Fort Worth — At the risk of stating the obvious, standup culture can be a prickly, cynical space. One where knife-twisting meanness has been cultivated into a well-regarded art form—the roast—and comics are celebrated for projecting their anger and sadness onto the audience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
There are exceptions, like Jim Gaffigan, who can make anyone laugh without coming across as cloyingly wholesome, but generally the lane between sweater-vested Christian comics and take-no-prisoner edgelords is a narrow one.
Nevertheless, it’s a lane that all three comics that performed Friday night at Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth inhabit comfortably.
That’s no surprise to people familiar with the act of the local openers, Paulos Feerow and Linda Stogner. Feerow is so disarmingly self-deprecating—while still delivering laughs—that his act feels like a throw blanket.
The same can be said for Stogner, who despite having a very successful career spanning decades still comes across with such an aw-shucks, shy manner that you want to wrap her in the blanket Feerow just wove. She doesn’t take her hilarity for granted, but she can if she wants to.
The headliner was Baron Vaughn, whose star is rising thanks to (among other projects) his role in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie and as Tom Servo in the reboot of Mysterious Science Theater 3000.
First, a word about the Phib Comedy Series, which Vaughn curates. It’s an ambitious endeavor in which burgeoning comedians take on a weeklong residency where they tweak, hone, and workshop their act nightly in an environment more nurturing than an open mic drop-in. As the Amphibian website puts it, it’s a chance for audience members to go “behind the scenes and see how Baron Vaughn's work evolves as he uses your feedback to develop his comedy routine.”
The 2017 series, now in its third year, has already featured comic and Crowded writer Emily Heller, and while future performers have yet to be announced, the host of the evening announced that the series will continue. Rejoice!
Though the project is a means for comics to polish their material, there was nothing unpolished about Vaughn’s act, which has one more performance Saturday night. He seamlessly and dizzyingly pivoted from puns to politics, from serious subjects to silly (he posits that diarrhea ought to be renamed “butt jazz”) and from impressions (Severus Snape reciting Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”) to introspections (he was candid about and proud of being in therapy). His transitions, somehow, were never jarring for how rapid they were.
He unpretentiously took questions from the audience after his set, riffing on everything from his influences to documentary recommendations to honoring callback requests.
The only pretension might’ve been his clear-glassed cocktail, which appeared to have both an orange wedge and some sort of berry in it. I imagined this to be part of the honing process, and in six months we’ll see him do his set while drinking out of a hollowed-out pineapple. After a minute or so, a whole Fuji apple will float to the top.
It was a night that left the audience smiling not just recalling the jokes, but the intimacy that the comics’ vulnerability, charm, and talent begat. Here’s hoping to more cocktails with those ingredients.