Posts Tagged ‘Stand-up comedy’


A recent comic strip in the San Francisco Chroniclerelated to a matter I discussed with a stand-up comic at last Sunday’s annual Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park. Our chat yielded an interesting but dark observation.

Wiley Miller’s “Non Sequitur” panel presents a man in blue overalls, white tee shirt and red baseball cap, which in front might have read Make America Great. He stands, pen in hand, before a large sign: Entrance Exam. Behind it is an angel at a velvet rope. Another—God? St. Peter?—sits at a tall desk and holds a quill pen.

The man must answer a single question to enter heaven: Nazis are (check one) good, bad. The man appears stumped. The seated angel/God/St. Peter asks, “Remember when this was the easiest test in the universe?”

Most readers get Miller’s take on Donald Trump’s comment following the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia over a year ago: There were “some very fine people on both sides.”

You may not laugh, but Miller’s humor bites. Satirizing the powerful, especially when they are inane, represents a necessary act of protest. Will Miller’s panel change the outcome of November’s midterm elections? Lead to Trump’s leaving the White House? Likely it will be forgotten—but, added to all the humor out there, could prove the straw that broke the camel’s back.

As to the discussion: Jill Maragos is a stand-up comic who performed at Comedy Day along with dozens of others. As always, I enjoyed her brief set. She’s a funny woman booking gigs around the country.

When I saw her backstage, Trump came up as a subject for stand-up. Jill doesn’t think he’s a good one. I see her point. Not that I couldn’t write material for myself: Have you noticed that Trump’s hair matches the pale yellow sofa in the Oval office? Did the White House order new fabric dyed to match the president’s hair? Or did Trump like the sofa’s color so much, he ordered his stylist to match it?

But including Trump in a stand-up routine performed over time can’t replicate the skewering by late-night TV hosts and Saturday Night Live. They enjoy the advantage of timeliness. A team of writers takes off on some Trumpism that hit the news that day or that week—something specific and fresh in people’s minds.

Generalized material doesn’t work so well. Jill supplied an appropriate (a word missing from Trump’s vocabulary and behavior) reason. Audiences have had enough of him. It’s not that they necessarily stop getting the news. It’s that the situation is so horrific, stand-ups have to pick their spots.

Satiric comic strips and editorial cartoons remain important. Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and SNL also will keep firing away. Trump will express his displeasure. Buffoons and blowhards—one president can be both—hate being laid bare like the emperor in his new “clothes” portrayed in the Hans Christian Andersen story.

Trump’s low approval ratings indicate that more Americans view him not as the king he pretends to be but as the court jester. But unlike as in Shakespeare or Game of Thrones, the audience has discovered that within the ignoble body of this fool lies an ignoble heart. That observation may draw a wry smile but not likely a laugh.

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Last Friday, I invited readers and Facebook friends to You Tube to see the stand-up comedy act I performed in 2013 at San Francisco’s Purple Onion as research for my novel The Boy Walker. I spent many hours writing that nine-minute set. Was it because I was a neophyte? Jill Maragos, a professional funny woman, confirms the axiom that it’s harder to make people laugh than cry.

Jill developed her sense of humor to survive growing up with a crazy family in Buffalo, New York. Also, she holds degrees in broadcast journalism and mechanical engineering. The progression to stand-up was natural and inevitable.

Four years ago, Jill was working on an acting career in Los Angeles. To better understand sit-coms, she took a stand-up course. She discovered she could write humor. Since she was a performer, Jill started doing open mics. Then she got gigs—most without pay. Her first experience hooked her. “I couldn’t shake the adrenalin rush from making people laugh.” She equates audience response to unconditional love. At the end of 2015, her husband Matt was offered a job in the Bay Area. Most of Jill’s best-paying gigs were up in the Pacific Northwest, and travel there from the Bay Area is as easy as from L.A. They moved north. Jill’s career headed north, too.

Like most stand-ups, Jill creates material by looking into herself. Pet peeves offer one reliable topic. Does she write eight hours a day? “My writing goes in spurts,” she says. She spends about 15 hours a month actually at her laptop. But writers are always working. “I gather a lot of material just walking around.” She takes notes in her joke book, a notebook she brings everywhere. “I try some of the jokes on friends.” Matt hears all of her material and offers advice. Some, she takes.

In addition to developing new bits, Jill constantly enhances her current routine. “I’m really particular about jokes,” she says. “I tend to overwrite.” She may spend hours on a bit to end up with a few minutes she believes will work. She experiments with new material at open mics. Jill’s also merciless. “I’ll toss out a good joke for a better one.” Her goal: always have on hand 45 minutes of top-notch material.

Probably the bane of all stand-ups is going on the road. Jill describes it as “like solitary confinement with half an hour like a surprise party at the end of the day with everyone you’ve ever loved and known. Then you drive someplace else or go home.” Still, she hits the road with enthusiasm. Those are paying audiences out there. In the next few years, she’d love to open for a headliner on tour. She reveals her approach to making that work: “My material is dirty enough for me to be interested in using it but not so much I’d conflict with the headliner.”

Some people wonder how Jill can devote her life to stand-up. “How could I not?” she responds. That’s why she’ll appear in San Francisco tonight (July 8) at the Hell Hat Improv Comedy Show and Friday night, July 15, at the Underdog Wine Bar in Livermore. Friday to Sunday, August 12–14, Jill will appear in Laughlin, Nevada at the Edgewater Casino & Hotel. Whatever happens at the tables, Jill’s show will be a sure winner.

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The blog will take off July 15 and return July 22.

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