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Don't Shit Where You Eat! ™

Lush Swedish Life

Comedy Posted on Mon, March 20, 2023 06:14:09

17 years. I’ve lived in Sweden for 17 years. I know I just talked about that in last week’s post but damn, it’s still on my mind. I keep wondering if I somehow got the math wrong but nope, I definitely moved here 17 years ago.

An aspect of Swedish life that’s always fascinated me is their relation to alcohol, which has come up now and again throughout my writing. I could probably do a deep dive and research to really understand it, but I prefer not knowing all the answers and maintaining the mystery. For example, did they really drink so much that the government had to step in and set up a monopoly on liquor sales, with limited hours of operation on Saturday and none on Sundays?

Don’t get me wrong, I actually like the government liquor stores. Walk into the typical package goods store in the US and you wouldn’t feel surprised when you get shot. By a gun, I mean, not shots. Stores here are nice, generally well-stocked, and the prices are so low compared to bars that you feel like you’re making money by shopping there (which maybe goes against the goal of reducing drinking).

The only downside, other than their limited hours, is that they don’t have refrigerators. That decision is clearly motivated by keeping costs low, but amusingly they say it’s part of their mission to discourage drinking. I don’t see many bums needing to wait for their white wine to be chilled and beer is typically imbibed at a warmer temperature than in the US. We like our beer ice-cold so we can forget that our biggest brands have zero flavor.

I’m writing about booze this week, not because I’m an alcoholic thank you very much, but because it has a huge impact on audiences here. The Sober Swede is reserved, doesn’t want to stand out, can be reluctant to laugh in front of other strangers for fear of revealing what they find funny. The Drunk Swede is often a sloppy mess. Neither state is good for comedy and we hope to perform for crowds somewhere in the middle.

Because they don’t want to stand out nor, God forbid, for a stranger to talk to them, Swedes fill a club starting from the back row and only sit in the front when absolutely no other option is available (or drunk; see below). I was recently at a show for Greeks living in Stockholm and they started in the front and worked back. I imagine Swedes would accuse Greeks of doing it backwards, but Greeks are used to that criticism.

For the same reason, heckling is extremely rare here. But once the booze begins to flow, some Swedes overcorrect and decide they want to be part of the show. I should like this, in theory; I do think Swedish comics can have it way too easy, so it should be good that they get a curveball thrown their way now and then. Unfortunately, a heckle from a drunk rarely leads to a good joke. Much more often, it just leads to the heckler being insulted and being too drunk to understand that the comic (and everyone else in the room) hates them.

Last weekend, I checked the tickets of a group when they arrived and knew right away that they would either be great or a problem, as they had obviously pre-gamed hard. Despite being amongst the first to arrive, they sat front row center, which added to the uh-oh feeling. One of the women in the group heckled the host only minutes into the show and ended up on stage with him (by his invitation, at least), but fortunately it was a fun and spontaneous happening that all enjoyed.

On the other hand, this encouraged the woman to heckle other comics. Bill Hicks once told a crowd, “You’re not part of my act. Your involvement is limited to laugh, applaud, and a blowjob from every woman after the show.” Doing crowd work always has the negative potential to encourage crowds to heckle and even that could be okay except it’s usually only the drunks who have the liquid confidence to do so. After getting shut down quite harshly by another comic, this particular drunk sat sullenly quiet for the rest of the show. Afterwards, however, she held court, remaining in her seat while the room was emptied of furniture, loudly insisting to anyone who would listen that she wouldn’t take shit from anyone and was glad she shouted her feelings to the comics.

She probably remembered nothing the day after, God bless her.

Home Everywhere and Nowhere

Comedy Posted on Mon, March 13, 2023 04:34:08

During the break at Maffia Comedy Club a few weeks ago, a guy from the crowd walked over to me and asked me where I’m from. “Knivsta,” I replied. Yeah, but really, where am I from. “Jersey.” He told me he was from Queens, had moved to Sweden as a kid. His father was from Chile, his mother from Sweden, they visited her sister in Stockholm when he was ten. During the trip, his aunt was killed in an elevator accident that cut her in half. Since they were staying in her apartment, his mom didn’t feel good about leaving as planned, and the stay became indefinite.

I’ve met people who moved here for love, to study, to work, but as a result of bifurcation by elevator? That was a first.

This week marks seventeen years in Sweden and twelve years in standup. It was also around this time, fifteen years ago, that I told my first wife we should divorce. No, it wasn’t intentional that these things lined up, just an odd coincidence.

