Coverage of the Dallas Comedy Festival, March 18-22, 2014, at TheaterJones.
Dallas Comedy Festival, Day 1
The Dallas Comedy House’s fifth annual festival kicks off on a high note with standup Rory Scovel.
published Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Dallas — It may be that growing up in Greenville, S. C., permanently warps a person. How else to explain Rory Scovel, who spent much of his second set wrapped in a stage curtain and speaking in a German accent (rather remarkable considering his natural Southern drawl). Scovel opened and headlined the Dallas Comedy Festival on Tuesday. The fest runs through Saturday at the Dallas Comedy House.
Scovel started off the first set with a one-two punch of bits about the JFK assassination and religion (“Any Christians here tonight?” to which silence ensued). His first time in Dallas, he was feeling out an audience and finally came out and asked: “Dallas, it’s pretty conservative, yeah?” This is a way too common a refrain from touring comics. Most conservatives moved north to Collin County. We bought the ticket, so we’re obviously into you; don’t hold back.
An astoundingly fast riser in comedy, after college in S.C. and a short comedy stint in Spartanburg, Scovel spent three years crafting standup in Washington, D.C. (another warping experience) and three years in the eclectic New York City comedy scene, before moving to Los Angeles. He launched straight into television with extended appearances on Bo Burnham’s MTV series Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous. Scovel is currently a featured player in Ground Floor on TBS where his quips are the most frequently quoted parts of the show.
While the bones of Scovel’s set were a half-dozen routines that were not exceptionally weird, he’s got a most interesting oblique way of launching into his set and linking routines. He’s not a deep diver down the rabbit hole of absurdism, at least not in Dallas. It was more of crazy-house-of-mirrors tour of the world. The delight of the show is seeing his mind at work, or as comics say “watching the process.”
In Scovelworld, days of the week take on personalities and spar with each other. Monday is the Eyeore of days; Thursday wonders why it’s no longer part of the weekend once you turn 30. He mused on the rainbow emblem for gays and how bigots must hate colors as well. In his Eden routine, he remarked that while nice gal Eve chatted up a snake, if it had been Adam and Steve, Steve would have chased it away: “Get off my garden!”
Sharp comedic points were slyly slipped in. A bit came and went in five seconds on how Chris Brown’s beating of Rihanna got ignored by music award shows, but made an impression. So did a bit on American slaughter of early Native Americans (“Their party was too fun and we had to ruin it”), and one on post-war Germans (“We have to be chill, you know”). Even so, Scovel’s a weirdly happy guy with a relaxed and engaging stage presence, which made the show quite entertaining, even if you don’t get all the humor. Just jump in and ride the Rory. Years of playing soccer have created a solid physical presence that brings his floating absurdism into sharp contrast.
Scovel concluded both sets with a terrific plug for the Dallas Comedy House. Unlike many comedy clubs where too many folks are just filling time on date night before sex and not interested in the show, people come to DCH to hear the comedy and that, he said, “just makes it a whole lot more fun.
Dallas Comedy Festival, Day 2
The stand-up showcase at the Dallas Comedy House’s fifth annual festival highlights a range of styles.
published Thursday, March 20, 2014
Dallas — When it comes to stand-up comedy showcases, it’s all about style and stage presence. The eight comics showcased on the second night of the Dallas Comedy Festival spanned the possibilities—from a newbie churning out singles material with lewd references, to a touring comedian on the complexities of gay parenting. On display was the myriad ways people enter into stand-up comedy and how they develop their craft.
Stand-up Comedy Basics
Stand-up comedy is hierarchal and based on two kinds of time: the years of experience a comic possesses and the minutes of material they have. It’s also forged on modular building: jokes and one-liners become bits that grow into routines that might even become a full thematic set. A comic at the bit stage can lurch from joke to joke. Longer routines created by experienced comics make for a deeper, smoother show. Comedy nights generally start with the less experienced comics and work up to the comedy pros, and are held together by a strong emcee lifting the energy through early sets.
