the audience at ease? “Look, I’m not taking myself too seriously here, so don’t get all sensitive when I get into slavery.”
SG: In retrospect I wish I would have called the album Stever Fever Live, because that’s what the it is, a live show. I don’t really know how I’m going to open a show until I get in front of the audience and feel their vibe (for the lack of a better word). That material chunk was going to be used at some point and when I got on stage it felt like the audience was um….uneasy about my appearance, so I naturally worked into that piece. But I don’t always open the same way.
And yes, my material can get pretty dark but I like to keep it all silly and absurd.
NT: Describe your comedy to someone who hasn’t seen—or in my case, worked with—you.
SG: Personal and dark subjects delivered in absurdity.
NT: You keep a road journal on your web page; is that for fans, or a way to keep track of your own career?
SG: Its basically just something on my site people can look at if they’re interested. Its becoming more of a picture/news journal than anything.
You can follow Steve on Twitter (@epigillespie) or be his Internet friend on Facebook to keep up with his day to day activities and tours.
Rock and comedy mix more often than you might expect; many people in the rock world say they wish they had the ability to speak as coherently as comedians do, and many comedians wish they could achieve rock star status.
Derek Sheen loves rock, specifically the late heavy metal vocalist legend, Ronnie James Dio. His latest album, the Rooftop Comedy release Holy Drivel, pays homage to RJD in both title and cover artwork.
Rooftop sent author Nathan Timmel to chat with Derek as he toured the northwest with Patton Oswalt. They discussed finding your voice, playing alternative venues, and what geography–if anything–does to your comedic sensibilities.
Nathan Timmel:Holy Drivel–how large a fan of Ronnie James Dio does one have to be to devote a comedy album to a sideways homage to his seminal album?
Derek Sheen: I am a huge Ronnie James Dio fan! Originally, Mark Allender sent me the cover art as a joke, thinking I could use it as a poster somewhere down the road? The moment I saw it, I thought it was too cool to just use as a show poster: it was the inspiration for the album and the Kickstarter project. I wanted to make something that was, both, an homage to one of my heroes and that showed off Mark’s awesome skills. Also, in keeping with the metal pedigree, it was a huge “get” to have Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Minus the Bear, Isis) and Trey Gunn (King Crimson, TU) produce, mix and master the album. For a stand-up album, it sounds amazing and the material isn’t bad either.
NT:You’re from Seattle, and open the track with good-natured ribbing of Portland. Is there a genuine, if light-hearted, rivaly between the two cities?
DS: Not really. Portland knows it’s better! Both have a great comedy scene, but Portland is my favorite city; it’s like Seattle, if Willy Wonka designed it! Plus, they have the Bridgetown Comedy Festival! Some of my favorite comics are there: Ian Karmel, Whitney Streed, Shane Torres, Gabe Dinger, Anthony Lopez, Tim Hammer, Jimmy Newstetter, Xander Deveaux and Sean Jordan. Go check ém out! Also, check out Spicy News! It’s where comics have to eat a Habanero pepper and then deliver the news! Brilliant.
Oh, check out Bryan Cook, Travis Vogt, Mike Drucker, Barbara Holm and Rylee Newton too!!
NT:What kind of sensibility does a Pacific Northwest comedian have, when compared to a Midwest or New York or Southern comic? Do you notice differences in style when you travel to different regions of the country?
DS: I think Northwest comedians are slightly more passive-aggressive than East Coast comics, but that’s probably because the pressure to succeed in the Northwest isn’t anything like it is in NY or Chicago or Boston? They also have all four seasons there? In Seattle we have two: Stygian, crippling, moist darkness and 30 days of some sun. I spend 8 months out of every year battling ‘Soul Rickets’.
NT:Where did you record your disc? Do you have a history with the venue? Is it where you came up in comedy? One show, or multiple nights edited together?
DS: I recorded my album at the Comedy Underground, in Seattle. It was the venue that I performed my first open mic, when I was twelve. I remember seeing all of the pictures on the wall, comics that I respected and admired, and saying “I want to be THAT good someday”. Still am not there yet, but it’s my home club and has always fostered young comics and provided a stage where they can grow. We did six shows, over a weekend, and I took one show for the album. I thought I might cut some things together depending on how the audience and the energy was, but Saturday (1st show) was the one we went with. All the pieces seemed to fall into place with that audience and it was my favorite.
