Ryan Stout performing tonight and tomorrow at Helium Comedy Club is charming, charismatic, diplomatic, intellectual, and good at covering up a clear lack of morals a bit like what I imagine the anti-Christ would be. Despite knowing his words would end up in a blog column, he confides in me that he hates the internet, because the aggregation of world knowledge ruins the possibility for the non-existent to exist ...
"I wanna be a legend ... The internet is a legend killer."
With that in mind, I'm going to crack the Ryan Stout mythos, which has gained traction steadily over the past ten years thanks to a global touring schedule and regular appearances on E!'s Chelsea Lately
. If you see him at Helium this weekend, he'll have you believe that the jokes he's telling despite sounding
plain evil are essentially wholesome at the core. He'll actually spend a significant portion of his stage time explaining this, and even longer if you happen to spend an hour on the phone with him. But the fact of the matter is that he's a salesman, using logical-sounding double talk to sell your soul back to you after you've laughed at the mentally handicapped, child molestation and microwaved little-people or, if you didn't laugh, he's selling you the idea that you can still call yourself a good person if you'd like to chuckle at the next one.
But he's lying to you. And I'm not sure what it says about me as a person, that this lie adds fervor to my swoon over him as one of the most brilliant working comics in the country.
(It probably says that I've watched There Will Be Blood
one too many times.)
A master wordsmith, Stout can weave a tapestry of multidimensional wrongness that really does the heart good, especially if you genuinely love the craft of comedy. The phrase "shock comic" will usually be a turn-off so I don't want to give you the wrong idea. Stout never utters the F-word once, never shows a hint of anger, and for all I can tell never shares any genuine feelings about ... anything. But where a "shock" comic would make you say, "I can't believe he just said that," Ryan Stout will make you say, "I can't believe I just laughed at that."
|Photo | Shannon Casey
|To vote for Stout in Comedy Central's
Standup Showdown, text "stout" to 44696
So I exaggerated earlier with implications that enjoying Stout's comedy makes you a bad person. It only makes you a bad person in the puritanical sense, in the reactionary sense. The truth is that laughing at something or even joking about something can't really make you a bad person. Or, if it can, it should be noted that Stout isn't doing crowd work at a highschool, permanently lowering self-esteems. He isn't slinging one-liners at a funeral home, magnifying the grief of recent widows. He's at a nightclub, highlighting inconsistencies and poorly worded cliches. The fact that he challenges even the most liberal-minded conversational mores at the very same time is part of what makes him a visionary comic. He's like Neo seeing the meta-verbal matrix and flexing your sensibilities for a more nuanced journey through post-modernity.
Growing up in El Paso, Texas Stout found being a straight white male made him a minority. Like many comics, a sharp tongue became a necessary utility during his formative years.
"I was defending myself a lot when I was a kid. Physically I wasn't going to be able to take people on, especially in groups I had to use my wit."
It was during these years that Stout figured out how to inflame his opponents without ever actually being vulgar.
"I had to learn to win the verbal battles in a way that could be done in front of the teachers."
More after the jump including a video and details about his performance schedule.
So far, I admit I'm making him sound pretty confrontational, but as an intelligent audience member, Stout is on your
side. He insists he doesn't design his comedy to piss anyone off. It's based on things that "seem" (read: are) wrong morally, but logically they make sense. He claims that people let a lot of things fly because the jokes works in context, but certain people have no sense of logic, only needless empathy ... and the squares come in all sizes.
Stout says that, perhaps counter-intuitively, one particular demographic of people who enjoy his act enough to approach him with kind words after shows are rich older people.
"I have a couple theories on that. Older people haven't had their attention span ruined by the internet, so they can remember a call-back from 45 minutes ago. Also, I think wealthy older folks are comfortable with life in a certain way, that when they're going to a show they're going to appreciate a good show. Others might be going to a show just to drink excessively."
