Dallas — When it comes to stand-up comedy showcases, it’s all about style and stage presence. The eight comics showcased on the second night of the Dallas Comedy Festival spanned the possibilities—from a newbie churning out singles material with lewd references, to a touring comedian on the complexities of gay parenting. On display was the myriad ways people enter into stand-up comedy and how they develop their craft.
Stand-up Comedy Basics
Stand-up comedy is hierarchal and based on two kinds of time: the years of experience a comic possesses and the minutes of material they have. It’s also forged on modular building: jokes and one-liners become bits that grow into routines that might even become a full thematic set. A comic at the bit stage can lurch from joke to joke. Longer routines created by experienced comics make for a deeper, smoother show. Comedy nights generally start with the less experienced comics and work up to the comedy pros, and are held together by a strong emcee lifting the energy through early sets.
There are lots of clever folks with abundant funny thoughts. Part of the craft of comedy comes in how well a comic gets from one section to another. Are segues forced or natural? Does the sequencing make sense? A great set has a feeling of being woven, with all the parts relating to or even referring each other. Ten solid minutes is the minimum to be considered a comic; 15 to 20 minutes is needed for a showcase set or to open for a national headliner; and at least 40 minutes to be that headliner.
Then there’s stage presence. Beyond nervousness, comics must both possess the stage and connect with the audience. Eye contact is so crucial. Long gaps and delayers like “oh” and “um” can lose an audience, but nonstop chatter is just irritating. A comic strong enough to wield silences is a glorious thing to witness. Facial expressions and body languages, voice inflection and sound effects, adopting a character or bringing inanimate objects to life. Even how they handle the microphone. All are vital in the performing art of comedy.
Christian Hughes was an interesting choice to start. Still fairly green at the craft, he held the mic too close which reduced the timbre and emotion in his voice; the mic goes at chin level. But great unique material from a guy that obviously thinks too much. Not many comics out there riffing on the Civil War, like soldiers in the regimental bands humorously trying to maintain machohood while infantrymen moan of lost limbs. Really, it worked. Referring to the rural description of thunder as “the devil beating his wife,” he wondered why we assume Satan is married: “Wouldn’t hell be full of sluts? He can have his pick. Just saying.” A friend who boasted that his duplex was his castle got dubbed “Sir Sharesalot.” Still in the bit stage, but with each bit having potential to grow, Hughes is one to watch.
Not quite ready for primetime was Steven Patchin, winner of a best comics contest in Norman, Okla. Nervously rushed and with crib notes close at hand, the modest bear of a man tried to maintain eye contact, but the first time away from the home crowd is tough. His potential goldmine was material about growing up in Oklahoma with a gay brother and mentally handicapped sister. But he fell back on singles bits that didn’t ring right with such a gentle soul. And he’s obviously brighter than the stupid oaf his material paints him to be.
Then came the audience favorite, 9-year-old Saffron Herndon, who’s been working the local circuit for a couple of years with the encouragement of her parents. Some kids get into sports or pop culture; Saffy digs comedy. Not surprising since dad Steve Herndon is a comic. Strong, well-worked, material was offered in a punchy delivery with arch attitude and vaudeville patter. Some bits explored things unique to a kid, like cafeteria ladies, homework and how to pull a fast one on both school and family: “If I don’t go to class, they put my mama in jail. Hmmm…” Yet there was material on taking communion in a Catholic church (“I wish God was black; then we’d have brownies instead”) and she closed with a bit on Barbie, Ken and gay Mormons. Fabulous set, incredible potential.
Jason Salmon is a mischievous spirit with eyes that speak volumes and a moustache with a mind of its own and possibly a fan club. A product of the deep Southern bayou culture, he now lives in New York City and expertly works the fish-out-of-water angle. The go-to actor in shows like 30 Rock for portraying crackers behaving ineptly, he had lots of bits poking fun at his proffered stupidity, like insisting that “women need to grade me on a curve.” Plus the obligatory bacon bit. But his highlight was a quirky and revealing routine of writerly prose on how we perceive magic, particularly the magic of love. An enjoyable, multi-faceted guy.
A deep background in improvisation, with its group emphasis, seems contrary to the solitary control of stand-up. Dallas Comedy House improv teacher Clifton Hall recently branched into stand-up and brought with him a deep comfort and confidence of being on stage. The centerpiece of his set was a wacked-out scenario of man-shark interactions (in his kitchen!) that one can’t begin to explain, but was fresh and funny.
Jeffrey Jay won a best actress award in high school. Such are the origins of a transgender comedian. Even though his material swirled around being gay and indeterminate, it was surprisingly clean—a result of being a popular comic on the college circuit where school policies impose limits. But those limits can spur creativity. The stepfather of a 7-year-old, terrific material spun from his LGBT parenting situations. If you think kids say the darndest things, wait until they have two dads. But the non-gay bits were good as well, like his unique riff on phantoms: “Ghosts don’t like rap. Understandable. All ghosts are white, right?” I’ve written about haunted places plenty of times, but never once thought about that.
Food was on the mind of Aaron Aryanpur, the night’s headliner. Having lost 50 pounds in the last few months, instead of healthy, he said, “I feel… hungry.” Unusual to hear a guy spin great bits on dieting, he went further to find unique angles. Like the embarrassment of holding the door to the diet clinic for an obese woman, only to find she was going to the fast-food place next door instead. With a decade of experience, Aryanpur pulled from old bits, but updated them nicely. Still love the language routine on the present-tense of dating versus the past-tense of married. With a pair of kids aged two and nine, his material focused on marriage and child-rearing, but the way he cast his deep frustrations made it relatable to anyone. How do you deal with a kid who tells people dad uses the N-word around the house, when the word in question is actually “nincompoop”?
Michele Benson held down the night’s emcee duties with high-energy enthusiasm. A self-disparaging single gal in perpetual breakup with a long-time boyfriend, she started out with a strong bit on why she stays childless: “For me, having kids would be like trying sushi. You avoid it and avoid it, but when you finally try it you really like it, but can’t afford it every day.” Benson closed with a long-time bit musing on if alcoholism was actually a disease, why doesn’t it have a 5K run. In between was a lot of singles stuff, material that should descend to an edgier strata like Amy Schumer or ascend into being reflective of human nature as in Elayne Boosler. With a winning personality and smooth stage chops, she’s ready to push it up a notch.
» Read more about the Dallas Comedy Festival in our preview here
- Review of Day 1 here
» Look for reviews from each night of the festival on TheaterJones