Regarding standup, I’ve heard comics debate whether or not 2020 and 2021 should count towards one’s total, since not much at all was going on during the covid years, but I don’t see why it matters. Okay, maybe someone who had their first gig in January 2020 and their second two years later shouldn’t go around saying they’ve got three years in the game, but for me, I don’t see a difference in saying twelve or ten. I know someone who started eleven years ago but says twelve and it just makes me scratch my head. I don’t think it adds any gravitas to inflate the number by one.

If anything, it’s a bit embarrassing. I met a rookie at Big Ben Comedy Club early 2020 about to do his third ever gig. He asked me how long I’d been performing and his eyes went wide when I said ten years. I remember how I felt when I was in his shoes, but it was like I was saying, “I know it’s a challenge now, but if you keep up the hard work, in ten years you can still be right here.”

As for life in Sweden, it’s hard to believe it’s been seventeen years. For perspective, my family moved around a bit when I was a kid, and I was ten when we moved into the house I’d live in until I went to college in Boston at eighteen. I’ve lived in Sweden more than twice as long. I lived in Boston for three years, briefly moved back to Jersey, then returned to Boston for another nine before moving here. In other words, I’ve lived most of my adult life in Sweden with no plans to leave anytime soon.

My mother’s father passed away a few months after I moved here and I traveled to the US alone for the funeral. When I returned to Sweden I felt like I was returning home, despite the move being so recent, despite the fact that I was living with my then wife’s parents, and it was odd to arrive at the airport to find my own way back to the house when everyone was speaking a language I’d barely begun to learn. Of course, it’s both fortunate and unfortunate that most Swedes are great at English and it’s easy to get around.

“Home is where the heart is,” as the saying goes. Well, I was returning to my daughter, whom I loved and still do, and my then wife, whom not so much these days. I prefer Robert Frost’s line, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Ultimately, I’ve experienced a feeling that I know is common amongst expats, to feel at home in both our native and adopted countries and also neither. Like having a foot in two hemispheres at once, belonging to both and yet not at all. The guy I mentioned earlier, who briefly had two halves an aunt rather than a whole one? He said that since he was old enough to remember living in NYC, he feels just at home when he travels there. When I visit my childhood home, I sometimes pause and remind myself that I once lived there all the time. It doesn’t feel real. It’s still the same house, though it’s changed a lot since then. It’s the same neighborhood, but it’s changed a lot since then. Obviously and most importantly, I’ve changed a lot since then. So, one more saying: “You can’t go home again.”

Being on the outside looking in is the best possible perspective for a comic. It gives you the ability to see what others take for granted, to notice what others can’t, or won’t. I suppose it’s also better for a comic to be an outsider for motivation’s sake; after all, if you felt like you belonged, why would you want to go on stage and seek approval from drunk strangers?

St Patrick’s Day is coming up this week and I’ve long since designated that as my official anniversary date for both living in Sweden and my standup “career.” The reason? I don’t remember the exact date of when I moved here, but I do remember that St Pat’s occurred within the first week, and my then wife made me a cake with a shamrock on it. I mean, she wasn’t all bad.

At least not then. Oh man, I could tell you stories from the years since that would make your head spin.

Highway to the Comfort Zone

Comedy Posted on Mon, March 06, 2023 03:55:10

On a Friday a few weeks back, while hosting Maffia Comedy Club, I mentioned to the headliner during the break that the crowd felt pretty tight, wasn’t giving us much energy. The headliner suggested that I do crowd work, maybe that would help. Long-time readers of this blog know my feelings towards crowd work; while not militarily anti-, I’m not a big fan.

Abstaining from giving her my full rant against crowd work, I simply told her that it’s not something I do. She then pointed out what I believe is the biggest motivation for a host to do crowd work, that it would provide information to the comics that they could use during their sets. I agreed with her that it’s a lovely thought, in theory, but ultimately pointless as comics don’t pay attention. As I would be hosting the night after as well, I mentioned a comic on Saturday’s lineup that I knew would arrive late and end up asking someone in the crowd the same questions they’d been asked once or twice before. “Well, I pay attention,” she replied, only to later ask someone in the crowd the same question they’d been asked before. Hey, we all have lots on our minds during a show.

All that being said, I have given crowd work a lot of thought lately. Specifically, that I should do it more (read: at all), not because a host should, but to knock myself out of my comfort zone. I’ve gone from hosting very often to nearly exclusively hosting. I’m very good at it, thank you very much, even without crowd work, but even I can get tired of my own voice. I always host the same way, same style, same material, to the point that I could go on stage half-asleep and run on autopilot. Because of that, I find doing sets at other clubs more exciting, as I try out new material (and actually feel nervous).

