When it comes to live performances, nothing beats standup comedy in terms of difficulty and skill. With other live stage performances, like ballets or operas or rock concerts, the audience has reasonably specific expectations. When it comes to comedy, the audience’s expectations are nebulous at best since comedy comes in so many forms. There’s insult comedy, political humor, blue jokes, props, puns, double entendres and so many more. Then on one night all of these different expectations get together at a comedy club and each comedian has to somehow satisfy everyone with one short set of jokes. The position standup comedians put themselves in is not to be envied, however, their unique skill to fluidly negotiate their way night after night is nothing short of awe inspiring. So when Next Round Entertainment invited Working Author to an industry talent showcase at the Hollywood Improv, we were more than happy to attend.
The host for the evening was Working Authorveteran Steve Hofstetter. He exemplifies the constant evolution that a comedian’s act goes through. Hofstetter’s fans will recall his recent performance in Utah where a few members of the audience walked out because he swore. So at the Hollywood Improv, Hofstetter opened his act with a reminder that we were all “fucking adults.” He recounted a previous casino bar performance where a woman with her four-year-old son complained about Hofstetter’s foul language, to which he replied, “Your four-year-old son is here, in a bar, in a casino? He might need to know the meaning of the word ‘fucked.’”
“Just as with all comedians, my act is constantly evolving,” says Phil Mazo, one of the comedians for the evening whose smaller stature adds a deliciously ironic undertone to his semi-misogynistic act. “…As you can imagine, I didn’t get a lot of girls growing up, so it’s fun to play the character of someone who did and didn’t appreciate it. I think assholes are funny.” From witnessing his live performance and listening to his CD Pervert, Mazo pulls off the arrogant alpha-male persona perfectly.
Balancing out the overwhelming testosterone was Kerri Louise: the only comedienne out of nine comics. The self-described “girl next door with an edge” proves that women can be just as sexually aggressive as men and use it to their comedic advantage on stage. “The older I get,” she says, “the more I look at those 17-year-old boys.” She eyes a young-looking guy in the audience and mutters lustfully, “The things I could teach you…but then I realize I’m in my minivan.” Louise’s routine draws heavily on her experiences as a wife and mother of twins, which seems hectic considering the high-energy rants she bursts into for illustration.
In contrast, Brandt Tobler, Bryan Bruner and Matt Baetz are completely laidback on stage. Tobler is so relaxed he can say something outrageous, like “people shouldn’t be punished harshly for running over a black kid at night” and still keep it on the funny side. “Hang on,“ he says, “I could have said a White kid in a blizzard or a Mexican in a dust storm or an Asian kid at a crosswalk.” Bryan Bruner is just as comfortable on stage, pointing out how picking up women at bars is like buying clothes from factory outlets. “When you get them home, you find there’s something fucked up about them.” Bruner is also an expert in making the audience part of his act, turning to one older gentleman and clarifying that he isn’t talking about past girlfriends’ vaginas when he talks about the Xbox. Matt Baetz, who chose a career in standup comedy over his girlfriend of three years, uses his even demeanor to soberly point out truths in relationships. “When a woman says I need some space, she already has something in mind that she’d like to fill that space up with.”
Kicking the energy back into high-gear was Denis Donohue. With 12 years of experience, Donohue is like a comedic encyclopedia with a joke for every occasion. “Standup itself is easy,” he admits, “Every other aspect is the difficult part. The long flights and drives, the politics, dealing with agents and managers, the never ending tour schedule, coordinating with other comics, eating bad food, trying to stay fit, the last minute cancellations, the I.O.U.’s, gas prices, freezing weather in the winter, hot nights in the summer, being away from friends and family for months on end. That is the difficult part for me. Every other aspect except the actual performance – whether it’s a sold out theater, or a biker bar in the middle of nowhere – once they say my name and I take the stage it’s not difficult at all.” He doesn’t even mind hecklers. “I personally love hecklers. I know that when it comes to live comedy, the people who pay the admission plus two-drink minimum came out to see something unique, something special. They came to this party to have fun. If they just wanted to see standup, they could rent Eddie Murphy’s Raw. So if someone says something to me, I see it as an opportunity rather than a setback. It gives me a chance to go onto another topic and have a conversation rather than just filibuster up there. Plus, 99% of heckles don’t have any venom behind them. They’re just honest, hard working people just trying to have fun and maybe be a part of the show. I know what that’s like, and I try not to deny them that.”
Mike Trainor, who calls himself a giant and delivers jokes with the ferocity of a Southern Baptist preacher and the perfect timing of a metronome, has also used hecklers to promote his act, but doesn’t find all hecklers to be beneficial. “Earlier this year I had an audience member in Nebraska yell out, ‘You’d be better if you tried!’” he explains, “…That shit stuck with me. Like he wasn’t saying it like it was some kind of constructive criticism. He was really trying to yell out the one thing that would throw me off and hurt me because I was committing the unforgivable crime of trying to make him laugh. At least that guy saw some potential of what could be at some point down the road. So stay tuned That-One-Guy-in-Nebraska, stay tuned.”
Rounding out the evening was Rob Gleeson, the youngest comedian of the showcase. At 21, Gleeson is a favorite among colleges and has graced the airwaves in over 30 states. It’s easy to see why Steve Hofstetter tours with him whenever he can. Despite his youth, Gleeson is a natural comedian, able to poke fun at life’s banalities with the best of them. Responding to a high-maintenance girlfriend who says she needs people to do things for her, Gleeson asks, “Oh, so you’re like a retarded child?”
After watching these nine genuinely funny people deliver some of the best material in recent history, it’s difficult not to have a newfound appreciation for standup comedy. The standup comic must be both a Spartan warrior – singlehandedly staving off overwhelming odds – and a jazz musician who know when to riff with the melody of his or her act. In general, standup comedians deserve the utmost respect for doing what they do, but the nine comedians who recently performed at the Hollywood Improv distinguish themselves for doing what they do very well.