By Hayley Francis
Dennis Gubbins performs standup comedy at West Side Comedy’s Laugh Party in Santa Monica earlier this year.
Sitting atop a stool on the dimly lit stage of Replay Lounge, the sting of two fireball shots lingering in her throat, my roommate, Maddy Rich, grabs the microphone from the mic stand. Twenty-three people fill the bar stools idly holding drinks, or stand eating popcorn, anticipating her opening line. The come-as-you-are dressed crowd has gathered at 7 p.m. on a Thursday night for one reason: to laugh. It’s the weekly standup comedy open-mic and this is Rich’s first time performing.
The MC, Rob Schulte, tries to help. He sits at a podium with his own microphone and laptop contributing “hell yes,” funny sound effects, shout outs, and laughs to engage the crowd and keep the handful of performing comedians rolling.
He’s one of seven local comedians who created Harpoon Presents, an organization with an initiative to spread comedy in the Midwest. Last year, local comedians Bene Garcia, Chance Dibben, Peter Lyrene, Joe Noh, Shadoe Barton, Rob Schulte and Zach White realized that their individual local shows were closely scheduled or overlapped. The self-described indie comedy group decided to get together to collaborate, and it set out to establish Lawrence as a “good place for comedy.” With no comedy club in Lawrence, the group puts on weekly open-mic opportunities and showcases and monthly shows. The goal: “To expose anyone and everyone who is interested in comedy.”
So what drives these people, like the members of Harpoon Presents, my crazy roommate, and professionals, to willingly stand in a spotlight or under dim fluorescent bar lights teetering on a crowd laugh as they do their best to be humorous? Why risk being thrown to the dogs for a laugh? My roommate says standup is her door of opportunity to the improv world, where she feels her class-clown personality can land her a job she’s excited about. She aspires to be on SNL or perform with the Chicago improv group The Second City. Schulte says it’s simply the joy of making others laugh. Fellow Harpoon Presents member Chance Dibben says he’s pursuing comedy because it’s freeing and all for fun.
When I asked professional comedian and actor Joe Torry, a St. Louis native, he justified his 25 years of joke-making saying, “For me it’s therapy.”
Torry says comedy is a way to articulate his feelings through humor and connect with others. “It’s being able to vent and get immediate approval. I feel like I’m a hero when I say certain things because people are going through the same stuff that I’m going through…When some people think like you and they’re not even the same color, or the same age, or the same gender, then it’s like a universal laugh or a universal healing.”
His claim to fame before strictly focusing on comedy was hosting the Russell Simmons Def Comedy Jam in 1992, where he went on to star in several hit comedy films like House Party and Strictly Business, and made appearances in the TV series E.R. and NYPD Blue as well as other films like Poetic Justice and Sprung. He is now working on standup and improv comedy and preparing to do two major tours, one solo and the other with a collection of comedians. The best part of being a professional comedian he said: “It’s more of a talent that’s blessed by being able to make money, and to express myself without getting arrested.”
But getting to his status didn’t come easy. “It was a hustle.” Attaining professional success begins at ground zero for most. Torry says the process begins with re-locating oneself, like he did, to Los Angeles, the best place for opportunity and exposure. Self-promoting your talent is also important, like uploaded performance footage to YouTube or sending out DVDs to prospect companies. From there it’s casting a wide net and performing as much as possible, networking, seeking agents and managers, and ultimately being at the right place at the right time. Along the way, Torry advises that aspiring comedians should, “try to find [their] own voice. And to stay well read, meaning to be able to perform anywhere and tackle any subject.” And once a comedian gets a bite, it’s about continuing to elevate him or herself while climbing the ladder.
The climb to individual fame for the core members of Harpoon Presents, however, doesn’t seem to be its main objective. Each person has their varying, individual aspirations, but the group’s goal is to collectively build a larger audience for themselves in Lawrence, and help others to get a foot in the comedy door. While they all joked about being jealous of blossoming newbies that surprise them at open-mics, their collaborative work is simply about the laughs and a shared love of comedy.
“I don’t expect to become famous, but I do enjoy creating something fun for my town,” Schulte said. “I just want to do weird stuff.”
