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Meet Your Funny People: Steve Whyte

whyte

Interview by Diane Ivey

Catch Steve in Story League at the DC Improv on Sunday, April 26

Have you done both stand-up and story before? 

I’ve done very little stand-up. I find it rather nerve-wracking. Actually, I guess I find storytelling nerve-wracking too (why the fuck am I doing this?).

I come from an improv background, and although we never know what’s gonna happen when we step out on stage, I find it far less anxiety-provoking than storytelling. It’s comforting to know that you’ve got a half dozen teammates with you who will catch you if you fall. With stand-up and storytelling, you’re out there on your own.

Talking about improv makes me think about how storytellers have to improvise on stage sometimes, especially if they lose their train of thought or there’s something happening during the show that you feel you should comment on. Tell us about a time you had to improvise (good or bad).

I don’t think I’ve really improvised during a story beyond the minor ad-lib to deal with a flub. Once I was telling a story about 2nd grade rivalries, and mixed up the name of my rival with that of my buddy. If I didn’t address it, the story would’ve become confusing. So I just hit the brakes, and we (me and the audience) stepped out of the story for a second and I blamed my slip on being upset by the memories of my rival, laughed at myself, and then moved on.

Speaking of the audience, are you an audience interaction person when telling a story? Obviously there’s a difference between audience acknowledgement and a comedian doing crowd work, but I’ve noticed that some storytellers never break the fourth wall, while others do. Where do you stand?

Even though it’s not explicit, for me there’s a feeling of interaction in storytelling. So while I don’t do crowd work per se, if someone shouts something out, or if an audience reacts in an unexpected way, I think it’s fun to address it.

What would you like to see change about the stand-up or storytelling scenes?

For me, the appeal of both stand-up and storytelling is that they encourage a performer to open up about vulnerabilities and insecurities–stuff we normally don’t wear on the outside. It’s kinda therapeutic. The storytelling audiences seem to be particularly supportive and empathetic by nature, which, of course, is always welcome when sharing with strangers.

What’s the best advice you ever received from a more experienced performer?

I’ve been lucky to have some great improv teachers, and one of my favorites is Tara Copeland. She has all kinds of motivating advice, but at the end of the day, it always came back to “Have fun.” It’s pretty easy to beat yourself up after a bad performance, or stress out when a show isn’t going as expected. But one of the main reasons that we’re out there in the first place is because it’s supposed to be fun. So try to quit with all the fretting and have some fun. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’ve needed to remind myself of that one more than I care to admit.

If you could meet your personal comedy hero (tell us who it is!), what would you say to him/her?

My comedy hero? I don’t know–probably some who writes, like Adam McKay. I’d probably ask him if I could follow him around for a day and observe how he interacts with the world. I can’t imagine he’d agree to that, in which case I’d ask if we could take a picture together in which he’s giving me a noogie. Oh, and Leslie Jones is a hero too, for getting cast on SNL at age 47. Not to mention she’s fucking hilarious.

How do you normally celebrate a performance that’s gone well? Sex, drugs, rock and roll, food? (For me, food always wins.)

If a performance goes well, I want to keep the socializing going, whether that’s hanging out with the other storytellers after a show or meeting up with friends. Again, at a successful storytelling show there’s that feeling of bonding and camaraderie that pervades, and I just want to keep it going.

Star Prog

Steve Whyte thought he had it all figured out until he left the womb. He was Elf #2 in the Old Greenwich Elementary School production of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. Later, lured by the prospect of big money, Steve joined the improv world, and can be seen at the Magnet Theater in Chelsea. For money he edits video, and for fun he plays the drums. Winner of The Moth StorySLAM.

Meet Your Funny People: Hillary Scofield

Hillary Scofield

Interview by Shrake

Catch Hillary in Story League at the DC Improv on Sunday, April 26

Have you done both stand-up and story before? 

This is my first time participating in a storytelling event. What interested me was hearing the stories from previous Story League events. A lot of stand-up is talking about personal anecdotes, but turning them into a well-crafted story was a whole new experience for me.  

What would you most like to see change about the stand-up scene?

I would love to see more women doing stand-up. I think sometimes comedy still gets stigmatized as a “Boys’ Club.” It’s changed a lot, especially in the last few years, but I’d love to see it grow even more. 

I hear that often, yet I feel like I can think of tons of rich, famous, successful comedians who are women (from Rivers to Cho to Schumer, just to name a few at random). I almost think if you counted up the “stars,” it would be equal. Do you mean there is a big imbalance in the “rank-and-file”? And if I’m right, what does that mean?

There are obviously plenty of incredible women in comedy, both past and present. The last 10 years in particular have seen a lot of growth in the number of women in stand-up, sitcoms, and in writing/producing/directing roles. But I would disagree that, even at a star level, it is equal. Comedy is still dominated by men, from late-night TV to open mics in basement bars.

I can’t speak to all of the complicated psychological or sociological factors that might affect this imbalance, but from personal experience, I can say that sometimes comedy can be an unforgiving place for women. I’ve had other comics follow my set with jokes about me, from relatively harmless quips about my ass to really dark bits about drugging me. These kinds of comments can be very upsetting and alienating, especially if you’re the only girl on the show.

I’m not saying we need a 1:1 ratio of men to women. What I meant by my original comment was in general I’d like to see more women in comedy. I’d like to see funny girls encouraged to be that way from a young age, to embrace being funny. I’d like to see women who are interested in comedy do stand-up or improv or sketch and not be deterred by social factors. I think the more women in comedy, the better material we’ll have across the board.

What do you make of the debates that flame up regularly about what is and isn’t “allowed” in comedy?

This is a complicated issue. Personally, I think people have the right to say what they want. But with the internet and social media, it’s now much easier for a lot of people who may not be your target audience to see any insensitive or offensive material you produce. When this happens, those people are allowed to be angry and vocal about their opinions, and if you work for a private company, they have the right to no longer work with you.

Comedians have the right to say what they want, but have to accept the consequences of their actions. They’re not exempt from criticism just because it’s a joke.

