…and Other Tales From the Fringe of Dayton’s Comedy Scene.
The only sound cutting through the sea of silence is a slight feedback whine as the flop sweat pours from your forehead, reflecting chromatic prisms from the glaring, white-hot spotlight. You clench the microphone with sweat-slicked hands as your mind becomes an echoing chamber of panic. You can’t even make out the faces in the crowd, the piercing light obliterates their features, changing the warmth of humanity into an amorphous blob of judgment. How could this have happened? Your mom told you that you were funny. The clerk at UDF always laughed at your jokes. Your shadow, nailed against the faux brick wall by the merciless spotlight, seems to shrink as your confidence bids you a fond adieu, leaving you for climes that are more hospitable. You either recover quickly, raining down a torrent of bon mots to cover your previous gaffe, or you walk the longest walk ever under the glaring reproach of the unamused.
Stand up comedy is one of the least understood and surely one of the most minimally regarded of the performing arts, yet it is one of the most difficult crafts to hone, execute and endure. The constant pressure to produce and perform is unrelenting. Development of a single joke’s precision, synthesis and rhythm is always evolving. The eternal search for material, the sharpening of lines, the shaping of words and the final development of delivery is exhaustive. Ironically, just as perfection is almost within reach, the material is usually scrapped because it is no longer topical or has become tired and mawkish and now, all new material must be captured and crafted.
In an attempt to check out the local comedy scene with an eye for how they all got started, I interviewed several local comics. Some of them are fairly new to the landscape, appearing at open mic nights for very little or no compensation, while others are national road veterans, having amassed quite an impressive resume’. The first question that arises would have to be why anyone would want to pursue a career in comedy in the first place.
A seasoned comedian, Mark Fradl, started his career in 1992 and ran hard until 1999, before abruptly leaving the stage completely for various reasons, including being burnt out on the road and its day to day hustle. He returned to stand up several years ago because the desire for performing live was re-ignited within him. When I asked him recently why anyone would get into comedy, he said, “I think you’ll find most comics have the same story: people told them they were funny. They somehow got up the courage to go up that first time at an open mic night (still the hardest thing I’ve ever done) and they just kept doing it. The dream starts huge – Tonight Show, Letterman, sitcom – but quickly narrows down to more immediate goals – get a strong five minutes, get a strong fifteen minutes, get ANY work, get good work, and then the Holy Grail of goals: quit the day job. I think that’s what keeps people in it, there’s always another little rung to climb. Step-by-step you’re deeper into the life.”
Ryan Singer, who used to be a schoolteacher for Dayton Public Schools and is now on national tours stated candidly, “I just had to. It is that simple. As a kid I remember seeing stand-up comedians on television and thinking to myself, ‘that is the best job ever!'”
A recent college graduate as well as a fairly current addition to the local comedy scene, Mat Thornburg took a slightly different route to the stage. “I was really involved in theater in high school” he wrote me, “and I always ended up getting cast as the comic relief. People kept telling me that I should try stand-up comedy, but I had no idea how to get started. Then when I was in college they had a comedy contest to win tickets to see Dane Cook. So I guess you could say the reason I got on stage the first time was because I wanted to see Dane Cook, but really it was something that I was going to do sooner or later and the contest was just an easy way to make that first step.”
Jeff Bang, nicknamed, quite unimaginatively ‘Banger’, is a butcher by day and does stand up locally as well as working at Wiley’s comedy club as a…well…I’m not really sure what Banger does, keeping me company while I stand outside and smoke, I guess. Anyway, when I asked him why he kept doing stand up, he answered my question with a question.
“Why do I keep doing it? Do you know what it’s like to get a good high? A big rush?” To which I replied that not only had I never imbibed in any illicit drugs in the past, I would eschew all illegal substances in the future if in fact any illegal substances were presented to me. He did not believe me, informing me that I was full of bovine fecal matter and continued onto his point. “There is no bigger rush then standing on a stage and making people laugh. There is no bigger rush. You get up there and do it and you have however many people are there, a hundred, a thousand, however many, and they’re in the palm of your hand and they are just hanging on every word. There is no bigger rush than that.”
Mark Fradl echoed Banger’s reasoning with, “…the good shows are great enough to get you through the bad ones. There’s still the insane rush of coming up with an idea and doing it on stage that night and honing it show after show. And there’s still a thrill in seeing how you’re bringing some pure laughter into someone’s life.”
