Originally appeared in Razorcake #112 Oct./Nov. 2019
Here is a printable PDF and full text of the article.
This zine is also available directly from Razorcake.
One Punk’s Guide to Standup Comedy
By Tyler Sonnichsen
It was a late night in March 2018. Sean Simoneau and I sat in our rental car outside of a White Castle on the periphery of Cincinnati, devouring drive-thru food, dreading the four-hour drive home, and recounting our recently ended tour. As comics are predisposed, we dwelled on the negatives before arriving at the net positives. We had an epiphany: Over the previous six nights, we’d done six different kinds of shows in six different kinds of venues. We’d co-headlined at a house show in Indianapolis, the back of a hipster BBQ joint in Pittsburgh, a cavernous sports bar with a stage perched above the bar in Cleveland (well, Lakewood), the basement of a college pub in Kent, the back of a pizza place in Columbus, and a showcase at Go Banana’s Comedy Club in Cincinnati (well, Montgomery). No two of these shows felt terribly similar in tone or composition, but it still felt like a solid tour by our standards. We made a little money, met some funny and talented people, and even bumped into Hot Snakes at our hotel in Cleveland. That was neat.
Standup comedy is difficult to write about because it’s an art form that can be so many things to so many people. Some view it as an admirable art and an essential outlet; others see it as vocal noise pollution for the self-indulgent. It stems from the world’s oldest form of entertainment (one performer saying insightful things to a captive audience), yet seems among the least respected. Standup suffers from the widest gap between insider and outsider perceptions, exacerbated by an internet noise machine that builds echo chambers and convinces comics the “general public” or “civilians” think about this shit the same way we do. It’s perpetually exhausting and at times infuriating.
The last time standup comedy was a genuinely lucrative proposition in the United States, an army of vultures swept in, homogenized, and mass-marketed standup into an ossified iconography that it still shoulders today. If you don’t already know what I’m talking about, try to sit through the cavalcade of garbage on An Evening at the Improv (1982-1996). For every brilliant young comic on there, there were five Seinfeld rip-offs who got through with zero risks and even less charisma. It almost felt like a growing club system and growing financial spoils for people on the periphery of the art diluted the quality of what was easily available and elevated less scrupulous performers with less substance to higher levels of success. If you’re a punk musician or DIY practitioner who feels like a lot of what you’ve read so far sounds familiar… well, it should.
Speaking personally, my comedy career (if you can call it that) has been much more influenced by punk than any mainstream comedy “industry.” I have been fortunate to perform with some legends and make reasonable side-hustle money telling jokes and producing shows over the years. More importantly, I’ve developed lifelong friendships with people of diverse backgrounds and in various places within the standup world.
In this guide I’m going to talk about the myriad overlaps between DIY punk and standup—the struggle between art and commerce, platforms and mechanisms for representation and resistance, and how one has enriched the other over our lifetimes. I’ll also be talking to several hard-working, thoughtful, and punk-influenced comedians. Rather than list and review their albums, I’ll let the comics’ insights do the talking. Do look up anybody who contributed quotes to this article; they have my endorsement as “cool and very funny.” I apologize in advance for also calling attention to a handful of problematic industry juggernauts, but this is necessary in illustrating why standup comedy needs a punk/DIY ethos.
How to Do Standup
(Or, How to Build a Good Comedy Scene That Will Make Everyone Better)
“The live experience of sitting in a venue and laughing in the moment with other humans is something that can’t be replicated via watching Netflix. The live show is, always was, and always will be ‘the thing.’” –JT Habersaat (Austin)
One facet of standup that is simultaneously great and disappointing is the lack of necessary upfront investment. Because open mics have few barriers to entry, standup provides an outlet for many people who, to quote my friend/Knoxville comic Todd Lewis, “are in it for a certain kind of attention.” When particular venues don’t provide that ego boost or immediate gratification, some comics make excuses, exclusively performing in rooms that pat them on the back, or simply finding better uses of their time. While I am encouraging comics and fans to use punk as an inspiration to defy gatekeepers and create their own stories, remember that nobody is above the judgment of an audience. Laughter is a great equalizer here.
Despite inevitable issues with quality that come with standup’s thin barrier of entry, there are myriad ways that comics and fans can use that for good. If you want to tell jokes, you have opportunities to do so. If you want to earn respect, recognize that you’re going to have to help build a scene. Of course standup comedy owes much more to punk rock in DIY ethics than most give it credit for. As with punk, the best spaces for live comedy are places devoted to experimentation and inclusivity. Not to denigrate the accomplishments of Roast Battling comics, but I’ve never gotten joy out of watching a performer punch down with their jokes or ruin an audience member’s night. Interactivity is one of standup’s great strengths, but in the hands of an inexperienced or thoughtless comic, it can lead to disaster. Also, though I don’t write many “dirty” jokes personally, I’ll gladly put in writing that enforced “clean comedy” is for sociopaths. Performers can say whatever they want, but they also need to take responsibility.
