Ryan Stout is at the Comedy Store this week as part of their Spring Comedy Carnival. Here’s the conversation I had with him after he arrived in Australia:
“I went to see a show the other night,” American comic Ryan Stout tells me. I’m not sure which venue he was in, but it was before his Comedy Store run had started, and he describes it as “a smaller room, really packed” so I’m guessing it might have been the Fringe Bar. Anyway, he says, the audience was “loud and boisterous”, but once the show started, “everybody shut their mouths and paid attention.” Even though the comic on stage appeared, Ryan reckons from his experience, to be trying out new bits, the audience remained engaged, and didn’t try to heckle. “That’s something that doesn’t happen as often in America,” he says. “People have forgotten how to be an audience in the States. I’m really looking forward to performing to people who seem appreciative.”
Please stop hating me
Since he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, my first thought is to ask Ryan why it was comedy and not rock’n’roll that grabbed him at an early age. Because he did start early. And Cleveland has strong claims to being the birthplace of ‘rock’n’roll’, what with DJ Alan Freed allegedly coining the phrase while broadcasting raucous ‘race records’ there, and, more recently, becoming home to the Rock and roll Hall of Fame. But Ryan’s family moved from Cleveland to the west Texas town of El Paso when he was four, “and that’s why it was comedy, and not rock’n’roll,” Ryan tells me. Not because comedy was the far superior option than, say, country – given that ‘El Paso’ is the title and setting of one of the greatest gunfighter ballads recorded by singing cowboy Marty Robbins – rather, because El Paso is predominantly a Latino community. Long before he could even appreciate it, young Ryan had been plunged into the “instant irony of being raised a straight, white male in America, and yet still being a minority”. His was “a frustrating childhood”, he insists, having to explain to people, “I know you think I’m the majority, but in this context, there are a lot more of you than me. Please stop hating me.”
So what choice did Ryan Stout have? Being the ‘fish out of water’ or the ‘innocent abroad’ is a familiar scenario for the production of comedy. Imagine being one all your life, in your own neighbourhood. “I was the target of a lot of the ‘white man hate’,” Ryan says. “Minority people who wanted take out all their frustrations about the world, took it out on me. I was frustrated that I couldn’t communicate to them: ‘I’m eight years old; I’m not the problem. We’re in the playground and this is kick ball. I can’t tell you how I’m harming the world in any way.’” So Ryan did what a lot of people in a similar situation eventually do. He turned to comedy. But he did it a lot earlier, discovering stand-up comedy on television.
“I watched a ton of stand-up on TV when I was 8, 9, 10 years old and was immediately drawn to the idea of these people getting up and discussing their frustrations with the world, and getting instant recognition from crowd. The audience would recognise what they were trying to communicate and respond with laughter. The point was being made, all parties involved knew the point was being made, and so you could move on to the next topic.” Ryan began writing down his favourite jokes and performing them. He cites Larry Miller’s classic ‘five levels of drinking’ that he memorised for his babysitters. “Clearly, I’d never had a drink in my life, but I understood that alcohol makes you goofy and gets you into trouble.”
By the time he was a teenager, Ryan was reading books about stand-up and, instead of compiling his favourite comedians’ gags, had started writing down his own. Unfortunately, despite being a populated city, El Paso had no comedy scene. There was no opportunity for Ryan to try his material out on stage. Not until his seventeenth birthday where, at his high school’s talent show, he performed for the first time.
“It was really positive, mostly because the venue was packed and there was a lot of energy in the room,” he recalls. “When the crowd knows you and they already like you and they’re pulling for you, it’s such an easy situation.” It was certainly much harder, Ryan acknowledges, the first time he got up in front of a room full of complete strangers – which was a year later, having moved to San Francisco, where he could ‘dive in, head-first’.
Comedy community college
“I started doing shows every single night, writing a plethora of material and learning that, despite writing a lot of material prior to getting there, I still wasn’t writing enough.”
The lesson Ryan learnt was to be systematic and dedicated, writing an hour or two every day and getting on stage up to three times a night at different venues.
