It’s safe to say that standup comedy is designed to be one of the most frightening, humbling activities out there. Just take a moment to consider the scene:
Your name is called. You walk onto stage, alone, into the spotlight and adjust the mic. The audience is full of people you don’t know, who don’t know you, who are expecting to be thoroughly entertained. Chances are they’ve seen several souls get up there, and under the inherent pressure, crumble. They are notoriously unforgiving of mediocre jokes, sensitive to visible signs of nervousness and, unless you can do something to change it, dead silent. As is the irony of the craft, your only goal as the standup comedian is to make these creatures laugh. Then, next week, you should probably go at it again.
To continue returning the following week, you must really crave the craft of standup, and to really crave it, you must be nuts. One group in Philadelphia bonds over their insanity. In fact, they practice it.
The Temple University Comedy Club has been meeting since the beginning of this year to simplify the craft of standup and sharpen strategies. They are encouraged to figure out what “works” and “what doesn’t;” something gauged only through practice. As president of TU Comedy, Alex Grubard, has been telling his team since day one, “There is nothing natural about it … it’s something you have to practice and practice, get up on stage as much as you can, and practice.”
Ryan chats with actor and standup comedian Christopher Titus, who's performing this weekend at Helium Comedy Club.
City Paper: You're not known as a very political comic, but I understand you're doing more of that these days?
Christopher Titus: Here’s what bothers me about political comics. They give me their opinion, but I don’t know why. I don’t know who they are enough to care. I did two pseudo-political shows: Neverlution and The [Fifth Annual] End of the World Tour. And by the way, there are forty-seven minutes at the end of the End of the World Tour that Comedy Central lost. They film a ninety-minute show and then they cut into a sixty-minute program. One day I called them and asked about the unused portion of the show, and they said they just kinda let it go, they lost it. So I made them find it [and they said] I could release it on my own. I’ve had so many deals over the years. I decided I’m gonna own all my specials. Now I know why Prince painted "slave" on his face.
CP: Tell me about your podcast?
CT: There are so many comedy podcasts, and [Mark] Maron does it the best. It’s a weird outlet for me to be current all the time. A friend of mine was a DJ on the East Coast. I would send him a two-minute bit called the "Armageddon Update." I stopped after a while and started the podcast a year ago [and it] has taken off. You can say so many things on a podcast that you can’t say anywhere else.
CP: How do you like playing Philly?
CT: I’ve played Philly twice. Helium's ... the kind of club a comic loves. It’s sorta underground and it has a low ceiling. The laughter just rolls at you. The people are right on top of you. Bill Burr always recommended this city. I like playing the East Coast. Out in Idaho, they'll be polite, but on the East Coast, everybody expects you to be on top of your game.
Ryan Carey on who and what's giving Philly the giggles.
Michael Ian Black's new comedy special, which spawned the CD Very Famous, was taped right here at the Troc. And a week from tonight, he will be performing there again. The former member of The State and Stella is more famous for his sketch and film comedy — you may remember his scintillating performance in Wet Hot American Summer — than for standup. But punchlines are definitely not foreign to Black, who was one of the floating heads on VH1's I Love the... series and briefly guest-hosted The Late Late Show when Craig Kilborn retired.
Very Famous is very funny, but it's not laugh-a-minute, since Black's style is more conceptual and clever. He opts for longer setups and bigger rewards — which is risky in comedy — but I'd have a hard time imagining him doing it any other way. Some of his topics include his preference for "girly drinks," high expectations for his kids' Halloween costumes, an anecdote about the time he tried skydiving, and "opportunities to be hilarious" (often at the expense of others).
I asked Black about his penchant for post-modernism, to which he replied, "Well, I don't even know what that is, because isn't the present as modern as it can get? And wouldn't everything after the modern be the future?"
Black's smartass-professor style is more popular with certain demographics than others, and I asked him about his target niche.
"This special is only enjoyable for experts on eighteenth century France. If you're not fluent in French, don't even bother..."
Every Friday, Ryan Carey takes a look at who and what's giving Philly the giggles.