Working as a game show host at On Air has forced me out of my comfort zone since shows include segments where I interview participants. I’m glad to say I’ve come a long way but there’s still room for improvement. After all, I’m nearly 48 and talking to people has never been a strength of mine. However, one thing I’ve noticed there – and also at Maffia this past weekend, when I added crowd work to my intro – is that, while I ask questions and try to react naturally to whatever they say, I tend to quickly steer the conversation into material I’ve said a million times before. It’s the vocal equivalent of grabbing the mic stand. Security in comfort.

This past weekend, I saw a comic make his return to the stage after a bit of a break. He started out with several minutes of untested material, which is not recommended, but to his credit it was good, albeit talky. The crowd liked it, but he wasn’t doing as well as in the past, and I could tell he knew it. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him so nervous, leaning forward so far he reminded me of a sprinter in the starting blocks. He gradually returned to old material and the change was profound, leaning back on his heels, much more relaxed, the volume dial on the crowd increasing.

It’s the irony of standup that we develop a set that’s a guaranteed winner only to quickly tire of it. Not all of us, of course; I could name several comics who were already veterans when I started who have barely written anything new in the twelve years since. They don’t have to. They’re reliable killers and aren’t tired of their own voices, God bless them. It’s our job to entertain the crowd and they do their job well.

And yet… Although I’m aware of my job to entertain and it’s on my priority list, it’s low on the list. I want them to enjoy my set but I think it’s fair to say I want to enjoy it more. Still, my enjoyment is tied to theirs. I recently did a set at another club, ten minutes of mostly new material, and while the crowd enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but throw in towards the end, “I hope you enjoyed this TedTalk as much as me.” I’m happy I did it, happy they liked it, but would be happier if they laughed as much as I’d expected. That’s the process, though, to work out new material, and I’m not doing nearly enough of that. Standup isn’t always about laughs but you don’t need to read a blog about standup to know that laughs are a pretty important part of it.

Some comics might find the comfort zone a great place in which to live. It’s nice and safe and secure to me, too, but that makes it feel like a trap. It’s a constant temptation to settle for what already works rather than try anything new. A place to be good but never great.

Teaching Funny

Comedy Posted on Mon, February 27, 2023 06:09:51

I’ve been approached by a friend of a friend who wants to make his standup debut and wants to pay me to prepare him beforehand. My exact words to him were, “I’ll gladly take your money, but the only way you’ll actually get better at standup is by doing it, and you’re going to suck for a long time.” He was undeterred and the offer stands. Probably for the best as, during our initial meeting, he presented several pages on “olla” and I think I’ve already earned my fee by advising him to throw that away.

The only other time I’ve been paid for this sort of service was at Power Comedy Club. As part of a bachelor party, the groom’s friends arranged for him to do standup for the first time. Fortunately, they give him a few days to prepare, and we sat down together an hour before showtime. He showed me his notes, I suggested ways to structure them, and the result was remarkably positive. Obviously, it helped that he had so many friends in the room and the crowd knew it was his debut.

It’s pretty common for comics to supplement their meager incomes by teaching classes and while it makes sense, it’s always felt a little weird to me. One comic in particular has taught many would-be comics and everyone I’ve spoken to afterwards has the same story- “I told a joke, she told me I should never do it on stage, I did it on stage anyway, it worked great.” Maybe she does this on purpose but I doubt it.

Getting feedback from other comics is extremely important, but the downside is that, more often than not, a comic is telling you how they would do it. Being on stage is your chance to be yourself (if you want) and telling a joke that someone else gave you or, worse, stealing someone else’s material is just karaoke. While some comics write for the crowd, the vast majority of us just say what we think is funny. Sometimes no one else agrees with us, which sucks, but at least we still like it.

I’ve learned over the years to ask comics before offering feedback. People appreciate it less when unwanted suggestions are thrown at them, especially female comics who are given unasked for feedback from men so often it’s a cliché. When I ask comics if they want some feedback, it’s extremely rare that they say no, but I’ve found myself offering less and less often. I think it’s a symptom of the “why bother?” mentality I’ve mentioned in an earlier post.

I think a comedy course can be very helpful, particularly for people who have never been on a stage before. There’s so much to think about beyond your material- how you hold the microphone, stand on stage, where you look, and on and on. You might have a joke that takes ninety seconds to tell that should be cut to thirty and having a pro explain what to cut and why can be beneficial in the beginning.

The problem is that humor is subjective. You can’t be expected to find every joke funny. When I first started, my wife was a great test audience for jokes and has since become a comic herself, which has been very fortunate for me. At the same time, some of my best material began with me testing it in the apartment to a resounding “meh” from her. Believing in it anyway, I either made it better or, sometimes, told it word for word on stage and found a better audience there.