Is it possible to teach someone to be funny, or is it just in-born (or not)?

I think anyone can be funny, and most people enjoy making their friends or families laugh with a good joke or story. But turning that into a performance is different, it involves a lot of skills that I think can be taught, but it also takes a lot of time and practice, and you need to be a certain type of person to want to do this night after night. 

What’s the best advice you ever received from a more experienced performer?

Don’t be afraid to fail. I’m super competitive and I hate being wrong. With comedy, you don’t get every joke right the first time. You have to try new things, and sometimes they won’t work, but you go back and you tinker with them and you try to make them better. 

If you could meet your personal comedy hero (tell us who it is!), what would you say to him/her?

I love Dawn French. She’s such a talented writer and performer, hard working and tenacious with an incredible career. If I ever met her, I would probably tell her how she inspired me. I first saw her in an episode of The Vicar of Dibley when I was a teenager, and seeing a woman on TV who wasn’t afraid to be funny and odd and sexy and smart all at the same time was a real turning point in what I thought I could do with acting. I would gush and probably tear up and make her uncomfortable. 

Do you notice anything unique about the DC comedy scene that sets it apart from other cities?

I think we’re very fortunate to have great crowds in DC. There’s a bunch of great rooms where even on a Monday night there’s a crowd of 30-40 people. And typically, they’re engaged and supportive and ready to listen. I think we’re very lucky in that sense.

Three years ago, Hillary Scofield moved to DC from Kensington, New Hampshire — a town that has two churches, one abandoned gas station, and more cows than people. Host of the Podcast “Swing and a Miss,” she has performed at the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, the Black Rock Theater, and the Black Cat.

Meet Your Funny People: Andy Christie

Andy Christie

Photo by Andy DelGiudice. Interview conducted by Shrake.

Catch Andy in Story League at the DC Improv on Sunday, April 26

Please tell us how The Liar Show got started, and what the secret to its longevity is. 

I guess the secret behind the show hanging around for so long is the same as mine. It can’t take a hint. Actually, I’m amazed and so thrilled it’s lasted thanks to all the great storytellers onstage and a gratifying mix of loyal fans and total strangers in the audience at every show.

Our out-of-town performances—Edinburgh; New Orleans, LA—are a blast, but the real heart of the show beats downstairs at the landmark Village club, Cornelia Street Café. They’ve hosted us for nine years, after about a year at The People’s Improv Theater (PIT), where we started. I had done a couple of monologues at the PIT and they asked for another, which I didn’t have—who has three monologues? So I said “How about this?” That’s how Liar happened. Necessity begets invention.

I think people come because it’s just a very simple concept and people love to nail a liar. It’s like you’re a parent and all the people in the show are your no-account kids trying to get away with murder. And the interrogation is just, well, really fun! Everyone, cast and audience, gets to be the funniest person in the room. We were also lucky enough to get some nice press early on and and Cornelia has it’s own following, which helps. When we started there, I was a little intimidated by the club’s landmark status. I felt like we were really lowering the cultural bar. Then I remembered their audiences were fans of jazz and poetry. And those people will listen to anything.

Have you done both stand-up and story before? If no, what made you cross over for this show? If yes, what is the most interesting similarity or difference between the two genres?

I’ve never done pure stand-up because I’m not crazy. But I’ve always loved funny stories—hearing them and telling them. Who doesn’t? But at many storytelling shows, where stories are as likely to be heartbreaking as hilarious, the audience is so supportive and so into the storytelling scene that I can’t help but wonder if they’re laughing because they’re having a great time or because they’re just nice people. “Aww, look at him up there talking like a Big Boy.”

After my first Moth story, host Andy Borowitz asked if I was a stand-up comic. He was just being polite, but I realized I was much happier to hear, “Are you a comedian?” than, “Are you in therapy?” I liked the sound of your Story League show because it sets the expectations at “Funny.”

What would you most like to see change about the stand-up or story scenes?

I’d like to see all the downtown and Brooklyn shows relocate into my lobby on the Upper West Side. Thank you.

OK, tell us more specifically about the NYC story scene—besides that there’s a variety of kinds of shows and lots of them, we know that already. Give us some dirt.

I can’t give you dirt. I mean, there is dirt, I just can’t give it to you. But yes, there are an infinite number of story-themed shows on any given night in NY. The scene has gradually changed from the time I first became involved. (Not my fault.) It began as a rediscovery of the pre-digital, pre-texting, pre-Following and -Liking idea that people can talk to each other; that everyone has a story to tell, and given a few minutes of quiet attention, both the audience and the storyteller can sort of flash back to a time when talking and listening were entertaining and, I hate to say this, enriching. So it was mainly “civilians”—short order cooks, architects, cops—getting up to share what happened to them that one time in that place. I loved it. People did it so they could go to work the next morning and tell the receptionist how they came in third at this weird storytelling thing, The Moth at Nuyorican Café, or heard someone talk about her Cesarean section at Speakeasy in the West Village.

I still love the scene, but it has transformed itself from one about craft and tradition into one about performance, like folk guitar in the ’60s, stand-up in the ’80s or, I don’t know, nothing in the ’90s. It seems to be less about the stories and more about the storytellers. And the expectation onstage has evolved from, “They’re listening?!” to “ Make them listen.” That’s totally fine, and it’s still an amazing community. It’s just different from what made me fall in love with it. Also, whatever happened to covered wagons and the Foxtrot?

Is it possible to teach someone to be funny, or is it just in-born (or not)? 

Of course anyone can be funny. I once saw a guy on Broadway walk right into a lamppost while he was texting. He was funny.

What’s the best advice you ever received from a more experienced performer?

“If things don’t go well onstage, remember: For you this is a big deal. For the audience it’s just 10 minutes wasted. They’ll get over it.”

Who was it?

I think Ophira Eisenberg said that to talk me off a ledge after a particularly unfortunate performance The Bitter End.

If you could meet your personal comedy hero (tell us who it is!), what would you say to him/her?

