Ryan to get to the top
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
Ryan Stout is at the Comedy Store this week as part of their Spring Comedy Carnival. Hereâs the conversation I had with him after he arrived in Australia:
âI went to see a show the other night,â American comic Ryan Stout tells me. Iâm not sure which venue he was in, but it was before his Comedy Store run had started, and he describes it as âa smaller room, really packedâ so Iâm guessing it might have been the Fringe Bar. Anyway, he says, the audience was âloud and boisterousâ, but once the show started, âeverybody shut their mouths and paid attention.â Even though the comic on stage appeared, Ryan reckons from his experience, to be trying out new bits, the audience remained engaged, and didnât try to heckle. âThatâs something that doesnât happen as often in America,â he says. âPeople have forgotten how to be an audience in the States. Iâm really looking forward to performing to people who seem appreciative.â
Please stop hating me
Since he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, my first thought is to ask Ryan why it was comedy and not rockânâroll that grabbed him at an early age. Because he did start early. And Cleveland has strong claims to being the birthplace of ârockânârollâ, what with DJ Alan Freed allegedly coining the phrase while broadcasting raucous ârace recordsâ there, and, more recently, becoming home to the Rock and roll Hall of Fame. But Ryanâs family moved from Cleveland to the west Texas town of El Paso when he was four, âand thatâs why it was comedy, and not rockânâroll,â Ryan tells me. Not because comedy was the far superior option than, say, country â given that âEl Pasoâ is the title and setting of one of the greatest gunfighter ballads recorded by singing cowboy Marty Robbins â rather, because El Paso is predominantly a Latino community. Long before he could even appreciate it, young Ryan had been plunged into the âinstant irony of being raised a straight, white male in America, and yet still being a minorityâ. His was âa frustrating childhoodâ, he insists, having to explain to people, âI know you think Iâm the majority, but in this context, there are a lot more of you than me. Please stop hating me.â
So what choice did Ryan Stout have? Being the âfish out of waterâ or the âinnocent abroadâ is a familiar scenario for the production of comedy. Imagine being one all your life, in your own neighbourhood. âI was the target of a lot of the âwhite man hateâ,â Ryan says. âMinority people who wanted take out all their frustrations about the world, took it out on me. I was frustrated that I couldnât communicate to them: âIâm eight years old; Iâm not the problem. Weâre in the playground and this is kick ball. I canât tell you how Iâm harming the world in any way.ââ 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.
âI 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.â Ryan began writing down his favourite jokes and performing them. He cites Larry Millerâs classic âfive levels of drinkingâ that he memorised for his babysitters. âClearly, Iâd never had a drink in my life, but I understood that alcohol makes you goofy and gets you into trouble.â
By the time he was a teenager, Ryan was reading books about stand-up and, instead of compiling his favourite comediansâ 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 schoolâs talent show, he performed for the first time.
âIt was really positive, mostly because the venue was packed and there was a lot of energy in the room,â he recalls. âWhen the crowd knows you and they already like you and theyâre pulling for you, itâs such an easy situation.â It was certainly much harder, Ryan acknowledges, the first time he got up in front of a room full of complete strangers â which was a year later, having moved to San Francisco, where he could âdive in, head-firstâ.
Comedy community college
âI 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 wasnât writing enough.â
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.
âSince there was no âcomedy industryâ, per se, in San Francisco, the only concern was becoming better as a comedian,â he says. âNobody was worried about getting on late night television or booking a sitcom. The only goal was to become a headliner and have an act.â 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 âoldâ or âstaleâ, and hence, not as interesting or as funny as something newer and more original mightâve been. âYou 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 â a comedy university, almostâ.
Sounds ideal. Doing three gigs a night every night is almost a luxury. You canât help but get good, working that hard, surely.
âThe problem,â Ryan claims, âis that they tend to be shorter sets â 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 yearsâ¦â
Yeah, but still! Youâre lucky to be doing three gigs a week sometimes, in Australiaâ¦
âIf you were trying to structure anything longer â which everyone was,â Ryan continues, âyou 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.â Ahâ¦ thatâs kind of the same here, too.