As I help this guy going forward, I’m going to establish some ground rules. In particular, he doesn’t have to accept all my feedback, and if I’m not impressed by something he feels passionate about, he should do it anyway. So, if sometime in the coming months you hear a rookie do five minutes on olla, hey, I did my best.

A History of Nudity

Comedy Posted on Mon, February 20, 2023 05:18:41

Last week, for the first time since 2019, I got naked on stage. You might wonder why on Earth I would do such a thing and you wouldn’t be alone. Got me thinking of how it all came to pass and that’s what I’ll be digging into this week.

Late in 2010, I decided to try standup for the first time by signing up for the next season of Bungy Comedy. I hadn’t been to any comedy clubs in Sweden by that point but had heard of a club called Big Ben. Since my debut at Bungy was set for March 2011, I thought I’d go check out the scene at Big Ben beforehand.

I could be remembering this wrong, but I’m fairly certain it was this night that I saw a comic named Pontus Ströbaek. His set began with a story about waking up to discover his daughter had dressed his morning wood in Barbie clothes. Later in the set and without remarking on it at all, he began taking his clothes off while continuing to talk about other things, until he was stark naked except for strategically placed Barbie clothes. Perhaps this planted a seed in my mind; it certainly made quite an impression on me.

Speaking of impressions, I’ve always been jealous of comics who can do them well. Not impressions of celebrities, mind you, as I find them almost exclusively cringeworthy. I never think, “That sounds just like the person!” but, “That sounds just like the comic trying to sound like someone else,” with varying levels of success. Even the greats, in my opinion, don’t sound like their targets, but as parodies of them. Dana Carvey and Will Farrell as George Bush and George W Bush, respectively, are fantastic examples. When people off stage do impressions of the Bushes, they’re almost always doing impressions of the impressions.

I’m envious of comics who can do characters in voices different than their own, like Richard Pryor. Different backgrounds, dialects, even gender. Most of Pryor’s career was dominated by characters- it took decades for him to just be himself on stage. Even towards the end, though, he’d do his beloved Mudbone character (which actually started as a character talking about someone named Mudbone).

On an early album, he had a routine about a theater troupe putting on a play inside a prison for the inmates. The routine includes several different characters, including a guard, the warden, the theater director, lead actor, and lead actress. Pryor seamlessly flows from one character to the next and it’s mind-boggling.

After my start with Bungy, I began frequenting Big Ben on a regular basis, and in June or July I began performing at Maffia Comedy as well. It was there that I told a comic named Thanos I was jealous of his ability to inhabit so many different characters in his sets. After living in Boston for over a decade, I can do a passable Masshole accent- just take r’s off words that have them and add r’s to words that don’t, so car becomes cahh and idea becomes idear. Another consequence of living there and trying to erase my native New Jersey accent is that I can barely do one now, only that water and coffee become wudder and kawfee. The only other dialect I can do is, “Mamma Mia, that’s a spicy a-meatball!”

I’ll never forget Thanos’s reaction. “The reason you can’t do voices is because you say you can’t do voices.” Maybe he’s right. It was certainly a very Zen, be-the-ball thing to say. In any case, an idea sparked in my head and within a few hours I’d fleshed it out and committed to doing it on stage.

Maybe I have to credit Dane Cook as another seed. In his first special, he said he’d done a Jame Gumb impersonation for his girlfriend. But the ripping off, er, inspiration doesn’t stop there- I have Andy Kaufman to thank as well.

I did the act at the next show. My wife was also on that night and only she and the club owner knew what I was going to do. When I was booked for it, I thought it was a regular Tuesday night at Maffia, and this was months before I began hosting for the first time, but it just so happened to be Valentine’s Day. Once I realized that, I wondered if it was really the right time for the act, but I was committed by that point.

I told the crowd the whole story about being jealous of comics who can do impressions, including what Thanos had said to me. I asked the crowd if it was okay that I test a few impressions of classic bad guys from movies, and that, if they could recognize what movies I was referencing, that would mean I was good at impressions after all.

The first two were Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, “You talkin’ to me?”) and Darth Vader (do I have to explain?). This was the Kaufmanesque portion of the bit- I wanted to build up the crowd about testing impressions, only to let them down by doing two extremely basic characters (and not especially well). Okay, they’d think, that’s the joke.