I’d love to hang out with Billy Connolly, the Scottish comedian and actor. I guess if I met him I’d say, “Hey, I was born in Scotland!” Then again, I say that to everyone. I just think it sounds kind of cool. But I was. Born in Scotland, I mean.

Do you do any touristy stuff when you come down to DC (besides appearing at the Kennedy Center in our shows)?

I’ve done the usual touristy stuff. The monuments, the Smithsonian, flying my Gyro-copter, etc.

But my most vivid tourist memory is of a 4th grade trip to Congress, when I swiped a cigarette lighter from Sen. Jacob Javitz’s desk. I felt awful for years. Because I lost it.

Star Prog

Andy Christie’s writing has appeared in The New York Times and in the Thomas Beller anthology Lost And Found: Stories From New York. He is a Moth GrandSlam Champion and has been featured on the Peabody Award–winning Moth Radio Hour, WFUV’s CityScape and  WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. His humor collection, I Wasn’t Kidding, was published in the U.S. and the U.K. by Random House. Consequently his work can be found on remainder shelves spanning two continents. He is creator and host of The Liar Show

 

Meet Your Funny People: Adam Ruben

ADAM RUBEN

Photo by Dan Foster. Interview conducted by Shrake.

Catch Adam hosting Story League at the DC Improv on Sunday, April 26

Have you done both stand-up and story before?

I’ve been doing stand-up since 2001 and storytelling since 2010. Hey, those years are both titles of Stanley Kubrick films!

What is the most interesting similarity or difference between the two genres?

The difference between the genres, at least for me, is that stand-up seems to require more frequent punchlines, and comedic storytelling allows you to go for a relatively long time—even half a minute or a minute, which is an eternity without laughs in stand-up—to build to a richer punchline. Perhaps more importantly, however, stand-up is quasi-nonfiction mixed with fiction, and storytelling is true nonfiction, which immediately raises the stakes for storytelling.

Are there any rules for the use of fiction in stand-up? I’ve noticed slip-ups, like a joke up top about “my girlfriend said X last night” but by the end of the set it’s “so, my girlfriend broke up with me recently”—I feel penalized for paying attention! And how do you feel about the limits of embellishment in “nonfiction” storytelling?

People may answer this differently, but I’ve always felt that stand-up is based on nonfiction, though fiction and outright lies are 100% acceptable. I used to tell a joke about my Russian grandparents.  Actually, my grandparents are from the Midwest. But I wanted to do a joke that involved a Russian accent, and it was more “immediate” to pretend it was my grandfather talking, not just some random Russian guy. Fiction is so well-accepted in stand-up that if a comic says “my girlfriend just dumped me” or “I got pulled over on my way here tonight,” half the audience groans because they know it’s not true. In stand-up, fiction posing as authenticity is perfectly fine—think of Richard Pryor’s routine in which he has conversations with his pets.

In storytelling, no. You’re pre-declaring that it’s nonfiction, so you’d better keep it true. That said, there’s such a thing as “truth” and such a thing as “emotional truth.” For example, if I’m telling a story about something that happened in fifth grade, and I’m telling you what my teacher said, of course I don’t remember exactly what my teacher said. And the audience accepts that. So we’ve all tacitly agreed that it’s okay to remain emotionally true in that moment—to say, “Then my teacher said, ‘Adam, you left your pants in the cafeteria,’” even if she actually said “Adam, are these your pants?” Both convey the same action and emotion. I could even stretch it and say, in a silly way, “I was so embarrassed! Then my teacher paraded the pants all around the the classroom, pulled out a bullhorn and announced that she had found my pants…”.  In this instance, I’m still truthfully conveying “I was embarrassed about the pants,” even though I’m deliberately going overboard with what happened. No one really thinks she had a bullhorn.

What I can’t do in storytelling, however—or at least what I really shouldn’t do—is to say, “Then my teacher said, ‘Adam, you left your underpants in the cafeteria.’” Even though the story might be funnier if it’s underpants, it wasn’t underpants, so that’s a lie, and that’s not okay. In stand-up, you can make them underpants.

Is it possible to teach someone to be funny, or is it just inborn (or not)?

For 10 years, I’ve taught an undergraduate stand-up comedy course at Johns Hopkins University, and this is the most common question I get. I think the answer is that, no, I don’t think that just anyone can make a career out of stand-up comedy. But I do think that anyone, anyone, can do good 5-minute set. That’s the premise of the class.

You mean anyone can do a good 5 minutes if you write the jokes for them and they memorize them? JK. But seriously: Let’s talk about repetition. Beyond the safety of nailing down a “tight 5″ and using it to guard against bombing, how long can someone rely on that same 5 minutes of jokes? 

Five minutes—a truly good, tight 5 minutes—takes a long time to perfect. You’ll churn through hours of terrible and mediocre jokes to get those 5 minutes. Once you have them, dammit, you want to use them. And since 98% to 100% of your audience has never seen you before, why not do the same jokes over and over again? You worked hard to write those jokes. I sometimes feel bad for the friends who’ve seen me tell certain jokes several times, but at most shows, it’s just me and a bunch of strangers who’ve never seen me. Why not give them what I know to be the best I can do? So yes, some comics can do the same jokes multiple times a night for years—in fact, most comics do that.  If you ever want to see a comic laugh in your face, tell him or her that you’ll hire them for a 45-minute set, but it all has to be new material. Nope. Doesn’t work like that.

A good routine is like building your own airplane from scratch.  It takes a while, but once you’ve built it, what do you do? You fly it, and you fly it often. Does it get old for you that you’re just flying the same plane over and over again? Maybe a little, but the very point of building the plane was to fly it over and over again. Then you take passengers in your plane. Do you need to build a new plane for every trip?  Not at all; the old one works fine—even if a passenger is a repeat customer. Now, after a while flying the same plane, you may start to dream about your next plane and start building it, and that’s fine. Then you’ll have two planes. Maybe some day you’ll have 40. But each plane is top-quality, and each plane can get your passengers from Point A to Point B and do it reliably well.