There is some historic comedy folklore surrounding Ryanâs early career. He lived, for a time, at the so-called âComedy Condominiumâ, 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).
âThe three of them were in this little apartment,â Ryan says. âOne 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.â
Ryan joined the household in 2003 and says âthe 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 didnât get any air so it was just freezing cold all the timeâ¦â Given that people, when moving out, tend to leave stuff behind if not forced to take it with them, Ryan recalls âan entire storage closet of other peopleâs stuffâ, some of it having been there for nearly two decades.
âI was 20 years old when I moved in and it was just the best thing that had ever happened to me,â he says. As there were always comics passing through, crashing on the sofa, he got to hang out with people heâd normally never get the chance to meet. And the comics inspired each other to work harder.
âMy buddy John Hoogasian would knock on my door at noon and say, âHey, what do you think of this joke?â and weâd 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, weâd critique and then weâd go back to work. It was an on-going thing. There was a pressure there to keep up: Johnâs in his room being prolific writing 50 or 60 jokes, you feel that need to be just as prolific. It was great â probably the best way to be a comic is to just work.â
What there didnât seem to be a lot of, despite the situation, was resentment of each otherâs success. Although, as the household was progressing at the same pace, there was no opportunity for it. âThere was general frustration: âIâm not getting work at this club, I wonder how I can get in thereâ. But there was nothing against each other,â Ryan says. Besides which, he and Hoogasian, for example, were at different stages of their respective careers. âHe had been doing comedy longer than I had so we werenât in competition. I recognised him as a peer, but he was a generation above me.â
Thus, there was pride and excitement of each otherâs breakthroughs, rather than envy or annoyance. The resentment came, however, when other comics outside the family got to the next level â longer late-night stand-up spots in LA; management; television. âThat whole process was foreign to us,â Ryan explains. âIt was like, âHow come this guy gets to go on TV? How come the rest of us donât 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, isnât on TV?ââ
For Ryan and his comic peers, it was all about âfunnyâ; they were yet to learn that for Hollywood, and television in general, âlookâ and âtypeâ and âswaggerâ were more important than âfunnyâ. âThat just baffled all of us,â Ryan admits. âAnd 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.â
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.
âYou can get better at comedy under the radar, without anyone ever knowing about you,â Ryan says. Thus, by the time youâre âdiscoveredâ, 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.
âIâve 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. Itâs 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 Iâve seen.â
The Boston Comedy Festival â which is in fact a comedy competition designed to present new talent to the industry â has been running since 2000. Ryan won it in 2005, and despite Bostonâs enlightened approach to comedy, he still found it as âweirdâ as every festival and competition is. âI know that there were people upset that I won that year,â he says, âbut you canât do anything about that.â
Ryan had his own enlightened approach to comedy.
âThat was the first competition Iâve gone into where Iâve said, âLook, whatever happens, Iâm just going to stay really positive and really appreciative of the fact that Iâm in a city that Iâve never been in; a city that has a comedic history; and Iâm not gonna get sucked up in all of that shit talking that goes on in competitions. Iâm just gonna do my set and stay positive and try to make some friends.â
A sensible approach. Far more beneficial, instead of directing negative energy at others, to direct positive energy at yourself.
âWhenever I felt myself being pulled into a conversation about âWhat do you think of that comic? His joke a bout whatever is really stupidâ, Iâd be like âstop, stop, I canât do this. Letâs talk about it after the competition.â I tried to stay positive the whole time, and I hate to say this, but it worked.â
And because it worked, Ryan has attempted to maintain a positive attitude, despite being a cynic. But we donât need to be worried about him, he insists: this attitude so unbecoming a comedian âstill hasnât taken overâ 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. âThey really liked me, and I had fun making it,â he says, âbut it was not stand-up. It was TV made to impress 14-year-old girls, a demographic I absolutely have no interest in.â
The pilot âended up going nowhereâ but Ryan was retained for another game show. âThey booked me for another thing. And then they booked me for a reality show recap seriesâ¦ 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 â I had a great instinct for keeping a show moving and keeping the audience involved.â
Keeping the audience involved is the key, according to Ryan. He says it has âdrivenâ his writing, as he âmines out ideasâ that people wouldnât necessarily put together on their own.