For the third, I said I’d need a little help from the DJ (also the club owner) who started playing “Goodbye Horses.” I took off my shirt, to the delight of the (surprisingly many, at least to me) women in the room, then took off my pants. I grabbed a bag I’d hidden onstage earlier and removed a robe and lipstick, both of which I put on. Signally the DJ to turn the music down, I said, “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me hard. I’d fuck me so hard.” The music back on, I removed my boxers from under my robe, tucked in, and opened the robe wide.

Okay, so I never get naked naked on stage. While I don’t have enough self-confidence to flash my bait and tackle, I think it’s still pretty impressive (if that’s the right word) to reveal as much as I do, especially as an American. I could go into a long tangent here about the American psyche vis-à-vis public nudity and men’s insecurity in general, but the length of a blog post isn’t important, it’s how you use it.

Anyway, the bit went better than I’d imagined, as I hadn’t counted on it being Valentine’s Day and there being so many women in the crowd. The comics were appropriately shocked, especially the host who I flashed one last time for good measure. I’d asked another comic to film my set and while I don’t remember who he was, I do remember that he chose to zoom in on my mangina for some reason.

Looking back, neither I nor the club owner remember who had the idea, but from that point on, there would always be a special show on Valentine’s Day that I’d host, act included. It’s been a fun tradition, although I don’t understand why so many couples think it’s romantic to spend the evening listening to comics they’ve never heard of telling dick jokes. I’m glad they do, of course. In subsequent versions I dumped Travis Bickle and I’ve done it many times now, although I skipped the 2020 show and, due to the pandemic, there was no show in 2021. 2022 was meant to be my triumphant return, but at the last minute the manager of the venue told me I wasn’t allowed. A new manager was coming in and he wasn’t sure how she’d take it. How dare they censor me as an artist?! She turned out to be cool, which is why I got to do it this year.

I should also mention that I did the act at Big Ben twice over the years. The second time was also the second and so far last time I ever hosted there; the club owner’s first thirty choices for host weren’t available, so I got the gig. During the act I had a tuck malfunction, so the front row briefly got the Full Monty after all. I later heard that the owner of the bar took the club owner aside and said, “No one gets naked here ever again!” I choose to believe that the owner realized perfection had been reached, so why try to top it?

Tossing Molotovs in Standupforumet

Comedy Posted on Mon, February 13, 2023 07:17:22

I once saw a documentary about activism in the music industry and, at one point, Bono was interviewed about the time he met with the Pope to discuss feeding the poor in Africa. He was criticized heavily at the time by other artists and the documentary actually featured the band Chumbawamba mocking him. Because if you want to interview a band on the same level as U2, you book Chumbawamba.

Bono addressed the criticism by saying something like, “Look, I get it. In my younger days I would’ve been standing on the wall alongside them, tossing molotovs. Now that I’m older, I know there are more productive uses of my time.”

Far be it for me to compare myself to international superstar Bono and the circumstances don’t nearly align, but in some small ways I can relate. Passion, at least passion for destruction, feels like a young man’s game. While I’ve always been cynical, I’d say there was a fair balance with optimism, but as I get older, I think the balance is tipping towards cynicism. When faced with a decision in the past, I often thought, “I have nothing to lose, so why not?” whereas now I more often think, “I have nothing to gain, so why bother?”

All this preamble illustrates the then vs now issues of this blog entry. There’s a group on Facebook called Standupforumet- moderated by a comic, it’s a place for comics, club owners, and fans to post and discuss all things standup. There’s a fairly long list of rules to follow and, quite often over the years, the admin has needed to step in to shut down nonsense, because comics are assholes.

One of the rules is that clubs can make only one post per season to promote themselves. If they want to continue promoting shows for that season, they can add comments to those threads. Makes sense as no one likes spam. Years ago, while the admin enforced that rule several times, one club seemed to avoid his ire: Stockholm Comedy Club. There was a period when they would post several times a week and no one said anything.

My suspicion at the time, right or wrong, was that the admin turned a blind eye as he didn’t want to jeopardize his own spots at that club. Don’t shit where you eat, indeed. It drove me nuts, though, and as I’ve always been a Social Justice Warrior, I wrote a joke on the forum at the club’s expense. Before clicking Post, I wondered, will this get me blacklisted from the club? Will anyone click Like, thereby getting them blacklisted as well? Got nothing to lose, so why not? I clicked the post button.

It was a simple joke. Coming just after SCC’s umpteenth post that week, it said, “Can anyone tell me where to find info on Stockholm Comedy Club?” The likes began to roll in and Babben Larsson, one of the Greats of Swedish standup, wrote, “Hahahaha.” I remember that because it was the first and so far only interaction I’ve had with her.