There is a subtle difference between people who are going out to "have a good time" vs. going out to "appreciate a good show." It makes you think about the difference between the people who attend the theater vs. people who lose their shit over a hockey fight. Now
the stark contrast between Stout and a "shock comic" really begins to sublimate.
Unfortunately, Ryan reports that the wealthy elderly (henceforth to be referred to as the wealtherly) only really go out to Tower Theatre-esque shows (places where he might be opening for Bob Saget). They don't watch Comedy Central and they don't go out to night clubs. So that leaves the general public to get most of the laughs from what he's doing. And when it comes to a random sample of the American cross section, Stout is likely to be a love-or-hate type of comic (for either good or bad, people will surely write letters). What with the wealtherly unreliable to turn out at Helium in large volume, Stout is basically relying on the intelligent younger folks of Philly to enjoy some truly vibrant comedy that not all Americans have the high-powered effectiveness to appreciate.
"I always loved performing in Philly because it's one of those places where poeple are forced to interact with strangers on a daily basis. It's not like Des Moines where they get in their car and go to work, and never see someone they haven't met. But when you're on the subway, you see strange people doing strange things on a regular basis. If I'm on stage and I talk about one of those girls who cut themsevles, people here can relate. But people in Des Moines hear that and they can't relate at all, they're like 'oh my god!''
So, it may or may not be a match made in heaven that Stout will be headlining Philly's top comedy room. When you combine our city's strong presence of intellectually minded culture-junkies with our notorious battery-throwing lust for pure evil, Philly should be Darth Stout's home away from home.
I half-kid, of course. To a comedy savvy mind, Stout is actually a Jedi Knight, restoring ballance to a comedy landscape which has succomed at times to lowest-common-denominator material and style-over-substance.
"I took a strange interest in comedy since I was very little. I had notepads where i would write down my jokes. I knew from very young that I would do it some day. The naÃ¯veté which that produces was that everybody on the planet respects stand-up as much as I do. So the first few years at shows, when people would heckle, I'd be in the back of the room going, 'Wait, what's happening here? They're doing work! What kind of psychopath would interrupt?'
But it's a job where I deal with the general public, and [as we learned from Carlin] the public sucks."
There is certainly a strong element of elitism to Stout's material (not to mention his general appearance and demeanor).
"I always thought jokes were funnier when you're in the position to get the joke, and people around you don't get the joke. I think you enjoy the joke more, you feel like it's an inside joke. I craft jokes that you have to do some of the work on, because I want to leave some of you behind. I hate the comics who get onstage and want everybody to like them. I'm like, what world are you living in! As long as the majority get it, that's fine..."
Stout touts consumer responsibility, and despises that about crowds come out to shows and don't know what they're gonna get, and then they get upset when it's something they don't like. He frequently compares it to the movies.
"You wouldn't go out to the movies and say, any movie will do, I just like movies!"
For what it's worth at this point, Stout is remarkably classy. Even though he must clearly know how prodigous his comedy is, he's pretty humble, without the slightest hint of diva. He credits this to having an incrementally advancing career. Where as some comics receive a huge break and get white hot (which can over-inflate the ego), Stout says he had to step on every wrung of the ladder, which makes him appreciative of... pretty much everything: his openers, the clubs that book him, the big names he's worked with. He's a very generous professional, and seems all-around good-natured.
This is all part of what makes it so exhilarating that he's willing to publicly unravel the ubiquitous moral treadmill we're all running on.
He very well may be the anti-Christ, and it's a very exciting thing.
"It's fine for people to understand human empathy, but they also have to have some smarts. Someone saw my half-hour and hated it. He wrote, 'I saw Ryan Stout's special twice and i think it's garbage. This guy's being willfully sociopathic.
' ...well I AM doing that... and I wonder why you can't get on board..."
Fri., Jan. 7 and Sat., Jan. 8, 8 p.m. & 10:30 p.m., $20-$25, Helium Comedy Club, 2031 Sansom St., 215-496-9001,heliumcomedy.com.