“You’ve got to have that burning desire like 24/7 that makes you want to go out… just want to go out. You’re scared and nervous, but you want to go out there.” remarks James Earl Tompkins from Springfield. Originally from the East Side of Chicago, he landed at Wilberforce and CentralState in his mid-twenties. His inspiration actually came from a speech class where he learned how to debate and discuss topics. He saw that he could apply those concepts to comedy and began trying to hone the mechanics at open mic events. His first foray’s did not always go as planned. “I felt so small on a lot of those days. I just wanted to hide. Hide out for weeks.” He sought solace in books that showed him the pitfalls of failure and how to strike back and overcome over adversity.
Egyptian born Sherif Hedeyat, who lives in a three-bedroom sleeper cell in Centerville and is one of the members of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, started in much the same way. While attending Wright State University, he tried out an open mic night at the now defunct Joker’s Comedy Café.
“I remember I was in the lounge at WrightState,” Sherif recalls, “and I remember somebody saying, ‘Hey, you’re pretty funny. You should try doing comedy at Joker’s.’ I went in there one night and just ate it bad. Literally it was like a year between my first and second time on stage because I was sitting there going, ‘Man! That was a painful experience!’ Then the second time on stage…well, it’s kind of like a drug. You start once, then you go back a while later and then you start to want it and you get better and you want it more, and it progressed.”
With ego crushing moments, little or no pay and the constant reworking of material, why would some partially sane person keep subjecting themselves to this potentially abusive mistress? The rush and the possibility of fame and fortune are motivating forces, but definitely not one that ranks the highest in most of the comedian’s minds that I interviewed.
“I keep doing it because there’s nothing else that provides the same thrill or satisfaction.” says Mat Thornburg. “Stand-up is great because you know instantly how you’re doing. That can be bad when you’re not doing well, but when you are doing well it’s great to hear it in the audience’s laughter. I think another reason I keep doing it is that there’s always room for improvement. There’s always something I can get better at or something I can make funnier and every performance is an opportunity to learn something new about stand-up and what works for you as a performer.”
I wondered if the national headliners looked down upon the aspiring comedian with disdain. Having already slogged up the mountain, did they view the local comics as untalented plebes or would they remember the arduous journey that they themselves had made and offer some assistance. I asked Banger this question, because he has a unique perspective, hanging out at Wiley’s, doing whatever it is he does there.
“A good headliner will look at an open mic guy that’s ‘got it’, especially the ones who’ve ‘got it’, and encourage them and they’ll give them little tips here and there.” Jeff said, “The ones (headliners) who are stuck on themselves, and they’re not usually the best headliner in the world, those are the ones that look down on the open mic guys.”
Ryan Singer had a slightly differing view, stating, “I think headliners don’t spend much time thinking about the local comedians one way or the other. I think headliners have their own careers to worry about and especially in the business nowadays, it can be brutal because there are so many comedians out there trying to work the same rooms. It is a tough business and when you do find a headliner that wants to help you, it is truly a random act of kindness. There are those that enjoy seeing the local comedians and offer good advice about building a career. Most young comedians don’t want to hear the advice because is all about patience and hard work. It takes a long time to become and overnight success in comedy.”
The Dayton and surrounding area has nurtured many nationally know humorists and comedians. Jonathan Winters, Erma Bombeck, Dave Chappelle, Drew Hastings, Dave Zage, Kenny Smith, Jesse Joyce, Gary Owen, Rob Haney…the list goes on and on. Is the Dayton comedy scene still a vibrant and living player on the national stage?
“Actually, I see a lot of good, up and coming comedians.” said Sherif. “There was a time for several years when we (local comedians) weren’t working ‘together’. I mean, when I came up, Cincinnati had Josh Sneed, Greg Warren and those guys, they were all hanging out together, they were writing together, they were in the clubs hanging out, they were creating that scene. In Dayton, it was almost like everyone was just doing their own thing or they were going to Cincinnati or Columbus to hang out. It seems like ever since the Funnybone opened (in Beavercreek) we got a whole new clientèle and audience and we’ve got a whole new crop of comedians.”
To stand at a microphone alone, captured by the spotlight in front of a group of strangers with the intent of making them laugh is a daunting task unto itself. A classically trained actor performing a one man show does not have to carefully gauge the spectators and change up lines in midstream or alter the dialogue to please his audience. If an audience came to see Hamlet, then Hamlet they shall see. Yet how do you please a group that just shows up with the expectation of being made to laugh? Everyone’s sensibilities and sense of humor are truly not the same. The ability to have a rural farmer sitting next to a office worker who is seated near a college student and having them all succumbing to the least understood of all human reactions, that of laughter…well, one is truly encountering art at it’s most refined.