Given standup’s ostensible universality, it’s hardly shocking when disgruntled musicians get into it. On paper, it seems much easier than being in a band. Standup requires no temperamental bandmates, no splitting two hundred dollars four-plus ways, no hauling heavy equipment. All you have to do is tell jokes, right? Pragmatically, playing music does have dynamic advantages over comedy. Unless you’re an acoustic act working out new solo material, a loud drunk in the crowd won’t ruin your set. People who go to bars to hang out with their friends don’t always get mad upon discovering there’s a band playing. You can perform material that somebody else wrote, with impunity. Certainly, there are numerous similarities, but the fields are differently shaped and the goalposts are at different points.
“There is something for everyone out there,” the L.A.-based comic (and avowed ska fan) Brandie Posey wrote to me recently. “Comedy isn’t just a dude in a backwards baseball cap calling his girlfriend a bitch anymore—there are legitimately genres of standup even though we don’t divide comics up like that yet. DIY spaces have made comedy so much more diverse, and we’re all better for it.”
One Venn diagram overlap between music and comedy I don’t believe the general public has yet grasped is that both exist within a multitude of genre-worlds. The Rolling Stones’ fans didn’t take kindly to Prince (to put it lightly) when he opened for them in the Emotional Rescue/Dirty Mind era. You wouldn’t have put Moss Icon in front of Bon Jovi fans in 1989, so why should you expect an experimental underground comic to open for some catch-phrase comic in 2019? Even though the conduits through which we receive entertainment and performers’ niches are splintering exponentially today, audiences and promoters still hold standup in the light as this monolithic culture industry, which isn’t fair to anyone.
Comedy, like many corners of the punk world, is dominated by hetero cis white men. Fortunately, as one witnesses in many punk scenes, many of those men are acknowledging their privilege and working constructively to book more non-male, LGBT+, and non-white comics for local shows as well as encouraging more diversity within their own scenes. Unfortunately, many attempts to foster a supportive space will result in indignation from comics of all ages with what I call Bill Hicks Disease. For example, no sooner had the Sea Tea Comedy Theater in Hartford canceled their monthly open mic due to rampant homophobic, racist, and classist “jokes,” that a flood of shitty, old, predominantly white comics voiced opinions nobody asked for regarding “censorship” and “political correctness ruining comedy.”
Here is my articulate counterpoint: fuck that shit. To borrow from Whiskey Bear Comedy founder Dustin Meadows, “political correctness isn’t killing comedy. Unfunny, shitty comedians are killing comedy.” The type of person who complains Bill Hicks wouldn’t have succeeded in today’s atmosphere completely miss the point of Hicks’s comedy and speaking truth to power in general.
“PC culture isn’t killing comedy,” wrote Chill Parents singer/guitarist Kevin Tit, who runs monthly Punkhouse Comedy shows in D.C.. “A comedian has every right to say whatever they want while they’re on stage and the audience has just as much of a right to groan or walk away if they don’t like it. A bad joke does not deserve a positive response.” Similarly, many topics commonly understood as “controversial” were well established decades ago, long before people could make jokes publicly behind the veil of Twitter or Reddit. Today, many renditions of jokes that might have constituted blue or gallows humor sixty years ago are simply tired. Finding fresh angles on differences between races and genders is especially difficult, which makes it even more remarkable when somebody does it well. “When people are really good, it looks and it feels so effortless as you watch and listen,” said Louisville comic and promoter Reed Sedgwick, “As you improve, you start to understand, in a sort of heightened reality, how people are reacting, how you are playing with it, how to fuck with a heckler without alienating the room, and, somehow, how to be in the moment with words you’ve said many times before. That’s like flying. There’s nothing like it. But it’s just not as easy as it looks.”
How to Produce Standup Comedy
“Finding new comedians can be like finding new bands. And if you find someone you really like, reach out and tell them! Hell, throw a show for them and bring them to your town! Comedy is hard and there isn’t much money in it until you hit a certain level. Letting someone know you appreciate their work goes a long way.” –Brandie Posey (Los Angeles)
“Breweries are saving comedy,” Alex Price told me over lunch last year in Indianapolis, his home base where he books showcases and runs mics under the banner of Let’s Comedy. Price, many other comics in our thirties, and I have found kindred spirits in upstart brewers in mid-size cities looking to bring in special events. Some breweries, like Sisyphus in downtown Minneapolis, are founded by people with standup experience. Generally, though, breweries are a major component of the twenty-first century service economy that have been a boon for standup over the past decade.
This opportunity creates a conundrum, though. Too many comedy shows have been started by people who had no idea what they are doing. Before Shane Rhyne and I started a monthly first Friday show at Saw Works Brewing in 2015, there had been two unsuccessful attempts to host standup there. Taking that into consideration, we met with the owner and manager, had an honest discussion about what we needed in order to make the show work (e.g. guaranteed money to pay the performers, help with promotion, replacing all tables in the space with rows of chairs all facing the stage), and got moving.
