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Ophira Eisenberg

It’s a Small Stand-up World After All

written by David Baker

STAND-UP COMEDY is the preserve of the English-speaking world. There are five countries where the art truly thrives: the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The four grand slam comedy festivals (Edinburgh, Montreal, Aspen, Melbourne) are all English-speaking. Despite the internet and globalization, the rest of the world still prefers to sit down. There’s no Berlin Improv or Caroline’s on the Elysee. China may be a huge market for Western movies, music and TV, but the Beijing Comedy Palace has yet to open.

It’s said the UK and US are two nations separated by a common language. Maybe. But they like much of the same comedy. Sure, the US may have a greater propensity towards jokes about race, and the UK jokes about the rest room, but much of the humor is similar. Despite this, few American comics have taken off in England and you can count on one hand the number of English comedians popular in the US (Gervais, Izzard, Oliver) and still have a finger spare to flip off the guy who has stolen your New York cab whilst you did so.

Why is this? After all, the world is now globalized. Thanks to Al Gore, we all have the Internet. And we both speak (pretty much) the same language. Why don’t more English comedians come here? I’ve spent years performing at clubs across the US and UK. I’m almost always the only Brit on this side of the Atlantic. As far as I know, I’m the only English comic getting up regularly in New York. Why aren’t there more of me?

The answer lies in the differences I’ve discovered between performing stand-up in London and New York. There are more than you’d think. Five in particular:

First; the social contexts differ. Stand-up comedy is ‘glocal’. It’s global in the sense that funny is funny. Many jokes work anywhere. Jim Carrey’s St. Bernard is as good on the other side of the Atlantic as it is here. But when you go beyond a set up and punch to make political or social points in your comedy, you soon discover that the two countries’ political and social contexts vary widely. As such, comedy is also intensely local. George Lopez’s observations on being a Latino American will be met by blank looks at a club in Liverpool.

Likewise, an English comic in New York has to alter his act to the one he does in London (and he’ll have to alter it even more if he goes to the Heartland). Attitudes in the two countries to guns, politics, religion, healthcare and foreign policy are different. So the jokes about them must be too. Coming to America requires English comedians to change their act — and voice. That’s unsettling. Hard. Time-consuming.

Second; stand-up also remains intensely local in its organization. To get booked at New York’s comedy clubs, you have to prove yourself at New York’s comedy clubs. Being huge in London doesn’t cut it here. As a foreign comic coming to New York, you have to build up your relations from scratch. Again, that takes time.

Third, being a foreign comic in the US liberates you but also restricts you. It restricts you in the sense that audiences expect you to be English in your style (stiff, polite) whether you are or not. You have to play to that — even the posters for Ricky Gervais at Madison Square Garden have him in a top hat and umbrella. The ones for his show in London don’t. Yet, many English comics aren’t especially English. Many are working class. Their comedy plays into English social and regional stereotypes that US audiences won’t understand. An English comic in London can reflect the struggles of inner city Liverpool in his stand-up. Not in New York. To the audiences here, he simply reflects the UK. This also limits the angle he can take in his material. He’s forced to be the guy commenting on American society from the outside — what you get, what you don’t. Yet at the same time, the English persona also frees you. American audiences will give a foreign comedian a pass on some issues, assuming you just don’t understand. This gives you a license to play with an audience (e.g. on race relations) to a degree that perhaps some American comics can’t.

Fourth, attitudes to race. Race dominates stand-up here in a way it doesn’t figure in the UK. On the whole, an English audience is politically correct. More reluctant to laugh at ethnic differences in society. Comedy in the States is more linear. You have to tread more carefully in London. Class is the dividing line there.

The final difference is heckling. In the main, US comedy clubs are civilized places, complete with waitress service. In London, they are often small rooms above noisy pubs. Stand-up in London is a rougher fare. The audience heckles and expects the comedian to be able to put a heckler down. It’s part of how they judge him. If you heckle in New York, you’ll soon find a rather large man dressed in black standing behind you.
Travel broadens the mind. It also strengthens your comedy. Let’s get more British comics here and more American comics in London. After all, if we can defeat Nazism and Communism together, can’t we laugh together more often too?

David Baker is a British comedian based in New York. Visit dbcomedy.com.

Points for trying

written by Ophira Eisenberg

BEFORE FACEBOOK reared its ugly, little thumbnail-sized head into my life, it was my policy to not keep in touch with anyone from my past. Some people fall in love with the city they grew up in. Others wince every time it’s mentioned. I was the latter and wanted to put a tight lid on my past.

