7 Questions with: Rich Braun, Libbie Higgins & Chad Wallace

Three comics, seven questions, asked monthly. This time out, we bother Rich Braun, Libbie Higgins and Chad Wallace.

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?

Braun: For me, there are two parts to writing. The first is the idea, which tends to happen when I’m going about my daily business and something strikes me as funny, or irritating, or otherwise “off.” I usually put a note on my phone with as many punchlines as come to me in the moment. After that, it’s a matter of forcing myself to sit down and flesh the rest of the bit out. Inspiration can happen in any mood, but when I’m doing the work of writing, I kind of need to be happy and in a somewhat-confident mindset, which is less common than I would like.

Deadlines are rare for somebody at my level (I’m not doing that Netflix special any time soon), and I hate deadlines, but I have to admit they make me get the work done. The few times I’ve needed to have something ready for a specific date, it’s forced me to be productive.

There have been a few times when I’ve been able to take an event that’s happened that day or within the past few days and quickly create a bit out of it that I might try that evening, but those bits were far from polished.

Higgins: I feel like I create my best bits when I’m not trying to intentionally write a bit. When I’m just hanging with other funny people and we are riffing off each other or when I’m creating an online video, that’s when I can stop worry about the process of thinking of new bits or jokes. It’s the ideal way for me to come up with a bit because I’m not judging myself and what I’m coming up with. There really is no time for that when you’re just doing it improv style. I don’t do well under pressure. In fact, a strict deadline will make me completely shut down. I often will work something into my set that may have happened the same day, and they tend to get the bigger laughs.

Wallace: Having the mindset that any and everything around you is a potential bit. Just be in the moment. You could be at work, home, Taco Bell… if a conversation or situation makes you and another person laugh, something’s there. I think most comics will say there best jokes “write themselves”; they were lucky enough to either remember or write down what happened and shaped it into joke form once on stage. Deadlines, being on a showcase or the minutes before an open mic… those get my adrenaline pumping and the creativity going. The positive about working with deadline is a little pressure forces me to write more because good comedy comes from producing a ton of material and finding the good jokes. The negative is I’m tempted to try jokes that I just came up with minutes before a big show, which usually do horribly. When life’s playing nice I tend go have experiences so I can have stuff to talk about on stage. If something “funny” happens to me it ends up on social media instead on stage. Talking about something fresh to me comes off as ranting and I’m no Louis Black or Bill Burr, I’ll leave that to the experts.

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

Braun: Open mics are huge. Repetition is huge. It’s like practicing a golf swing at the driving range. It might be boring or painful doing the same jokes to the same roomful of comics every night for several weeks, but it’s the only way I know to hammer out a bit.

I usually have a different goal for each mic, depending where it is or what I’m working on. I use certain mics to work on stuff that’s unfinished and raw, because it’s a great chance to be on stage saying those words out loud and looking for the rhythm of a joke. Even if the audience doesn’t laugh or isn’t listening, there’s value in working through the bit with a mic in my hand and lights in my eyes.

Like a lot of comics, I use the mics at Funny Bone, Helium, and Laugh Lounge to do stronger bits that I’m at least 80% happy with. That’s partially because there’s an audience that’s there for a comedy show and you get some real world experience with a bit, and partially because I want to do well in front of people who book the clubs.

Higgins: Open mics are an important and necessary part of my process. I need to see how people will react to stuff that I think will work. I will think that something is hilarious, only to find out that the jokes needs tons of revision and tons of time in front of an audience. The most important part of an open mic, for me, is to be on stage and feel all the really uncomfortable feelings that I get while I’m onstage. I have some very serious stage fright. I need the repetition of going on stage while feeling anxious and scared and then realizing that I survived it.

Wallace: I’ve been fortunate to have the privilege to run the open mic at the Heavy Anchor (The Comedy Shipwreck). Having that stage time every week allows me to not only work on jokes but allows me to have a stage presence that you have to learn from experience. Testing material with multiple crowds is very important in order for it to work on any given night. At one point, St. Louis had an open mic on every night of the week and that was when I had the most growth as a comic.

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?

Braun: I mostly stay away from political or topical humor, which is a shame because if there’s one thing the world needs, it’s another middle aged white guy giving his opinions on hot button issues!

But I don’t write political jokes because it’s so hard to do it in an original fashion. How many more ways are there to make fun of Donald Trump?

Comedy has to have a point of view, and it’s hard to find a unique take on topical issues. I love comics who can do political humor and do it well- the ones who can find that joke that’s not already been done 100 times and make you laugh regardless of whether you agree with them. I just lack that ability, so I stay away from it.

