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.
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?
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.