Then my worst fears were realized when SCC’s CEO contacted me on Messenger. I refer to her as the CEO because she referred to herself as the CEO in post after post, and she was prolific to say the least. The message I received was three pages long and I’d intended to copy/paste it here, because I thought Messenger was forever, but it’s gone so I guess not. I don’t remember the whole thing, naturally, but the gist was, “I just wanted to ask you what motivated that post, because I would have a hard time working with someone who doesn’t respect my hard work.” My reply was something like, “It was just a joke because you post so often,” and I remember wanting to but not adding, “and I hope everyone in the comedy community has a sense of humor.”

I might as well have added that, because I was no longer welcome at SCC. She had a chip on her shoulder because she feared everyone thought the only reason she was CEO was because she was married to the comic who founded the club. We did think that because that was the truth. Sure, she’d performed a few times herself, but she wasn’t exactly setting stages on fire. It didn’t even matter anyway; hell, she could’ve been the Swedish Mitzi Shore. She did say one funny thing to me before the ban, though: “The best thing about me taking control of the day-to-day operations of the club is that it gives my husband more time to write new material.” Ah, that still makes me giggle to this day.

Unfortunately, her insecurity manifested itself in her ruling the club with an iron fist. I was either the first or second comic to be banned after she became CEO, but the first banning predates her official involvement in the club. She overheard a certain female comic make a remark about another comic and was so pissed, she made sure her husband would never book her again. This comic was furious when she learned of the ban but, to be fair, “The only reason she gets gigs is because she has a brain tumor,” is a pretty shitty thing to say. RIP Candrah.

I guess they both forgot or otherwise made peace, because that comic would later become a regular at SCC. No, not Candrah. As a matter of fact, my ban was nearly lifted, twice. The CEO had a great idea to partner with and do singles’ nights hosted by a married comic couple. You might question the wisdom of a show for single people hosted by a successful couple, but are you a CEO? I didn’t think so. Anyway, four shows were put on the schedule, but the couple the CEO had booked were not available for the third date, so my wife and I were booked for that one. As the date approached I hadn’t heard anything, but after speaking to the couple who’d hosted the first show, I learned that the rest had been cancelled. The audience for the first show was sixty angry single women and one happy single dude. Whoops!

My second opportunity arose when SCC had the idea of doing all-English nights and booked two comics as regular MCs. One of them got banned, though, and when the other questioned the ban, she was banned as well. The CEO then asked me if I was interested and I politely declined.

By the end of her tenure as CEO and also wife, the list of banned comics was quite massive. I could tell a dozen stories, but this entry is too long as it is. It’s also off-topic.

As for Standupforumet, SCC stopped posting over and over again and peace returned. Recently, though, another club began posting all too often- West Side Comedy. Like Bono, I get it! They’re proud of the club, want to promote it, want to build their presence. I don’t harbor any ill will and it looks like it’s going well for them. Every time I’d get notification of yet another post, though, it made me think of the rule going unenforced and how I’d once called out SCC for doing the same thing. More than once I went to repeat my old joke and didn’t. Not because I was afraid of being banned by yet another club, but because I asked myself, “What do I have to gain by this?” I just let it go.

Until, that is, they posted twice last week within a 24-hour period. I figured I’d be a hypocrite myself if I was willing to mock SCC but say nothing now, so I posted, “Where can I find info on West Side Comedy?” The reaction this time was… interesting. One comic DM’d me and asked me what I’d like to know, one of the club owners posted links to the club, another owner asked me what I wanted to know and then liked the post a day later. That was it. I’d had a bit of anxiety over the SCC post but, this time, I was completely apathetic, and I don’t blame others for being just as apathetic. Could be that people care less about what I post now than they used to…. nah, can’t be that. I don’t even know how many people even noticed the post at all as I think the forum has lost a bit of its luster over the years. Which is not throwing shade at the forum- it’s clear that Facebook itself has lost its luster. I don’t even suspect that the admin turned a blind eye to West Side out of fear of being banned himself; it could just be that he’s sick of moderating a forum for comics. You know- assholes.

Now, several days later, I see that every West Side post made after their first of the season is gone. I don’t know if West Side took them down or if it was the admin and now I feel a little bad. I’m not sure if the comics behind West Side understood my post or even care and I’m betting they didn’t even know they were going against the rules. Again, no harm meant, it was just a joke, and what optimism remains in me hopes that everyone in the comedy community does, in fact, have a sense of humor. Guessing this won’t put me on their short list for headliners, though.

