By Thomas Crone
Each month, we’ll feature a formatted, seven-question Q/A with a variety of St. Louis standup performers, from those just breaking into the artform, to those who’ve taken their talents on the road. Look for these conversations on/around the first of the month, as they did in a previous incarnation at stlmag.com. (See end of story for prior e-conversations). Our first crop of participants in this new setting include: with Randy Cash, Meredith Hopping and Ben Johnson.
What types of mindset are ideal for creating good comedic bits? Do you work best with deadlines? Do you writing under pressure? Or do you work more productively when life’s playing nice? Have you worked something that’s happened that day into a set?
Cash: I haven’t been doing stand-up for very long. So I don’t feel a lot of pressure. I try to make notes of anything that I think is funny and people may relate to. Then I’ll try working it out at home to see if it goes anywhere. My neighbor probably thinks that I am a psychopath because I tell the same joke over and over to my couch as I pace my living room. I played music and did comedy/talk radio for many years. The creative process within the different mediums is relatively similar. When the creativity is flowing, it’s flowing. When it’s not, it’s not. And when it’s not flowing, I don’t try to force it. And, yes, I have worked something into a set that happened to me on that particular day. During a very personal and private moment, the image of Donald Trump kept popping into my head and I could not shake it. Not the best time to be thinking of The Donald.
Hopping: The thing that has continuously served me well when it comes to creation of bits, is noting the extraordinary in the ordinary, as trite as that sounds. Every single moment, of every single day, has the potential to be a bit. And in that, I can find a lot of redemption or peace from experiences. Ones that might have been mortifying are heartbreaking, can have a sliver of humor or joy if looked at closely enough, and once that’s shared with other people, and brings them laughter, nothing better.
Writer’s Bloc, which is something Helium offers, allows me the chance to go over jokes, refine them, and also be challenged right before an open mic to try something in a different way.
I’m trying to get better about doing my “morning papers”. This is something Comedian Greg Warren shared at a workshop he put on at the Funnybone. It’s a way to have a “brain dump” if you will. A way to get it all out and take a look at your experiences and your thoughts and figure out what can be crafted into material. If it’s good enough for Greg Warren, my goodness it’s good enough for me!!! I have to set up deadlines for myself, or it won’t happen. I’m still learning as a person, and a woman in this world, that it’s okay to want to create something just for myself, for my enjoyment, and not because someone else says I have to. I think that’s going to be a lifelong lesson, but it’s very rewarding to be able to apply that thought to my writing in regards to comedy. I once worked in an experience from that day into an open mic set at The Improv Shop. I just kinda jumped out there not knowing what I was going to say, because it’s a place I feel safe to do that. It. Did. Not. Work. And now I know that isn’t best for me, or for the audience/my peers.
Johnson: The best mindset for me to write something I like is happy and confident unfortunately. I don’t thrive under pressure so much as when an idea really has its teeth in me. Much prefer life playing nice. When I feel bogged down by worry I feel like those thoughts are eating up all my good thinking space. And when I try to write about the worry it’s usually a long-winded and tedious bummer.
Similarly, describe your experiences with open mics and how important (or not) they are in how you shape a set, or incorporate new material?
Cash: Open mic night is currently where I am getting my stage time. I’m still learning how to construct a joke for the stage. I’m learning very quickly how a joke that kills in one room will bomb in another. I think open mic night is a great way to get immediate feedback on material, as well as working on the pace and flow of your material. And how to bomb (LOL). You can never have enough experience. The only way to get better at something is to get out there and actually do it.
Hopping: The repetition is what I have found to be so vital. I went on my “Home-School Mom Spring Break” as I titled it, and was in Chicago for a week. I was able to do shows five nights in a row, and the discovery of new things was invaluable. It was so exciting to come home to St. Louis with what I had added/edited. In St. Louis, I try to hit at minimum two open mics a week. If I didn’t have a family I would attempt to be on a mic every night. I’m excited because there’s a new one at Bar 101 that will be on Thursdays at 9 PM. So I can tuck everyone into bed (including my introvert husband with his favorite theology book), and then go to the mic. Even on those two nights I want to steward my time, and learn the most I can from whatever mic or show I’m on, because that’s still a choice we’ve made as a family for me to be away from them. But that’s what loving husbands, and children do. They see that this makes me come alive and that I’m passionate about it, and so they want to support me in it. We were at a playdate at the Butterfly House with another family a few weeks ago, and my seven year old turned to me, and said “It’s Tuesday, I take it you’ll be heading to The Funnybone this evening?” Open Mic’s have become a part of the whole family’s rhythm and I’m so thankful for that.
Do your sets involve topical humor, i.e. based on the news, politics, current events or “now” pop culture? Or do you enjoy working with more evergreen types of material?
Cash: Both. Currently, my favorite bit to do is Fifty Shades of Greitens. I can’t write down the jokes fast enough. I want to eventually incorporate more social commentary into my act with situations like these.
Hopping: I love incorporating pop culture. But also figuring out, what are those universal themes that I know can hit with any audience. Oftentimes, if I use a current pop culture reference, I’ll figure out how to tie it in with a historical reference, so that I’m hitting as many age demographics as I can. It’s not fun if the audience doesn’t know what you’re referring to!
Johnson: I feel like all the topical subject matter gets picked over by so many shows and so many writer’s rooms full of professional comedians that its best to just leave that to them. I like seeing what new and interesting ideas or observations standup can bring to the table. If I say anything topical it’s usually brief and off hand.