For example, I ignored all invites to high school reunions or alumni events. Intellectually, I claimed it was because I was above the whole let’s-see-how-fat-you’ve-become high school garbage, but the truth was, I was clinging to this fantasy that someday I would return as a huge success.

When I started out in stand-up comedy I refused to perform in my hometown, Calgary, Alberta, because I didn’t want anyone to see me while I was developing. I vowed, like every delusional artist, to only return to play Calgary when I was a fortified star.

Then, ten years passed.

During that time a lot of good things happened for both Calgary and me. Calgary’s economy boomed and everyone living there became instantly uber-rich. I shot a few comedy television appearances, acted in a couple of independent movies, and got some road chops. Calgary was ranked the number one place to live by a slew of publications. I was ranked number five in a comedy club contest. The closest I came to feeling like a celebrity was when an ex-boyfriend’s wife cyber-stalked me and wrote about me on her blog. I’d never met this woman but somehow while housebound and breast-feeding her first baby, she caught a couple of my meager television appearances. Then, while running on the treadmill to work off that baby weight, she flipped through a copy of US Magazine and saw my little face beside some Fashion Police comments. She documented this, and the fact that she thought I had a unique ability to wear red lipstick, on her blog and then emailed me. This in turn resulted in an apologetic email from my ex-boyfriend, followed by one from his mother who’d recently switched careers to become of all things – a comedy manager in Calgary.

She suggested I come home and perform on a special night of female comedy with a couple of her clients. I could invite my entire family and all my old friends and it would be, of course, amazing.

I read her email after enjoying a particularly good sandwich and was enjoying an inflated feeling of peace. So, I spontaneously called her up and agreed to set a show date.

Two weeks before the show, the gravity of performing in front of my entire family hit me. I wouldn’t call them unsupportive, but they’ve become accustomed to my choices rather than endorse them. Few of them have ever seen me perform and, much like the army, the general policy about my career has been Don’t ask, don’t tell. Plus, they think they’re hilarious. You know what funny people hate? People who think they are funnier than them.

Independently, but at the same time, I signed up for a Facebook account and was suddenly inundated with dozens of requests. I didn’t want to open that door and let the past rush in, but felt it was overly harsh to outright reject them. So, I just let them hang there idle in Facebook purgatory. It was the ultimate example of passive-aggressive-avoidance behavior.

A week before the show, the mom-turned-manager called to report that ticket sales were bad and she was considering canceling. I digested the news and knew what I needed to do. I logged on to Facebook and befriended every last person I could find from my past and sent them personal notes and invites to the show. Miraculously, they showered me with delighted responses full of exclamation marks and smiley faces. Everyone wanted to come to the show. This confirmed that their lives were incredible. They were probably all rich, successful, with nothing to feel ashamed about or hide. Only I felt weighed down by my inadequacies and failures, wishing I could just fade away.

Now I had to look good in front of my family AND all my childhood friends. Studying my calendar, I tried to figure out if I could get a facial, lose ten pounds, change my hair, become famous, and write a new act within the span of a week. Then reality sunk in. I could only get the facial.
And then the lights went up. There I was on a stage and staring back at me was my entire past: family, friends, and even two ex-boyfriends. It was more than going to a reunion or even being at your own wedding. It was like being alive at your own funeral.

The fight or flight response hit me but I knew that running off of the stage would only be more embarrassing. I looked at their shiny faces and thought, “Fuck you people. Go ahead – judge me. You paid your twenty dollars at the door and here I am, standing on stage, alone. So go fuck yourselves.”

I’d love to report that the show was amazing, that I blew the roof of the joint, became a local hero. Or that it was a complete disaster and I made such a colossal fool of myself, that the story would live on forever. But the truth is that it went … okay. Some jokes worked, others didn’t. A couple were met with shock and confusion. A couple got real huge hearty laughs. At the end of the day it was just another show.

My family disappeared immediately following the performance, which worried me, but I’d have to deal with that later. The next task at hand was the much-dreaded post-show meet-and-greet with the gaggle of girls from high school. They looked great – exactly the same except their blonde hair had faded and replaced with brassy dye jobs. But they were gracious and we engaged in that bullshit ten second catch up as I laughed continuously at every word they said to hide my intense insecurity and awkwardness. I shook their hands and remembered that regardless of what they really thought of the show, I could enjoy one minor victory: I had their money.

Next, two elementary school friends approached and invited me out for drinks. It was clear I had no other pressing engagements and couldn’t find an excuse to say no. Valerie was the valedictorian in both junior high and high school, and Deborah was the first girl in the sixth grade to get boobs. I’d always felt like a loser around them.