When True Stories Aren’t Truly True

Comedy Posted on Mon, February 06, 2023 02:17:03

Several times in recent weeks, I’ve mentioned my pet peeve of comics telling true stories of funny things that happened to them without adding anything, especially punchlines. Snob that I am, I have no shortage of pet peeves, but since this one has been top of mind so much lately, I thought I’d get into it this week. Funny things happen randomly to everyone all the time and while relatively few would be willing to get on a stage and tell the story to drunk strangers, it doesn’t take much ability to just say what happened.

I think a reason it’s on my mind so often is that the opportunity to be completely and brutally honest on stage, to say things others wish they could but would never dare, is probably what I love most about standup. At the same time, when I hear a comic tell a true story and tell it well, I can’t help but remember that it’s likely not absolutely true. It could be a complete fabrication or, let’s say, truish.

Here are a few examples of true things that happened to me versus how I tell them on stage. Asking you to read as I break down the mechanics of my joke writing makes me feel peak pretension but hey, it’s my blog. No one’s making you read this stupid thing.

True story: I was once hired on a three-month contract to manage one project. It was a test for the company and a test of myself; if the project was successful and I was successful managing it, there was a chance it would lead to full-time employment. It was and I was and it did. Six months later, I passed my probation period, but while my business language was English-only, my boss told me to only speak Swedish in the office or she’d fire me, because she was a sociopath and I loved her for it.

One year into the job, having spoken English in the office for nine months and Swedish for only three, a co-worker I’d barely spoken to bumped into me and said, “Oj! I mean, whoops!” I’ve had a lot of absurd interactions with Swedes, but someone translating oj to whoops takes the cake. It wasn’t ironic, it was her honest, heartful reaction.

Here’s how I tell the story onstage: “I once worked in an office in Stockholm for four years and never spoke a word of English… for FOUR years. One day, during year FOUR, a woman I’d worked with, for FOUR years, bumped into me by accident and she said, and I quote, ‘Oj! I mean, whoops!’ How bad do you think I am at life, that I would not have understood ‘oj’?”

It’s a true story and it’s bullshit. If the setup was, “I once worked in an office for a year and spoke English for the first nine months and then only Swedish except I barely spoke to anyone and then a co-worker bumped into me…” the joke wouldn’t land. People would likely recognize it was a silly thing for her to say and smile in response, but I don’t do standup to get smiles.

True story: I live in Sweden, I’m married to a Swede, and yet I rarely speak Swedish at home. Mostly it’s laziness, but it’s also frustrating to struggle at times to find the right words and I really don’t feel like myself when I speak Swedish. It’s a luxury and a curse to live in a country where I don’t have to speak the language if I don’t want to. On the bright side, I’ve met expats who have lived here far longer than me with far less command of Swedish.

There’s an American comic named Yemi who had a Swedish girlfriend and visited Sweden several times before taking the plunge and moving here. One night, maybe a year later, my wife and I were at a club he was hosting and she went off to talk to him, came back and said, “I just spoke with him for five minutes and we only spoke Swedish the entire time! He’s so good! At home, he and his girlfriend only speak Swedish! What’s your problem?” She was joking, or maybe half-joking, but I probably just grumbled something about him not being as lazy as I am.

I ran into him and his girlfriend at another club a week later and told them what my wife had said to me, including her query as to what problem I have. “I guess you have a better girlfriend than me,” I joked to him, eliciting a giggle from his girlfriend. I knew then that I had material.

Here’s the first version I told onstage: “I’m married to a Swede. At home, she speaks Swedish, I speak English, I’ve gotten away with it for a long time. But maybe not anymore. There’s a comic named Yemi, he’s also from the US, he also moved here for love, he’s lived here for less than a year and already speaks Swedish better than I do and makes me look bad. My wife met him in a club a few weeks ago, came up to me and said, ‘I just spoke with him for five minutes and he spoke Swedish the entire time! He’s so goooood, he’s really practicing hard, at home with his girlfriend they only speak Swedish! What’s your problem?’”

“‘I don’t know… maybe he has a better girlfriend than I do.’ And she got so mad! I told her, ‘I’m not saying you’re a bad girlfriend, I just mean that his is better! It’s like, his girlfriend is a ten, and you… are a six or a seven! You’re still above average!’ And she was still mad! Women, huh?”

I knew going into it that, while it was a good story, I needed to spice it up a bit, especially to make it seem that I’d had a brilliant, immediate response rather than only after weeks of thought. But after telling it onstage, I realized that the intro was too convoluted. In future versions I just said it was a new guy in her office rather than naming a comic the crowd had never heard of (which is no slight on Yemi).

