Around 5pm the power at my folks’ house went out, just minutes into a windy thunderstorm. Too few trees felled to cause such havoc, but it seemed to make tonight the night to check out the new Comedy Club of Williamsburg my mom had excitedly emailed me about two weeks ago.
Turns out it just opened. This is the fourth weekend of comics performing in a conference room at the DoubleTree near Busch Gardens, and I hadn’t heard of either comic. We figured the movie theaters would be packed (75,000 people without power in all of Hampton Roads), so we went and bought a pitcher at the sports bar, Pitchers.
The room seated 64 people and once Manager Ed Kappes took the stage there were all of 14 in the audience. Average age was middle age. Save for the teens there, inexplicably, with their grandparents, I was the youngest in the room.
(Oh and I went with N, which was our first time in a comedy club together. He’s a good audience member, generous with his laughter and eager to participate. He made me feel like I had to do better, what with my stupid notebook. All comics should give him free tix.)
At any rate, I want to talk about two things here:
- What it’s like to be part of a 14-person audience at a comedy club.
- What tags are in jokes, and how they are funny and how they are not funny.
The danger in being part of a small crowd is that you’re more vulnerable to a comic’s crowdwork. Some folks love this. I mostly hate it, until it happens to me and then I kinda like the attention. Headliner Al Jackson asked if there were any teachers in the audience, and I got to clap and say I taught college. It’s fun if that’s as far as it goes, but it’s always a gamble. You could sit right up front and get a meanie. Tip: one comic I talked with said it’s a bad move to address/pick on people right in front of you (he called it the blowjob zone), because no one in the crowd can see their expressions. Better to pick on people up front but in the wings. Take note when you get seated.
Featured comic Andy Forrester seemed unnerved but game when it came to the tiny 14 of us. Al Jackson found it hilarious. There was an engaged couple. A retired couple. The grandparents. A middle aged couple. Two queers in the corner. We were a weird group. The best thing you can do with a tiny weird group is make us feel we all are inherently a joke together, which Al did and we loved it.
Joke structure starts with a setup that leads to a punchline, with optional tags if you want to keep the laughs going.
Setup: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Punch: To get to the other side.
Tag: Why else would he do it, for the exercise?
Setup: Take my wife,
Tag: She’s like a sponge that soaks up all my fun.
Those are shitty because I’m not a comic. The point of the punchline is to surprise us into laughter, and the point of the tag is to keep the laughs going.
Here’s a bit from the featured comic:
I fell hanging Christmas lights, and I learned something: Fat guys don’t bounce. Turns out you break your leg, and you dislocate your shoulder, and you roll into the neighbors’ yard.
Here’s a solid example, which you can break down to setup, punch, and tag almost by its punctuation. The whole thing works collectively to set up a stronger joke:
I told my buddy. I said, “I broke my leg hanging Christmas lights,” and he goes: “Inside or out?”
There’s the punch. Or at least, there’s where I laughed. It’s funny to think that someone could fall and break his leg hanging lights on a tree, or around a doorway. But then he had some tags:
Man, I don’t live in the White House. You fall hanging lights inside? You’re a moron.
The tag is often a place for comics to express incredulity, and in the bald expression thereof on the stage, people laugh. Indeed: Forrester’s tags got more laughs than his punchline did.
But not from me. Here and elsewhere I found his punchlines funnier, but I realized the problem with this is that what I was laughing at was not his own material. It was and it wasn’t. He was telling me stories of things others said and did, and I laughed at their strangeness. His own comic jokework (his tags) weren’t as funny as the reality of the situation.
Then the headliner takes the stage. Al Jackson opens … I forget how, but early on he tells us he grew up in Ohio but until recently lived in NYC, and that his mother never understood it. She’d visit and wonder aloud why he lived in this dirty place:
Look, there’s the Statue of Liberty and there’s Carnegie Hall. “Okay but what’s that?” she’d ask. Uh, that’s a homeless man bangin’ a mailbox.
There’s the punchline. This is incongruous but plausible enough and we laugh. Jackson, too, has a tag:
That’s weird, I thought they broke up.
This is incredible work. It’s much funnier than the punchline, and why is that it pushes our already stretched allowances regarding plausibility to a further limit. I mean: it’s weirder. It’s less plausible, but we’re okay with it after the punch set us up.
Jackson killed. He simply brought the house down and it was such a weird form of killing when that house consisted of 14 people in an overlit conference room with an American flag in the corner. It’s, I’d imagine, a challenging room to kill in, and it was delightful watching a pro own it.
Look: of the few people who read this blog regularly, only my mom lives in Williamsburg, Va. (the hipper of the east-coast Williamsburgs), but if you get a chance, check out a show at the Comedy Club of Williamsburg. Kappes books solid road comics, and I’ve only recently begun to know the thrill of finding a funny new person. It’s exactly like finding a new band no one knows about (or, for me, how this used to be), but you get to sit down the whole time. Also: no drink minimums!