“Since there was no ‘comedy industry’, per se, in San Francisco, the only concern was becoming better as a comedian,” he says. “Nobody was worried about getting on late night television or booking a sitcom. The only goal was to become a headliner and have an act.” Thus, comedians critiqued each other, letting each other know if what they were doing was similar to what other comics had done. Or if the material was just “old” or “stale”, and hence, not as interesting or as funny as something newer and more original might’ve been. “You appreciate that sort of advice and honesty and you go back to the drawing board and try to get better. San Francisco was a real big learning scene – a comedy university, almost”.
Sounds ideal. Doing three gigs a night every night is almost a luxury. You can’t help but get good, working that hard, surely.
“The problem,” Ryan claims, “is that they tend to be shorter sets – five to ten minutes. Sometimes you might get a 15-minute set. Getting anything longer than 15 minutes is really rare in those first two to three years…”
Yeah, but still! You’re lucky to be doing three gigs a week sometimes, in Australia…
“If you were trying to structure anything longer – which everyone was,” Ryan continues, “you had to get road gigs, and hop in the car and go out to terrible little bars where people may not be willing to sit and politely listen. If you try to do anything thoughtful or heavy, you have to battle drunks to get that across. Or you could take the easy way, and just write dick jokes, and kill at those gigs. Which people did, but they never really advanced as far as the San Franciscan scene went.” Ah… that’s kind of the same here, too.
There is some historic comedy folklore surrounding Ryan’s early career. He lived, for a time, at the so-called ‘Comedy Condominium’, an apartment on 21st Avenue in San Francisco, where Alex Reid (future producer of Malcolm In The Middle) and Dana Gould (future writer of The Simpsons) moved to in 1986, soon joined by Lizz Winstead (future co-creator of The Daily Show).
“The three of them were in this little apartment,” Ryan says. “One of them moved out and they needed someone to take their place, so another comic moved in. And then somebody else moved out; another comic moved in; then somebody else moved out; another comic moved in; somebody else moved out; another comic moved in. Eventually it was just this revolving door of new comics moving in as old comics moved out. We did this to keep the apartment under rent control.”
Ryan joined the household in 2003 and says “the place was absolute utter hell. If you turned one thing on, you had to turn something else off first or it would blow a fuse; some of the windows were so old the San Francisco moisture they had swollen them shut; the one back room didn’t get any air so it was just freezing cold all the time…” Given that people, when moving out, tend to leave stuff behind if not forced to take it with them, Ryan recalls “an entire storage closet of other people’s stuff”, some of it having been there for nearly two decades.
“I was 20 years old when I moved in and it was just the best thing that had ever happened to me,” he says. As there were always comics passing through, crashing on the sofa, he got to hang out with people he’d normally never get the chance to meet. And the comics inspired each other to work harder.
“My buddy John Hoogasian would knock on my door at noon and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this joke?’ and we’d talk about it for a little while and he would leave, I would continue writing out my jokes and I would knock on his door, we’d critique and then we’d go back to work. It was an on-going thing. There was a pressure there to keep up: John’s in his room being prolific writing 50 or 60 jokes, you feel that need to be just as prolific. It was great – probably the best way to be a comic is to just work.”
What there didn’t seem to be a lot of, despite the situation, was resentment of each other’s success. Although, as the household was progressing at the same pace, there was no opportunity for it. “There was general frustration: ‘I’m not getting work at this club, I wonder how I can get in there’. But there was nothing against each other,” Ryan says. Besides which, he and Hoogasian, for example, were at different stages of their respective careers. “He had been doing comedy longer than I had so we weren’t in competition. I recognised him as a peer, but he was a generation above me.”
Thus, there was pride and excitement of each other’s breakthroughs, rather than envy or annoyance. The resentment came, however, when other comics outside the family got to the next level – longer late-night stand-up spots in LA; management; television. “That whole process was foreign to us,” Ryan explains. “It was like, ‘How come this guy gets to go on TV? How come the rest of us don’t get to go on TV? How come comic X gets on TV but comic Y, who has been doing comedy for much longer and is much funnier, isn’t on TV?’”
