The Making of a Comedy Nerd, Part Three: the College Years

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, we’re now ready for college Chris.

I’m not saying a comedy nerd can’t have the typical college experience. What I am willing to say, is that my friend group would play juice pong in a building called the “Literary House” rather than partake in underage drinking—so maybe I leaned into the nerd part of the phrase in college. Thankfully, I didn’t abandon the comedy part altogether.

Mostly pretentious with hints of curiosity.

Like any obsessive sub-culture, comedy nerds tend to take things too seriously. And I went to college when Dane Cook was taking off, so believe me when I say I’m no better than those people. A couple of cute girls wanted to watch their favorite Dane Cook comedy special. I had not yet heard of him, and college boys tend to follow the lead of college girls, so we watched. They were dying. The whole time. And I was dying, but just a little on the inside. Look, I laughed a bit. Maybe even a lot if I’m being honest. I was a college freshman, which is a peak Dane Cook demo. But I also knew that wasn’t really art, as I specifically defined it. Truly pretentious comedy nerd behavior.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, my cooler friends, also cute girls, needed me to see Eddie Izzard’s stuff. And I was extremely glad they forced that on me. A totally unique voice, with impeccable writing, performance, etc. And jokes in French. A language I studied, meaning I could pretend to understand those jokes on a different level than my friends!

Le singe est sur la branche.

They gave me Eddie Izzard. I returned the favor with Demetri Martin. They gave me Flight of the Conchords. I gave them Zach Galifianakis—long before the Hangover. We discovered Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz together. What a time to be alive.

Continuing to practice bits  

In part two I described my hilarious, low-stakes hijinks. And I honestly didn’t grow up that much in the one summer between high school and college. In a classic example, one of my best friends was writing a paper. You know, one of those things you turn in for a grade. The backbone of college. I don’t remember the topic of the paper, but I do remember typing a sizable paragraph of nonsense about some made up revolution or something while they were in the bathroom. And when they came back, they said “f*** it. I’m keeping it in.” They handed in the paper to a real professor and got an A. One of the few red marks? A single question mark next to the section I wrote. College, am I right?   

In another act of pure youthful energy, I joined a band. An honest to God rock n’ roll band. With my roommates. Only one of us had talent. That’s not me being arrogant. I’m speaking about my roommate who could play guitar, keyboard, and probably the drums if we had any. Since the other two of us offered nothing to the group, we decided to make it a joke band. Real songs. But about silly things. Our hit song featured a moment where I sang emotionally about the disappearance of the honey bee population. Halfway through, I would turn around briefly to very obviously put drops in my eyes, and turn back around “crying” through the remainder. It was kind of a funny bit.

I love my comedy to live in the mundane, and be just a little adorable if possible. I was always trying to strike the balance of making people laugh and making them happy. The two aren’t always the same. I could type out stories of times I made inappropriate jokes in college that got huge laughs, but didn’t make anyone happy. Jokes I would not, or hope I would not, tell now. But I’m always trying to grow and in a study of my evolving comedic sensibilities, laughter and happiness are the keys to focus on as they (hopefully) continue to shine through my work today.

The Student Events Board is where I was able to take this idea of comedy + cuteness to a whole new level. As I had a budget and seemingly unlimited creative control to work with. My role: Director of Traditions. Which meant nothing, because it was the first time the role existed, and we had no traditions yet. This meant I was open to be silly in the hopes of something new catching on. Enter, the compliment booth.

Guys, I took the traditional, potentially problematic, trope of a kissing booth and completely flipped it on its head! That’s what my brain is like when I come up with ideas. I had a group set up behind a table in the middle of campus, handing out candy and compliments to those who asked for one.

Them: What is this?
Us: It’s a compliment booth. Can we give you a compliment?
Them: Umm, sure. I guess.
Us: You always provide great additions to the discussion in class. Here’s a Jolly Rancher.

In reality, it was a lot of “you have a nice smile.” “Your hair looks great.” “Cool, t-shirt” type stuff. Not exactly revolutionary but it felt like my own Andy Kaufman, milk and cookies moment. Also not laugh out loud funny, but it was unexpected, and sometimes that all a comedy nerd is looking for.

I am doing it. I am comedy?

At some point a comedy nerd is going to need to make some choices. Am I just a big fan of comedy or am I a comedian? Being that college is mainly a very expensive chance to take risks with your future—it was time to find out.

I started slowly. On Twitter. This was 2008, so Twitter was brand new. Everyone on it was cool and unlike today, we used it to be funny more than using it to complain about the downfall of civilization. There was a user who started a weekly open mic and she invited a handful of people to sign up. I was in that handful. I spent time writing out my set. Trying to fit the hashtag, setup, punchline, and transition under 140 characters. It was a blast and generally well received. That’s when @Kim reached out.

            “You’re hilarious. Would you like to help me write a show?”

We’re all in the future now, so we know this isn’t some big break that garnered Emmy noms and wild acclaim. But it certainly felt like it could. We held writers meetings over Skype, pitching ideas and jokes. Each writer submitted their own draft. And the source of all my current false hope that I’ll become a writer someday, can be traced back to one Skype call where she asked me to be head writer. I died.

That project eventually fizzled out without much fanfare. But then came along my senior year, when I finally performed stand-up comedy. Seriously. I did it. Jokes in front of human beings. It’s by no means a pre-requisite of being a comedy nerd to do stand-up. But it really escalates things.

Every year my school would bring in a band for a “huge” performance. Our small school’s budget was in the Gym Class Heroes or Dashboard Confessional in 2008 tier. Selfishly, I lobbied to take that budget and use it for an entire week of comedy—comedians being much cheaper, and their success less dependent on personal tastes. And with my influence as Director of Traditions, we added a student comedy competition to the schedule. One that I would obviously take a part in.

I’ve written about it before, but looking back now it’s truly a huge event in my personal development. Despite all the small pieces of comedy-nerdom that are surfacing in 20/20 view of my past, I always considered myself a boring, non-creative, likely to be an accountant person. But maybe a boring, non-creative person wouldn’t write a 5-minute set. Perform it in front of hundreds of students and his family. And have it go well. I’m an introvert so I hated it to my core, but it really did go well. And my brain fully clicked into believing it was made for more than debits and credits in a t-chart.

There was no looking back. I may not have gone on to perform much comedy after that. But it opened up a different side of myself. Now I was studying (watching) comedy non-stop. And on the backend dissecting how they were pulling it off. Up next, I move to Washington DC, where I would graduate from mainstream Comedy Central to local alt-comedy. My evolution to comedy nerd nearly complete.

The Making of a Comedy Nerd Part, Part Four: Adult Humor

My Netflix Deal Must be Lost in the Mail.