NT:How long have you been performing? How long in did it take you to find your comedic “voice?”
DS: I had an agent when I was 12; he took me to a couple of state fairs. It was/I was horrible. No one is funny at that age. I also suffered from crippling stage fright. I studied music and got into several bands, to help overcome it. Once I felt like I had a handle on it, I quit music altogether and got back to writing and performing stand-up. It’s been about 7 years of hitting every show, every night and I’m still not where I want to be, but I don’t think I ever will be? It’s quite a ride.
NT:Talk about the Holy Drivel World Tour. Where are you going?
DS: On the first leg, I’ll be hitting most of the Southeast: Louisville, South Carolina, North Carolina, Athens, Nashville, Chatanooga and also Chicago. Then Eugene, Oregon and Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
NT:I notice theaters and coffee shops—alternative venues—on your calendar; do you prefer non-traditional locations for comedy to comedy clubs? Or are some of these places known for sponsoring “underground” comedy shows?
DS: I have always preferred small theaters and rock clubs. They seem like a destination location, where you have to know what you are seeing before you agree to go, can curate your own audience and they seem to be more open to fostering independent artists. Unlike comedy clubs, which I still love, where there seems to be more ‘walk-in’ traffic, that isn’t always prepared for what they’re about to see. But the money is always better and there is a built-in support system, most of the time. Clubs are a risk averse business model.
NT: Talk about the Funny or Die series, Adventure Buddies. Is that something you’re a part of, or just a cast member in?
DS: Seattle comedians Travis Vogt and Kevin Clarke, have been shooting comedy shorts for over a decade. In 2009, they wrote and directed their first full length feature; a Post-Apocalyptic-Science Fiction epic, titled Steel of Fire Warriors 2010 A.D. and cast me as the robot sidekick “Robobot”. We had so much fun, I stuck around and never left their side, in the hopes that they become famous Hollywood directors and don’t know any better than to just hire their one friend, for every part. Adventure Buddies was a great experience! It was shot in hi-def, digitally, and was a bigger budget production than anything they had ever attempted. It looks great, it’s weird and very funny and also utilizes every single comic in the entire world. I highly recommend it!
NT:Once the Holy Drivel Tour ends, what’s next for Derek Sheen?
DS: I have a feeling that this tour will never end. I am going to keep dragging this out until I have a completely new hour of material and hope that not everyone is sick of me by then. After that, I’ll try this all over again. I have been very luck (blessed really) to be surrounded by so many supportive, talented people and Rooftop has been absolutely amazing! Big thanks to Dominic Del Bene for being the coolest!
Holy Drivelis now available on iTunes, Amazon, and the Rooftop Comedy shop. Be sure to check out the deluxe version of the album, that includes exclusive video from Derek’s album recording!
See that link at the bottom? It says “Free,” and it allows you to read Kindle books almost anywhere you please, even if you don’t own an actual Kindle.
Neat, ain’t it?
Since it’s only available on the Kindle, no trees were harmed in the making of this product. Sure, plenty of slave-labor went into making the electronics in China, but put that out of your mind; think of the trees. The oxygen-emitting, life-saving trees.
They weren’t harmed at all.
So there you go; it’s less than a dollar, it doesn’t kill any trees, and it’s got a picture of (and story detailing) me being touched by a tubby gentleman.
The nice thing about writing for a blog is: you don’t have to have any of that pesky “journalistic integrity”. This means writing for a blog, is just like working for Fox News.
But I digress.
For the sake of fairness, I will state that I love Danny Bevins(Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, HBO’s Comedy Arts Festival). I don’t have to tell you I am biased, but am doing so anyway.
I met Bevins over ten years ago, and even got to travel to Iraq with him in 2004. (Shameless whoring: Bevins is the “Danny” in my book, I Was a White Knight… Once.)