For Ryan and his comic peers, it was all about ‘funny’; they were yet to learn that for Hollywood, and television in general, ‘look’ and ‘type’ and ‘swagger’ were more important than ‘funny’. “That just baffled all of us,” Ryan admits. “And so we would get resentful about it, but it never came to a head. There was never any falling out of it. There was never any real bad blood that lasted because of those things. It was more the confusion with the world outside of our tiny community.”
Another tiny community that proved beneficial was Boston, a kind of sister-cty, Ryan explains, to San Francisco. It shares a similar relationship to New York as San Francisco does with Los Angeles because of its similar proximity to an important city. It is similarly supportive.
“You can get better at comedy under the radar, without anyone ever knowing about you,” Ryan says. Thus, by the time you’re “discovered”, you might have a good six or seven years of experience and 45 minutes to an hour of material. This suits a comedian far better, than being discovered in LA or New York earlier in their career, when they only have seven minutes of killer material.
“I’ve seen plenty of comics forced to do a 35- or 45-minute set grasping for anything they can possibly talk about, trying to fill time. It’s because the industry is pushing them ahead too quickly. But Boston seems to have the attitude hat you need to work on your jokes and just get better and everything will be okay. I appreciated that a lot while I was out there. I saw a lot of comics who put a lot of energy into their writing and a lot of thought into their performance, and it was some of the best stuff that I’ve seen.”
The Boston Comedy Festival – which is in fact a comedy competition designed to present new talent to the industry – has been running since 2000. Ryan won it in 2005, and despite Boston’s enlightened approach to comedy, he still found it as “weird” as every festival and competition is. “I know that there were people upset that I won that year,” he says, “but you can’t do anything about that.”
Ryan had his own enlightened approach to comedy.
“That was the first competition I’ve gone into where I’ve said, ‘Look, whatever happens, I’m just going to stay really positive and really appreciative of the fact that I’m in a city that I’ve never been in; a city that has a comedic history; and I’m not gonna get sucked up in all of that shit talking that goes on in competitions. I’m just gonna do my set and stay positive and try to make some friends.”
A sensible approach. Far more beneficial, instead of directing negative energy at others, to direct positive energy at yourself.
“Whenever I felt myself being pulled into a conversation about ‘What do you think of that comic? His joke a bout whatever is really stupid’, I’d be like ‘stop, stop, I can’t do this. Let’s talk about it after the competition.’ I tried to stay positive the whole time, and I hate to say this, but it worked.”
And because it worked, Ryan has attempted to maintain a positive attitude, despite being a cynic. But we don’t need to be worried about him, he insists: this attitude so unbecoming a comedian “still hasn’t taken over” his life.
In 2006 Ryan moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where he immediately auditioned for MTV. The first role they gave him was as host of a game show pilot. “They really liked me, and I had fun making it,” he says, “but it was not stand-up. It was TV made to impress 14-year-old girls, a demographic I absolutely have no interest in.”
The pilot “ended up going nowhere” but Ryan was retained for another game show. “They booked me for another thing. And then they booked me for a reality show recap series… MTV just kept using me as a host, which seemed to make sense to me, because early on, other comics would tell me I was a great stand-up host – I had a great instinct for keeping a show moving and keeping the audience involved.”
Keeping the audience involved is the key, according to Ryan. He says it has “driven” his writing, as he “mines out ideas” that people wouldn’t necessarily put together on their own.
“For instance, in self-defence classes in the States, they teach people that you should never yell ‘help!’ when you’re being attacked. Instead you’re supposed to yell ‘fire!’ because most people will come to your aid if there’s a fire, but if you yell ‘help!’ they tend to shy away and not get involved. But I thought, if you’re meant to yell ‘fire!’ if you’re being attacked, what if the guy’s holding a gun? That brings a brand new context to the situation and that always appealed to me: take a clichéd situation people are already aware of and twist it slightly, give it a new context, so that the knowledge we already have is no longer true.”
