7 Questions with: Hillary Anger, Lucas Hinderliter & Shon Don

Our goal each month to: a) present a nice Q/A feature on three very different comedians, at varied points in their career and with unique goals; and b) to get that live on the first of the month. On the latter, we’re one day late. On the former, we struck gold, with three comics discussing their craft from very singular perspectives. Enjoy the following piece with Hillary Anger, Lucas Hinderliter and Shon Don.

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?

Anger: My best mindset is when I get triggered about something going on in my life. When this happens, I write a set straight from beginning to end, and otherwise things are sporadic and slow going. I work horribly with deadlines, both in comedy and my job. I’m a professor at Wash U., trained as a psychologist, and do research on topics about business psychology. My best comes out when I have all the time in the world, which is when ironically I work my fastest and most efficiently. Deadlines and pressure make me feel like I’m “working for the man,” so to speak. As a professor, I’m lucky not really to have a “boss.” Technically, I work for the dean, but he doesn’t know where I am at any given time or what I’m working on, so it’s very independent. It’s hard for me to write a set and perform it the same day because I try to rehearse a lot before going on stage. My best comes out when I’ve read a set out loud to myself 10 times beforehand, over the course of a couple of days. I’m basically the opposite of improvisational.

Lucas Hinderliter

Hinderliter: I think the best mindset to write comedy, for me, is after I’ve been entertained myself. After seeing a funny show or a great concert, I always feel inspired to write more and create something that will make others feel the way I just did. I don’t really write a lot about my real life. I typically just try to take common observations and situations and twist them in a way that makes them funny. And as far as deadlines, the only thing I’ve had to write under a deadline is this Q/A and, well, you see how that’s going.

Shon Don: I’m at my best creatively when I’m in a hood headspace. I wouldn’t say that I work best under pressure but I have performed well when the heat was on. When life is kicking my butt, I can come up with a good premise, but there’s a disconnect keeping me from a fully realized joke. Anytime I’ve worked the day’s goings-on into a set, it’s been freestyling and crowd work.

Similarly, describe your experiences with open mics and how important (or not) they are in how you shape a set, or incorporate new material?

Anger: Open mics are the only viable option for material that isn’t ready for a showcase. I do mostly open mics because I’m still new to the scene. But I have young kids, and it’s hard to get out at night because most of the mics are during family time. My most frequent one is the Crow’s Nest, which is after the kids’ bedtime. Crow’s Nest is a supportive environment, but the wild card element can be intimidating because it forces you to improvise after your set.

Hinderliter: Open mics, to me, are very important. They are a great place to take risks and try stuff that you wouldn’t typically do on a booked show where the stakes are higher. The more open mics you do, the more you become confident in that risky material until it’s no longer risky, but just another joke that you know works. The open mic process in general sucks, but that’s just part of the game.

Shon Don: Open mics are awesome. I wish I could do more. I love the camaraderie, and comics interacting. It’s the gym where we go to train. Since real life keeps me from hitting more mics, I have to do a lot of formulating in my head. That leaves a lot of material that I could be shaping & working on in limbo because most jokes need to be bounced off of a crowd at a mic.

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?

Hillary Anger

Anger: My sets are intensely personal, and I don’t do anything about current events or really anything that isn’t about myself. When I started, I was worried about being “relatable.” My first mentor in comedy told me that I needed to bring the audience to me, rather than come to them. So I try to be authentic and see if anyone thinks that is funny. If they don’t, at least I had fun with it.

Hinderliter: I haven’t watched the news since my high school current events class (shout out to Mr. Bennett) like five years ago, so I don’t even know what’s topical. My jokes usually come from taking a common phrase or situation, and making them absurd.

Shon Don: Both. I like talking about race, sexual orientation & things like that. Some folks avoid talking about that stuff, so why not? I try not to do it the same ol’ same, ol’ white folks do this & black folks do that. But I feel like if there’s an elephant in the room? Hell, let’s laugh at it. Now that we’ve laughed together & de-mystified it, lets examine it. I mean, I don’t go reading the news for material, but it helps to keep a pulse on what’s going on & what’s relevant. Then on the flip side I have crazy kids & crazy family like everybody else, so lets laugh about our wacky neighbors together, too.

Any recollections of your first set? Went smoothly? Better left in the past? What stands out weeks, months, years later?