Bevins doesn’t know this, but he helped shape who I am as a comedian. When I was just starting out, I learned early on that my favorite comics were those I felt I learned something about when their set was finished. Instead of gesturing wildly on stage and having no point to their set—“Men and women, different, right?! Am I right?! High five!”—I enjoy comedians that dig beneath the surface and discuss who they are as people, and how they came to think the way they do. That describes Bevins in a nutshell. It has been said that the stage is therapy for a comedian, and you get the sense that Bevins is constantly working out who he is as a person while casually speaking into a microphone. What makes it work is: unlike some performers, Bevins isn’t lashing out at the audience, he’s drawing them in. Listening to Bevins’ new release, Inappropriate (available 6/12), is like listening to a conversation Bevins is having with himself; he’s trying to describe himself, but without lecturing.
The last time I worked with Bevins was years and years ago. He opened his set with the concept, “What is love?” Most comedians try and open big; maybe a shocking masturbation joke, or something with a punch line within 30 seconds. Not Bevins. He has the strength, skill, and confidence to pull the listener in by trusting their intelligence. In a day and age when The Jersey Shore is popular viewing, that’s placing a lot of trust in people that don’t always deserve it.
On Inappropriate, Bevins’ opening draws the listener in with meditations on the meaning of family, and what it is to both love your family, but also maintain a desire for independence. It’s neither fast nor flashy, but it’s honest, and captivating. When he does turn to worldly issues—say race or politics—he does so from the point of looking for laughter. Many comics in the same position either rant, rave, or simply ramble on, because they think having a microphone gives them free liscence to be opinionated and boring. Bevins knows that you are absolutely allowed to have an opinion, but people go to a comedy club to laugh. Thoughts must be wrapped in jokes, because if they aren’t, what’s the difference between a comedian and an Occupy Wall Street protester?
OK, too much babbling.
Without further ado, here’s what Danny had to say:
Nathan Timmel:You open Inappropriate by gently letting the listener know you’re a family man—with a wife and child—and then enter into the “Inappropriate” bit. Was this done with specific intent, to prepare the listener for anything to come? “Look, you already know that I’m a husband and father, and how I feel about passing judgment on ideas, so if you don’t like anything from here on out, it’s on you.”
Basically, do you open soft, so you can hammer an audience later?
Danny Bevins: Yes, but it’s totally by accident. When we were recording it, I had been opening my set with another bit, and I felt the audience wasn’t really coming along with me the way I wanted them to. I mean, they would get there, eventually, but it was taking a while. So, I had this conversation with my wife that morning—my parents were staying with her and my son while I was on the road, and she just needed to vent a little—and when I got on the stage that night, that’s what I felt like talking about: family, and all that goes along with family relations. I just started talking, and it worked. The audience laughed, and it made the transition into other material easier.
NT:Similar question: Your disc has an arc to it; you open by discussing your family, mentioning in passing your new baby boy, and close it discussing the kind of funeral you want. So you open with life, and end with death. Was this arc intentional, or accidental?
DB: Oh, absolutely intentional. To me, and this is just the way I write, if you can’t have a “theme” to your set… and I don’t mean I want it to be to the point where you’re like, “OK, enough with your little motto,” but I do want my set to feel like I’ve told a story. There is a start and finish point; it’s not random.
When I started getting the bits ready for this recording, in Edinburgh, the opening was about my birth, and the fact I was an accident. And then my set went from that to the natural close, my funeral. So that arc was absolutely on purpose. I had the “I was an unwanted child bit” already, and then was at a funeral where everybody was sad, and I knew the departed would absolutely hate that, and would have preferred a celebration of sorts. I mean, you and I are not going to want the standard “funeral package,” with crying and all that sadness. If you’re going to do that, I’d rather just not have one. Do something interesting. Be original.
NT:“Inappropriate” is a concept, because personal choice dictates what is or is not inappropriate to any single individual; why do you think moral crusaders feel the need to shove their personal brand of taste down the throats of others?