The reality is—in producing live comedy, as in producing music under a DIY infrastructure—you need to focus on word-of-mouth, building a brand, and maintaining a high quality. “If somebody comes to your show and they love it, they’ll tell a friend,” Rhyne likes to say, “and if they hate it, they’ll tell a hundred.” Never forget this while you ponder giving your edge-lord friend a spot or booking your significant other on every show just to be nice. Other comics will know and talk. More importantly, your audience isn’t getting the show for which they’re spending their money and time.
Just like musicians, comics have been turning back the clock and going underground in equal measures to create platforms for their most innovative work.
“Before comedy, my first love was punk and ska music,” wrote Brandie Posey, “I always want to keep that feeling of camaraderie and posi good times in my jokes and shows that I loved so much in my music growing up.”
“Twenty-five-year-olds don’t want to pay thirty-five bucks on a night out to see a forty-five-year-old entertain fifty-five-year-olds so a sixty-five-year-old can buy a new car,” echoes Louisville comic Dan Alten, “I think a lot of young people have been turned off of live comedy because the money for comedy clubs isn’t in entertaining young folks who are usually broke, so there’s a big gap in live comedy options.”
Alten, who authored the zine How to Make a Standup Comedy Show at Home with Your Friends in 2018, has been collaborating with Louisville comics in building a pillar for the Midwest’s flourishing underground scene. Though Chicago remains the powerhouse, smaller cities have been proving time and again how many great audiences and great comics are emerging from the middle of the country. Indianapolis, as bands like Zero Boys established in the ’80s, has proven to be one under-the-radar hotbed of activity via cohorts like Let’s Comedy and Rocketship Comedy. Columbus, Ohio (my longtime comedy home away from home) has been a great comedy community as well. The Whiskey Bear Comedy Festival, helmed by Ohioans Dustin Meadows, Nickey Winkelman, Lisa Berry, Pat Deering, and Tom Plute, has been a blast for the last few years, importing a diverse crop of comics to perform and network. Deering has also, along with Amber Falter, spearheaded Stand Up for Choice, a massively successful monthly benefit for abortion access in central Ohio.
“Attaching a show to a cause is a great way to make money for grassroots efforts in your area,” said Reed Sedgwick, “I suggest if you go this route, don’t look for a big national organization, but something important to people in your town. That way, you get local support in promoting and producing, and you are doing tangible good in your own community. When I raised money for a trans health center here in Louisville, it was a great time, and the organization I supported really got people out. These were people who would hardly ever normally come to a comedy show, too. Exposing new people to live comedy really feels good.”
People with experiences putting on good punk shows have many of the tools necessary to build good comedy shows. It’s vital to remember you don’t have to be a comic yourself to bring a comic you like to your town! If there’s somebody you enjoy who is out of your price range, look around for people who’ve opened for them or label-mates. It may surprise you how accessible comics can be when you make quality stage time available.
Any living room up to a tiny punk dive up to Radio City Music Hall has the potential to host a great show that people may be talking about for decades. Case in point, many of the musicians and creators interviewed in this zine do some of their best work in basements and living rooms. Here are a few crucial considerations when putting on any standup comedy show, especially in a non-traditional comedy/theater venue.
Is Your Venue Supportive of Comedy?
This is square one. If you’re trying to start an open mic and the bartenders are unaware of the show and the bar is full of patrons who only care about a sporting event on TV, don’t waste your time or other performers’ time. A bar should pay you for your efforts if you are taking the time to organize an open mic, set up a PA system, are promoting the event, and giving the bar free publicity. Management rescinding financial support (even fifty dollars per week, which is nothing for a bar), twisting your arm to sell more food/drinks, or trying to micromanage the show are all red flags. If they try to pull that shit, pull up your stakes, shake hands, and get out before it inevitably ends on a bad note.
Do They Have a Separate Show Space?
Whenever possible, get your stage away from wherever chit-chat might occur (i.e. the bar). In some cases, audience members can be trained to order quietly and bar staff will also be respectful of the show. You must recognize bar patrons have the right to not watch your show if you’re sharing their space. If you’re in a separate space, you can charge a nominal cover/donation for the comics. Per the request of the venue, our first Friday show did not charge a cover, so we had occasional problems with chatty people who were just there to fill growlers. In retrospect, we had very few incidents over a two-year-span when we or management had to remove anyone. It’s an interesting phenomenon, especially in comedy, where good, respectful shows “train” audiences to return that respect.
When Setting Up a House Show, Does It Have All of the Amenities of a Public Spot?
Is your house clean? Is your bathroom clean? Is it handicapped accessible? Do you have chairs, lights, and a PA of some sort? Do you have a system for collecting cover/donations for the touring performers? These are all considerations many show-runners take for granted.