I tend to stick to stuff about my self, my family, relationships, things that I’ve experienced, or things that I think are odd in the world. There’s always some element of me in there.

Higgins: I will throw a current events joke in the mix every once in a while, but I stay the heck out of politics. We get enough of that nonsense on social media. Sometimes I will drop a quick bit in if it’s something that happened very recently, but it’s not planned and will just be off the top of my head.

Wallace: I’m a mixture of both. I have some jokes that are about family and relationships which never get old but I’ll change tags to reflect what’s trending. I admire comics that can joke about current events. I hope to be one of those comics one day.

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

Braun: My first set was a success in that I lived through it, even though I wasn’t funny and I had to force the words out of my mouth.

The thing that really stands out in my mind from that first mic was that certain comics made it a point to be helpful and encouraging. Specifically, Chad Wallace, Cameron Keys, and that night’s host, Ryan Dalton. I’m eternally grateful to them.

Higgins: My first four-minute set was at an open mic. It’s been about four years since that dreadful night. I had been attending mics for months, just to watch, trying to size up the scene and get my nerve up. I worked and worked on my four minutes for quite a few weeks. I thought my jokes were top-notch hilarious work. I quickly discovered that I knew nothing about writing jokes or delivering them I’ll never forget the awkward and uncomfortable laughs I got that night. I am cringing and breaking out in hives just reliving that moment.

Wallace: My first set was at the Westport Funny Bone open mic and I didn’t bomb! I got some solid laughs and left feeling accomplished. What stood out was the preparation. I put a weeks worth of writing into that set and it set the tone that you have to work hard to get a quality finished product.

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?

Braun: I want them laughing. I’m all about audience approval, so in the moment I’ll take the messy set to an audience that loves it.

When I listen back to the set the next day, I hate myself because even though they were laughing, I might have messed up a punchline or rambled too much on a setup, or some other technical thing that irritates me. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m bound to hate my performance no matter what, so at least let them laugh.

Higgins: My brain tells me that the safer choice would be to have a very solid, polished set. My anxiety definitely would choose a well-rehearsed, polished set, as well. But my heart would choose a loose, improv, tons of crowd work kind of set. My favorite ,and some of my best sets, are those that include spontaneous interactions with audience members and reactions to things happening in the room. That kind of set can be terrifying because of the unknown, but can be the most rewarding for me.

Wallace: First starting out, I was that well-rehearsed, stick-to-the-script, word-for-word guy, but as I became more comfortable on stage the looser my sets became. You never know what type of crowd you’ll get, so it pays to be able to adapt to the crowd.

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?

Braun: The best compliment to me is always, “You were really funny.” If they mention something specific that struck a chord with them personally, even better.

Higgins: Even though it’s often hard to hear compliments and I often feel very awkward while on the receiving end of one, I still need that validation at times. I think a good way to compliment someone on their set is to tell them one thing that you really liked about it. Or tell them which joke made them pee pee in their pantaloons. The best comment I’ve heard recently was from Christine Compas. She said, “When you are just being your authentic self on stage that’s when you really shine.” It was such a beautiful compliment because isn’t that what we all want?

Wallace: Best compliments are the simple ones: “I had a good time.” “You’re funny.”or the ultimate ” I laughed so hard I farted. Best comment of late was “You told the absolute truth” I did a set about being single and he related with every viewpoint I had. I don’t mind hearing from patrons because they’re our customers and their feedback gives me the opportunity to get better connecting with the audience.

When are your next, planned public performances?

Braun: I’ll be at Kool Beanz in Granite City, IL on July 7, and in The Legacy Room at Reinhardt Circle in Jefferson City on July 14; I’m doing History Schmistory on July 22; and on July 31, I’m headlining at Jackson Street BrewCo in Perryville, MO.

Higgins: July 5 at 8 pm Helium/ Funniest Person Semi-Finals; July 7 & 14, at 10pm, Improv Shop for an improvised kids show not for kids; July 25, Funny Bone Showcase.

Wallace: Each and every Monday, I host “The Comedy Shipwreck open mic” at the Heavy Anchor at 10 pm. On Friday, July 13, I have the Nothing Special About 43 birthday show at Heavy Anchor, feat. Chris Cyr, Christine Compas, Tony Gardiner and JC Sibala.

-30-

Boondoggle: Episode 06 – The Blacktop Jungle

A live comedy/variety show written, performed, and produced by Aaron Sawyer and a rotating guest host.

