At age 30, it’s natural to look back on your life and think ‘how the f*** did I get here?’ If I was given only one word to describe myself in 2017, it would be husband. Or Christian. Or some other Twitter bio keyword. If given two words, I would probably go with comedy nerd. In this four-part series I take a look at my comedy influences to find out how this all happened. After looking at my nerdy childhood in part one, my subtle subversion in the high school years, my first foray into stand-up in college, we’re ready for the final part.
My twenties, now a distant memory, were filled to the brim with your typical young, single male behavior. Mattress on the floor. Take out for dinner every day. And all the free time in the world for hobbies (and beer). As a near fully-blossomed comedy nerd, my diverse set of hobbies included critiquing, consuming, and creating all things humor. Not a very complex young man.
Hack Comedy and the Local Scene
Like any fool in his twenties, I now was an expert on everything. It’s a hubris almost every comedy nerd grows into. I knew what good comedy was and I knew about it way before anyone else did. We’re a lot like hipsters in that way. Where before I could only discover comedians on Comedy Central and early Twitter, I had now moved to an actual city. With an actual comedy scene. Washington DC! Or, technically Silver Spring, MD. But I lived by a metro stop, so it counts.
I became fully immersed in the local comedy scene. By which I mean I went to open mics alone, talked to almost nobody, and had the introverted time of my life. And like any know-it-all comedy nerd, I passed judgement on every single comic I saw perform. DC comedy is like anywhere else. At any given open mic you have a whole bunch of terrible comedians, some who are good [read: experienced but unimpressive], and then the very few who passed my test. Smart, unexpected, and most importantly, not hacky.
The two stand-out stand-ups (fun to say) during my time in DC were Aparna Nancherla and Brandon Wardell. One was a performing as a kid in bars, not old enough to enter the venue, making ironic jokes about homework and the other an almost fully-polished comic making honest and funny jokes about anxiety. They weren’t telling jokes about airplane food and women who be shoppin’. They were performing regularly and had very specific voices. I performed in DC only once. I did not have a specific voice.
What else? What else?
In an era now known to be a bona fide comedy boom, I had non-stop access to things shaping my comedic sensibilities. A phrase I wish I had a synonym for because I’ve definitely said it a bunch already. Nonetheless, my comedic sensibilities found a home in the relatively new medium of podcasts. Morning radio is bad. Yet somehow, audio podcasts are good? It made no sense, but I was drawn in almost immediately P.S., pre-Serial.
The podcasts that got me hooked included Who Charted? How Did This Get Made? And some podcasts without question titles like Doug Loves Movies. The one that I dove into the hardest was Comedy Bang! Bang! It had everything a comedy nerd could love. There are main guests, who are typically well-known, like an Andy Samberg. Then, there are cool secondary guests from hip comedy scenes like UCB in LA that only hip comedy people would know. And best yet? They came on the podcast as characters. I didn’t even know that was something someone could do.
The UCB philosophy of improv hadn’t really made it to me yet, but I fell in love with it. Nobody recording the podcast knew what was going to be said next—which meant neither did I, the listener. Exciting. I had seen improv in college, but improv in college tends to be bad. This was good. And good improv is so very good. It was silly. It was filled with references, only some of which I got, and I’ve been attached to the hip with Comedy Bang! Bang!’s comedic sensibility ever since.
And like every other white male [aspiring] comedian I started my own podcast with a friend. You can find it online if you really look. But I won’t point you there.
The Intellectuary, The Washington Fancy, and other such nonsense
Through trying stand-up in college I realized I’m not a performer. The jokes did work. And people on Twitter found me funny enough to add me to lists with titles like “funny.” Maybe that meant I was a writer? But for who? For what?
Here’s a quick list of some nonsense I did while trying to figure those questions out:
Briefly joined a sketch group that met in an Au Bon Pain for a never-aired public access show.
Answered a Craigslist ad to help a “Dr. Bob” write jokes for a speech. We met in a hotel lobby.
Wrote a Twitter joke of the week on my whiteboard at work—in the hilarious offices of the terrorist watchlist group.