We sat down at a strip mall bar and they asked for a summary of my life. I sheepishly rolled through the bullet points: “I live in New York. I’m a stand-up comic. I just got married to this guy. I’m trying really hard. And that’s it.” Then I braced myself, ready to feel inferior and said, “How about you guys?”

Valerie, with her black streaked hair that made me question the entire colorist community in Calgary, started her story by saying, “Well, in short: two divorces, two kids, one restraining order!” She was managing a successful gift basket company while doing her best to raise two kids alone and deal with a couple of undesirable exes. Deborah reminded me that she never finished high school because she was pregnant. I had completely forgotten. She lived in her parent’s old house, now with her teenage son, and had just secured a new job at a catering company.

I was stunned. Here I thought I was about to fight a pack of Rottweilers with jewel-encrusted collars, and it turned out I was up against, well, just myself. They were trying. I was trying. And for all of us it was going … okay. We deserved points.
So with the money I took from them for my show, I picked up our bar tab.

Ophira Eisenberg is a comedian from Canada who lives in New York.
Visit her online at OphiraEisenberg.com.

Julian McCullough

written by Ken Carlson











“I FEEL MORE HUMAN UP THERE,” says comedian Julian McCullough, referring to the change in his stage presence after getting through a difficult part of his life. “If I start out [my set] positive, I do a lot of thinking out loud, especially on the road, and I don’t lose a lot of laughs over it. Once you do comedy for a while, you can just talk to keep a crowd. You don’t need to do jokes. You might go out on a tangent for five minutes, then go back to your material because you don’t know what else to say. That leads to something else. If your material is lighter you can take it and go somewhere dark, if that’s where you are in that moment. You can be real with them. At least they’re engaged because they liked you first, that you’re not just up there spitting bile.”

“Julian,” says comedian Rory Scovel, “is a great mix of someone who has great material but also knows how to play in the moment off of what the crowd is giving him – not necessarily dealing with hecklers – just feeling the vibe of the room and working with it or changing it.”

sets in New York at Caroline’s and The Comedy Cellar. The self-professed “single dude with a cat” had just returned from Edmonton and about to head out to Columbus. It’s life out of a suitcase; a great way to see the world at times, lonely and draining at others.

“I’m usually out there for five days, Wednesday through Sunday,” says McCullough in describing his typical road trip. “Zanie’s in Chicago is a really long one, Tuesday through Sunday; that’s nine hours of hearing yourself talk. It can be interesting, but it usually ends up being very isolating. I think comics like to be alone, but it test the limits of how long you can enjoy that.”

Julian’s been doing this for going on nine years. Along the way he’s taken day jobs here and there, moving furniture and the like, but they didn’t take. “Before I ever started doing it,” he recalls, “I was a big fan of it. I love the idea of an unfiltered experience of hearing a guy talk. I remember watching it on TV when I was 10. I didn’t get most of the jokes, but I knew it was the only thing where a guy had some ideas and he could talk about them without interruption. Everything else was full of shit; sitcoms, political people arguing back and forth. As a kid, what is that? I just liked people to talk to me.”

He got a job at a comedy club, The Stress Factory, in New Jersey, while he was in college. After graduating, he stayed on. “I didn’t try to find something else,” he says, “get a job, or earn a living. I was there for six years, but I wasn’t doing comedy until after a year or two. I got to meet every headliner from New York, so they knew me when I came to New York. I thought that was going to be a much bigger help than it was. Everybody [in stand-up] has been great, every headliner is nice, but a lot of young comics think part of the system is that the older comics are going to help you, and you don’t realize they see themselves, at that time, as still struggling. Doug Stanhope tells stories about what people tell you after a show. This one guy came up to him in Texas recently and said, ‘Hey man, I really enjoyed your show. I hope you make it.’ Doug’s name was outside the club on the marquee. ‘I thought I did make it,’ Doug said, ‘What are you talkin’ about?’ I guess it’s all a matter of perception. The familiarity in New York was great to have. I got to watch so much comedy. But my material didn’t come along as fast because I was so focussed on what not to write. I saw so much of what was going on I started to see what a hack is, what original is, what topics are talked about ad nauseam. So when I was writing about jokes, I thought, ‘I can’t write about this or that. It was always on my mind. Before I ever knew what to do, I felt very penned in by what I shouldn’t do.”