Also, keep in mind the type of comedy venue you are running. Many punk and dive bars suffer from late-arriving audiences. If the flyer says “7 PM Doors, 8 PM Show” and the first band doesn’t start until 9 PM, then the audience will internalize that and arrive forty-five minutes late. Forever. This trend pervades in the comedy world. “Comedy-time” is a standard assumption the show won’t begin until at least a half an hour past its posted time. Don’t do this. It penalizes the people who made it a point to get there early, especially if it’s a house show! Imagine the leap of faith people take walking into a stranger’s house, only having to sit there nervously staring at their phone for forty-five minutes.
Are You Promoting It?
No, I mean actually promoting it. Are you making a snazzy flyer and posting them in places where interested/interesting people would see them? Are you reaching out to local cultural calendars, newsletters, or blogs with a strong readership? Are you keeping your social media accounts up to date, taking into consideration how few people are likely to see (or remember) individual posts on their timelines?
Considering how many mechanisms and civic processes have actively compromised the culture of flyering, posting in public space has gradually become more of a defiant and subversive act. In comedy, flyers that are aesthetically offensive or hackneyed (as so many are) don’t portend well for the quality of the show. Let me give props to one of my favorite comics, Laura Sanders (New Orleans, La.) As a graphic artist, she molds and contorts the same sensibilities that make her jokes good into outstanding comedy flyers and graphics. When someone makes a flyer so good that it doesn’t deserve to languish on the internet, then it usually follows that (get this) the show it’s advertising must be pretty good, too. Invest the money.
How to Record Live Comedy
After a few years of performing standup regularly, you should have a reasonable amount of workable material that you may want to record for an applicable hybrid of merchandise, “press kit,” or posterity. When the time comes, you need to be prepared to invest a reasonable amount of time and money. If you advertise the show as an album recording, the audience will likely be more amenable to paying a suitable ticket price that will help defray expenses. If you can’t convince twenty to thirty people to spend money to watch you tell jokes for forty-five minutes, then perhaps you aren’t ready to record an album.
If you’re a comic, spoken word artist, poet, or other performer without musical backing, you’re at a definitive advantage. You won’t need to spend money on expensive studio time, and the amount of mastering necessary for any release (analog or digital) pales in comparison to what bands require. In most cases, you can record and release your material for a fraction of what it might cost a band or even a singer-songwriter.
That being said, do not try to cut corners. If you need to rent a venue to ensure a quality atmosphere and no drunks interrupting your show, so be it. Rentals are rarely a necessity in smaller cities. Kevin Tit, Dan Alten, and many others have released fine-sounding recordings made at house shows. Shane Rhyne and I both recorded our albums at The Pilot Light in Knoxville, which is a small not-for-profit club with a dedicated sound system, good acoustics, and easy to pack for laughs.
Hire somebody who knows what they’re doing to supervise, edit, and master your recording. On the night you’re recording your set, the technical setup is the last thing you’ll want to be thinking about, and it will probably affect your performance. Erich Laux (Ann Arbor) had his recording laptop shit the bed fifteen minutes into his headline set. He did release it on Bandcamp as the Technical Difficult EP, at least, so he salvaged something for his efforts.
Your phone or a tinny Windows Media Audio codec recorder is fine for recording your set for reference in helping work on jokes. If you’re planning to release this shit publicly (much less ask people for money), get a multi-track recorder, or pay someone with one who knows how to use it. Record in uncompressed WAV files, and hold onto the masters. Bandcamp (There’s comedy on bandcamp?—yup, lots) won’t let you upload anything that’s in a compressed format, and upsampling’s going to get you into trouble. A sizeable chunk of your listenership will be on car stereos. Keep that in mind when the audience’s laughter throws all the meters into the red or if you employ a Pixies-esque LOUDquietLOUD delivery—the listener won’t make it through one track and an entity like SiriusXM won’t even consider adding it to their playlists. Spend the money.
Over the past decade, standup comedy has increasingly embraced analog media for merchandise and distribution. Though I doubt he was the first to do so, Kyle Clark (Los Angeles) was the first DIY comic I remember putting out his own cassette, 2013’s Pizza Night. At the time, it seemed brilliant for a comic to take advantage of the cassette format. They’re relatively cheap to make, possible to dub and package at home, and above all, spoken word doesn’t require levels of fidelity that dubbed cassettes can’t easily accommodate.
Though spoken-word doesn’t sell as fast on vinyl, every record shop has a comedy section. Standup is a genre with relatively few collectors’ items. Every thrift store in the world has beat-up Steve Martin or George Carlin records available for a dollar (Carlin actually started his own label, Eardrum, which had major-label distribution). Even Redd Foxx and Rudy Ray Moore party records, despite the mythology that surrounds them, are not hard to find.
Perhaps one of the reasons standup doesn’t sell well is because it requires less divided attention than music—why it’s most often enjoyed by commuters in their cars or on their headphones. Standup is actually a great medium for analog release. Since records can comfortably fit twenty-two minutes per side at 33 1/3 RPM, that allows for a record to capture a forty-five minute headline set. There’s a reason CDs served live music so much better, as bands’ headline sets would typically stretch longer.