This week, over a small repast of scones and soda, I had a brief chat with Aaron Hertzog about his Philly comedy website, WitOut.net.
City Paper: How long has WitOut.net been in operation?
Aaron Hertzog: It's probably about a year old. I think it was late winter or early spring that Luke Giordano launched it. And I took it over when he left for L.A. in May or June. Luke did all the page design. I just followed the template. I'm basically the editor, I do most of the writeups and sometimes people contribute.
CP: I hear rumors about an upcoming WitOut.net comedy awards.
AH: We don't have a date yet, but we just figured out how to do the whole voting process. We want to keep the voting insular: a "for us by us" thing for Philly comedy. The original idea, when Rob Baniewicz first proposed it to me, was, for example, when Philly comedy groups and performers are applying for festivals in other cities, they’d be able to add a little flair to their resumes if they've won a WitOut.net award. People will [be able to} nominate their favorite performers, shows, sketches, etc ... Then, based on those nominations, we'll make simpler surveys for voting on the website.
CP: Will there be an actual award show or will this be online-only?
AH: We're trying to find a venue and make it fun, or try to do a formal thing. We're still figuring it out. Cost will be a factor since we have no budget.
CP: WitOut.net covers everything Philly comedy, right? Not just standup?
AH: We try to cover everything, I will write about standup, improv, sketch and storytelling. I also did some plays and such. Updating the calendar is so tedious. There's a page for weekly open-mics. I hope people look at it. I hope at least one person is looking for something to do and finds this site helpful.
Every Friday, Ryan Carey covers the people and things that are giving Philly the giggles.
Every year, a couple of Philadelphia’s best comedians book it for larger comedy markets. Meanwhile, a handful of our brightest under-achievers stick around. I’d like to introduce you to one of the latter, Roger Weaver, the funniest nobody you will ever meet.
I call him a nobody, because — despite being a Philly comedy mainstay for over 10 years — Roger doesn’t have that loud, assertive, dynamic personality that we see in a lot of successful comics. But one thing he does have that some of them don’t: really funny jokes.
A certified teacher with a history degree from Wake Forrest University, Roger spends his days working one-on-one with special needs students in South Jersey. He tried standup comedy for the first time in 1997 at his Shawnee High School class reunion in Medford, N.J. Callista Flockheart was in his graduating class, and he enjoyed taking some good-natured pot-shots at the Ally McBeal star. Despite his successful set, he didn’t start open-miking for about three years after that. Now he’s a multiple Philly’s Phunniest Phinalist and gets gigs as a feature act at Helium. A big fish in a small pond for sure, Roger is one of the funnist comics to stick around in Philly for the long haul.
Here’s what some local comedy magnates are saying about Roger:
“I’ve been doing this for over 15 years, and Roger is one of the best joke writers I have ever seen.” —Ben Maher, former Helium GM and director of Philly Comedy Month.
“I honestly sometimes forget to laugh at Roger’s jokes, because I’m too busy being in awe of them. He is so intelligent, and he has subtlety down to a science. When it comes to comedy, Roger walks softly and carries a big stick. If you listen carefully enough, he’ll bludgeon you with it.” —Chip Chantry, nationally touring comedian.
“Weaver combines the patient poise of an erudite professor with the whip snap quick writing of classic vaudeville.” —Doogie Horner, 2011 Philly’s Phunniest and host of Ministry of Secret Jokes.
“Roger Weaver is one of the smartest, driest comedians I have ever seen. He’s very Letterman-esque and has the benefit of having a teaching background. That helps him to relate to audiences really well because of learning bratty school kids everyday.” —John Kensil, hobo.
Every Friday, Ryan Carey covers the people and events that are giving Philly the giggles. This week, he rounds up the events making up City Spotlight, the final week of Philadelphia Comedy Month.
Old Comedy Buffet Mon., Oct. 17, 8 p.m., $10 ➤ While all the young hotheads are organizing shows and festivals, it's easy to forget that these old fogies are still telling dad jokes. But look, just because they've been doing comedy since before your poppa met your momma doesn't mean they ain't edgy.