McCullough became the house MC on weekends at The Stress Factory, a great way to secure stage time, but it wasn’t conducive to experimenting. “The house MC isn’t supposed to try out new shit for ten minutes then bring up the feature,” he recalls, “It was kind of tough. I could only try an idea out once or twice before throwing it away rather than fostering it. I treated it as - didn’t work? Move on! Didn’t work? Move on! When you’re first starting out, you go up there with an idea that is nowhere near funny. Ten years in, it might be funny. That’s as good as it gets. Louis CK said something great when I was opening for him at Caroline’s. If he thinks something is funny, in the course of his week, but hasn’t tried it on stage, he won’t abandon that idea until it is funny. He’s at a point, where if he thinks it’s funny, it’s because it is. He’s never wrong. I’d like to feel like that someday. Every guys’ fantasy is that’s he’s never wrong. In Louis’ case, he’s right.”

At this point in his career, McCullough is taking stock of what he’s accomplished; headlining with his own Comedy Central Presents special, while looking back at the long line of openers who would change places with him in a minute, and looking ahead to those who fill theaters from another decade in the biz, with the struggle it can be in mind. “I’m in awe of comics who can do this and have kids,” says the still single McCullough. “Even if you’ve made it and have money, it’s crazy to have kids. But guys who are struggling like me that have kids, I have nothing to complain about. I’ve always thought family was something that would happen to me. It’s not going to be like, all right, I can’t wait to have kids with this person. It will just happen and I’ll say - OK, I guess I’m doing this. It’s a gut feeling – fate – that I’ll have a family. I believe in that stuff [fate] pretty heavily. I didn’t know I did consciously for a long time. When you hit 30, (he pauses for a moment - This is a big topic for me to bring up.) I feel like your mind gets narrower as you grow up. ‘I know stuff and you’re not going to challenge what I say or make me change ...’ But my mind opened to the idea of spirituality and God and religion very recently in a way it never has before. It’s been awesome. What I’ve learned about myself is – shit is going to happen to you. The more you fight what’s supposed to happen, that’s where suffering is. If you follow the flow of what’s suppose to happen to you, you’re going to be as happy as you could possibly be. But if you’re clinging to a rock while a current is trying to bring you downstream - ‘I don’t want to go!’ That’s when you get all screwed up. So I do believe in fate.”

NUMBERS SWIRL THROUGH OUR HEADS CONSTANTLY. For a comic, there are numbers on paychecks, in travel schedules and stage time requirements. There are historical dates, holiday dates, birthdays of loved ones. For Julian McCullough, he has one of his own; March 16 of last year, the day he had his last drink.

“I was pretty gung ho about drinking until I stopped,” says McCullough about the day he realized he hit bottom, “Some people’s bottom are a moment; hitting a tree or whatever variety of tragedy happens. Mine was about a month or two, it’s hard to explain. I thought I was having fun for long time. For a long time I was, then I only thought I was having fun. The last two months, I was really going at it. I also had serious coke problem, which is much worse. It’s funny when drunks talk about their story - when someone mentions cocaine, you know the story’s almost over. Nobody does cocaine very long without saying, ‘I can’t do this very much longer’. If you have an addictive personality and you get into cocaine, that shit brings you down fast. A lot of people do it once in a while for fun. But your body can’t handle it all the time. It just can’t.”

“My body was giving out,” recalls McCullough, “I couldn’t believe how I felt all the time. I felt so alienated from the human race. I couldn’t connect with anybody – and that’s what I do, it’s what I’ve done since I was an child. I want to get to know you and for you to get to know me. Comedy is another way to do that and when you feel like you can’t explain yourself to anybody or connect to anybody, it’s like a second form of death.”

“Physically, I had a coke cough, says McCullough, “I don’t know how many people know what that is. It’s a constant (he makes the sound, a deep, rich guttural hack); all the time. I couldn’t laugh or else I would cough like that. It screws up your lungs, I guess. I was so delusional, that I thought I just had a cough ... but there is no such thing as having a cough for nine months. When I think of all the girls who had to lay there and listen to me cough like that. Who knows what they were thinking?”

At his worst, McCullough was constantly waking up in the middle of the night with a racing heart (middle of the night could be 9 am since he was up ‘til 6) for what he now knows was a panic attack. He would eat a gross amount of food so he could feel heavy and sick just to quiet his brain enough to go back to sleep. He was showing up at shows at 8 pm with flop sweat from just waking up. Once when running late for show at Caroline’s, the 31-year old had to run a block from the subway and almost passed out.