Occasionally, though, comedy vinyl fosters amazing moments. A few summers ago, a group of six acquaintances wound up in my living room after a party in my neighborhood. We got into a conversation about times we’d been at parties broken up by cops, and within a few minutes, I had everybody sitting intently and laughing at Kyle Kinane’s “cool party cop” story from his Loose in Chicago LP.
Comedy and Capital(Ism)
Any comic who says standup is about being funny and only about being funny is lying to themselves (and probably terrible), but I’m not writing this to cast dispersions on people who’ve made more money than me (which is most working comics). That being said, anybody who gets into making music or doing standup in the twenty-first century for the purpose (or with the expectation) of making money is a fucking idiot.
In January 2019, the Pittsburgh Improv booked Louis C.K. for a weekend of shows at $85 per ticket. The local alt-weekly reached out to local comic, producer, and punk fan Shannon Norman for his thoughts. This was his response (abridged):
“Louis C.K.’s new material is the work of a man out of time. Just look at his Netflix special… it’s all lazy “first thought theater” … created under duress, in a vacuum and that is not a way to make art.… [Regarding the Improv,] I know people who book comedy shows in living rooms that are more professional, have greater scruples, and aware of their scenes’ local talent than that television-less Buffalo Wild Wings. The Improv locally and as a chain will learn nothing from the backlash because tickets for Louis C.K., [as well as known abusers] TJ Miller and Jeremy Piven will continue to be sold to the willfully ignorant.”
Shannon’s response to the City Paper did much to echo my general frustration about CK and others hopefully en route to the dustbin of history. It’s no longer about whether he “deserves” to still have a career after his (long well-known among the comedy community) sexual indiscretions came to light; it’s that I just don’t fucking care. Still, every time someone in that elevated position does anything, thousands of open mic comics weigh in with bad takes and flood social media (which is already calculated to minimize publicity of small-time, DIY, and independently produced events) in favor of perpetuating the fruitful Internet Rage cycle. Note that the Pittsburgh City Paper made no effort to ask Shannon about any local shows or events coming up.
Comedy suffers from how myopic many casual audience members’ experiences of it are. For example, pro-am showcases, which exist as a mechanism to fill clubs on off-nights so they can inch toward their bottom line, rely upon comics (some of whom are doing standup for the first time as a bucket-list item) to fill the seats with co-workers, friends, and family. Once someone starts to pursue comedy seriously, they spend an unidentifiable amount of time at open mics and it gets harder to thrive in situations where they are required to put butts in seats.
I recently showcased at a club in the Midwest that was a perfect case study. The host put me toward the end of a pro-am showcase. She graciously gave me a longer feature set, but I had the luxury of following some dude who spent three minutes talking about sucking his own dick and occasionally making uncomfortable advances on my friend sitting near the stage. I understood that many of the people performing the local spots were not seasoned comedians, but what the audience got was a cavalcade of sexism, homophobia, and general negativity. The person I felt the worst for was the emcee. She was trying her best as a comic, but was forced outside of her job description, managing the staff, and waiting on and bussing tables. The club’s sustainability would have been threatened otherwise.
The first time I remember recognizing this late-capitalist writing on the wall was in 2007. A club I worked at a few times called all local emcees and features together for an afternoon meeting. The club’s owner announced a new system was going to help determine who would be working there in the future. Though he refused to use the term, he was instituting a “bringer” framework (whereby the performer’s workload would be determined by how many audience members they put in seats). Only one person at the meeting, a seasoned African-American comic, had the wherewithal to speak up. “In other words,” he said, “you’re going to start giving bullshit comics work so long as they sell tickets? Isn’t that the club’s job?”
At that time in my life, it helped to be living where I was. I’d moved to D.C. largely because of punk. It had less to do with my fandom of bands like Minor Threat, The Dismemberment Plan, and Bad Brains, and more to do with my general curiosity to discover what it was about D.C. that generated such brilliant and innovative art. I read interviews with Ian MacKaye where he discussed his disgust with the club system in D.C., not just because they excluded teenagers trying to see music at the most foundational time in their lives, but because his bands weren’t interested in working as beer salesmen. Neither was I, nor was anyone who, as Mitch Hedberg once said, “Got into comedy to do comedy, which is weird—I know.”
At the time, Uber was four years from launching and it would be at least five years before I would hear the term “gig economy,” but standup had long fit well within that framework. Comedy had never been completely analogous with career longevity or retirement plans, but performers were starting to be expected to shoulder the costs of business for their (even itinerant) employers. The drive for mass appeal, as it had been doing since the dawn of the entertainment industry, had placed an increasingly big wedge between risk and reward, quality and output.
For most of the twenty-first century, the only way most indie bands have been able to earn a living by just making music has been by selling rights to corporate advertisers. As Ronen Givony pointed out in his 33 1/3 volume about Jawbreaker, it’s hard to be mad at bands for “selling out” when corporations are the only entities paying them their true worth for their work anymore. For comics, it’s even more complicated.