I think we agree that it behooves storyteller people to repeat their material, maybe not as much as stand-ups, but certainly they can reap the same type of benefits of knowing what lines work and what don’t… Thoughts?

Storytelling requires a little less repetition, because many shows have themes. So even if you have an awesome story about climbing Mount Everest, if you want to perform in a show whose theme is “Raining Cats and Dogs: True Tales About Our Animal Friends,” you can’t. Stand-up comics can pretty much perform any material anywhere (except performing dirty material in a clean room). So stories are less versatile than stand-up routines. Not only that, but in my experience, that 98%-100% audience turnover for stand-up is more like 70%-80% in storytelling, at least when you keep telling stories in the same city—so there’s more impetus to come up with new stories. I keep an Excel spreadsheet of all of my stories (there are about 30 now) and which ones I’ve told where/when.

What’s the best advice you ever received from a more experienced performer?

Bob Marley (the comedian, not the singer) once told me that comedy isn’t about saying funny things, it’s about saying things funny. In other words, you can write a great punchline for a joke, and that’s the “saying funny things” part—but to get to that punchline, you’ll probably need to give a much longer setup. “Saying things funny” allows you to turn the not-necessarily-the-clever-part lines into laughs as well.

I think that’s the “inborn” thing we’re talking about. I always say, you can actually teach ”timing” (to wit: musical instruction) but you can’t teach instincts. Do you think Marley’s adage about “saying things funny” translates to storytelling too? 

Absolutely.  Once you have the plot points and story arc down, there are still a million ways you can tell your story, and some of those ways are funny. The funniest stories turn the most ordinary parts into jokes as well.

How much “crowd work” is too much? I get disappointed when comedians do too much (like, just give me your jokes, please? Don’t spend the night making new friends in the audience when I paid to watch?).

First, you should note that some crowd work is a routine disguised as crowd work. Some comics have jokes as ready-made responses to banter. I once saw a comic who, on the surface, did nothing but crowd work, asking a NYC audience about their ethnic backgrounds, then “riffing” on that. In reality, that guy had a thousand ethnic jokes, so he was well-equipped to pretend to be conversing with the crowd, when all he was doing was saying, “Oh, this table is Dominican?  Well… [insert pre-written joke]“.

I’m also thinking of a local comic with whom I performed many years ago. When someone would get up to go to the bathroom, he’d say a couple of things to that audience member, then launch into a whole thing about how he can tell when someone doesn’t wash their hands afterwards. When the person returned, he’d pretend to know that they hadn’t washed their hands and do a bunch of jokes about that. Again, crowd work, but not crowd work.

To a comedian, the crowd work is the interesting part of the night. We’ve told our jokes dozens or hundreds of times, so we’re not going back to the hotel room, saying, “Man, that flat tire joke I’ve been doing for eight years really killed!” No, we’re congratulating ourselves on being able to think of a clever response to an audience question, or shutting down a heckler. Thinking of funny things on the spot requires a different comedic muscle from pre-written jokes, and audiences, in general, enjoy seeing both things.

I get equally frustrated when storytellers do not acknowledge the crowd at all — not even saying “thank you” when stepping up to the mic. Come on.

As for storytellers, whether they say “thank you” or “hi” depends on whether they think of themselves more as being in a club setting or in a theater. Willy Loman doesn’t start Death of a Salesman by coming out and saying “hi,” and that’s okay. Storytellers straddle that weird line between clubs and theaters, the line between bar sounds in the background and seats sold by Ticketmaster. That’s partly what makes storytelling so appealing—performers get to inhabit both worlds, in a way, and try to engage with the most useful qualities of each.

What would you most like to see change about the stand-up or story scenes?

I’d like to see weeknight stand-up shows enjoy the huge and friendly audiences of storytelling, and I’d like to see more storytellers appear in some of the places stand-ups can aspire to—big festivals, late-night talk shows, half-hour specials.

If you could meet your personal comedy hero, what would you say to him/her?

“Hi, George Carlin! This is going to be an awkward conversation, because you’re dead.”

Star Prog
ADAM RUBEN is a writer, comedian, storyteller, and molecular biologist.  He is the author of the book Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School and writes the humor column “Experimental Error” in the otherwise respectable journal Science.  Adam has been seen and heard on the Food Network’s Food Detectives, the Science Channel’s Head Rush, the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Kremlin, and NPR’s All Things Considered; he currently co-hosts Outrageous Acts of Science on the Science Channel, Superhuman Science on Discovery International, and soon, the Weather Channel’s new show Weather Gone Viral.  He is a Story League Legend and a storytelling teacher with SpeakeasyDC. He’ll be telling stories about misadventures in stand-up comedy this summer when his new one-man show, “I Feel Funny,” premieres at the Capital Fringe Festival.

Tips from Story League Legends

ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON THE BRIGHTEST YOUNG THINGS  COMEDY GUIDE

18 - story

We asked SM Shrake, head of Story League, for some tips about being funny when telling a story. Rather than write the list himself, he solicited responses from eight previous Story League winners, aka, people that have made money for telling a funny story. ~BYT

Shrake

Shrake

Photo by Andy DelGiudice

MISTAKE: Not being clear on WHY you want to tell this story publicly. FIX: Give it the “So What? Test” before you even pitch your idea, i.e., What would make anyone care about this beyond me (and possibly my closest friends)?

Jason Pittman

Jason Pittman

Photo by Rachel Eisley

MISTAKE: Not telling enough fart stories. FIX: Eat at Ben’s Chili Bowl more often.

Mike Kane

Mike Kane

Photo by Andy DelGiudice

MISTAKE: Telling a story for the first time… on stage. You’ve never told this story to anyone in your life; now you’re telling it to a room full of people who paid to hear a good story. FIX: Tell your story first to friends, coworkers, family, etc., to see if it passes the test — and to make sure it all makes sense! Stories that kill at bars, parties, and other social settings will most likely kill on stage too.