This month, the two-man comedy show returns with co-host Justin Luke for more sketch comedy, short films, and stand-up.

Tour Stop STL: Your Uncle’s Girlfriend

On Monday, June 11, the Heavy Anchor will host another edition of the weekly open mic, Comedy Shipwreck, helmed by Chad Wallace at roughly 10:00 pm. A special treat’s in store early, though, as an indie tour shares the venue with a 9 pm start time.

Dubbed Your Uncle’s Girlfriend, the tour features New Orleans comics Laura Sanders and Kate Mason. After a stop in Memphis, St. Louis’ gig will be the second on their June tour swing.

The bio for the show reads like so: “Laura and Kate grew up mere hours apart in Columbus and Pittsburgh, respectively, where they honed their loud voices, love for mushy foods, and ability to fake confidence to avoid ridicule. They met in New Orleans where together they host the beloved weekly open mic, Bear with Me, at Twelve Mile Limit. With over 15 years of stand-up, sketch, and improv comedy experience between the two of them, their credits include being featured on Fox’s LaughsTV, Limestone Comedy Festival, and Denver’s High Plains Comedy Festival. Laura’s comedy album, Oh God Please Like Me, debuted at number one on the iTunes comedy charts.”

Writing from home in NOLA, Mason notes that “this is a single tour, but we would like to do more in the future, so it could end up being a recurring one! We’ve built the tour through friendships with comics in other cities. We’re really lucky to have this network, because each show becomes like a trust fall with the local indie comedy scene. We’re so excited to see who local show producers have picked to be on the shows with us, and get to know each city’s local comics even more.

“This tour is actually a friendship anniversary for us,” she adds. “Laura moved to New Orleans in the fall of 2015. We dodged each other for as long as we could, but by June of 2016 we were unable to deny that friendship was inevitable. Laura started hosting the mic on Monday nights at Twelve Mile Limit around the time we became friends, and I jumped on board a year later.”

The pair look forward to road life.

“One thing that I think is surprising to many people,” Mason adds, “is how amazing comedy shows are in cities that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with great comedy. People tell us how impressed they are by shows in New Orleans all the time, and I think the same goes for a lot of small-mid size cities across the U.S. People are producing incredible, creative shows with fantastic talent all over the country, and you don’t need to pay a lot to see it.”

(In fact, the this Monday’s gig is a “donations accepted” affair, so open your wallet to the sum that moves you.)

Here’s Kate Mason at work:

And here’s Laura Sanders:

Everything else you need is found on Facebook.

-30-

The Ultimate Primer: Fatal Bus Accident’s Beowulf

Seldom will this site post things of a bragging nature, but we feel comfortable in staying that this piece will serve, as the headline suggests, The Ultimate Primer of Fatal Bus Accident’s upcoming presentation of Beowulf. The production’s set for June 2 at the Improv Shop and info can be found by clicking this “hotlink.”

The quick version of the evening is described by FBA like so: “We are doing Beowulf, the oldest English story and second most famous English story about Denmark. Unlike literally every movie adaptation, we found a way to make it better, instead of worse. Get excited.”

For further information, we sent a series of questions to the show’s four creators: Jeremy Hellwig, Amy Milton, Stryker Spurlock and Jon Venegoni. In reading through them, you’ll get a sense of how this upcoming stage play came together and what to expect on the night of production, though Spurlock’s appear to clash with the others with some regularity. Within the context of all four, truth will be found.

What’s each of y’all’s background with Beowulf? Favorite story? Saw the movie(s)? “What’s Beowulf?”

Hellwig: Stryker and Amy started talking about doing a Beowulf adaptation over a year ago. I didn’t know much about the story, so I picked up the phenomenal graphic novel adaptation by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin. After finishing that, and doing some Wikipedia research, I became concerned that 1. The story is kind of terrible, and 2. I had no idea how the hell we were going to do it onstage. So, I asked Amy and Stryker how much they knew about the story. Stryker had seen the movie in 2008, and Amy read it back in high school or something. They literally knew less about it than I did. After some deliberating, we decided to scrap our original idea of doing a straight adaptation with our recurring characters playing characters from the poem (think Muppet Treasure Island, or when Family Guy adapted Star Wars) and instead wrote a show where the story of Beowulf happens to our characters (think the times that Bugs Bunny or The Animaniacs stumbled into a classic work or moment from history). Beowulf is a really old poem, in fact the oldest known story in English. In it, a monster attacks, a hero arrives, he kills the monster, then he fights a couple more monsters until it is over. Tolkien loved it. It is extremely influential. It is also a really dumb story that is structured more like a crappy video game than an actual story.
Milton: I read it as an undergrad, half-remembered how ridiculous it was, and didn’t give it much more thought until we started writing the show.
Spurlock: In 2007, I wrote a short story. A big time Hollywood manager told me it felt like Beowulf. So I watched the motion-capture cartoon and it was dogshit and I was offended. I wanted us to adapt it as revenge.
Venegoni: I had to read Beowulf in my Senior Literature class. I remember thinking it was water trash. I think I saw the movie in 3D and it gave me a headache.

