The D.A.C (Differently-Abled Comedian)

  1. Cole’s Open Mic (2338 N. Broadway)

It’s Wednesday, and for Chicago standup comedy, that means it’s time for Cole’s Open Mic.  Cole’s is the most popular open-mic in the city; the reasons for this are many, and plainly obvious.  The bar’s layout is perfect, with an open bar area ideal for drunken socializing cut off from the back performance space by a shallow walkway, which does a good job of limiting the noise pollution.  The beer specials ensure that the crowd, which is often quite large, will before the mic starts be more than suitably tipsy.  Beyond that, what most sets Cole’s open mic apart from other open mic’s in the city is its exemplary opening act, Foz the Hook.

Foz, who frequently refers to himself as “Your old pal Foz” is a tunesmith, piano player and raconteur who frequently launches into carousing renditions of crowd favorites like “Drunk Astronauts,” and between songs regales his audience with wistful observations of life, most of which are forgotten nearly immediately.  After Foz brings his set to a close, the open mc host, Adrienne Brandyburg takes the mic and warms up the audience with a few minutes of her own comedy, which does a good job of bringing the room together and getting them ready to laugh.  Each week, Adrienne also offers free to drinks non-comedian audience members, ensuring that the crowd will be mostly passive and friendly.

I have been going to Cole’s Open Mic for seven years, and thus I have the privilege of getting “bumped” up near the top of the list upon request, but this is a privilege offered to few.  “Bumping” is a thing that most Chicago open mics participate in, wherein those whose comedy has been frequently seen and are known to be talented are given preference; therefore they receive a better spot on the list.  I remember, when I was first starting out in the open mic scene, I felt “bumping” was a horrid injustice, and one that I would never support or participate in.  After a few years of effort in open-mic comedy, childish principles like this are easily discarded.

For new comics going to Cole’s Open Mic, I would recommend showing up between 2-3 hours prior to its 9:30 start time, for if you find yourself late on the list I’m not sure how attentive an audience you’ll have.  I usually show up around nine, allowing me to gage the mood of the room and predict how large an audience I’m likely to receive.  Showing up early, especially when you are just starting out, is vitally important for the open mic comic.  The time you spend getting to know the other comedians, and the friendships you are able to build with other people in the scene, can be an enormous help in your journey to become a standup comedian.  It is very important to know your audience, what they are looking for, and what they will laugh at.

If I am soon to perform in front of a large or medium sized group of people who’ve never seen me before, as I was this night at Cole’s, it is important for me to get them comfortable with my “accent.”  The “accent” I refer to is the sound of my voice, as it was altered by the traumatic brain injury I suffered a little over a decade hence.  Because of my “accent,” it is important that in my first bit I either address my speech directly, or quickly disabuse my audience of the notion that I am to be pitied in any way.  In this instance I used the latter technique, opening by saying that “despite my voice, which might lead you to believe that I am somehow mentally handicapped, I crush pussy on the regular.”  The shock of this vulgarity, and the brazen nature of my self confidence, normally, as it did in this case, causes the audience to react with raucous laughter.

After this strong start, and in a way that references my personal malady, I can flow through the rest of my set easily enough.  I then did this by saying that though I “crush pussy” regularly, there is only one for me, as I am in a committed relationship with a woman that I am in love with.  I then slid from this description of love and wonderful commitment into some details of our relationship, namely, that my girlfriend does not shave or trim her pubic hair.  I described how it is a favorite habit of mine to give my girlfriend a “noogie on her bush,” though she finds this particularly annoying.  I described that when she tells me to stop, I tell her I will, and then I just go back to it.  I explained that I do this until she finally responds with fury, yelling in my best imitation of an extremely annoyed and perturbed woman, “Stop it!