As with music, there are ways to make a living doing standup in 2018, and many of them are humiliating. Like any capitalist enterprise, comedy clubs have been slowly shedding accoutrements over the past thirty years to keep themselves sustainable. A handful have managed to remain solvent and relatively constructive for their local and regional scenes. Many, though, are in one of various stages of desiccation. Knoxville’s comedy club Sidesplitters closed in 2014 after years of open hostility toward the local scene, even going so far as to fire local emcees over simple grudges (a few of whom have since blown up on a national scale). A booked open mic I attended there shortly before it closed was the single worst night of comedy I witnessed in six years of living in Knoxville.
“At this point, most traditional comedy clubs are often owned by old white dudes whose idea of a comedian looks a hell of a lot like them and them only,” wrote Brandie Posey, “The stats on women, non-binary and headliners of color working at those kinds of places are abysmal. DIY spaces are imperative for creating stage time for people who are denied time at clubs. You need to get onstage to get good and learn.”
“Comedy clubs are just, at the end of the day, businesses,” said Altercation Punk Comedy founder JT Habersaat. “This can bristle the DIY spirit in some people, which I understand…. That being said, there are some comedy clubs that you can just tell rely on the bringer model still…. It’s pay to play, which in the punk world is of course the kiss of death. Fuck that noise.”
Habersaat also commented on some clubs and venues (cf. what I said earlier about “clean comedy”) imposing regulations on performers. These cases are surprisingly common. Portland/Los Angeles comic Amy Miller recently posted on social media about one club which tried, using barely veiled language, to censor any materials which lay audiences often ascribe to female performers. Miller cited that it was a notoriously male club and two women were booked on the show, which was clearly advertised as 21+. Still, the booker asked her, at the behest of the owner, to confirm she was doing “family friendly” material that avoided “biological humor.”
I wish I was making stories like these up. It’s not shocking, though, now that art has been successfully demonetized by the technological advances of the twenty-first century and comedians were bound for the lowest rung on that totem pole. Rather than book actual comedians, clubs have been increasingly booking celebrities like Dustin “Screech” Diamond to fill their seats.
Today, writing and production work still pay the bills for a lot of the busiest and most respected standups in Los Angeles and New York. However, as late capitalism continues constricting where and how comics can make money, standup has become increasingly part and parcel of the greater gig economy. Employees are expected to shoulder the costs of doing business, spending unimaginable sums of money and time in order to make themselves employable. This includes an ahistorical emphasis on creating “content:” podcast episodes, streaming videos, tweets, goofy status updates, memes, selfies… the list goes on and gets increasingly depressing.
Comedy has always had a complicated relationship with the internet: certainly contemptuous, yet cripplingly codependent. In the mid-2000s, almost every comic I knew maintained a Myspace page and a personal blog in order to promote themselves and their upcoming performances. Both services were free and quickly did well to supplant the functionality of early message boards and user groups. By 2008, Facebook expanded their service beyond users with an email ending in .edu, played a crucial role in the campaign and subsequent election of Barack Obama, and supplanted most of the functionality of Myspace and bloggers. The speed and scale of user migration was blinding.
In standup as in anything, the global village Facebook intentionally created without knowing (or caring about) their destructive power forged a largely detrimental platform. Pittsburgh comic Tim Ross noted so many Facebook groups devoted to standup are terrible for an obvious reason: any decent comic worth their salt is at showcases and open mics talking shit, not sitting on their phone browsing Facebook groups. Ironically, Ross has become known outside of Pittsburgh through his clever use of Reddit and Facebook in going to war with Trump supporters, a testament to the codependency of the internet with comedy as mode of communication (if not a raw art form).
Standup comics (at least, good ones) are born critical thinkers. When people ask me if I believe humor has a leftist bias, I say no, but I do believe critical thought does. This actually happened to me once after I closed a show in Arlington, Va. I got into an argument with a Koch Brothers accessory who insisted standup should be “right down the middle.” He also tried to convince me the DNC was responsible for institutionalized racism in this country. (At least some conservatives are finally admitting it exists, right? Silver linings.)
To someone who wants to earn a living creating humor in twenty-first century America, they need to either work their way into a desiccating club system or figure out ways to creatively monetize their humor. For most comics who don’t fit in the club system, the latter is the only real hope. And that sucks, because the internet is full of talentless frauds who are only good at manipulating online numbers. The drive and supposedly-requisite need for off-stage social media “content” from comedians has transformed the art form more than radio or television ever did. It subjects material to content-poachers, regressive trolling, and unwarranted tagging by gruesomely unfunny people (i.e. the phenomenon of male users explaining female comics’ jokes back to them, which I witness almost daily).