Who are some new faces to appear in this episode? What are their roles and why did they seem good fits for said roles?

Hellwig: We have 4 guest actors in this episode. Meredith Hopping is making her first FBA appearance as Grendel’s Mom. We thought she would be really great at playing a character that is alternately passive aggressive and extremely angry, so we wrote the role toward those strengths. Nick Tacony is playing a couple different peasants in this episode, which are his first FBA speaking roles (he previously played a wolf). We thought he could look the part and do the accent we wanted. Casey Paulson will be playing Beowulf and Emily Hickner will be playing the monster Grendel. In both cases, they 1. don’t look the part at all, which we thought was funny, but 2. we knew they could pull off the exact kind of energy that we needed for the roles. After a week or so of rehearsals, all of them are already amazing in their roles.
Spurlock: This month, our cast consists of Emily Hickner, Meredith Hopping, Sam Lyons, Casey Paulsen, and Nick Tacony. I shannot tell you who they’re playing, but if you’re familiar with Beowulf and these performers, it should be obvious. As with everyone we cast, they are chosen by God to fit their roles perfectly.

Let’s dial things back, actually. Episodes and the like. If I’ve missed the last, say, four or five shows (confession: I’ve missed the last four or five shows), how difficult will it be to reacquaint myself with the feel and vibe of FBA?

Hellwig: It shouldn’t be difficult at all. We have serialized/recurring elements to the show, but we always work hard to make sure new audience members will be able to follow everything that happens. Plus, this is pretty much a standalone episode, and there will be narration. You don’t have to know anything about FBA or Beowulf to enjoy it.
Milton: Since the show is only very lightly serialized, you should be able to drop back in without confusion. The main changes in the past 9 months or so are 1. We’ve gotten better at writing around one central idea instead of trying to mash disparate ideas together and 2. We’ve gotten much more explicit about the fact that Jon’s character is a bird.
Spurlock: Not difficult at all. FBA is a font of wonder, for everyone to enjoy, whether they’re newcomers or old fans. Though you should feel absolutely ashamed for missing our best 4 or 5 episodes.
Venegoni:  First of all, I forgive you for missing the last four or five shows. I still love you. Since then, the show has grown a mustache, and you missed the episode when Skully got abducted. You will be fine! It’s always written to be accessible to everyone every episode. The advantage of seeing each one provides little easter eggs. It’s fun. Good stuff.

Writing for these is done how and by whom? Do guest performers have some improvisational room within this? Or would you like them at least somewhat-grounded in the script?

Milton: We usually spend a month or so writing as a group, and once we have a script, we do readings with the cast. If a guest performer has a better way of phrasing a line or an idea for a joke that fits with the rest of the script, we make the change. We work hard on the scripts so we like to stick pretty close to them, but we cast the people we cast because we want to hear their ideas and trust them to bring something to the characters.
Hellwig: Every show is written by Stryker, Amy, Jon, & me. Amy’s answer is better than the rest of what I had typed, but I would like to add that one of the most exciting parts of producing this show is seeing actors make unexpected decisions, such as accents, lines, or suggestions for their costumes, that make the show even better.
Spurlock: I write every script in my head and dictate it to the other three members of FBA, who tirelessly type for me. They work in shifts. They are good typers.
Venegoni: It used to be all them and I only did music and interrupted dialogue with silly comments, but they slowly guilted me into helping with writing the plot. We all contribute and argue equally. I’m really lucky to work with such talented writers. They have taught me a whole lot and have always been receptive to my ideas.

To what degree will elements like live musical accompaniment or pre-recorded video have play within this Beowulf edition? Or do we need to attend to find out?