There are lots of clever folks with abundant funny thoughts. Part of the craft of comedy comes in how well a comic gets from one section to another. Are segues forced or natural? Does the sequencing make sense? A great set has a feeling of being woven, with all the parts relating to or even referring each other. Ten solid minutes is the minimum to be considered a comic; 15 to 20 minutes is needed for a showcase set or to open for a national headliner; and at least 40 minutes to be that headliner.
Then there’s stage presence. Beyond nervousness, comics must both possess the stage and connect with the audience. Eye contact is so crucial. Long gaps and delayers like “oh” and “um” can lose an audience, but nonstop chatter is just irritating. A comic strong enough to wield silences is a glorious thing to witness. Facial expressions and body languages, voice inflection and sound effects, adopting a character or bringing inanimate objects to life. Even how they handle the microphone. All are vital in the performing art of comedy.
Christian Hughes was an interesting choice to start. Still fairly green at the craft, he held the mic too close which reduced the timbre and emotion in his voice; the mic goes at chin level. But great unique material from a guy that obviously thinks too much. Not many comics out there riffing on the Civil War, like soldiers in the regimental bands humorously trying to maintain machohood while infantrymen moan of lost limbs. Really, it worked. Referring to the rural description of thunder as “the devil beating his wife,” he wondered why we assume Satan is married: “Wouldn’t hell be full of sluts? He can have his pick. Just saying.” A friend who boasted that his duplex was his castle got dubbed “Sir Sharesalot.” Still in the bit stage, but with each bit having potential to grow, Hughes is one to watch.
Not quite ready for primetime was Steven Patchin, winner of a best comics contest in Norman, Okla. Nervously rushed and with crib notes close at hand, the modest bear of a man tried to maintain eye contact, but the first time away from the home crowd is tough. His potential goldmine was material about growing up in Oklahoma with a gay brother and mentally handicapped sister. But he fell back on singles bits that didn’t ring right with such a gentle soul. And he’s obviously brighter than the stupid oaf his material paints him to be.
Then came the audience favorite, 9-year-old Saffron Herndon, who’s been working the local circuit for a couple of years with the encouragement of her parents. Some kids get into sports or pop culture; Saffy digs comedy. Not surprising since dad Steve Herndon is a comic. Strong, well-worked, material was offered in a punchy delivery with arch attitude and vaudeville patter. Some bits explored things unique to a kid, like cafeteria ladies, homework and how to pull a fast one on both school and family: “If I don’t go to class, they put my mama in jail. Hmmm…” Yet there was material on taking communion in a Catholic church (“I wish God was black; then we’d have brownies instead”) and she closed with a bit on Barbie, Ken and gay Mormons. Fabulous set, incredible potential.
Jason Salmon is a mischievous spirit with eyes that speak volumes and a moustache with a mind of its own and possibly a fan club. A product of the deep Southern bayou culture, he now lives in New York City and expertly works the fish-out-of-water angle. The go-to actor in shows like 30 Rock for portraying crackers behaving ineptly, he had lots of bits poking fun at his proffered stupidity, like insisting that “women need to grade me on a curve.” Plus the obligatory bacon bit. But his highlight was a quirky and revealing routine of writerly prose on how we perceive magic, particularly the magic of love. An enjoyable, multi-faceted guy.
A deep background in improvisation, with its group emphasis, seems contrary to the solitary control of stand-up. Dallas Comedy House improv teacher Clifton Hall recently branched into stand-up and brought with him a deep comfort and confidence of being on stage. The centerpiece of his set was a wacked-out scenario of man-shark interactions (in his kitchen!) that one can’t begin to explain, but was fresh and funny.
Jeffrey Jay won a best actress award in high school. Such are the origins of a transgender comedian. Even though his material swirled around being gay and indeterminate, it was surprisingly clean—a result of being a popular comic on the college circuit where school policies impose limits. But those limits can spur creativity. The stepfather of a 7-year-old, terrific material spun from his LGBT parenting situations. If you think kids say the darndest things, wait until they have two dads. But the non-gay bits were good as well, like his unique riff on phantoms: “Ghosts don’t like rap. Understandable. All ghosts are white, right?” I’ve written about haunted places plenty of times, but never once thought about that.