Another unfortunate commonality between punk rock and standup is that whenever big-money entertainment attempts to depict it (even in an allegedly sympathetic light) they almost always fuck it up. These include depictions of “punks” in movies blockbuster (e.g. Bill Paxton in The Terminator) and cult (Jon Gries’s King Vidiot in Joysticks, a boner comedy I discovered via Ben Snakepit’s Razorcake column). I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me if I enjoyed Last Comic Standing. I would usually just bite my tongue and say no and kill the conversation rather than take a deep breath and start venting about how much I hated that show. On a fundamental level, anything that posits art (in any format) within the framework of competition is regressive and dumb. Laughs (and successes related to obtaining them) aren’t finite resources. On a deeper level, the show ossified harmful hierarchies in standup that implied a need for some standardized sense of humor. Again, this is not to denigrate the success of the comics who’ve succeeded on the shows. Every now and then, a genuinely good comic from an overlooked scene (Atlanta’s Clayton English, for example) squeaks through the system and takes the well-deserved bump of legitimacy in John and Jane Q. Public’s eyes.
Then again, the fact that the public needs these corporately modulated platforms to sell them a theatrical art form is just absurd. In 2014, a handful of Knoxville comics stood outside of the Tennessee Theater after Last Comic Standing Live emptied out to pass out flyers for the first annual Scruffy City Comedy Festival. I understand nobody loves getting handbills in their face immediately after a show, but so many of those suburbanites looked at us as if we were putting dogshit into their hands. This audience had been trained impulsively to mistrust any standup who wasn’t on television or channeled through New York or Los Angeles. Even emphasizing it was locally produced and cheaper for a three-day pass than one ticket to LCS was pointless.
That being said, we did find our audience and the festival was a great time. Like any independently produced festival, the event didn’t exist in a vacuum; it was the culmination of years of grassroots networking and a talented, enthusiastic pool of comics in the Southeast and beyond.
Punk and Indie Comedy Festivals
For comics in smaller scenes as well as those operating on the fringes in larger cities, festivals have grown in fundamental importance. Indie festivals provide an opportunity to perform to new audiences in a different environment; expanding one’s geography is crucial to growing as a writer and performer. Newer comics often get trapped in a place where they’re using names of friends in the back of the room as punch lines or just punting sets because the stakes feel so low. Whenever I field emails from comics looking for a show in Knoxville, I rely heavily on testimony from friends in other scenes. Let this be a cogent reminder to stay involved and supportive of your local scene (not to mention just not to be a dick, as it will come back on you).
One grim reality in standup, like in DIY punk, is how much time one has to put in to establish the connections necessary to book anything with more gravity than a run of regional open mics. My first “tour,” which I did through the Midwest in 2011, outside of showcases in Chicago, was mostly that. At least bands have a few members who can combine their networks.
Many comics raised on punk rock started festivals guided by the ethos, including Whiskey Bear (Columbus), Burning Bridges (Pittsburgh), and Altercation (Austin). This is a very short list. Some festivals are invitational, and many charge a nominal fee for comics to apply to perform (usually $10-$50). In most cases, the money collected goes directly into festival expenses like renting venues, advertising, and incidentals. Common criticisms of this model are fairly obvious.
“The bigger and grosser trend that I have noticed these days, which as a comic and promoter really bothers me, is the increasing amount of ‘comedy festivals’ that seem to be popping up as obvious-to-me cash grabs,” added Habersaat, “The comedy scene is an ever-expanding ocean and, boy, it is filled with sharks.”
Most festivals in this echelon also take care to book diverse lineups, including a multiplicity of voices and experiences on their shows. Festivals that don’t book women (or at least very few), for example, should be avoided. A finite number of festivals still exist that are run by notorious harassers and people otherwise exiled from the comedy community. I won’t name names here (if you have friends in this world, they can fill you in), but do exercise caution. If you’ve been accepted to a festival run by somebody you don’t know, don’t hesitate to ask around—you’re never going to ruin your “career” by pulling out of a questionable situation. Producers and comics who are persona non grata prey on comics whose networks haven’t expanded to the people they’ve wronged. Considering the double-edged sword social media has been for standup, it is at least holding people accountable.
Punk and Comedy: An Inevitable Combination
Sumukh Torgalkar, a Columbus friend now based in L.A. running shows in Highland Park, often writes thoughtful observations about standup on his blog sumukhcomedy.com. One conversation we had, which he turned into a post, was about how today so many more comics are touring independently than when we started. Fortunately, more shows have popped up because of the demand and the expanding networks.
“For all the Netflix specials, the uproar over some comedy coverage happening each week, or the arguing that occurs between comedians over whatever topic on any given day on social media, nothing has actually changed with how standup comedy operates in the country when you actually travel the country,” Sumukh wrote, “What matters to me at least, as a performer and even perhaps as an audience member, is one’s ability to change.”