Jill Wagner

Jill Wagner

Photo by Andy DelGiudice

MISTAKE: Your story isn’t a story, but rather a weird, rambling string of loosely related anecdotes. FIX: Pick the best option off your cluster of anecdotes and commit to it. Then, eliminate anything that does not contribute to the arc of the story.

Chuck Na

Chuck Na

Photo by Ben Droz

MISTAKE: Memorizing your story, word for word. FIX: Know your story generally and practice different routes of getting to the next plot point or joke. Tell it out loud, either to yourself, or a friend — in person or by phone. (My dog knows all my stories.) By “knowing” your story instead of “reciting” as written (monologue style = boring), you give yourself flexibility in your performance and seem more natural to the crowd. Much better than quaking in fear that you will choke as your panicked brain tries to remember the exact word or phrase you wrote.

Jennifer Tress

Jennifer Tress

Photo by Andy DelGiudice

MISTAKE: Not making yourself vulnerable. You can tell a funny story about things that happened and your role in those events, but it won’t be memorable unless you put yourself out there. FIX: Reflect honestly on what you felt and how you may have appeared to others even if it makes you look “bad,” because those are the moments when the audience really connects with you and your story.

Diane Ivey

Diane Ivey

Photo by Andy DelGiudice

MISTAKE: Your story doesn’t have an ending. After the climax, you find yourself petering out with an awkward laugh and, “So, yeah….” FIX: Ask yourself how you changed during the story. Did it give you a new perspective? Did you learn something? Did it make you say “never again”? The audience wants to know who you were at the beginning and who you are now. Try to express that, but not literally with, “And so, the moral of the story is…”

Adam Ruben

Adam Ruben

Photo by Ben Droz

MISTAKE: Standing too far from the microphone. FIX: You want your mouth to be about an inch from the mic. It feels too close, but it works. When you hold the mic an arm’s length away, like an “American Idol” contestant belting out the final note of some Usher song, you just can’t be heard — and if no one hears your story, no one can like your story.

Reggie Melbrough

Photo by Ben Droz

MISTAKE: Stepping on laughter and/or waiting for the laughter you think should have come. FIX: Let yourself and the audience soak in the fact that something you said just made the WHOLE ROOM laugh, and don’t let that moment pass by speeding through your story. Also, just because you say something that you believe is funny doesn’t mean the audience will agree, so don’t stand there looking dumbfounded that your witty retort or reference didn’t get the laugh you wanted. Just relax, ’cause the crowd will tell you what is funny and what is whimsical and cute.

Meet the Masters Contestants: Sam Dingman

Sam Dingman

Before the Story League Masters Championship on Friday, March 20, we sat down with the members of Team DC and Team NYC to find out what makes a funny story.

Photo by Nisse Greenberg

Sam Dingman, Team NYC

What’s the funniest story you ever heard onstage and what do you think made it funny?

Adam Wade has a story about spending his life dealing with people telling him he looks like Rick Moranis, and then finally, one day, deciding to tell a girl that Rick Moranis is his father in hopes of scoring a date. It’s so simultaneously relatable, sad, and absurd, and you can feel that Adam is laughing at himself as he tells it, so it’s okay for you go there with him.

Have you ever taken a storytelling or standup or improv class? If so, did it help? If not, why not?

No, though I did study theater in college, and I went through the improv programs at UCB and the People’s Improv Theater. The portions of those courses that always resonated the most for me were the ones which emphasized removing the obstacles between yourself and the on-stage moment, whatever it might be. That’s the ideal state from which to tell a story, in my opinion, so I try to be mindful of those teachings when I’m performing these days.

Do you think it’s more important to be a funny person or to be able to tell a funny story?

Personally, I get bored after a while if someone’s only agenda is to make me laugh. If there’s a compelling narrative and real sincerity coming from a performer, it makes me want to listen indefinitely — and if there’s some humor woven throughout, even better.

What’s something that’s funny to you but that you feel is unappreciated by others?

I find employee manuals hilarious — they’re always so full of ridiculous terminology and company-specific acronyms. If you read them out loud, it’s like you’re speaking another language: “CSRs are expected to demonstrate PACE at all times. Failure to do so will be documented by QTLs, and violators will be assessed VWs, followed by WDs, the accumulation of which can result in Termination Proceedings.”

There’s been some discussion lately that sad/dramatic stories are “easier” to tell than funny stories. Do you think that’s true? Why or why not?

I think telling a compelling, relatable story about your life is hard, period. Some people prefer to leverage humor to bridge the gap between themselves and the audience, and others feel more confident tapping into the natural empathy of the crowd. People who are masters of either approach are incredibly powerful, and I don’t really buy the notion that one approach or the other is inherently better or worse.

Have you ever done stand-up as a way to “cross-train” with storytelling? If you have, did it help?

I’ve been attempting some standup sets recently because I spent so many years doing sketch and improv, but when people outside the performance community (friends, family, co-workers, etc) found out that I did comedy, they assumed I was doing standup. I figured I ought to give it a shot since it’s generally viewed as the most archetypal (not to mention the most difficult) form of comedy. To be honest, though, I don’t find it to be all that useful from a storytelling standpoint — a lot of the specifics and character development that I enjoy so much about putting a story together are either distracting or uninteresting in a standup room. I don’t think that necessarily means the story doesn’t need those details — it just means they’re not right for that particular environment.

Most of us learned to be funny while growing up, either to get laughs from classmates or to deflect attention off of ourselves. When do you first remember using humor to get attention or keep from being beaten up?

I was a fairly shy, quiet kid, mostly due to the fact that I was overweight from an early age, and felt ashamed and embarrassed most of the time. I pretty much kept to myself or played Nintendo in friends’ basements. But one of my friends had a sister who was an aspiring actress, and their dad built her a wooden stage in their backyard, where she’d put on plays starring kids from the neighborhood. One night, between acts of her production of “Cats,” I put on a cape and a cowboy hat, and stuck a Wiffle bat between my legs so it looked like I had a tail. I walked out onto the stage and started stumbling around, knocking over pieces of the set with my tail and trying to keep my hat on, and everyone in the audience started laughing and cheering. It was the first time I felt like anyone was seeing anything about me other than my weight.

