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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: Mallory Huggins

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.

Mallory

Mallory Huggins, Team DC

You’re a Story League contest winner. What made you decide to tell your story? How did you feel after winning?

I’ve been telling the story from my first Story League contest for years, and part of the reason I tell it so often is that I want to shame the gentleman who pooped in my recycling bin without actually naming names. When I saw the Stinky theme for a contest last summer, I knew I had to take the opportunity to tell my story in front of a crowd. For me, the best way to get through a humiliating or traumatizing moment is to turn the story funny—often this isn’t very hard—and tell it to as many people as possible. To have a bunch of people appreciate that story makes the “healing” process easy.

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

To keep it scatological: A friend of mine tells a hilarious story about a three-part failure to shit into a plastic cup when she got food poisoning while living in Germany. The story succeeds not only because it appeals to the childish zone in all of our senses of humor, but also because the narrator is so damn vulnerable. She’s desperately ill, there’s a solid amount of crying involved, and the story is just plain embarrassing. It’s a great example of a story working partly because the teller is confessing something that the average person wouldn’t share with anyone. It endears us to the storyteller; it humanizes them. Even the story is about poop.

Have you ever taken a storytelling or standup or improv class? 

I haven’t!

Do you think it’s more important to be a funny person or to be able to tell a funny story?
I’d certainly rather be around funny people than be around people who can simply tell a funny story. Arguably, anyone can tell or be taught to tell a funny story, but those naturally funny types who don’t have to work too hard at it are the ones I want hanging out with me.
What’s something that’s funny to you but that you feel is unappreciated by others?

I love watching people run in regular clothes. A dude in a suit sprinting for the bus? Makes my day. Bonus points for a backpack.

I also enjoy dead baby jokes. They’re underrated.

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’s true; I think it depends far more on the person telling the story. A sad/dramatic story can fall flat just as easily as a funny one if it lacks authenticity or doesn’t translate to the audience.

Have you done any other public speaking (acting, debate, stand-up, etc.)? If so, how did it help you prepare for storytelling?

I’ve always been comfortable giving speeches and presentations, and I can emcee a killer workshop. But I’m oddly very uncomfortable doing any kind of performance that doesn’t feel like I’m being myself: I was a terrible middle school thespian; it takes about eight hours’ worth of alcohol to get me to do karaoke; and I sit through improv shows afraid that I’ll somehow get brought on stage. Storytelling feels like the sweet spot between these universes. It’s more performative than most speeches or presentations I’ve given, but I get be myself while I’m saying things in public. My background makes me pretty comfortable on a stage, and I’ve learned what works for me when it comes to preparing for an event. Perhaps most importantly, I know that things rarely go exactly as planned, and that’s okay.

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 don’t have any specific memories of using humor to get attention or keep from being beaten up, but I’ve always thought that it takes some amount of childhood or adolescent awkwardness to give a person a personality. The people who’ve had it easy—always attractive, always well-liked—end up as boring adults. I was uncomfortable enough in my skin for many of my formative years that I had no choice but to become at least little bit funny.

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

My sister is great with voices. She does a spot-on Target Lady impression that makes me super happy.

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.

Meet the Masters Contestants: Reggie Melbrough

Reggie

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.

Reggie Melbrough, Team DC

Story League (SL): You’ve been involved with Story League almost since the beginning, serving as a judge, host, and storyteller. What’s your favorite role?

I like hosting, ’cause you get to interact with other performers and you get a gauge of who is going to win throughout the night. I love looking at the crowds’ faces and hearing their responses.

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

Not one story really sticks out in my mind. What makes a story funny though are the raw primal emotions and reflections each person brings to their story.

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

I did take one entry-level improv class at WIT and I think it helped me in terms of staying in the moment and understanding how to raise the stakes of a scene. Anything that can help you stay loose helps.

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

Being a funny person I think wins overall because you can make a boring story entertaining and a entertaining story riveting.

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

The “Sleepaway Camp” trilogy and countless other random movies and TV shows like “Today’s Special.”

SL: 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 personally think telling a funny story is harder cause you’re trying to make people laugh, which is a hard emotion to elicit. A sad/dramatic story, though, to be good has to have those same honest, raw, primal emotions behind it to make it a truly great story that the crowd will want to continue to listen and remember.

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

You learn how to be funny and how to find your voice. Storytelling crowds can be a little easier to perform in front of compared to a crowd who is only there to hear standup and jokes. Though most great and good comics tell stories, in their act, they are just chunks based on a theme or a story that they punch up to make funnier by either adding reflection or a little exaggeration to make it funnier

SL: 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?