Anger: It was a shock when my first set got laughs! How addicting! The topic was crazy things I’ve done in life just to see what would happen next. The material was more raw than a lot of what I’ve done since then. Some of it was about mental illness, and I realize now that I need more space to unpack that for the audience to come with me on a journey. That said, the one time in a showcase that I took 10-minutes to unpack a long piece on depression, no one thought it was funny. But I’m still glad I did the set.

Hinderliter: My first set went alright, mostly because I was using common joke formulas and doing a lot of shock humor. Years later, I’ve gotten better at recognizing what is an original premise and what has been done before.

Shon Don: Looking back, my first set was mediocre. But at the time, it felt unbelievable. It went about as smoothly as a first set can go. I got a few laughs, way too much fat on my set-ups, but I didn’t bomb so in my mind, I was Chris Rock-funny y’know? Haha.

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?

Anger: Definitely the former. I mentioned earlier being the opposite of improvisational, and rehearsed is most comfortable for me. As for whether the audience is appreciative, that matters to me only in an ambivalent way. Comedy is never going to be my day job, and so I have an easy time disconnecting from the audience’s reaction I’m lucky already to have my dream job, being a professor, and I’m doing comedy for self-expression more than for someone else’s reaction to it. At work it’s quite the opposite. Teaching MBAs, I can be on stage for eight hours a day, sometimes five days straight, and I need positive energy in the audience to make it work.

Hinderliter: The majority of my material depends solely on the wording and delivery. Straying from the polished, rehearsed lines risks the audience not clearly understanding what I’m trying to say. I try to deliver material in a way that seems like I’m telling it for the first time but for the most part, I stick to the script.

Shon Don: I would prefer a loose-spontaneous explosive set that gets a great response. But only for the sake of the better crowd response. Essentially the question begs, would I prefer to have talent or skill. I think my skill as a student, writer, & performer outweighs my raw talent to walk onstage, say whatever comes to mind & make it instantly funny. I’ve worked at this & I want that to be appreciated. Thats why we call it a craft. At the end of the day though, its all about that crowd so if I have to go off script to get em, I will.

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?

Anger: We live in a “white lie” society, where people tend to be polite to the exclusion of sharing negative observations. So I take most compliments with a grain of salt. To me the best real compliment is laughter during the set, and the most helpful feedback is dead silence. It’s only real friends who give you the feedback you need to get better. My best friend in comedy will sometimes ask innocently how I think it went, and then I know something was wrong.

Hinderliter: The best way to compliment a performer is to just tell them what you really thought. Whether it be from the audience or another performer, feedback is important. The best comment I’ve heard after a show is a guy came up to me and said “I got what you were doing up there,” implying the rest of the audience didn’t.

Shon Don: The best compliment is when people see you & start laughing all over again at a joke & retell it. “Omg, that one about your barber…”. Those are the best. One guy told me that he loved the way I took really hard topics to talk about & made em funny and relatable. That meant a lot to me because it was like he got it. Some of my jokes are just Dick Van Dyke tripping over furniture. A lot of my stuff is deeper-meaning type stuff. A lot of my jokes punch stereotypes on the jaw if you take time to unpack them. I love hearing from the crowd. It’s dope. I’m humbled by it. Respect from my peers matters a lot too. From the crowd I wanna hear that I killed it. From my peers I wanna hear the little nuances that can make a good joke great.

When are your next, planned public performances?

Anger: I’ve started hosting a new showcase called Basil Spice Comedy, along with Ella Fritts, where we take over a Thai restaurant on a Thursday every two months or so. It gets planned around when a very funny person is in town to feature, so we aren’t sure when it will be next. We may add an open mic component. I’m going to be in the Helium Funniest Person contest, with no expectation of doing more than having fun on the main stage! Other than that, it’s open mics a bit spontaneously whenever I can get time away from the kids.

Hinderliter: The Water’n Hole in Augusta, Illinois, June 9, and Brennan’s Comedy Penthouse on June 10.

Shon Don: I will be in the Funny Bone Comedy Competition this year, dates TBD. I’m performing at Hey Guys in Fairview Heights on June 15th & 16th, featuring for Matt Holt. I will be in Kokomo Indiana June 29th, and Elkhart Indiana June 30th with comedian Stick.

Here’s our April conversation with: Randy Cash, Meredith Hopping and Ben Johnson.

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7 Questions for Randy Cash, Meredith Hopping and Ben Johnson

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?

Randy Cash

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!

Ben Johnson

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.

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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