This should sound familiar to anyone who creates or follows underground music: Every night in almost every major city—and most smaller cities across America—some relatively unknown comic is performing for free to an audience that is absolutely losing its shit. On my LP release tour in late 2018, I featured on Wet Cash, a monthly showcase at Dark Tower Comics in Chicago. Cameron Gillette, a goofy young local comic who moved up there from Alabama years ago, closed the show and blew the roof off the place. I messaged a couple friends in Knoxville that I felt like I was watching Green Day at Gilman Street in 1991. I can’t count the number of Mondays over the past four years at the Pilot Light or First Fridays between 2015 and 2017 when I’ve had similar epiphanies, feeling genuinely bad for people who aren’t able to experience what’s happening in those spaces, in those moments. I fully acknowledge how many lows one deals with in the comedy world, but I’ll be damned if the highs don’t obliterate them.
Sidebars of Recommendations
I can’t reiterate enough to do some digging into your local/regional comedy scene, but if you live in or are visiting the following areas, here are some shows that challenge and build upon the traditional framework of standup and might appeal to punk fans. Remember that, like the greatest and most influential of punk/hardcore bands, comedy shows tend to have a brief shelf life.
THE LATE LATE BREAKFAST (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Tyler Jackson and Danny Maupin started this show in Louisville, eventually relocating to Los Angeles via Chicago. Their shows happen on hung-over Sunday afternoons, challenging comics to channel their bits through a bottomless pit of filters, including walking around the audience blindfolded (I had to do that), in character as Guy Fieri, or while having their set translated in real-time. You can understand why it’s currently in high demand at indie festivals. (latelatebreakfast.com)
FRIENDLYTOWN (Knoxville, TN)
I co-founded this Monday show at The Pilot Light in summer of 2016. It posits a quasi-utopian fictional community, where everyone’s “set” is their contribution to the city council’s focus of the week: creating a mascot, some original public access programming, or devising ways for our town to win back an estranged lover. There’s an open mic portion at the beginning for newer comics. It’s the best thing I’ve ever been involved in in comedy. It’s also a zine! (friendlytownradio.com)
PUNKHOUSE COMEDY (WASHINGTON, DC)
Kevin Tit, a Hawaiian-bred comic and punk musician (most recently for Chill Parents), started a series of comedy house shows in DC when the local club and bar scene didn’t provide an adequate outlet. He currently produces a monthly show in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood that puts standup comics together with a featured punk band. Laughing and moshing: a match made in heaven. (kevint.it/punkhousecomedy)
Good Sources On Indie/DIY Comedy
Though standup comedy has existed for (technically) millennia, there is not a huge library of books on it. Piles of memoirs exist by comedy legends that one can look to for education and inspiration, as well as some interesting podcasts (i.e. The History of Standup by Wayne Federman) and a handful of overviews by famous comedy nerds (e.g. Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy). Here are a few recommended titles that address comedy and DIY and/or punk.
ZINE: How to Make a Standup Comedy Show at Home with Your Friends by Dan Alten. Dan is a wacky dude who is very serious about DIY standup. Last year, he realized how many of his favorite shows on the road happened in folks’ living rooms, so he decided to make a zine to sell at gigs and encourage readers to consider booking their own shows. People into punk are used to going to house shows for music or book clubs, so why not comedy shows? (Available for $8 on Venmo at Dan-Alten)
INDIE PRESS BOOK: Killing for a Living by JT Habersaat (Altercation). Habersaat, who is based in Austin, has been celebrating the love affair between standup and punk rock for most of his adult life. This book is a catalog of a series of tours he completed on shoestring budgets over this decade. (jtcomedy.bigcartel.com)
HISTORY: No Applause, Just Throw Money by Trav S.D. (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux 2006) Trav is a lifelong Vaudeville fanatic whose writing style is as insightful as it is entertaining, drawing direct lines between the Vaudeville tradition and modern day interactive/participatory performance art.
Some Comedy Labels
For the past two decades, the internet has made comedy release and distribution much more accessible. Spotify, Pandora, Amazon, Apple Music, and (everyone’s favorite/artist-friendly) Bandcamp have provided platforms for independent comics, poets, and other spoken-word artists to make their recordings public. Here’s a short list of standup-specializing labels to browse, a couple of which have a heavy stock of physical releases (including vinyl and K7 file formats).
Stand Up! Records (Minneapolis, Minn.) standuprecords.com
A Special Thing (Los Angeles, Calif.) astrecords.virb.com
Jackknife Records (Brooklyn, N.Y.) jackknifecomedy.bandcamp.com
All Things Records (Los Angeles, Calif.) allthingsrecords.com
800 Pound Gorilla Records (Nashville, Tenn.) 800poundgorillarecords.com
On Tour Records (Frankfort, Ky.) ontourrecords.com
Tyler Sonnichsen is a cultural geographer, standup comic, and occasional contributor to Razorcake. His latest comedy album, Modern Life Is Awesome is available on LP/CS/Digital at tylersonic.bandcamp.com
Razorcake is a bi-monthly, Los Angeles-based fanzine that provides consistent coverage of do-it-yourself punk culture. We believe in positive, progressive, community-friendly DIY punk, and are the only bona fide 501(c)(3) non-profit music magazine in America. We do our part.
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