Food was on the mind of Aaron Aryanpur, the night’s headliner. Having lost 50 pounds in the last few months, instead of healthy, he said, “I feel… hungry.” Unusual to hear a guy spin great bits on dieting, he went further to find unique angles. Like the embarrassment of holding the door to the diet clinic for an obese woman, only to find she was going to the fast-food place next door instead. With a decade of experience, Aryanpur pulled from old bits, but updated them nicely. Still love the language routine on the present-tense of dating versus the past-tense of married. With a pair of kids aged two and nine, his material focused on marriage and child-rearing, but the way he cast his deep frustrations made it relatable to anyone. How do you deal with a kid who tells people dad uses the N-word around the house, when the word in question is actually “nincompoop”?
Michele Benson held down the night’s emcee duties with high-energy enthusiasm. A self-disparaging single gal in perpetual breakup with a long-time boyfriend, she started out with a strong bit on why she stays childless: “For me, having kids would be like trying sushi. You avoid it and avoid it, but when you finally try it you really like it, but can’t afford it every day.” Benson closed with a long-time bit musing on if alcoholism was actually a disease, why doesn’t it have a 5K run. In between was a lot of singles stuff, material that should descend to an edgier strata like Amy Schumer or ascend into being reflective of human nature as in Elayne Boosler. With a winning personality and smooth stage chops, she’s ready to push it up a notch.
Dallas Comedy Festival, Day 3 (Stand-up)
On the third day of the Dallas Comedy House’s 2014 festival, the stand-up showcase brought the funny despite a tough crowd.
published Friday, March 21, 2014
Dallas — In most performing arts, the audience is an observer. In comedy, the audience is a participant. Theater, opera and dance unfurls without expectation of response. Comedy requires a continual flow of your titters, chuckles, laughs, guffaws and maybe a few gasps. That makes having a hometown advantage crucially helpful in comedy, filling those seats with people who know you and your jokes. But growth happens outside your comfort zone, making touring comics rather brave folks.
At the first Thursday night show of Dallas Comedy Festival, hosted at the Dallas Comedy House, five of the seven comics featured were from out of state, though two had done considerable time in the Dallas area. Compared to the prior all-local night, the early audience Thursday lacked enthusiasm. Rough crowd, as Rodney Dangerfield would say.
It takes a strong emcee to overcome that and Grant Redmond achieved. He slid smoothly from housekeeping remarks to a bit exploring emoticons (“Who winks, really?”) and the perils of online dating in his well-constructed set. Unique and edgy was material on taking Accutane for acne as a teenager and ending up with Crohn’s Disease as an adult. That routine went unexpected—and unprintable —places. Redmond’s known for pushing the edge.
Kevin Hall painted an interesting picture of his New Jersey family (“My dad is like a Ford: he always breaks down just when you need him.”) Except dad’s repeated breakdowns were to jail. Self-depreciating to excess about his datability, he made an interesting point: If male Muslim martyrs are rewarded with 72 virgins, if he died a virgin does that mean he might get offered up?
Storyteller, funny guy, darn interesting person—Dan Perlman of New York City was all three. Can’t think of a single joke, but provoked a lot of laughter at his vignettes and observations. Polished, relaxed and sly, he’s a very accomplished guy for age 23, nabbing a plum spot as comedy contributor for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popular podcast, StarTalk Radio. He’s one to watch.
Mac Blake was like the Russian nesting dolls of comedy, sliding joke inside joke for a fun ride down the rabbit hole of Austin weirdness. Wielding sarcasm like a blade, his skewed perspective unearthed humor, sometimes quite dark, in the most mundane things. Like why someone would come to Walgreens (“a well of human sadness”) looking to buy a belt at night. Or the ecstasy of catching the booty from a T-shirt cannon at a sports game.
Brian Moody, a Dallas Comedy House improv-pool member who’s expanded into stand-up, was confident on stage, but stiff and directly verbose without conversational intimacy or enactments to add dynamics. Raised by Bible literalists in Mansfield, Texas, with plenty of relatives in East Texas and Oklahoma, his extensive material on Christianity held the perfect pitch of puzzlement without bitterness. But don’t get him started at the family Christmas dinner. Fortunately for them, he now resides in Chicago.