That was pretty much a daily thing cause I was always trying to fit in with the rich white kids I grew up with. I figured if I could make people laugh and talk their ear off, no one would truly mess with me ’cause I was the “funny” black kid.

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

My cousin Dale. Dude is a great storyteller and great person overall.

Meet the Masters Contestants: Natalie McGill

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.

Natalie McGill, Team DC

nataliemcgillheadshot

Story League (SL): What’s the funniest story you ever heard onstage and what do you think made it funny?

A few years ago, I saw Gabe Liedman do a guest spot at Story League and he had me laughing until I was hoarse about an online date of his that ended in a terrible and rather gassy way. I think it was a combination of his personality and the fact it felt like he was just telling me this story over a dinner—and not to a packed audience—that made me enjoy it so much.

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

I’ve never taken a class before. For standup, I pretty much just wanted to be thrown in the fire and see if my jokes could eventually extinguish the flames.

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

Funny person. I think I’ll enjoy the story even more if I’m drawn to your personality in addition to what you’re telling me.

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

I don’t know if this is what you were looking for in an answer to this but I’ll just say it: the TV show “Night Court.” I cannot find reruns of this show anywhere.

SL: 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 can see why people would think those stories are “easier.” I personally would feel more pressure to entertain with a funny story than a sad one. You’re hoping to get laughs in certain places with a funny story. When you don’t get those laughs, you feel deflated.

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

I think it forces you to analyze your story for the parts that may drag on and bore the audience. Most nights, I only have five minutes to make someone laugh. If there are details that won’t add anything to what I’m telling, then I’m going to slash them to get to the funnier parts faster.

SL: 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?

When I was in the eighth grade, I wrote this script where I imagined Snuggle the Fabric Softener bear and Winnie the Pooh were brothers coming home for a family dinner. Except Winnie the Pooh was now an alcoholic has-been who hadn’t gotten showbiz work in a while and Snuggle was getting regular commercial work but feeling like he wasn’t advancing in life. I loved comedy but I was extremely self-conscious about sharing any type of humor writing with my friends so I emailed it to the only two people I ever would’ve shared it with at the time: my older brother and my cousin Angie. My brother really liked it and my cousin told me she almost got in trouble at work for laughing while reading it. I think that was the start of me feeling that maybe other people would like to read my weird thoughts.

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

My brother.

SL: Something I like about your stories is that they often involve a big idea gone wrong (for example, the Kikkoman Soy Sauce Bandit). What was the last big idea you had? Did it end well?

Well this is nowhere on the level of what I did in that story but recently I was determined to make one of those Top Ten list pull away sign boards a la the Wayne’s World sketches on Saturday Night Live for a stand up bit. I made it initially for a “Top 10 things you can get me for my birthday” bit. One of them was “a whiskey sour” and a stranger bought one for me at the bar when I got offstage so I think that ended well!

Natalie McGill is a D.C.-area stand up comic and storyteller who has performed at festivals and venues such as the Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival, the Black Cat and State Theater. You can follow her on Twitter at @littlenightowl.

By Popular Demand: Santiago

BY POPULAR DEMAND features interviews with contestants our audiences loved, and an audio clip of their story. 

An 8th-grade romance moves from rumor to reality only to be permanently interrupted by the SWAT team.

SL: So you convinced your whole school you were going to marry an Argentine princess? How did you do that?

Well, it helped that my family went back to Argentina at Christmas and New Year’s, but, you know, kids are dumb and they just believed it.

SL: But then you got a real girlfriend and the SWAT team broke it all up. Tell me about that day.

That was a weird day. I’m in the bathroom getting dressed for our school play. I’m wearing a pair of boxers and this robe that sort of looks like the grim reaper. I don’t even have shoes on.

Then the school goes on lockdown and we’re rushed into the nurse’s bathroom. Suddenly there’s a cop with a massive gun patting me down and putting me in the back of a cop car. I learned later they thought I might have been part of something because of how I was dressed. After I was cleared, they took us to an elementary school nearby where the kids were having lunch. I’m barefoot in a robe. It was just awkward.

SL: When you talked to Sarah, what did she say?

She was upset. She was thinking, “Where is my boyfriend?”

SL: And what were you thinking?

That I had to pee.

SL: Any detail you left out?

I don’t think I did justice to how mean the girl with the back brace was. She was like Regina George at the end of Mean Girls. I’m kicking myself for not getting back at her.

SL: For not getting back at the disabled girl?

I mean, for not having a good retort.

SL: Santiago, here’s your Truly Random Question: Fill in the blank. The Academy Award for Most Pointless Actor goes to ______.

Just one? Well. I don’t know why Casey Affleck comes to mind. I mean – poor him, right?  Or David Schwimmer. He was the worst Friend.

Star Prog