âFor instance, in self-defence classes in the States, they teach people that you should never yell âhelp!â when youâre being attacked. Instead youâre supposed to yell âfire!â because most people will come to your aid if thereâs a fire, but if you yell âhelp!â they tend to shy away and not get involved. But I thought, if youâre meant to yell âfire!â if youâre being attacked, what if the guyâs holding a gun? That brings a brand new context to the situation and that always appealed to me: take a clichÃ©d 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.â
Itâs a clever approach, as is his decision to use more âbroadcastableâ language. âI always tried very hard not to swear on stage,â he says. âI didnât use any profanity.â Unfortunately, despite the absence of profanity some of his jokes just wonât make it to television. Ryan has a âtendencyâ towards being âsomewhat controversialâ, and networks balk at broadcasting controversy. A recent example is what he calls a âstupid one-linerâ, as follows:
âI was devastated when I found out that the tooth fairy wasnât real. Because that means it was my parents who molested me.â
Ryan couldnât say that on television because, he was told, they âdidnât want children to hear that thereâs no tooth fairyâ.
âThat kind of logic just baffles me,â Ryan says. âWhat sort of censorship battles are they playing with there? I canât win â they have the strangest loopholes that I have to jump through every single time, and I just canât do it.â
The long and the short of it, according to Ryan, is people donât quite get what heâs about. They see him as âa little too edgyâ without realising heâs the victim of the joke. âTheyâre like, âYeah, but weâre worried that the whole audience might not recognise that and theyâre gonna write us letters.â âBut if theyâre wrong, why do you care if they write you letters?â They just donât want to deal with any criticism.â
Not one to âadaptâ jokes to suit different audienceâs Ryanâs approach has always been to do his act, âand if the crowd is not into it, just continue to shove it down their throatsâ while he maintains his position: âI know these jokes are funny, I know that Iâm right, and I donât know how to give you what you want, so Iâm just going to keep doing what I do.â And if television isnât the way forward, the Internet certainly is, with Ryanâs goal now to tape his act as often as possible, uploading the jokes they wouldnât let him tell on television. Or, he says, jokes that are hit-and-miss:
âThere are jokes that will get an applause break,â â the audience bursts into spontaneous applause, they like the joke so much â âfive out of ten times I tell it, and get absolutely nothing the other half of the time.â Itâs that âinconsistency of comedyâ Ryan seeks to address. âThe joke is funny; you can see it being funny. I donât know why it isnât funny every time, but hereâs one of the times when itâs being funnyâ. The âinconsistentâ jokes, and the ones they wonât let him do on television â theyâre the jokes Ryan would like to âlet liveâ online.
Thatâs not to say Ryan Stout hasnât appeared on television â he debuted on the small screen with Comedy Centralâs 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. âIâd 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. Itâs great to experience what my elders have experienced.â
Ryan claims he only left the United States â for comedy purposes â for the first time a couple of months ago. (Thatâs not taking into account his appearance at Montrealâs Just For Laughs comedy festival, but we get the point.) He had gone to Johannesburg, South Africa, to perform at the Nandoâs Comedy Festival there. âI was amazed,â he says. âEvery 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 theyâd 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.â
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, âyou can walk out your door in LA and youâve got ten different options. And because youâve got ten different options, everythingâs free because theyâre all trying to compete. So thereâs nothing special about it. Thereâs nothing special about something you can get anywhere.â
According to Ryan, âthe proliferation of comedy in the Statesâ â since, if you donât even bother to go see it live, you can see it on television; you can see it on YouTube; you can follow comedians on Twitterâ¦ â âmeans people take it for granted,â and as a result, âthe audiences have an ego after seeing so much comedy. Itâs been pumped into their lives, so people are going to think, âI know comedy, Iâve seen a lot of itâ. Just because youâve been shown what TV has chosen to show you doesnât mean you are fluent in the languageâ¦â
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.