I do love that joke, especially “Women, huh?” at the end, but I haven’t performed it in quite some time. It was part of my set during the Team Amerika tour, when myself and my colleagues did standup for tens of Swedes throughout the country, and it quickly developed that my alleged friends were mimicking “He’s so goooood!” while I was on stage. Last week, a club owner said, “Women, huh?” to me. I suppose it’s good to be remembered.

John Mulaney- Live in Stockholm

Comedy Posted on Mon, January 30, 2023 03:55:28

I went to see John Mulaney perform at Stockholm Waterfront last week. I must admit to being just a casual fan and not overly familiar with his work. I’ve seen one, maybe two of his Netflix specials and enjoyed them, I know he was a writer for SNL but couldn’t tell you what he’d actually contributed, I very much liked his appearances on the series Crashing.

I’d heard that he’d been in and out of rehab a few times, most recently just before the pandemic. I’d also heard that he split from his wife and immediately begun a relationship with Olivia Munn (if you’re curious what she looks like, I would not recommend an image search of “Olivia Munn Superbowl” with Safe Search turned off), resulting in a child, leading to speculation that he’d been cheating with her while still married. Heading to the venue, I wondered if he’d address these things. Upon arriving, I noticed the merch table selling T-shirts that said something like, “I saw John Mulaney fresh out of rehab,” so I guessed the answer was yes.

Mulaney had two opening acts that were each slightly above mediocre. Being slightly above mediocre myself, I couldn’t help but think that I could’ve been equally as successful as his opening act. In fact, I was only half-tuned into them as I was busy thinking about what material I would’ve used. I spotted a few other comics I know in the crowd and I’d bet they were doing the same.

Then it was Mulaney’s turn. For context, I’ve seen the specials that Louis CK released since his implosion a few years ago, a handful of podcasts he’s guested on, even saw him live in Stockholm last year, and I’ve been consistently disappointed by his reluctance to publicly delve deep into it all. Sure, he named a special “Sorry” with that spelled out in huge letters behind him onstage, but other than a few quick jokes and vague references, he doesn’t really get into the meat of it. It’s his choice and I get that he doesn’t want to talk about it, which is fine, but it’s still disappointing when comics avoid being brutally honest and open, especially when Louis CK is lauded for being that way. He obviously has the skills and ability to address it, but won’t.

I wondered if Mulaney would go the same route, make a few passing references to the elephant in the room and then spend the rest of the show with funny but otherwise meaningless material. Which isn’t to say that doing funny, meaningless material is a bad thing, of course. Not every standup set needs to be deep. People can still find funny things to say about airline food. Audiences buy tickets to laugh, after all.

At the start he mentioned that his first child had been born, to a round of applause, and that was the end of that. I thought he’d have more to say on the subject, but just shrugged. I guessed he would be going the Louis CK route after all. But I was pleasantly surprised, and impressed, that the rest of show was devoted entirely to his latest stint in rehab and what led up to it. Not only that, despite the seriousness of the subject and his admission of dark experiences, the crowd was laughing from start to finish.

The next day, one of the comics I know who was in the audience posted a review on FB, saying that was good but didn’t live up to his Netflix specials. Another comic commented that it definitely could’ve been better. I chuckled as it’s pretty standard for comics to give less than raving reviews of bigger comics.

To be fair, I agree that his Netflix specials were funnier, but I think this was far and away the best I’ve seen him. I’ve always said that, when it comes to comedy, and standup in particular, funniest is not always best. The funniest movie Monty Python released is Holy Grail, the best movie they did is Life of Brian, but the best Monty Python movie is Meaning of Life. The funniest Pryor special is Sunset Strip, but the best Pryor special is Here and Now. The best Andrew “Dice” Clay album is The Day the Laughter Died, where he bombs for nearly two hours straight.

I think it’s reductive to sum up his performance as not as funny as previous specials as it doesn’t say much about his actual performance. The crowd certainly enjoyed themselves throughout, although they were a bit slow to give him a standing ovation at the end; he’d mentioned that he was flying out the same evening but I can’t help but wonder if he’d have done an encore if we’d all sprang to our feet. While I give him credit for being brutally honest, I have no idea how honest he really was. After all, I know a lot of my own true stories on stage are embellished in some ways and simplified in others. Obviously he really did go to rehab and I doubt it was just a publicity stunt.

The bottom line is that, as comics, we want to make the crowd laugh and be likeable ourselves. Mulaney acknowledged that the last thing most of the stories he told that night would make him likeable, and that’s a route few comics are willing to take. Again, it’s not something I expect from all comics and, being a casual fan of his, if he’d made a few quick jokes about rehab and then spent the rest of the show talking nonsense, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. Instead, I walked away with respect that he would dare and Louis CK will not.

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