Hellwig: We have one video segment. Also, Jon will be live scoring large portions of the show. We’ve had Jon play a decent amount of music in the past, but this will be our first time utilizing a score. As always, there will be a running slideshow the whole time.
Spurlock: We’ve all signed an NDA on this.
Venegoni: I am so excited and nervous for this one. I plan on live scoring the whole thing using my keyboard, iPad and loop pedal. I’m also in a narration role this time, so you’ll see me

This post is brought to you with the support of the Saint Louis Video Society.

True lightning round:
a. Single moment that stands out to you, either as performer or viewer, for whatever reason, be it profundity or hilarity?

Hellwig: My favorite single moment was Amy getting punched in the face by an eagle while “I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado played over heavy metal drumming and bird shrieks.
Milton: We had a show that was centered around the Pope (Pope Toby, played by Keith Hughes) visiting, and Jon converts to Catholicism because it sounds fun, but then he finds out about Hell and original sin and is distressed to find out that he is not a good boy because “good boys isn’t real.” I like that we were able to do a comedy show about religious participation that dealt with the pros and cons pretty fairly (in my opinion) without getting preachy.
Spurlock: During January’s Fatal Beach Accident, Ryan Dalton played Officer Holstein, the Cop Who Is Constantly Shitting His Pants. He threw turds at us and many people in the audience screamed, which brought me great happiness.
Venegoni: Performing FBA at Flyover Festival
b. Single performance by a guest that’s a standout in your mind?
Milton: This is a hard question because we’ve had a lot of great guests, but I’m going to go with Cameron Keys as Prime Minister of the World, Dr. Columbus Whaley, D.D.S., who has only appeared on video. Coincidentally, Cameron is the stand-up guest on the Beowulf show.
Spurlock: Andrew Mihalevich is one of our most versatile and dependable guest actors. In March, he played The Faun, a thief who haunts our stage, and he excelled at it.
Venegoni: Tom Cook killed it last show playing Alb Balbert.
Hellwig: This is so hard to answer. Oh wait, Amy said Cameron as the Prime Minister and I have to agree.
c. Story line (or even wisp of a thread of a gnat’s thought of a storyline) that was scuttled, but screams for a return?
Hellwig: Stryker will probably disagree with me, but we haven’t done a time travel heavy episode in a while. That’s an aspect of my character’s backstory that I am always trying to bring back.
Spurlock: We’ll do time travel over my dead fucking body, Jeremy. I will say no more, because every idea I like eventually gets used. As I said earlier, I am the sole author.
Venegoni: The mouth will rise again.
d. With all due respect to former space, what makes the current space “work” for the show?
Hellwig: The stage is much bigger, and there are overhead mics. I love Heavy Anchor, and I still do Sorry, Please Continue there, but FBA often has too many characters onstage to have them all using hand mics. Also, the main stage at IS seats a lot more people. We stuck with Heavy Anchor until we were consistently filling the room, then moved on to a bigger venue. Oh, and lastly, we didn’t realize how much nicer it would be having the projector screen to the side of the stage. It’s a lot easier to see the PowerPoint slides without stage lights shining on them.
Milton: The main advantage of the new space is the stage, which is larger and mic’d so we don’t have to have 5 corded microphones on stage with us while trying to do a play.
Spurlock: No one walking behind us to use the bathroom. A bigger stage to accommodate my big ole dick. And of course, tons of Improv Shop Boys to use as human furniture.
Venegoni: Heavy Anchor was our first home, and they allowed us to grow into what we are today. I can’t thank them enough for being the most amazing people and allowing us to do whatever. we. wanted. to. do. We got to fly drones in their venue with guests inside and had a drone attack on stage to kill a character. It’s hard to express how rare it is to find a place that will allow you the liberty to do such a dumb thing. They helped us to get to the point where we outgrew the venue. Improv Shop has treated us better than we could ever have imagined. Their setup at the venue has brought a level of production value that we couldn’t have imagined having access to. We are so happy in our new home.

And for any, where can folks find more information on this show, this concept, etc.?

Hellwig: The facebook event is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1874308115970459/
You can get tickets at http://theimprovshop.com/calendar/
If someone wants to learn more about Beowulf without having to read it, all the movies are dogshit and unhelpful. However, this made for tv cartoon from the ’90s is actually very helpful https://www.youtube.com /watch?v=QKjcoFZmKuA
Hey Stryker, what’s the link to the youtube channel?
Spurlock: The YouTube has not been updated in a while, but this is the link. Look upon the great works. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5OkBOURMKxofHH5Zdg36yw.

This post brought to you by the Saint Louis Video Society, dedicated to enriching the cinematic selection in St. Louis through screenings and, eventually, a lending library.

-30-