Any recollections of your first set? Went smoothly? Better left in the past? What stands out weeks, months, years later?
Cash: I remember verbatim the first joke that I told on stage. It was completely improvised. It was actually just a random thought that I happen to blurt out into the microphone. I think I was very fortunate because my first few performance had great crowds and went really well. I got a lot of laughs. Then I did the same material in a room full of nothing but comics and I bombed horribly. If there are people in attendance that came to see comedy, I will do my act. If it is a room full of comics, I will take a lot of chances and do new material. I try to film everything and learn from each minute of stage time I am fortunate enough to have. I am having a fabulous time and very much enjoying the experience of learning how to cultivate a joke. The one thing I have noticed is I am very comfortable on stage. Maybe a little too comfortable.
Hopping: I am so thankful I have it on video. It’s like a cherished memory I think I will always go back to. Could it have been better? Maybe. But I didn’t know yet how to make it better. It’s a fine line between dwelling in the “what if/what went wrong” and not caring about how you did. That can consume you if you aren’t careful. One of the ways I’ve grown as a person through comedy is learning to have grace for myself. I’m a creative perfectionist. OOFTAH. It’s been a lifelong struggle, and comedy has forced me to deal with it. If I didn’t have grace/wasn’t kind with myself after a rough set, I wouldn’t be able to get back up the next night, and do it again!
Johnson: I was drilling my jokes into my head the whole way there and did ok. My second set I walked in cocky, with a chip on my shoulder, did the same jokes, bombed, and was so shaky I ran into table getting off stage. Years later mostly wondering why I was wearing sweatpants both those first two times.
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If given the choice, would you prefer to: deliver a technically solid, polished, rehearsed, all-cylinders-firing set to a middling-into-it audience; or would rather offer up a loose, spontaneous, messy, circus-wire performance to an appreciative audience?
Cash: Loose and spontaneous. I think my biggest problem right now is I am hyper focused on the amount of stage time I have and not being completely relaxed and focused on my material. I get better at it each time I get on stage.
Johnson: I’d say the first option is more indicative of putting in work off stage and the second sounds like an indulgent performance so I’d say the first option. I’ve noticed since starting the people who are doing the off stage X’s and O’s generally get further.
The set’s over. People are milling around the room. What’s the best way to compliment a performer’s set? What’s the best comment that you’ve heard of late, whether it be a compliment or a smart observation? How much do you wanna hear from patrons, as opposed to other performers?
Cash: I am just honest with the person and tell them what I enjoyed about their act. There are a lot of really funny people in this town. A lot. The most complementary thing a comic has said to me was, “I wish I had thought of that line.” I welcome constructive feedback from other comics. And I love feedback from patrons because they are the ones that actually pay to see people tell jokes.
The best is “I laughed so hard” or if they are laughing just at the sight of you, because it makes them remember how they felt! How thrilling! To have made that much of an impact, to have brought someone some levity in this crazy, crazy, world. In Chicago a couple came up to me and said “You aren’t really a Mom of three though, right? You’re too pretty to be a Mom. . .” I was both honored and offended at the same time! What does a “Mom” look like? Bah! When I stepped back from it, I realized, what a privilege to be able to shake up someone’s ideas of how things should look/be!
They are two very different things, and both are essential. I need patrons to tell me they enjoyed it (or didn’t), because that’s honest feedback that has nothing to do with their history with me. We don’t have a relationship, they don’t have expectations. I want to hear how people who have no idea what comedy even is experienced it, and also how avid comedy fans took it. Without those people there to laugh (or not), there isn’t a point. I want to always take the time to listen if someone feels like giving me their time.
That applies to fellow performers. They begin to know you, they become your friends, your sounding boards. They can say “the part in that set, could go really great as a tag in this set”, or “I know you might be upset with how that went, but I’ve seen you kill that joke before, shake it off”. Does unsolicited advice/opinion come sometimes? Sure. But if I start to get the same comment from multiple fellow comedians, even if I think it’s off base, it’s time to look at it.
Johnson: Shake my hand in front of somebody else on the show then give the other performer a real dismissive over the shoulder look. Or whatever bit made you think the most and what it made you think. But I’m not picky. Just love me. I’m desperate.
When are your next, planned public performances?
Cash: You will probably see me looming at most of the open mics. I’m trying to get out to as many as I can. I am in the Helium, as well as the Funny Bone Comedy competitions. However, I’m still waiting for my dates. I’m on Instagram and Twitter @rcashcomedy. I will post those dates there as soon as I get them.
Hopping: 5/2, Open Mic at Helium: 5/17, Yours Mine and Ours at Gezellig (every third Thursday); 6/10, Comedy Penthouse at Brennan’s.
Johnson: I’ll be performing on the first Loose Meat sketch show Wednesday May 2, at 9pm at the Heavy Anchor. May 4 at the Improv Shop 8pm I’ll be doing improv with two other standup/improviser hybrid people. On May 5, I’ll be in Cape Girardeau, Cup N’ Cork at 7pm.
Previous installments, via STLmag.com, circa 2017:
January: Carolyn Agnew, Rima Parikh, Angela Smith
February: Sarah Bursich, Kenny Kinds, Stryker Spurlock
March: Tina Dybal, Justin Luke, Ken Warner
April: Eric Brown, Ella Fritts, JC Sibala
May: Yale Hollander, Kelsey McClure, Tree Sanchez
June: Ryan Dalton, Jamie Fritz, Sam Lyons
July: Andrew Frank, Sarah Pearl, Rob Tee
August: Katie Davis, Brian McDowell, Duke Taylor