After these two bits, as is often my habit at Cole’s Open Mic, I launch into some fairly standard crowd work, gently ribbing the audience and laughing along with the assembled crowd.  Being a differently-abled comedian, this is normally one of the more interesting things for me to do on stage.  For most comics, crowd work normally concerns handling crowds of people who disrupt the flow of ideas, adding their own egos into the comedian’s stage time.  These people are typically called hecklers, and I can say that my condition, and the sound my voice makes due to my condition, has meant that I’ve very rarely had to deal with hecklers.  Hecklers usual     intention is to gain the support of the crowd at large, and if it seems as though the heckler is picking on a disabled comedian, the crowd is liable to turn on them.  Conversely, because my tone of voice may seem pitiable to a large portion of the audience, I instead must use my interaction with the crowd to make them more comfortable with me.

After my set, I customarily hang out for a little while, but as the back performance area becomes choked with comics waiting to go up, I tend to take my leave not long after performing.  Cole’s on Wednesday night displays the always-beating heart of the Chicago standup comedy scene, and as I am a (fairly) beloved veteran of the room, it is where I can take the most chances.  It is there that I can explore the possibilities open to me, being a disabled standup comedian and a standup in general.

The D.A.C (Differently-Abled Comedian)

Zen Comedy: Exaggerated Reality

The Zen Comedian often ruminates about how every comedian uses the specifics of his or her own personal life as inspiration for their comedy.  He says that while not all comics reference events in their own lives specifically, all comedy naturally flows from ones own experiences.  “However,” he says, “Never simply describe anything.”  I believe that by this he means that it is a mistake to believe that the events of your life are ever on their own funny enough for a joke, and that the comedy rather comes from each comedian’s interpretation of the world.  Each comedian takes in the detritus of the world as he or she sees it, and regurgitates a skewed interpretation that is artfully hilarious.  One comedian who seems to take this advice and use it to its fullest potential is Patton Oswalt, and he shows the truth of it again and again in his exemplary album “Finest Hour.”

In one particularly hilarious section Patton describes his tendency to “jock rock” out the events of his life; that is, to invent simple sing-song narration to accompany the mundanities of everyday existence, accompanying each tune with a simple unexcited “yeah” at its end.  After a couple of increasingly silly ditties about buying stamps at the post office and eating a sleeve of saltines in his underwear, he ends the bit with a touch of self-recrimination.  “Jackin’ off to internet porn in my office while I should teach my daughter to read, yeah.”  This bit is fantastic in that it finds the humor in the tedious while at the same time including some sharp self criticism, (see “Zen Comedy: Getting Real” for additional examples of this) which imbues the bit with riotous truth.

Personally, I struggle with this principle, especially when attempting to describe things that might be funny on their face, though they can easily slip into simple indecency.  Recently, I suffered from the fact that I had a large, painful boil right next to my anus.  Fearing that it was a hemorrhoid, I did a bit of research, finding that the cause of hemorrhoids is the tendency some people (myself included) have to bear down and force out difficult bowel movements.  Upon discovering this (or so the joke claims) I was instantly dejected, as I have long found difficult and time-consuming bowel movements to be one of the few remaining aspects of my physical existence in which I can claim a consistent victory.

I believe this concept to be very funny and I have found with it some success in my standup, but in order for this bit to become exceptional, The Zen Comedian would tell me that I should try to exaggerate its reality.  Perhaps I should speak of achieving stillness in myself, focusing singularly on the bowel movement as I pass it, perhaps even placing my palms flat against one another as if in prayer.  Maybe I will grit my teeth, growling with faux effort before I describe hearing a single “plop” sound, and leaping into the air raising my fists in victory.  I feel that like Oswalt, I can potentially find in this bit and bits like it the opportunity to make my performance more expressive, hopefully making this into a truly great bit.  Whether or not I continue to perform this joke, the lessons I’ve learned about drawing hilarity from within and bringing it out into the world will be of great help in the future.