BV: Oh, that’s easy: because it makes them feel good. It makes them feel superior. If I don’t tell you how “good” I am, then how are you going to know? To me, that’s the whole point to the whole “inappropriate” theme; if you’re talking, it doesn’t mean anything, it should all be based on what we do, not how we champion ourselves. If you want to be a good person, you should be a good person because you want to be a good person, not because you think you’re going to get some candy or other reward. So they want to let you know all the things you do that are wrong, or “inappropriate,” because then they feel righteous. What they don’t understand is: when they say these things to me, I don’t think they’re good, I just think they’re a twat.
NT:Related question: even after discussing the cathedral of the comedy club being the one place humor shouldn’t be questioned, do you still get people lecturing you after shows?
DB: Not so much anymore; I think that bit helped a lot; I think it cut down about 80-90% of those kind of moments. I think there are still people that want to tell me what they didn’t like, but luckily there are usually people around me after a show telling me how much they enjoyed the act. That makes it harder for anyone that wants to come up and bitch about what they didn’t like. But, every once in a while, there’ll be somebody that just has to tell me what they thought. These days it’s more… I get people saying they didn’t like a certain idea I had. It’s not about language or something I said, but just the fact I talked about abortion, or people lecture me about my “Date Rape Joke.” That’s what they call it, “The Date Rape Joke.” To me, it’s “The Grandfather Joke,” because it’s about my grandpa. I had a woman tell me, “You can’t joke about rape.” But the joke isn’t about rape, it’s about my grandfather. If rape is the way you see it, if you take that catchword out of the theme of the joke and focus on it and not what I’m saying, then I’m probably not going to get through to you anyway.
NT:Changing gears: you discuss ethnicity in Scotland—homogonous—but not comedy; did you find cultural differences at all hindering to your sets, or as you are very personal, did you escape that? Did you notice any comics who tend to be too generic having problems translating?
DB: Overall it went really well. There were a couple things that I didn’t expect, like, they didn’t understand “mulligan…”
NT:[Interrupting; incredulous]The country that invented golf didn’t know what a mulligan was?
DB: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It took me by surprise. It was in a review of my show, “Bevins doesn’t explain what a mulligan is,” so there are little things you’ll discover about your act. In America, people will laugh at one part, and in Europe they’ll laugh somewhere completely different. They’ll still laugh, but they find the humor in different places, and I love that. I find that in Europe they want a point to whatever you’re saying, and I think they really enjoy storytelling over just “setup/punch line” comedy.
NT:Your last disc contained material with you poking fun at the Republican party while performing in a red state. Given that we’re in an election year, how political will you be this summer?
DB: Eh, some stuff, but for me… I’m just too beat up by the whole process these days. I mean, overall, I just feel sorry for all of us. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, we all suffer in the end because of the idea of taking sides. I know I’ll be in Washington D.C., and I’ll pull politics out then… I mean, you and I could sit down and debate shit one-on-one, but we know each other and it’s OK.
I do, like you pointed out, like going in front of a group of people, and if I know how they stand on a certain issue, making fun of it. It’s a good to see people challenge themselves; can you let go of your position for a second and see that what I just said is a funny joke, or are you just going to get mad and pout?
NT:How much of your writing takes place on the stage? How much do you write, say, using a notebook, and how much of it is… while not exactly “free form,” is you going on stage with an idea or concept, and working it out with people listening?
DB: I basically go up with a concept, and an outline. I have an idea of what I should say, and where the bit should go, but the stage will determine where it ends up. The audience lets you know what’s funny.
I have a bit right now that I’m working on, and when it started it was about suicide, but over the past few shows it’s drifted into being about a toll bridge, the location of the suicide more than suicide itself. It takes me a little time on stage to really figure a bit out, and where I’m going to take it.
My wife really helps a lot in that process; she is a great barometer.
NT:My mom used to be that way for me; if I said something and she made a lemon face and went “tisk-tisk,” I knew it was a great bit.
DB: [Laughs] No, I don’t mean like that… my wife actually really helps… keep me honest, is the best way of putting it. When I bounce ideas off her, and then she hears me working through them, she’ll remind me, “That’s not where this started,” or “I thought you really wanted to make this the focus of what you were talking about.” If I stray too much, and… I don’t want to say pander, but if I start just going for the easy laughs, my wife will challenge me to go deeper.