It’s a clever approach, as is his decision to use more ‘broadcastable’ language. “I always tried very hard not to swear on stage,” he says. “I didn’t use any profanity.” Unfortunately, despite the absence of profanity some of his jokes just won’t make it to television. Ryan has a ‘tendency’ towards being “somewhat controversial”, and networks balk at broadcasting controversy. A recent example is what he calls a “stupid one-liner”, as follows:
“I was devastated when I found out that the tooth fairy wasn’t real. Because that means it was my parents who molested me.”
Ryan couldn’t say that on television because, he was told, they “didn’t want children to hear that there’s no tooth fairy”.
“That kind of logic just baffles me,” Ryan says. “What sort of censorship battles are they playing with there? I can’t win – they have the strangest loopholes that I have to jump through every single time, and I just can’t do it.”
The long and the short of it, according to Ryan, is people don’t quite get what he’s about. They see him as ‘a little too edgy’ without realising he’s the victim of the joke. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, but we’re worried that the whole audience might not recognise that and they’re gonna write us letters.’ ‘But if they’re wrong, why do you care if they write you letters?’ They just don’t want to deal with any criticism.”
Not one to ‘adapt’ jokes to suit different audience’s Ryan’s approach has always been to do his act, “and if the crowd is not into it, just continue to shove it down their throats” while he maintains his position: “I know these jokes are funny, I know that I’m right, and I don’t know how to give you what you want, so I’m just going to keep doing what I do.” And if television isn’t the way forward, the Internet certainly is, with Ryan’s goal now to tape his act as often as possible, uploading the jokes they wouldn’t let him tell on television. Or, he says, jokes that are hit-and-miss:
“There are jokes that will get an applause break,” – the audience bursts into spontaneous applause, they like the joke so much – “five out of ten times I tell it, and get absolutely nothing the other half of the time.” It’s that “inconsistency of comedy” Ryan seeks to address. “The joke is funny; you can see it being funny. I don’t know why it isn’t funny every time, but here’s one of the times when it’s being funny”. The “inconsistent” jokes, and the ones they won’t let him do on television – they’re the jokes Ryan would like to “let live” online.
That’s not to say Ryan Stout hasn’t appeared on television – he debuted on the small screen with Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham in 2007, and his own Comedy Central Presents half hour special was broadcast earlier this year.
Stout out and about
What brought Ryan to Australia was the good rap it gets from American comics back home. “I’d just heard so many great things from people like Eddie Ifft, who comes here often, and Arj Barker who was the top guy in San Francisco when I started there. It’s great to experience what my elders have experienced.”
Ryan claims he only left the United States – for comedy purposes – for the first time a couple of months ago. (That’s not taking into account his appearance at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival, but we get the point.) He had gone to Johannesburg, South Africa, to perform at the Nando’s Comedy Festival there. “I was amazed,” he says. “Every night, 18 hundred people would pile into this theatre and they would sit and they would listen and they would clap. At intermission they would go out and discuss what they’d seen in the first half. Then they would come in and watch the second half. After the second half they would still stand around in groups, talking about what they had experienced.”
Talking to a local comic, Ryan realised why the audiences enjoyed it so thoroughly: there may be two shows taking place of an evening throughout of South Africa. They value the opportunity to see a show. Whereas, Ryan explains, “you can walk out your door in LA and you’ve got ten different options. And because you’ve got ten different options, everything’s free because they’re all trying to compete. So there’s nothing special about it. There’s nothing special about something you can get anywhere.”
According to Ryan, “the proliferation of comedy in the States” – since, if you don’t even bother to go see it live, you can see it on television; you can see it on YouTube; you can follow comedians on Twitter… – “means people take it for granted,” and as a result, “the audiences have an ego after seeing so much comedy. It’s been pumped into their lives, so people are going to think, ‘I know comedy, I’ve seen a lot of it’. Just because you’ve been shown what TV has chosen to show you doesn’t mean you are fluent in the language…”
There you have it, appreciative Aussie audiences: the perfect case to get out and see live comedy, even if you watch it on telly all the time.