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Zen Comedy: Exaggerated Reality

Zen Comedy: Honest Vulgarity

The Zen Comedian, when asked whether it is simply a crutch to rely on dirty material, had this to say: “Jokes come from within, and they should never be censored.”  As always, the Zen Comedian’s advice may at first seem inscrutable and unsatisfactory, but I believe that when considered fully, it holds great wisdom.  I take this counsel to mean that no joke was ever enhanced either by the addition or subtraction of objectionable material, and that it is a mistake to consider the cleanliness of material as apart from your bit’s core subject matter.  When writing material, if your mind naturally goes not the realm of what is considered “dirty” material, it is important to let your mouth go there too (that’s what she said).

For a modern example of this principle taken to its greatest fruition, I look no further than Dave Attell, and his consistently impish demeanor.  In his most recent special “Road Work,” he has a bit where he considers that his sex toys were probably made in China, and this excites him.  “I know it’s sick but it does make it a little more erotic knowing that little hands have been all over them, doesn’t it?”  I don’t know if Dave Attell actually thinks this about his sex toys, but when thinking of jokes about sex toys, this consideration made him laugh.  This is what the Zen Comedian means in saying that “jokes come from within,” and it is this type of honesty that the Zen Comedian warns against censoring.

I’ve been working on a bit that might be considered “dirty” by some, but it contains a greater honesty about myself than I have heretofore achieved.  I tend to open a set with this joke, stating first that “you may not think it to look at me, but I am a dues-paying member of the pipe-layers union.”  I then pause as around half the audience laughs and the other half wonders what I mean, then I clarify with a simple statement: “Because I lay pipe.”  This joke is honest in that do share an active sex life with my girlfriend, and in that I genuinely giggle to myself when I consider well-worn colloquialisms like “laying pipe” used in this way.  I love this bit in the exquisite pause I allow myself between the first and second punch line, and in its brusque honesty.

Not long ago, I would never have developed a bit like this, because I might have deemed its use boastful, but that would have been censoring myself.  When the Zen Comedian says that jokes should never be “censored,” I don’t believe he speaks of vulgarity per se, but only that the jokes should come out of you unencumbered by too much thought.  So the Zen Comedian’s core lesson, it seems to me, is that the comedian should never compromise what in his or her jokes is most funny, regardless of its level of vulgarity.

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Zen Comedy: Honest Vulgarity

Zen Comedy 6: Ad Libbing

The Zen Comedian, though a practiced master of handling and communicating with his audience, does not participate in what is often called “crowd work.”  The Zen Comedian tells us that as Master Rickles demonstrated in his 1968 album “Hello Dummy!,” a complete performance can be made purely out of a communication with specific audience members, but to call this “crowd work” is a misnomer.  Listening to the album, it seems obvious to me that Master Rickles had a list in his head of racially offensive material, looked his audience over, and went to work, marking off racial strata in his head and ensuring to offend everyone.

Towards the middle of the album, Master Rickles looked in the front row, and seeing a man of middle eastern descent, said “this is Americana, an Arab sitting in front of a Jew.  And I say this from my heart, you pain in the ass I don’t want ya here.”  Rickles then went on to say “I’d rather have the colored guy [in front] at least he’d do a coupla numbers for me.”  The crowd roared with laughter at this, and though this type of material could accurately be called “crowd work,” the Zen Comedian tells us to recognize how practiced and professional its delivery is.  From the way this racially charged vitriol spilled out of Master Rickles, we can see that though their targets were not selected until the performance, these jokes were written well beforehand.

The lesson to be culled from Master Rickles is not, I believe, that brash racial insensitivity is innately hilarious, because it isn’t.  Though I may in the future write an article discussing the Zen Comedian’s position on racial avarice, for now I am simply calling attention to Rickles’s openness.  I believe this is Rickles’ greatest lesson, that the comedian, when looking over his or her audience, need not see challenge, but possibility.  This is a lesson I myself, in my simplistic and amateurish fashion, have attempted to utilize.  Recently I did a show at a comic book store during which I made a joke about how simple it would be for any of the audience to steal some merchandise, and many people laughed.  This itself was not what I would call ad-libbing, as I’d thought of this joke before the show had begun, but as I told the joke a great opportunity to ad-lib occurred to me, and I got the biggest laugh of my set.