Strange things happen to Chris Tellez. That he survives to tell about them is a boon for us. Sometimes the audience response to his stories is more “Oh, god!” than laughter. Young people in Austin live complex lives and it’s hard to keep up, but he’s energetic and entertaining. Except for the end, the weirdest set wrap up ever. I’m still pondering it. Which I guess is the point.
Dave Little is the master of messing with an audience. Sometimes he never gets around to the jokes. But he does have a lot of brain farts: “I wish we could write ‘wash me’ on a person” and “Namaste, it means “Thank you for not farting.” Mostly he proceeded in audience interrogation and having found a 24-year-old from Oral Roberts University he hit the comedic gold mine.
Dallas Comedy Festival, Day 3 (Improv)
And here’s the report on the improv section of Day 3 at the Dallas Comedy House’s 2014 festival.
published Friday, March 21, 2014
Dallas Comedy Festival, Day 3 (Improv)
And here’s the report on the improv section of Day 3 at the Dallas Comedy House’s 2014 festival.
published Friday, March 21, 2014
Dallas — When the comedy shifted from stand-up to improv midway through Thursday night at the Dallas Comedy Festival, it was like a Jekyll and Hyde transformation. Hordes of improv comedians descended upon the place. That happens when groups with multiple members attract multiple friends to attend. Several dozen conversations were all happening at once in the rather tight confines of the Dallas Comedy House lobby bar. Navigating it was like swimming through choppy waves of laughter.
As a result, the gregarious audience for Thursday’s improv section provided an easy mark for emcee Christie Wallace. An enthusiastic cheerleader/people wrangler, she moved on quickly to introduce the first improv act, Radio! Radio!, one of the Dallas Comedy House ensembles.
Radio! Radio! stuck to the usual improv starter by asking for a one-word suggestion from the audience, in this case “lawnmower,” and 20 minutes of spontaneously created narrative ensued. Promising scenarios created by a couple of members would arise, and then other members would tag them out, sometimes too soon. A conversation about how hard it was to make it in the world seemed like a couple in distress, but slid deliciously into actually being by grade-school kids. Sure wish that had lasted longer. A segment about tailgating at church had great potential, and achieved some of it, but mainly mucked around with beer jokes. A final segment on an ugly child was unfunny and mean, a bad end to what was a good show.
Work Spouse, another Dallas Comedy House ensemble, was a scramble, with tag outs coming too fast. It felt like a television remote control had run amok. Yet by the end they managed to pull out a continual thread, something about St. Peter. Nobody said it had to make sense.
A sharp change from the verbosity of most improv ensembles, Zoom! performed mostly in silence (the video above is a 2012 Zoom! performance in Oklahoma City). Audience suggestions were solicited using signs. Various combos were requested like a movie and an activity. Very heavy on mime with a dash of clowning, with members dressed in all black with white gloves, it was a lovely thing to watch. But it begged for the sound effects and loony interstitial music of vaudeville. No telling what the plots were about, but a lot of it involved animals interacting and possibly arm wrestling. There was a quite a bit of disjointed crawling and climbing—sort of like if Pilobolus was having a bad dream. But you had to be impressed by all the physical cleverness and fine-tuned interaction. Zoom! is one of the many ensembles from Oklahoma City’s OKC Improv empire.
Dallas Comedy Festival, Day 5
The Dallas Comedy House’s fifth annual festival closed on a high night with some standout improv.
published Sunday, March 23, 2014
Dallas — The early (5:30pm!) show at the Dallas Comedy Festival on Saturday showcased three approaches to improv. In addition to the conventional method of performers spontaneously creating a narrative from an audience suggestion, one set was done entirely in music and another never utilized the Dallas Comedy House stage at all.
