A freelance writer who’d always been curious to try stand-up comedy pitched an article idea to the editor of a local magazine. What if he took a stand-up class with Twin Cities comedy impresario Stevie Ray, recounting the horrors likely to unfold for the magazine’s several readers?
“Whatever,” the editor emailed back. “Just make sure it’s funny.”
It wasn’t, in the end. But that’s how I wound up performing my first three-minute stand-up set, in front of a sold-out hotel lounge in Bloomington: employees from the local USA Today distribution office and a suburban muffler shop celebrating the holiday season with co-workers.
Stories about my hillbilly Hoosier youth and my Indiana pals in prison (for enlisting in the losing side of the government’s war on drugs) went over well enough that by the time my article appeared in The Rake and turned some of Stevie Ray’s troupe against me, I was doing a different three minutes of material every time I went up at another open mic.
My hip-hop stage name is MC Escher because my rhymes only amaze dumbass college stoners.
I started performing one-liners in the style of Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg and Demetri Martin mostly because I felt bad about making fun of people not there to defend themselves against my jokes.
I certainly had no interest in sharing my personal business with the total strangers seated beyond the stage lights. Appearing cool and confident was plenty difficult without worrying about mid-set emotional breakdowns.
I delivered my jokes in a monotone drawl (my voice) that folks often mistook for a shtick. But never acknowledging the bear suit I had made to wear on stage was as close to a shtick as I ever got. And that became too close for my comfort soon enough.
Oh, hello. I’ve never heard of you either.
My one-liners landed me a regular feature at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. METRO magazine picked up “Jokes by Brian Beatty,” too. Some of my jokes even found their way into a humor book published by Andrews McMeel, a genuine publisher of humor books. Squeaky Clean Comedy’s editor invited me out to California to perform at an industry showcase at the Hollywood Improv, where I killed the half empty room with not a TV or movie or radio person in sight. At least the video crew showed up.
Every job is an acting job if you’re expected to act like you give a shit.
A few New Year’s Eves ago, I was one of five lucky finalists in a KQRS publicity stunt that auditioned local amateurs to open for Louie Anderson at Northrop Memorial Auditorium.
Before curtain, Louie gathered us backstage to wish us luck and to remind us that in a venue the size of Northrop the trick was to stick to our rehearsed routines. This was not the night to get distracted. Not the night to ad-lib, either. But as I was heading out to the microphone to do my time, some fancypants in the expensive seats down front farted.
I couldn’t help myself. I immediately told everybody in the auditorium, all four thousand impatient Louie fans. At least they couldn’t blame me for stinking up the place.
It’s the voices outside my head that make me crazy.
I’ve not been heckled too much, but a drunk did shout “Unabomber!” during an opening gig I did for Scott Hansen and Dave Mordal. I was, indeed, skulking around the bowling alley’s tiny platform stage hidden (except for my beard) inside a hooded sweatshirt. I had no business being there at all. I was sick with the flu. And just before going up, I’d chased a shot of NyQuil with a Beam and Diet Coke.
Another time, at the Monday Night Comedy Show at the Beat Coffeehouse in Uptown, I was heckled by Jesus — or a guy dressed to look like Jesus for Halloween. I was sober enough that night to smart aleck back that nobody wanted to hear about His unresolved Daddy issues.
More than hecklers I found myself dealing with audience members “getting” my jokes a beat or two after everybody else was done laughing and I’d moved on. Bringing a teary-eyed lady up to speed got me disqualified the one and only year I entered Acme Comedy Co.’s annual funniest person contest.
Victoria’s Secret is that her brassieres and panties don’t look like that on all women. Or me.
Poetry entered my stand-up sets because I wanted to up the “snob” factor of my stage persona, to increase the comedic tension.
Next I began tagging one-liners with running commentaries about my success or failure so far, sabotaging otherwise solid sets just to find out if I could dig myself out of the smoldering rubble piles I’d created. Sometimes I couldn’t, but stammering toward impromptu punch lines made things a lot more exciting. For me, anyway.
The longer I did stand-up, the more I found myself looking toward my artistic interests outside of comedy for inspiration.
Primitive outsider art reminded me there’s more to all creative work than somebody’s arbitrary idea of perfection. Traditional folk music and free jazz and experimental noise demonstrated how thematic variations could lead to interesting, accidental discoveries. The short stories of Donald Barthelme and poems of Ted Berrigan embodied universal themes in personal forms beyond familiar literary categories.
I quit polishing my jokes. I put away the bear suit. I forced myself to explore uncertain territories. Because communicating with audiences in an emotionally honest way became more important than huge laughs.
Maybe I should’ve seen it coming. And maybe I could’ve dealt with it better.
Last summer I wrote and performed my first full-length solo show as part of the Fringe. “The Big Four Oh: 40 Jokes, Poems and Stories by Brian Beatty” recounted the ridiculous mid-life crisis I didn't actually have. Equating my fortieth birthday with the national disasters of Pearl Harbor and September 11th in my show’s opening joke was my way of letting my audiences know they were in for more than the cute one-liners they might’ve seen me do before.
Reviewers didn’t know what to make of “The Big Four Oh.” Was it stand-up? Was it storytelling? Was spending my first couple of minutes on stage quietly wrestling myself out of my bear suit performance art?
I had these questions, too, but I never bothered answering them because that’s not what I do now.