Inappropriate will be available tomorrow, June 12 on iTunes, Amazon, and the Rooftop Comedy shop. Be sure to keep up with Danny on Twitter @MySmartAss
In 1991, Tom Morello, Zack de la Rocha, Brad Wilk, and Tim Commerford came together to form Rage Against the Machine. The focus was inspirational, educational music; music with a purpose. Encouraged by the idea art didn’t have to be mindless, in 2008 Nato Green joined forces with comedians W. Kamau Bell and Janine Brito to form Laughter Against the Machine, a comedy troupe with the implicit design to challenge audiences to “laugh and think at the same time.” Nato will continue collaborating with Bell as a writer for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, a new Chris Rock-produced series coming to FX in August.
Nato Green has been a staple of the San Francisco comedy scene for years, and Rooftop Comedy is proud to be releasing his CD The Nato Green Partyon Tuesday, June 5.
Rooftop sent interviewer Nathan Timmel to talk to Nato about his new disc, intellectual comedy, and parenting.
NT:Easy questions first: Where was the CD recorded? Tell me a little about the venue.
NG: The shows are taped at the New Parish in Oakland. My group Laughter Against the Machine has been doing runs there twice a year for the last couple of years. It’s mostly a music venue, although more comics are checking it out now. Moshe Kasher taped his tv special there in January. One night after a Laughter Against the Machine show, after the audience had left, we were walking out as Too Short was coming in. Some of the most explosive comedy shows I’ve ever done have been there, so it was a natural for me to go back there to tape the cd. Also, as San Francisco gets intolerably expensive to live, both the diversity and the arts community are being pushed out to Oakland.
NT:What is the CD called, and where does the title come from?
NG: The title is The Nato Green Party. There’s not a lost of mystery to that title, is there?
NT:You open your new CD with a play on your name, followed by an examination of your religion, Judaism. How important is your self-identity to your comedy? Is it your specific intention that audiences get to know you as a person through your comedy, as opposed to talking about traffic, or another “topical” subject: “Airline peanuts, who’s with me?”
NG: Hugely important, for two reasons. First, the comedy that inspires me the most is the comedy that carries an honest and personal point of view, that uses humor to search for personal truth. Second, I get called a “political comic” a lot, but a lot of political comedy is comedians writing jokes about things they see on the news. As someone who grew up on the left and was a labor activist for most of my adult life, I talk about politics because that’s my experience. It’s important to me to talk about political and social issues not only as an observer but as a person who is implicated in them.
The discipline that we spent the last four years cultivating in Laughter Against the Machine is only talking about things we sincerely care about. So occasionally, I think of observational premises, but they don’t really fit in my act because I don’t have strong feelings about them. “Why do we call people who take care of things caretakers, but people who take care of people caregivers?” They get shelved, or tweeted, until I can figure out a reason to talk about it onstage.
NT:How important is it to you to have an educated audience when it comes to political humor?
NG: It’s a different thing. When I’m in front of a very educated audience, I can go farther, cut out the exposition in the jokes, trust that people will catch all the references and understand what I mean by them. On the other hand, the best thing is a diverse audience. More diversity keeps everybody honest. It’s very satisfying to figure out how to make a nightclub audience laugh about thorny political issues, after they’ve been hearing dick jokes all night. (Not that there’s anything wrong with dick jokes per se.)
NT:Do you craft your political jokes in a way that allows people who do not follow the news to keep up?
NG: I try to write ripped from the zeitgeist more than ripped from the headlines. If I’m writing about something in the news, if I need more than one sentence to explain it to someone who doesn’t know about it already, it usually doesn’t make it into the act.
NT:Topics such as slavery and abortion make their way into your show, and are handled with confidence. Do you ever run into audiences that just aren’t willing to go down such paths with you?
NG: All the time. I don’t know a lot of other white comics who talk as directly about whiteness and white privilege as I do, and talk about race in that context. I have ended up writing material that is continually digging me in and out of holes with the audience. Walking people through why they reacted negatively to the jokes. Sometimes I feel like I’m facilitating a discussion more than performing. People don’t so much heckle me as participate in the conversation.
NT:Regardless of what you are saying, do you feel certain audiences just hear the topic and have a knee-jerk reaction?