Harpoon Presents is aiming to achieve this with it’s weekly and monthly events, as well as bringing “some of the country’s best, most interesting, and weirdest comedians to Lawrence” in its annual Riptide Comedy Festival. The festival, which took place in April, is a downtown Lawrence showcase of more than one dozen comedians from around the country performing over three days. The hope, according to the members of Harpoon Presents, is that the showcase will “grow the seed” of comedy in Lawrence. There are already over twenty affiliates outside of the group’s core seven that perform regularly at the organized shows; the seed is growing.
Keeping the seed alive will be the challenge. Outside the efforts of Harpoon Presents, it will be even more challenging for individuals aspiring to be professionals to make it. Torry says maintaining and elevating success as a comedian is an ongoing battle:
“People talk about retiring, but that’s when you’re dead. At every level you need to try to take your game to another step, another roof, another plateau. And I guess that’s what keeps me inspired, and everyone else inspired, is that you’ve never made it. The energy of still having to prove yourself, which most people do especially when you’re living out in L.A. or Hollywood. People don’t care what you’ve got, what you did yesterday.”
My roommate is beginning this ambiguous climb to hopeful success as she raises the microphone to her mouth on the Replay Lounge stage. “Well, coming after that guy,” (a mid-thirties bearded man who joked about “hot twenty-year-olds” and having sex with them) she begins, “let’s talk about ladies. And all that we do for you guys.” She uses this springboard to talk about guys’ desire for nude selfies from women and tells the story of her first, failed, nude selfie to her high school boyfriend. She unknowingly included the fresh poop sitting in the toilet in the background of the photo. “I felt pretty good about what I sent, but I nervously waited for his response. He finally texted back and said, ‘Flush the toilet.’” The crowd erupted in laughter. She chuckles and concludes her one-and-done story with, “Well, that’s all I got.”
As she walks off the stage, relieved to be done, the MC hollers, “Yeah! First time for Maddy Rich, let’s hear it!” The crowd gives a supportive clap, and a few people lend some shouts. Flustered she didn’t use the entire five minutes, but relieved to have broken the performance ice, Rich exhales loudly when she greets me behind the bar. “Whatever, it’s done.” But when the butterflies settle, she excitedly begins talking about what to change and add for next week’s open-mic act.
Q+A with Dennis Gubbins
Professional comedian and actor Dennis Gubbins is known for films such as Beer Fest, and The Horror of Barnes Folly, and he has acted in commercials, a few T.V. shows and award-winning independent films. He was also a writer for South Park, and is currently a writing consultant for the upcoming Netflix series Flake’d, and a writer and producer for Comedy Central’s Brody Stevens: Enjoy it! In addition, he is working on stand-up comedy, writing various TV pilots, and auditioning for acting positions. I asked him what it’s like to be funny for a living.
Where do you get your material?
DG: Generally my material comes from real life experiences. I like to tell stories and a lot of times those stories are about awkward and funny things I have done or said. I am pretty self-deprecating and not really into making fun of people.
Is any topic off limits?
DG: No, not really. I think if it is funny then it is okay. But you never know if it is really funny and not offensive until you try it a couple times. Like rape…I don’t find it funny so I avoid it, other than the couple times I referred to myself as the child produced by Louis CK raping Zach Galifianakis. I don’t do that joke much. Any “hot topic” like religion or racism is certainly fertile ground and free game, but it is a fine line between funny and interesting and offensive and tired [or] hack.
Who is your favorite comedian and why?
DG: I don’t really have one, but I really liked Robin Williams growing up because he was physical and wacky and I was like that too. I was compared to him by a mutual teacher we had. He grew up in Marin County like I did. Today I think Bill Burr and Louis CK are great. I really like Zach Galifianakis and his comedy, and Sarah Silverman and Tig Notaro always make me laugh.
What has comedy taught you about life?
DG: I wish more! Ha. Comedy has taught me to look at the hard and awkward things in life from a different angle, to find the humor in all things. That is not to say I laugh in the face of death–I don’t–but it has taught me that it all depends on how you look at something and choose to interpret it. I also learned this growing up in an Irish Catholic family with a lot of funny people. Gallows humor was always big in our homes and so was pushing the taste a bit.
Photo courtesy of West Side Comedy.