On a related note, who’s the funniest person in your family?

I’d have to say my dad; he’s always looking for the part of every experience he can laugh at, and he always made me feel like anything I did was worth if I got a good story out of it.

You have a connection to DC. Did you live here? Work here? Get arrested here?

I grew up in Alexandria, but I’ve lived in NYC for the last 10 years. I am ashamed to report that the Story League Masters Championship will be my first visit to the Black Cat, which tells you something about how cool I was growing up.

Sam Dingman is a podcaster, comedian, and writer in Brooklyn, NY. He is a winner of the Moth GrandSLAM, and his work has been featured on RISK!, TBTL, The Billfold, and the First Person Arts Festival. Find his work at http://walt.fm.

Meet the Masters Contestants: Jenny Rubin

Before the Story League Masters Championship on Friday, March 20, we sat down with the members of Team DC and Team NYC to find out what makes a funny story.

Jenny Rubin
Photo by Zoe Diamant

Jenny Rubin, Team NYC

You wrote and acted in Shit Native New Yorkers Say.”Tell us a little bit about what inspired the video.

Well, at the time, there were a ton of those “shit people say” videos going around. Then “Shit New Yorkers Say” came out, which was great and we knew them, but being from NYC originally, I found there were different things that a native would say. A few of us jokingly said we should do an answer to their video and within a few days we decided to shoot it. It still makes me laugh. And of course, I am one of those people that is very nostalgic about “old New York” and enjoys telling old stories about growing up here, so it was a joy to make a funny video about that. Then we were accused of not having the “proper accents”…

What’s the funniest story you ever heard onstage and what do you think made it funny?

I recently was on a show with Mike Albo, and he was telling a story about traveling and dating and he was telling the story super fast, but it was heartfelt and he was so funny. I love when people don’t seem like they’re even telling a story, they’re just talking, but yet you’re hooked in and rooting for them. I enjoy when the story is told more conversationally and does not seem rehearsed, even though it’s been told a million times.

Have you ever taken a storytelling or standup or improv class? If so, did it help? If not, why not?

The only classes I have taken have been acting classes. I sort of threw myself into improv and then standup. I am not against classes, but I guess for standup, I didn’t feel I could be taught funny, and I have my own style. Storytelling classes could definitely be helpful for structure, and I know I could benefit from learning a proper way to find the beginning, middle, and end.

Do you think it’s more important to be a funny person or to be able to tell a funny story?

I think if you are naturally a funny person, it will be easier to tell a funny story and it helps immensely. You can have a story that is technically funny, but if you are not necessarily a funny person, it may be harder to really pull the audience in.

What’s something that’s funny to you but that you feel is unappreciated by others?

Hmm. I guess people can be hesitant to laugh at death or disease and illness. I am not saying these are particularly funny things at all, but they are a part of life. Every one of us goes through something like this at some point, and I find it helps to find humor in these sad parts of life, and people can find solace in knowing others have gone through the same thing. Laughing at the unbearable heals!

There’s been some discussion lately that sad/dramatic stories are “easier” to tell than funny stories. Do you think that’s true? Why or why not?

It’s funny because, I feel the opposite to be true. Maybe it is because I am a standup as well, so it’s natural for me to tell funny stories. I have told very sad stories too. I tend to always make [those stories] a little funny as well. I guess I am thinking of the old “comedy is tragedy plus time” theory. Sometimes, I just wanna tell a sad story, but then I am paranoid people are thinking, “Oh God, why is she telling this awful story?”

Have you ever done standup as a way to “cross-train” with storytelling? If you have, did it help?

Coming from standup, it was an easy transition, especially since my standup tended to lean towards storytelling, haha.

Most of us learned to be funny while growing up, either to get laughs from classmates or to deflect attention off of ourselves. When do you first remember using humor to get attention or keep from being beaten up?

There was a lot of humor in my house, growing up. I think being funny was encouraged. I was an only child, so I naturally got all the attention in my house. I never had to use my humor to get out of being beat up or to get people to like me… but I do remember winning hearts at an early age by goofing around with kids, even at age 5. I was a good student, but yet often was asked to go outside and get a drink of water to collect myself. I remember I just couldn’t seem to “get” chemistry class in high school, but my teacher found me so endearing, she laughingly and lovingly told me to drop science and take another class in the arts.

On a related note, who’s the funniest person in your family?

You mean aside from me? No, definitely my father. My mother is a great laugher, but my father is naturally funny. He’s like a Mel Brooks type. He’s got an incredible sense of humor. He could make me laugh at a funeral. I get a lot of my humor from him.

Jenny Rubin, a native New Yorker, has been performing standup and storytelling for the past 10 years. She hosts her own monthly comedy show at 2A, featuring various performers, from comics and writers to musicians. She has written for XO Jane and is currently a freelance photographer for Chelsea Now and has released her first self-published photography book titled “New York Walk” on blurb.com.

Meet the Masters Contestants: Mark Pagán

pagan

Before the Story League Masters Championship on Friday, March 20, we sat down with the members of Team DC and Team NYC to find out what makes a funny story.

Photo: Nicola Bailey

Mark Pagán, Team DC

What’s the funniest story you ever heard onstage and what do you think made it funny?

Chris Kelly told a humiliating story of unrequited attraction and his foolish attempts to save face while getting some guy to acknowledge him. I love when people can understand and share misbegotten performances in their life. Not in the sense of getting onstage and performing. More like the times we’ve put on a front to pretend that we’re something we’re not. I read something George Orwell said that was along the lines of, “autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” I laugh hardest and simultaneously trust the performer most when they can do that. And as we know, George Orwell is the biggest influence on all comics.

Have you ever taken a storytelling or standup or improv class? If so, did it help? If not, why not?

Improv was my start in comedy. I took my first class at UCB in 2003 with John O’Donnell. I had about a decade with improv performance and classes before I moved into solo material. SpeakeasyDC was my storytelling class intro four years ago. No doubt that everything helped. Improv classes pointed out how impatient I was at trying to get my ideas out there at the sacrifice of others. The main takeaway from SpeakeasyDC was the amount of qualifiers I used in telling a story. Basically, suffocating the story by making sure the audience really, really liked me and understood every single reason for someone’s actions.