“It just got so bad,” McCullough continues, “What’s weird is you blame it on so many other things while you’re using. It’s this or that what’s making you unhappy. You never focus on what’s happening to you. You can’t admit it’s the drinking or the drugs. Once you do, it’s like being diagnosed with something that’s so obvious. It’s a separateness you feel with addiction. You just don’t feel part of the world anymore. Some people can live like that for a long time; you see them in bus stations.”

THIS RECENT EPISODE OF HIS LIFE has become a significant part of McCullough’s act. It’s addressed with the simplicity and stripped down depth of an accomplished acoustic act. His delivery is lighter now, a reflection of the new direction in his life. “When I was drinking,” McCullough in describing his act, “I was very cutting. I was cynical about life and my jokes were very cynical. My victims in my jokes, every joke has them, even friendly ones; mine were other people. Now my victim is me, which is what it should be in comedy. I talk about drugs a lot because that’s what I think about. It’s been a conscious thing that I’ve lightened up my act a lot. If you’re not going to offer some sort of hope or solutions to the problems in your stand-up, then why bring them up? We all know life sucks, that’s why we’re here (in a comedy club) – to not think about it!”

It’s a good-sized crowd waiting in line outside the Housing Works Book Store and Coffee Shop. Housing Works is a popular outpost for some of the last remaining book readers in the city. It’s located on Crosby Street, a shadowy cobble stone side street with dips and curves that have grown out from time and over use. As the courteous and eclectics wait for the doors to open, a shiny silver BMW roadster peels up the street causing alarmed pedestrians hop out of the way in alarm. As it roars past the shop, the low riding auto bottoms out badly in the wavy cobble stones. The driver, a slight newly bearded metropolitan, pulls over and swears incessantly while inspecting the damage. Yes, sometimes, it’s the little things in life.

Housing Works is an organization developed to raise money to help those suffering with AIDS. That serious mission can, on occasion, seep into the tone of a show. “I love that show [Housing Works],” says McCullough, “So many comics want to do that show, and so many don’t do well there. It’s such a strange crowd. It’s no one’s fault. If you’re comfortable with not getting a lot of laughs, you’ll realize they’re enjoying it, they’re just not effusive. They’re the opposite of black church. On the wall there’s a sign that says Fighting AIDS with Books! You can’t have a more serious sign. One time I had to tell the crowd, ‘You know we’re not fighting AIDS right now! Just chill out, everybody. Technically they’re closed.”

“Julian has the ability,” adds comedian Sean O’Connor, “to look at things in both an analytical way as well as a silly way. Which allows his comedy to actually be about something while appealing to the absurdity.”

“When I started doing the downtown rooms,” says McCullough, “that promoted an atmosphere of experimentation. Those places have no tolerance for tricks. They want it to be real; a semblance of organic. I learned to do comedy in Jersey, where you do your joke and make it kill. That’s not what they’re interested in. They want to see what you’re doing. Learning how to be comfortable in those rooms was awesome. You tell the version of the joke that tells how you thought of it. If you have a complete joke that’s polished, don’t tell it that way. I tell the story of how I came up with that joke. Once you do that, it’s a piece of cake and you crush. Plus, when you revisit it. That moment when you find out why it’s funny, all these new lines, all these new things you left out. I write on stage mostly. Mostly in those rooms where they want that.”

“I never thought the simplicity of getting better at this would make me happier,” McCullough explains, “cause I always thought it was a much bigger problem. As it turns out, I’m not that complicated. I’ve been miserable for a long time because I just wasn’t making it. But there’s a level of neuroticism, narcissism, which is an obstacle to happiness necessary to comics if they’re going to be funny. Comics question everything, even good things. It’s hard for us to enjoy something in the moment. We’re always a little detached and commenting. Happiness is when you’re watching your son or daughter’s being born; you’re blown away, 100 percent present. This thing is bigger than you. A lot of comics have a hard time being present. I think they have a hard time believing in anything bigger than themselves. We’re so narcissistic, it’s hard for us to be in awe of anything else. I was able to do it [abuse alcohol and drugs] for so long because I was a good drunk. I never slurred my words or repeated myself. I never got into fights. I didn’t give a shit about myself. I would go home with who ever all the time. I would do anything to distract myself from being alone with myself. Couldn’t stop and reflect on what I was doing. I was constantly drinking, getting higher. That means for a lot of the time, it was fun. Once you quit drinking everybody has questions about it, because a lot of them think it’s time they did too. I have to say, ‘No, you’ll know when it’s time to stop.”

For more on Julian, visit his website, julianmccullough.com.