As I joked about stealing from the comic-book store, it occurred to me that I should likely discourage that type of behavior, so I did.  I said, with as much flair as I could manage, that I would not rob anything “unless I steal yo’ girl.”  At this assertion, the audience roared with guffaws, as it played to my strengths in self-deprecation.  My statement, about how I was liable to “steal yo’ girl” was a plainly ludicrous statement for me to make, being that I am a skinny, bespectacled intellectual, or what would likely be called a “nerd.”  Using my own openness, observational skills, and knowledge of myself, I was able to ad-lib in a way that I received more full and enthusiastic laughter than any of my pre-written “bits” were able to.  Through the lesson’s gained from Master Rickles about observation and openness, I showed myself how ad-libbing, with proper preparation, is one of any comedian’s most valuable assets.

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Zen Comedy 6: Ad Libbing

Zen Comedy 7: Timing

The Zen Comedian, upon hearing reference to the cliché; “timing is everything,” responded with the use of another cliché from the immortal Vince Lombardi: “timing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  With this lesson, the Zen Comedian meant that timing is not only the most important aspect of each and every joke, but is in fact the true substance of all comedy.  I learned this lesson very powerfully when I was around ten years old, from comedy’s greatest master of timing, Jack Benny.

When I was a child, I collected cassettes of classic radio comedy, and though I had many favorites (The Bickerson’s, Fred Allen, Abbot & Costello) Jack Benny, who will be referred to as Zen Master Jack from here on, was my favorite.  Zen Master Jack’s most dominant character trait was his stinginess, and likely eighty percent of the jokes on his radio show revolved around this aspect of his character.  He even had an underground safe in which he kept his massive fortune, like Scrooge McDuck.  On one of his trips to this safe, he was accosted by an assailant who held a gun to his face and demanded: “Your money or your life!”

At this Zen Master Jack said nothing for a very long time.  I remember listening to the audience bristle, ready to erupt as the pause went on and on.  I could envision the burglar’s frustrated expression as I listened to the sounds of laughter from the live audience grow louder and louder.  Eventually the burglar had enough waiting and yelled “Well!  Your money or your life!” to which Zen Master Jack responded almost immediately “I’m thinking it over!”  The crowd roared with laughter, not at the joke itself, because it was even then a simple and predictable gag, but simply because of the way it was timed.

Though the live audience at the recording of this classic bit had the advantage of watching Zen Master Jack’s vaguely effeminate annoyed expression, most of the crowd and all listeners at home laughed simply at their own imaginations.  Many listeners at the time I’m sure didn’t even know what the face attached to this voice on the radio even looked like, but they laughed at the anticipation of a response.  The Zen Comedian tells us that if the audience is offered an effective set-up, even if it is extremely simple, they can fuel their laughter with their own anticipation.  Searching my own comedy for the places I most make use of this lesson, I recall the punchline to my “Burger King Confessional” joke.

The concept of this joke is that to expedite the penance process, Burger King has merged with St. Ignatius (a Chicago Catholic church) and created the worlds first Drive-Thru/Confessional.  The punchline to this joke comes after the fast food patron confesses to molesting his nephew.  The Priest/drive-thru operator begins by repeating the order, “Large Fry, Medium Dr. Pepper, Whopper Jr. and,” and then pauses for a good length of time.  After I’ve allowed the audience to anticipate what they well know will be a joke, perhaps even to the point of laughing in expectation, I drop it on them.  “Hey who hasn’t?”  I’ve learnt (or believe I have) from Zen Master Jack that the greatest laughter comes from anticipation, even if it is anticipation of the laughter to come.

Zen Comedy 7: Timing

Zen Comedy 26: Silliness

There is an element of comedy that the Zen Comedian recognizes as completely indispensable, though it is also frustratingly indefinable.  This element of comedy is called silliness, and nowhere was silliness pushed harder than in the brilliant sketch comedy of Monty Python.  Though this is not standup comedy, the lessons it can teach about the way to effectively subvert reality in a joke could prove invaluable to any proprietors of hilarity.

