Bring on the Lovers, Liars, and Clowns

If it hasn’t been established thoroughly already, I am a nerd. It’s a badge I wear proudly, although that wasn’t always the case. Being a nerd is cool these days, and I couldn’t be happier about it, because it’s allowed me to learn about many things I never would have known about before. and living in New York — one of the best places on this earth to be a nerd — has only expanded this particular aspect of my life.

My nerdery started very young, with a love of history (I once had a decades-themed birthday party where I assigned each of the attendees a decade from the 20th century and required them to dress in historically accurate costumes…no joke). I think my nerdiness, and probably a lot of people’s nerdiness, is rooted in an obsessive desire to know. When I start to like something, I want to know everything about it. I dive deep into the whole of whatever thing I’m nerding out about in this phase of my life. This means I’m the person in my friend group who can name all the characters, and the actors that play them, on my favorite TV shows, right down to the smallest of background characters (See: Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, The 100, Parks & Rec). When I figure out I like an author, I read everything they’ve written (See: John Green, Sarah Vowell, Jhumpa Lahiri). While some of my obsessions have been passing phases, others have stuck around, becoming foundational parts of my identity: Harry Potter, internet-based community building (I even wrote a thesis on this), spoken word poetry, Kentucky basketball, international soccer (I maintain that being a sports fan is basically just being a giant nerd about your sport of choice), many television fandoms (see list above). And the most recent addition to my repertoire of unabashed enthusiasm? Comedy nerd.

In Obvious Child, Jenny Slate's Donna pursues a career in Brooklyn's comedy scene (via Sydney Morning Herald)
In Obvious Child, Jenny Slate’s Donna pursues a career in Brooklyn’s comedy scene (via Sydney Morning Herald)

Comedy wasn’t something I really thought about a lot growing up. I enjoyed several comedic TV shows and movies, like most humans. But stand-up wasn’t something I’d experienced, I’d never really thought about the nuances of different types of comedy (stand-up, sketch, improv, etc), and I take much notice of different comedic sensibilities or what made me enjoy a particular project. I just knew what I liked, and what I didn’t. Unlike many of my Kentuckian peers, I never really found the whole blue collar, Jeff Foxworthy comedy thing all that funny. A lot of it struck me as more offensive than entertaining. But at the same time, the New York stand-up style that infused reruns of Seinfeld wasn’t really my thing either. I did go through a sketch phase, watching reruns of In Living Color, Saturday Night Live “Best of…” specials, and MadTV. But I didn’t feel the need to delve any further, and that was the true mark of my liking something: wanting to know more.  The closest I came was multiple rewatchings of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (at the time, I chocked this up to the history nerd in me, but as it turns out Monty Python would actually become the foundation of my comedy nerdery).

It wasn’t until college that I figured out where my comedy tastes truly lay: across the pond. I don’t remember how it happened, but at some point in college I got introduced to the great British phenomenon called the panel show. It works like this: Under the guise of a game show, three to eight comedians sit around and riff on current events or some other theme. Points are awarded arbitrarily, and lots of antics and prick jokes ensue. This, I quickly realized, was my comedy home. I went on weekend-long binges of all 13+ series of 8 out of 10 Cats and the like. I got positively giddy when I met a fellow appreciator of QI. And, in an important sign, I didn’t just stop with the shows. When I found particular comedians funny, I looked them up, in search of other things they had done. This led me to things like the Nerdist podcast, which allowed me to delve deep into many comedians’ roots. I developed an interest in not only “the funny” but also the “how they got to the funny.” In short, I was hooked. The nerd was taking over. And moving to New York only fed my fandom.

Would I Lie To You, a panel show hosted by Welsh comedian Rob Brydon
Would I Lie To You, a panel show hosted by Welsh comedian Rob Brydon (via The Mirror)

One of the best things about New York is that everyone, every single type of nerd, can find their niche, their community. With 8.4 million people around, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find at least one other person with the same particular yen as you. And for the comedy nerd, New York is especially rich, with more comedy readily available for consumption than in almost any other city (Los Angeles and possibly Chicago being its fiercest competition). There are late-night show tapings, legendary sketch theaters, more stand-up than you know what to do with, and thousands of open-mic nights for up and comers. And for the Brit comedy nerd like me, New York is particularly awesome, since its status earns it a spot on any comedian’s U.S. tour.

Which brings me to the original inspiration for this post. In what has now become an annual tradition, two friends and I go and see Russell Howard every year, live. Russell (whom I’ve discussed briefly in a previous post) is a regular on many of the panel shows I love. When I met my friend Katie in grad school, one of the foundations of our friendship was a shared appreciation for British comedians, and through her I learned he actually had his own show where he riffed on the ridiculous things that happened in the news. Russell Howard’s Good News (all nine series of which can be found on YouTube — go now) was the perfect mix of stand-up, topical riffing, and sketch. Sometimes high-brow, but more often than not incredibly low-brow, and everything I loved.

This year marked our second annual pilgrimage (with my roomie, Stephanie) to see Russell on American soil, this time perched on rickety temporary seats in the Gramercy Theater. Seeing Russell, or any British comedian, live in America is a different experience than watching the panel shows or stand-up sets recorded at the Apollo in London. A lot of the set ends up being about America, and the British point of view on it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a comedy nerd like myself; thinking about what will or will not play in a certain geographic location is fascinating. At one point in the show, Russell was riffing with an audience member, a teacher, and he asked her what grade she taught. She replied, “High School.” He looked at her, confused, for a moment, until a second audience member helpfully shouted out, “Secondary!” This launched him into a tangent about how an English audience would have totally let him flounder. I love seeing comedians live like this — just the right amount of rehearsed mixed with spontaneous audience interaction — because if you know their material well, you can think about why certain jokes were included and why others weren’t. Thinking about the give and take with an audience is a fascinating part of comedy, and seeing a British comedian in an American setting definitely puts that in perspective.

Russell onstage at The Gramercy Theater.
Russell onstage at The Gramercy Theater.

“Kelsey, Katie, and Steph Go See Russell, 2015” coincided nicely this year with the first writers room meeting for the web series I’m working on — a situational comedy. So right after seeing one of my favorite comedians, I found myself attempting to write comedy of my own. Russell left me brimming with thoughts about audience and geography (how well would New York-based jokes play to a larger audience, and does that matter?), and it was fun and fulfilling and something I don’t feel like I get a lot in this city. The best cure for any bad day is to laugh, and Monday gave that to me. Despite how much I hate it some days, how much it can beat me down, I love this city because it makes me laugh (sometimes via the comedy scene, other times by the sheer ridiculousness of this place). And now, it’s given me the chance make other people laugh. So on the growing list of things I need to do more I’m adding comedy shows, because when I leave it’s not likely to be something I can do on a random Tuesday night, and I need to take advantage of it while I’m here.

This isn’t to say that comedy doesn’t exist back home. But it isn’t readily available there, especially when we’re talking the Brit import variety of which I am so fond. And I doubt I would have dived into the creation of comedy if it weren’t for moving to this place. I think, had I stayed in Kentucky, I would continue to appreciate comedy on the surface level, the that-makes-me-laugh level, but not on the that-joke-was-really-smart-and-I-can-tell-you-why level. Sure, there are some people that wouldn’t want to appreciate the latter, who just want to laugh and forget their troubles for a while. But I am not one of them. I am a nerd — a TV nerd, a Harry Potter nerd, a sports nerd, a nerdfighter, and a comedy nerd. I want to know everything.

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