Created the Christopher Michael Todd Memorial Fellowship for Hilarity in Academia and awarded a $500 grant to my friend to write a thesis on mental health in comedy.
Had discussions with a Twitter friend in Wisconsin about doing comedy bits for their radio show.
Wrote and submitted a TV pilot to Amazon Studios, which maybe wasn’t nonsense and was considered “notable” and some people liked it—just not people at Amazon.
Recorded an entire album of Clown Baby (joke band from college) songs.
I was fortunate to have lots of opportunities to try weird things and fail. To try things and have them fizzle out. And to try things and not get murdered by Dr. Bob. I also got to do a lot of nonsense that I still love which helped shape what I do today.
The one with the fondest memories has to be The Intellectuary. Comedy thrives in groups. And the Intellectuary was a heck of a group. ‘Intellectuary’ is a made-up word that served to underpin the mission of four college buddies who all lived close enough to meet up at a bar each week, get buzzed, and pitch each other jokes and sketches. We wanted to be smart. But also, dumb. A very comedy nerd aesthetic. We described it as something like poop jokes for intellectuals. We tweeted this:
“boob is poop upside down. My 2 favorite things. Being upside down and word play.”
Not bad. We filmed some bits for YouTube. Wrote some essays for our website. And honestly just used it as an excuse to hang out with friends.
Another one that made me feel, despite all my anxieties, almost like a real writer was The Washington Fancy. I answered another Craigslist ad, because I’m reckless. Also, because they were looking for satire writers for a new website. Basically the Onion without the following or ability to pay writers. I submitted a sample piece to the anonymous email address and got a response: it was no good. Dream over.
Not so fast! They gave me another shot, provided an example of what they were looking for, and I knocked it out of the park. In my opinion. In the amateur editor’s opinion too, who was starting a site from scratch and paying zero dollars. There was a schedule; one to three pieces a week, delivered to an editor, who would then publish my stuff online. It was a lot of fun. I even had a piece go viral—mostly because of the scantily clad Sarah Palin holding a machine gun my editor chose as a cover picture. But still, viral is viral.
I wrote for someone else. I got published. I even got a piece reprinted in both a book and the print edition of Humor Times. I was technically a professional writer, paid an estimated $2.76 from sales of the book.
There was a whole staff of Washington Fancy writers. All producing articles for the same site. Yet I became keenly aware I wasn’t writing quite like everyone else. I didn’t swear or go low-brow, despite those articles getting more attention from our adoring public. It’s those comedic sensibilities of mine again. They were writing “The President is a S***head.” Direct. A little mean. I was writing “Estonian Prime Minister Admits His Country is Make Believe.” Zero political agenda. Kind of cute. Definitely silly. I was a weirdo among weirdos.
Where does that leave us?
I’m still growing into my sense of humor. My bookshelf is still full of only books about, or written by, comedians. I have a strong podcast rotation on my phone, all comedy podcasts. Zero, “I bet they’re really innocent!” podcasts. And I’m still tweeting like it’s 2009.
I’m not sure my sense of humor will ever turn into the glamorous TV writing career I once, and often, fantasize about. Actually, I’m pretty sure it won’t. But my adulthood has been full of finding small creative outlets here. Cool opportunities there.
That podcast I started listening to, Comedy Bang! Bang! became a TV show and I ran their social media accounts for five seasons.
That TV pilot I submitted to Amazon studios? I re-wrote it and entered it into a screenplay contest. I was a semi-finalist.
That joke of the week at the office? I don’t have to do that anymore because I work from home. That has nothing to do with comedy, but it’s really great and something you should try if you are introverted and able.
If there’s ever a part five of this series, my daughter is going to be the focal point. In the time it took to finish this four-part series, I became a father. What? Everything that’s shaped me into the goofy person I am is somewhere in her too. And I plan on finding it. In little ways every day. Silly faces. Dad jokes. And when she’s ready, I’ll share all my favorite movies, TV shows, and stand-up comedians with her. I cannot wait to see what kind of nerd she grows up to be.