Adrift + Best of Wawapalooza Tue., Oct. 18, 8 p.m., $10 ➤ A final dip back into the improv and sketch pools, Adrift is a improv-alicious trip on a stranded boat hosting a high school reunion, floating in the middle of nowhere. Wawapalooza is a fringe-fest favorite by Philly group I'd Rather Be Here. They're gonna take their best bits from the series and showcase them for you in one night.
In the Beginning … Wed., Oct. 19, 8 p.m., $10 ➤ Local favorite Pat House hosts this hopefully embarrassing show featuring some of Philly's best comics showing videos of and telling stories about their first times on stage. If you're into witnessing public masochism, this is for you. Stick around for the Center City Comedy Showcase at 10 p.m.
College Comedy Night Thu., Oct. 20, 8 p.m., $10 ➤ Check out the next generation of standups doing their best material, hosted by prize Philly academics Joey Dougherty and Alex Grubard. Stick around for a 10:00pm run of Stage Fright: An Improvised Homage to Hitchcock.
Poker Night was one of many improv comedy shows in Philly Improv Theater’s (PHIT) first annual QComedy Festival, which was specifically timed to coincide with this year’s National Coming Out Week.
Organized by PHIT's Ralph Andracchio (pictured), the premise revolved around a giggly group of gays and their snarky trophy lesbian as they "shoot the shit” around a friendly, no-frills game of poker. Throw in a handful of lewd gay jokes about “smegma sculptures,” “docking” and bananas, and you’re presented with a show that is clearly not meant for the faint-of-heart or your prudish grandparents. And though the one-liners certainly got laughs from the audience, you couldn’t help but feel they were jokes you’d already heard at one point or another, or that the improv aspect of the performance felt unusually scripted.
All the same, the performers demonstrated a hilariously accurate representation of Philly’s gay culture, from the pretentious portrayal of the hairless “super twink,” to the older gay man with the “I used to be studly” attitude. The perfection of the portrayals could be seen even in details as tiny as how each group member sipped their beers, whether with dainty discretion or hard-hitting chugging. Though Poker Night was not nearly as interactive as advertised and didn’t redefine the wheel of improv comedy performance, it did prove to be an entertaining act that couldn’t help but plaster smiles throughout the audience.
For more information about the QComedy Festival, visit qcomedyfest.com.
Photo by Nathan Irvin Photographs
Every Friday, Ryan Carey covers the people and events that are giving Philly the giggles. This week, it's the fourth annual Philly Sketchfest.
"Philly Sketchfest will be utterly hilarious," says Sketchfest co-founder Dave Teruso. "Think of how funny Rick Santorum will be if he ever realizes he is telling jokes. It will be THAT funny."
Teruso goes on to explain, "This year we have 21 groups, the most we've ever had. And 14 of them are from out of state. So this is a great chance for audiences to see how comic flavors are different in different cities. They use a lot more jerk spice in New York, for instance. Which is not to say New Yorkers are jerks. They aren't. But they love Jamaican cuisine, and that comes through in their sketches."
Here are some of the events I think you should make a dash for this year:
Solo Spotlight: Mon., Oct. 10, 8 p.m., $10 ➤ Sketchfest's best one-person sketch comedy acts perform funny monologues. Rob Asaro from New Yord has studied with the Groundlings, Second City and UCB. Thunderstood (AJ Schraeder) won Greenboro, N.C.'s 2010 Ultimate Comic. And Meg Favreau (pictured right), an LOL With It fave, recently departed for L.A., but she's back to perform for one night only.
Dirtiest Sketch in Philadelphia Contest Tue., Oct. 11, 8 p.m., $10 ➤ Last year's winner, The Feeko Brothers, actually induced live vomit to beef up their "Slow Day at the D1ld0 Factory" sketch. So the bar is set pretty high (or, low, as it were) for this one. Hosted by Sketchfest producers Animosity Pierre, the Feeko Brothers will return to defend their title against Thunderstood, Angel Yau, Secret Pants, Camp Woods, High Dramma, Sue Taney, The Dependable Felons and more.