Monty Python recognized the hilarious power that silliness has when it’s taken to its extreme.  In one particular segue between sketches in an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, ostensible news footage of a meeting of freemasons is being shown.  In this footage, a large group of around ten proper english gentlemen, with hats and coattails, are all hopping down the street with their pants around their ankles.  When the show jumps to this footage, the laughter it sparks in the live audience is loud and sharp.  It is simply hilarious to see a bunch of men with their pants at their ankles hopping down a sidewalk.

Silliness is not only useful in individual moments, but with silliness alone, brilliant comic conceits can lead to hilarious sketches.  My personal favorite Monty Python sketch, “The Argument Sketch” begins with a moment of pure absurdity, and just gets weirder from there.  The sketch begins with Zen Master (Michael) Palin in a business suit walking up to a receptionist at her desk and saying “I’d like to have an argument please.”  From there, the sketch goes from one hilarious conceit to the next, until Zen Master Palin is clobbered by Zen Master (Terry) Jones offering “Being hit on the head lessons.”

When this sketch finally ends one officer of Scotland Yard arrests another for violations of the “Ending sketches without using a proper punchline” act.  I’m a huge Monty Python fan, and this was neither the first nor the last time they wrote themselves into a corner only to cheat their way out.  They could do this because their devotion to silliness was so complete that they could do anything they wanted.  The Zen Comedian explains how this knowledge can be useful to the standup comedian in four simple words: “There are no rules.”  So if you are having trouble with a bit, and every logical route open to completing the routine seems boring, just remember Monty Python, and that there is no proper way to construct joke.

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Zen Comedy 26: Silliness

Zen Comedy 5: Always Have a Pen

The Zen Comedian’s wisdom is not relegated to the ethereal and philosophic, for he has practical counsel as well.  The Zen Comedian’s practical advice, as I attempt to simultaneously understand and invent it, comes down to four words only: always write it down.  Whether or not you are the type of comedian who slaves over his bits and concepts before bringing them to the stage or you are the type comedian who prefers to work on his or her feet, the pen is your best friend.

For the first type of comedian, who molds and shapes his or her bits as would a blacksmith at a forge, this is obvious.  This type of comedian, it would seem to me, would have extensive notes.  For an example of this, I point to Joan Rivers, one of the most prolific and consistently hilarious joke writers in history.  As was featured in the entertaining documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Joan has in her office a cabinet stuffed to bursting with notecards on which every joke she has ever told is written out.  For this type of comedian the pen is their constant companion and help-mate, but even for those who work more on their feet the pen is indispensable.

For the comedian who relies on sudden inspiration to create his routines and begins a set unsure of where it will go exactly, the pen is an absolute necessity.  This is because for this comedian, any time of the day or night, inspiration may strike, and he or she should be ready.  If in the supermarket this comic hears a precocious youngster tell a lady she looks like a water balloon, and finds it hilarious, he or she should absolutely retrieve a scrap of paper from his pocket (keep all your receipts, you’ll need scratch paper) and scribble something like “fat lady = water balloon” on it.

The Zen Comedian teaches us that whatever type of notes you create, whether they are Joan Rivers-meticulous or sloppy and simple, always be creating notes.  It is important to not at this point to recognize that no type of note is definitively superior to any other type, but the taking of notes is absolutely vital.  The exercise of taking notes is not only a source of material, but it is also vital training.  The more you take notes, the more you will become accustomed to considering all situations comedically, and jokes will start  to occur to you more often.

The pen, for the comedian, is not necessarily purely physical, but is also a state of mind.  Just yesterday I did a show at a comic book store, and it occurred to me that the crowd would respond positively to mention of the fact that they were surrounded by valuables that were not tied down in any way, and they could in my words “just walk away with some of this shit.”  When I inserted this idea as a makeshift opener, the crowd reacted very positively, and I was off to a strong start.  So, in the end, the Zen Comedians counsel is very simple, whether it is the physical object or a state of mind, always have a pen.

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Zen Comedy 5: Always Have a Pen