NG: My audiences tend to react negatively to things, or want to quibble with things, but it’s not always what you’d expect. Someone came up to me after the CD taping show and said, “I love the show, but you shouldn’t drink bottled water onstage.” Someone else emailed me after the show to say that they loved the show but felt I “uncritically accepted the concept of Jewish whiteness” rather than placing it its historical context.
Sometimes it’s the audience and sometimes it’s me. Audiences always get very tense if I talk about Israel and Palestine, regardless of how carefully I tread. On the other hand, I tend to be pretty dark in my perspective on things, and want to talk onstage about whatever I’m upset about. Sometimes it’s too raw and I haven’t figured out a way to make it funny enough. I check my set list to make sure there’s not too much death and suffering clumped together. I have ideas all the time that I think are interesting and funny, but I need to let marinate until I get enough perspective to make it work for the audience without just rubbing their faces in anguish.
NT:While you are unabashedly left-leaning regarding politics, you do skewer your own political leanings as much as, if not more so, than you attack the right. Does this ever confuse audiences? Do people ever tell you they felt insulted by anything you said because it conflicted with their personal beliefs?
NG: Years ago [National Public Radio’s] Fresh Air ran an interview with this Israeli who organized a Jewish anti-semitic cartoon contest. You’ll remember that a Danish newspaper ran a cartoon of Mohammad, and in a non sequitur retaliation an Iranian newspaper called an anti-semitic cartoon contest. This Israeli guy said, “Anyone can make fun of the other guy. It takes real confidence to make fun of yourself.” That really inspired me.
I spent years as an organizer, and still stay close to the progressive/radical social movement activist world. While it’s plenty fun to mock the stupidity of the right, I am firmly convinced that my side’s biggest enemy is ourselves. We love to smirk about how stupid and hypocritical and paranoid the Tea Party is or whatever. Meanwhile, we manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory every chance we get.
Certainly, there are people on the left who come to my shows who realize they didn’t actually want to see a comedy show–they just wanted to hear things they agree with. I’m not for them. Mostly I get away with making fun of my own side because the other people on my side can recognize the motivation, even if they don’t agree with the particular conclusions.
NT:You are a father—twin daughters—does that hinder, help, or have no effect on your touring schedule as a comedian?
NG: There are a lot of things I could do that comics do to build my career if I didn’t have a family. Instead, I have to be focused and disciplined. I hear other comics say, “I spent the day watching all of Battlestar Gallactica” or something. That’s not an option for me. My family is making sacrifices so I can pursue this dream so I want to have scraps of progress to show for it every single day.
NT: Did becoming a father re-calibrate your focus as an entertainer?
NG: Being a parent raises the stakes on every choice you make, because every choice affects another person. Every choice–from how many nights I’m away from home to how long I sit on the toilet. At the same time, my daughters are the greatest joy in my life. As much as I go onstage and talk about painful, confusing, scary, controversial topics, I’m basically hopeful. I’m happier now than before I had kids, because I no longer waste as much time on nonsense.
NT:I have an advance copy of your CD, and by that I mean “un-edited.” It contains some visual cues; will those remain on the full release? How much of your overall act is cerebral, and how much is physical?
NG: Mostly they will. If the joke has an act-out, it stays. Let the listening audience have a reason to come see me live.
NT:What’s next for you; what are your comedic goals? Touring, acting, writing…
NG: My most immediate next step is that I’m going to New York to work on the writing staff of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, the new Chris Rock-produced late night show premiering on FX August 9. Beyond that, I want to blast this CD out widely to a non-comedy audience. The folks who might like The Daily Show but would never go see live stand-up. I plan to finish and find a distributor for the Laughter Against the Machine documentary I did with Kamau and Janine, and then tour behind it in the fall. After we get through out first 6 episodes of Totally Biased, release the LATM doc, and promote the CD, I’ll evaluate where I’m standing then. And I want to keep logging my Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours to become a great stand-up comedian.
The Nato Green Party will be available June 5 on iTunes, Amazon, and the Rooftop Comedy shop. The album will also be available to stream through Pandora, Spotify, and Last.fm.