This month, Ryan's dedicating his LOL WITH IT column to Philly Comedy Month. The three-week affair kicks off this week with the Improv Fest, which boasts shows from popular out-of-town improv comedy acts and local favorites.
Now in its seventh year, executive producer Matt Nelson says this year's Philly Improv Festival lineup is all about variety and accessibility. "Overall we'll feature 40 acts — about a third of which are local, and all of whom will come out to put on damn good shows." Here are a few of the damn-good highlights:
King Friday & Double Date Wed., Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m., $10, ➤ Philadelphia's King Friday is a group of Del Close cultists who perform with Philly Improv Theater. And hailing from New York, Double Date (pictured) is a two-woman, two-man cast that writes every show about a funny date. The audience is encouraged to place a wager on whether or not true love will actually pan out.
The N Crowd, Iron Lung & 'Till Death Do Us Part Thu., Oct. 6, 7:30 p.m., $10 ➤ The actors making up local comedy troupe the N Crowd are beginning to make a name for themselves nationally, appearing at improv festivals in Toronto, Richmond and Baltimore, as well as the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival. Iron Lung is one of the Philly's most exciting new improv group, especially if you like beards (the facial hair, not the life-partner subterfuge). And 'Til Death Do Us Part is Steve Roney and Mary Carpenter of Philly's ComedySportz.
ShawnMikael(s), Firth&Arjet & ImprovBoston Mainstage Fri., Oct. 7, 8:30 p.m., $10 ➤ From Washington D.C., ShawnMikael(s) is made up of two long-form comedians who have won Harrisburg ComedyZone's Improv Throwdown two years in a row. Firth&Arjet is two ladies who perform simultaneous monologues called duologues, and spend the rest of the show realizing their individual characters. ImprovBoston Mainstage is the city of Boston's improv home team. Stick around for the Amie and Kristen show at 10 p.m., featuring Amie Roe and Kristen Schier (LOL WITH IT's favorite improv duo).
BWP, Hello Laser, Rare Bird Show & Drum Machine Sat., Oct. 8, 10 p.m., $10 ➤ BWP is comprised of Connie and Connie, a couple of ranting coffee-talkers. Hello Laser is a New York-based group that has developed their own form called "The Snapshot," which "explores the often-bizarre and always hilarious avenues born from a single frozen moment." Rare Bird Show is Philly's once-top-dog of improv, now on special-engagements-only status due to the departure of member Alexis Simpson. Drum Machine, from Minneapolis, is Jill Bernard's rhythmic one-woman improv show. I have no clue what beat boxes have to do with improv, but I'll be damned if I'm not gonna find out.
Comedian Patrice O'Neal is in Philly this weekend for a string of shows at Helium Comedy Club. But first he chats with us about prepping for the roast, his battle with fast food and, as a 45-year-old vet, how he's staying relevant among the constant influx of fresh-faced up-and-comers.
City Paper: Your performance on the recent Charlie Sheen Roast seemed more natural than the other performers. Was it entirely off-the-cuff?
Patrice O’Neal: I prepared, but you leave space to maneuver. Sometimes you’re able to go off script and improv. It’s like sports: The art goes with the preparation and professionalism, and vice versa. As long as you have your fundamentals — preparing what you want to do and writing it down — [you'll be] fine. Ssometimes you have to be involved with the situation that’s in front of you — like a tired L.A. audience. It's not like I was planning on being a crusader. I was just trying not to suck.
CP: What's it been like having Diabetes?
PO: I got the diagnosis when I was 21 or 22. It’s starting to take its toll now. It’s one of those diseases that are bad, but it’s such a long deterioration process. As opposed to cancer or HIV, diabetes is such a gradual attack, and then one day you wake up and your feet are hurting and your eyes are blurry and then you’re scrambling. [But if you eat right], it’s something you can attack and have a long healthy life.
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