Do you think it’s more important to be a funny person or to be able to tell a funny story?

I feel like the majority of us in comedy are really sheepish, awkward, quiet, neurotic, sensitive folk that we often get “huh, you’re in comedy, how come you’re not as funny in person?” That being said, I believe the proof is in the performance pudding. Good comedy comes from the analysis of a thing and the ability to communicate that viewpoint to an audience. You don’t need to be an inherently funny person to share a perspective that makes people laugh.

What’s something that’s funny to you but that you feel is unappreciated by others?

John Ritter and Don Knotts. How come they’re not on stamps?

There’s been some discussion lately that sad/dramatic stories are “easier” to tell than funny stories. Do you think that’s true? Why or why not?

I’ll just speak for myself. I have a tendency to go maudlin very easily, and it’s always more difficult and timely for me to search for the honest humor available in a story.

Have you ever done standup as a way to “cross-train” with storytelling? If you have, did it help?

Yes, and it’s been a very humbling way to understand the rhythm of humor in a story. Standup forces you to be more active about audience engagement. Storytelling allows an audience to relax in their seats and engage in any number of ways, versus standup where you have to get people to open their mouths to laugh. My favorite comics are storytellers and my favorite storytellers are funny. It’s a marriage of two disciplines that work well together.

Most of us learned to be funny while growing up, either to get laughs from classmates or to deflect attention off of ourselves. When do you first remember using humor to get attention or keep from being beaten up?

Eddie Murphy’s James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub Party was the only thing that existed for at least 10 months of my childhood.  A suitable impression was the only way 8-year-olds got into fourth grade in the ’80s.

On a related note, who’s the funniest person in your family?

My grandmother on my mother’s side. She would read the tabloids and comment on everyone’s transgressions. For years, I thought Warren Beatty was a male prostitute since she used to call him a gigolo whenever he showed up in the pages of National Inquirer. I also blame her for my outdated references. She’s not around anymore, so I’d have to say my nephew Alex is now the champ.

You’re representing DC, but you live in NY now, right? How long were you in DC? Is there anything you miss?

For the second time in my life, I’m an NYC resident, but I grew up in Montgomery County, MD, from the ’80s until 1997 and then came back from 2006-2013. I lived in NW DC during my adulthood here. My family is still here. DC is so green in the spring and summer and with the low buildings and wide streets, it’s such a calm metropolis amongst our I-95 city neighbors. I miss that. I also worked with local kids for years and I miss hearing my name and running into them while I was shopping in Giant or walking around Georgia Ave. And of course, I miss hearing 20 Minute Workout by Rare Essence blasting out of a car window at least once a week.

Mark Pagán is an award-winning filmmaker, comedian, and writer from Maryland now living in Brooklyn. His performances and films have been been showcased at places such as PBS, Slamdance Film Festival, Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, The Moth, People’s Improv Theater, Studio Theatre, Le Poisson Rouge, and Kramer Gallery.

Meet the Masters Contestants: Cyndi Freeman

Before the Story League Masters Championship on Friday, March 20, we sat down with the members of Team DC and Team NYC to find out what makes a funny story.

Cyndi Freeman, Team NYCCyndi_Freeman_By Ryan_Collerd

Photo: Ryan Collerd
What’s the funniest story you ever heard onstage and what do you think made it funny?

Two Boston Comics tell a tag team story. D.J. Hazard and Rick Jenkins were off in Vermont doing a gig at a ski resort. On their way home, they were mistaken by highway patrol for two escaped convicts believed to be both armed and extremely dangerous. After being arrested at gunpoint, they spent the rest of the day trying to convince police and FBI, who they were, this included performing their material to a really tough crowd.

Have you ever taken a storytelling or stand-up or improv class?

I have taken classes in all three. I love classes, they help me refine my craft.

Do you think it’s more important to be a funny person or to be able to tell a funny story?

If you are a funny person, any story you tell will be funny no matter how dark or dramatic it may be.

What’s something that’s funny to you but that you feel is unappreciated by others?

Conspiracy theorists, they crack me up. But when I try to explain why, people just want me to stop. I think my favorite is the Lizard Agenda.

There’s been some discussion lately that sad/dramatic stories are “easier” to tell than funny stories. Do you think that’s true? Why or why not?

I don’t think that is true, it depends on the teller. We all have our strengths.

Most of us learned to be funny while growing up, either to get laughs from classmates or to deflect attention off of ourselves. When do you first remember using humor to get attention or keep from being beaten up?

As a kid, no one got my sense of humor, my attempts to be funny were what got me beaten up, as they all thought I was a freak. I do remember the first time I made people really laugh, I was 15 and taking an acting class with adults (the next closest to my age was 25.) We were asked to write a short monologue. My story cracked everyone up. I performed it for my acting class back in high school… crickets. But once I knew I could make people laugh, it became a goal to go into comedy.

On a related note, who’s the funniest person in your family?

My niece’s kid. She loves telling jokes, but usually gets the setup and punchline in the wrong order.

I know you also do burlesque as Cherry Pitz. How has burlesque helped you with storytelling? Does storytelling ever help you with burlesque?

For me, storytelling is an internal art form, mostly in the head, and burlesque is all about the physical. I feel that for me they both complement each other and feed different parts of my creativity.

Cyndi Freeman is an award-winning solo performer. Credits include: The Moth, The Liar Show, Adam Wade’s Super Stories, Seth Lind’s Told, Risk, Stripped Stories, And I Am Not Lying, The Colbert Report, HBO, and Showtime. She also performs burlesque as Cherry Pitz and produces Hotsy Totsy Burlesque.

Cherry

Meet the Masters Contestants: Jeff Simmermon

Before the Story League Masters Championship on Friday, March 20, we sat down with the members of Team DC and Team NYC to find out what makes a funny story.