Samurai Drunk is a small mob by improv standards, with 10 guys on a stage. So it was natural they gravitated to a plot that combined The Godfather and West Side Story. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it turns out when you’re the last people left on Earth the natural response is to kill everyone off. Blood splattered, angels groused, and finally a corpse talked. Samurai Drunk kept it high energy, coherent and quick. Watch for their sketch comedy pilot to be released this year.
From the vast well of talent that is OKC Improv came the musical Night Rhymers. Impressive, not just for the combined music and improv chops, but for their depth and attitude. The question to prompt an audience suggestion was exceptional: “What would you tell yourself now not to do five years ago?” A male 20-something on the front row offered: “Don’t get fat.” Two of the ensemble’s female members are heavy. It felt like a direct dig. No matter. Night Rhymers turned it into an anthem of body acceptance, with the entire ensemble, skinny guys and all, singing “I’m fat, I’m fat, fat is where it’s at” and then got the audience to sing as well.
The next one from Night Rhymers involved male titties and it too became an anthem of acceptance. A song on two men in a tiff, required to keep a state’s distance between them, turned into a metaphorical serenade on crossing boundaries. A song on gangsta possums was more than silly. The finale about a member dramatically quitting Facebook—“Goodbye, social media”—bemoaned the pokes and like and constant scrolling on the smart phone. As the chorus wailed “David’s gonna log off from life,” his riposte was “I’m going to delete my cookies, too.” Hope they keep that one and record it. A great cast with OKC Improv musical director Kyle Gossett, plus Cristela Carrizales, Ryan Croft, Kendon Lacy Kellen Hodgeson, Heather Winstead, and musical accompanist Corie Melaugh.
The improv ensemble f.a.c.e. is called “a full access comedy experience.” Indeed, they never used the stage. All the action took place in the audience. It’s hard enough for ensemble member to pick up cues while on a small stage; doing it across a crowded room was one sweet feat. Fun to see the stand-up technique of interacting with the audience transferred to improv. Various scenarios that were improvised—a family entertaining the neighborhood by verbally airing laundry in the front yard, young love on the dance floor, dispensing condoms, and more—were woven and wrapped up nicely by the end. Outstanding were the incredible quipster skills of Terry Catlett and the concentrated maniacal power of Sarah Wyatt.
Experience shows. That was the lesson of Messing w/ Duffy, the finale of the Dallas Comedy Festival on Saturday. Susan Messing of Chicago brought 25+ years of experience in improvisation to the stage, and Kate Duffy of Los Angeles was not far behind. Messing, a former performer on The Second City mainstage, made her mark at that city’s iO Theatre. Both the Chicago outfit and iO West in Los Angeles use the advanced improv program Messing created. That makes her improv royalty. Performers of this echelon are lured to the Dallas Comedy Festival to perform, but more importantly, to teach workshops to students of the Dallas Comedy House improv school. Those workshops, and showcasing the DCH house troupes, are the fest’s raison d’être.
Messing w/ Duffy was packed mostly with Dallas Comedy House students. Sometimes improv for improv fans becomes a fast-paced dog-and-pony show for presenting tricks of the trade meant to impress students. Never once did that feeling come across on Saturday. Messing and Duffy were authentic and relaxed, clearly intent on creating a satisfying show for an audience.
The shapeshifting ability of Messing and Duffy to create three-dimensional characters within seconds was nothing short of stunning. Almost all of improv is based on conversations that too often sound like the theatrical trading of lines. When Messing and Duffy talked with each other it was genuine conversation that I felt charmed to eavesdrop on. With honest characters and conversations, an improvised narrative naturally unfurled with sharp specifics that rang of validity.
Messing and Duffy first concocted sanctimonious church ladies one-upping each other with snide remarks. Many guffaws ensued as backstories emerged revealing neither woman had a pious leg to stand on. The duo danced with pathos as girls at camp trading confessional stories. They then launched into broad slapstick with an airplane passenger who would not take her seat, in the process scrambling over audience members to much laughter. An improv of twins synchronizing their valley girl talk was like vocal scat jazz. A final piece on a daughter coming out as a lesbian to her mom was another dance of revealing backstories and hypocrisies. Messing w/ Duffy was tremendous fun.