Jeff Simmermon, Team NYCJeff Simmermon

Photo: Andy DelGiudice
You represented NYC in the last Masters Championship (and won with two awesome stories!). What do you think are the differences between the NYC story scene and the DC story scene?

I am always impressed by the audiences. Every time I come down there, you’ve got a huge audience full of people that are on board and really want to listen and laugh. Story shows in NYC are lucky to get 50 people to come out, and yet I regularly see audiences in the hundreds at the Black Cat.

We’re fortunate [in NYC] to be able to go to storytelling mics and shows and standup mics and shows any night of the week. Some of the best storytellers in the country teach classes at the PIT, UCB, QED. And you can see people you admire right out there at the same crappy bar working on their stuff right next to you.

If you’re a performer and student of storytelling, it’s very hard to beat these opportunities to practice and observe.

I try to get onstage 5-10 times a week, and that’s very difficult to do almost anywhere but New York.

What’s the funniest story you ever heard onstage and what do you think made it funny?

It’s pretty tough to quantify this. But I really love Gary Gulman’s story about a fight he got into at Trader Joe’s. It follows the classic story arc—there’s even a minotaur as a villain—and gets a laugh every 20 seconds. He’s a masterful comic anyway, but the way he uses jokes to establish character and conflict, or step back from the narrative to make an observation—it’s just brilliant.

Have you ever taken a storytelling or standup or improv class? If so, did it help? If not, why not?

I haven’t taken any classes in standup, storytelling or improv. When I first got started there was only one class in New York, offered through UCB—and it was full. I didn’t want to just sit around and wait for the next one to open up, either, so I just dove right in.

I’m saying this as a person who is going to start teaching storytelling in March, and has friends that teach some very well-respected classes in New York: You don’t necessarily need a class to learn this.

You need four things:

1) To be immersed in a community of people that are as obsessed with it as you are. You need to watch each other, critique each other, cheer each other on.

2) You’ve got to see a lot of stories/standup, good and bad, across the board. You’ve got to see great performers bomb, rookie mistakes, skillful, surprising stuff from people you’ve never heard of.

3) You’ve got to develop the insight to take responsibility for your own role in your stories, to realize when that thing you once thought was cool is actually not that interesting, or when a tiny little detail actually is attached to something really important. And the insight to know when a silent audience is being thoughtful versus being polite while you stand up there and suck.

4) To have the foolish confidence/”hey, fuck it” attitude to just get up onstage and suck at it until you get good.

A class will definitely help you develop all of those things—or push you along the way. It can be a great confidence boost, and it provides a comforting structure if you find all of this overwhelming.

It’s really down to whether or not you are the sort of person who benefits from classes, or wants some structured insight and a supportive shove onto the stage. A class might help mitigate that awful feeling of being the new kid in school and not knowing which lunch table to sit at. I still struggle with that.

But if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where you can go see a lot of stuff all the time, meet people that are as into as you are, have the insight to go constantly deeper and the chance to get onstage any old time you want —you can totally do it that way, too.

Think about your favorite standups and storytellers. Do you know if they took classes or not? I don’t either.

You can also take all the classes you want and not learn a damn thing. You’ve got to do whatever it takes to get up and suck under the bright lights, because that’s where the real learning starts. Anything that gets you there is fine.

Do you think it’s more important to be a funny person or to be able to tell a funny story?

I think it’s more important to be a funny person. People that aren’t funny can’t tell funny stories. Life is also bigger than the stage. The funniest people I know aren’t performers at all and could make a fallout shelter the funniest place on earth.

What’s something that’s funny to you but that you feel is unappreciated by others?

I love it when people draw dicks on stuff. It’s like a form of underappreciated folk art. Other people like it OK, but my friends and I send each other pictures of ones we find all the time. I will be 39 at the end of this May.

There’s been some discussion lately that sad/dramatic stories are “easier” to tell than funny stories. Do you think that’s true? Why or why not?

I saw that discussion [on the NYC Storytelling group on Facebook —ed.], and I thought—and continue to think—that it is the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to tell a story that connects with an audience and moves them to any kind of emotional response. If you can do that consistently and well, does it really matter? Worrying about the genre is a clumsy distraction.

You’re also a standup. How do you think doing standup helps storytellers?

The storytelling scene’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. It’s so awesome to have a roomful of patient, attentive people who will follow you wherever you take them and give you a good round of applause at the end.

Sometimes, though, it’s a little like everyone getting a trophy at the end of the tee-ball season. Nobody’s going to tell you to your face that your emotional story felt cheap and manipulative, and like I said before, you can easily delude yourself into thinking that a bored audience was listening thoughtfully behind that spotlight.

In standup, if you’re not funny, you’re going to know it immediately. It’s binary: You either got laughs or you didn’t. And it’s a lot harder to lie to yourself about it.

You’ve got to learn how to go into any room and just destroy it, and you don’t learn that without putting in some serious stage time. There are just more opportunities to do standup than to tell stories. There are more rooms, more mics, more shows. I can do three standup spots a night in New York, and maybe five storytelling shows in an insanely busy week. The more you can make performing into a muscle memory, the better off you’re going to be.

Half the time when you tell people that you’re a storyteller, they either think you’re a standup or some guy in a bowtie and a seersucker suit. I just figured I’d go ahead and do standup, then apply it to storytelling. Or apply storytelling structure to standup, so that jokes build character, conflict, and raise the stakes of the story.

Most of us learned to be funny while growing up, either to get laughs from classmates or to deflect attention off of ourselves. When do you first remember using humor to get attention or keep from being beaten up?

I went to Hutchison Elementary School in Herndon, VA, from the 4th-6th grade, and I used to just do standup at show and tell. I distinctly remember bombing one time by ripping off a Robin Williams bit that I didn’t understand at all. I started losing the room and I could see my teachers getting mad, so I dropped the bit and got the room back with some Polack jokes my grandpa taught me.

On a related note, who’s the funniest person in your family?

My little sister.

See Jeff’s videos and learn more about him at jeffsimmermon.com.