Before His Residency In Fort Worth, Baron Vaughn Talks The Benefits of Escaping the Comedy Club.
Welcome to Humor Us, a new column in which local comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Baron Vaughn’s schedule doesn’t offer much margin for error. He didn’t arrive in Fort Worth until yesterday — the very same day he started his week-long residency at Amphibian Stage Productions.
Sure, “busy” is one of the best problems to have when you work as a performer. But it can make cultivating new ideas harder, and that spells trouble for a comic.
For the rest of this week, you can check out Vaughn’s innovative approach to putting together a new act though his residency at the Amphibian. It’s an opportunity to glimpse how a pro teases and fusses over ideas that have been percolating, and develops them into a cohesive act. (It’s also a chance to catch local standout stand-ups, including past Humor Us subjects Paulos Feerow and Clint Werth, perform in opening capacities.)
The arrangement (get your tickets here) puts Vaughn in an unusually vulnerable position. But when you consider his comedy pedigree — he’s appeared on many top-tier festivals including Just for Laughs and the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, performed on Comedy Central’s The Half Hour and several late-night programs, and is involved in the reboot of the near-sacred Mystery Science Theater 3000 comedy property — it’s hard to think of anyone better suited to this kind of challenge.
With his Fort Worth residency looming, I spoke with Vaughn about his plans for this show, his relationship with Amphibian Stage Productions and the advantages of being unbound to the comedy club system.
I gotta be honest, I’m fascinated by what you’re doing with these shows. Comics do set up residencies at certain venues, but this is a little different. It’s more about developing material.
Right. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Fortunately, having this relationship with the Amphibian Stage was a good fit for that. I’m fascinated and curious as well — because, y’know, it’s a challenge I’m putting to myself to perform every night and write all day, and see how much progress I can actually make in a week. To see how much better jokes are at the end of the week than the beginning. And the fact that it’s a theater instead of a comedy club allows me to be upfront about the looseness of it. And you’re coming to watch, or participate, really, in a process. Because when it comes to stand-up, the audience is your collaborator in your act, because laughter is the feedback. Laughter is the constructive criticism. Even if you think something’s hilarious off the top of your head, you’re not sure it’s going to work in front of an audience. I’ll be able to apply the feedback right away, which wouldn’t normally happen at a club anyways, because I’m usually coming with a pretty solid act before I get there. I would do a couple of months of gigs on the road, and by the end of it things would be really polished, and really solid. So I’m seeing how quickly I can achieve that in a week.
You’re not exactly starting from scratch. You’ve got years of experience to draw on. But, as far as what you’re performing, is there an endpoint in mind where you want to reach a certain level, or is it a more scientific approach of just wanting to see what comes out of it?
I want to see what comes out of it. Obviously, I want things to be pretty solid. There are things that possibly are the first time I’ve said it, but a lot of it is things I’ve written or come up with in the last couple months, I just haven’t had a lot of time to develop them or workshop them. I want to put everything together. Because, also, the thing is, doing an hour is very different than doing 10 minutes. All along Los Angeles, I can do 10-minute sets — as many 10-minute sets as I want. And I take six 10-minute sets, push them together, and that becomes an hour. But it’s not until you do that hour together a few times that there starts to be cohesion to that form. Being able to sustain from the beginning to the end, and take an audience with you. So, that form, doing an hour in itself, fitting everything together, deciding that structure, is its own thing. Which is why I wanted to do this.
You’ve worked in the DFW area previously. I know you had a hand in bringing more comedy to the Amphibian Stage. Can you talk a little more about your experience in DFW?
I met the people who run [The Amphibian] through a college friend. I had come here a few years ago to do stand-up at the Improv in Arlington, and left hating everyone in the world. [Laughs.] Y’know, the comics I worked with were great, but the audiences were tricky. Which is OK, because the Improv, in a way, is the McDonald’s of comedy. Sure, there are a lot of great people who work there and run the place, but it’s in the mall next to the Black Angus. It’s in between the Black Angus and the Old Navy; it’s almost comedy as an afterthought. People come in with very low or incredibly high expectations. Comedy is one of few things that people come in with so much baggage. Everybody has such strong ideas of what they think is and isn’t funny. They couldn’t tell you why; they can just tell you when they’re there. Like, “Nope, don’t like it.” But many people can’t articulate what they think is funny in a successful way. But my friend, Brandon, who I went to college with, was doing a play at the Amphibian — he’s from the area — and he ends up bringing people with him, so he got to see the show, but I also got to see a show at the Amphibian and liked the vibe. I met everyone there, and Kathleen Culebro, the artistic director there, and I started talking, and I said I wanted to do a show there. And after it was a smash, I went back to Los Angeles and told a lot of my friends, who are at about the same level I am, about what was going on there, and how it was a really cool place to go, and to experiment. That there’s a really good group of people out there. And the audience was interesting. It was about half comedy fans, who wouldn’t necessarily ever go to a theater like that, but who chose to go because there’s comedy happening. And then half patrons of the theater who were curious as to, “Why? Why is this theater putting up stand-ups” Isn’t that a base form of crap? I want to go see it now.” So it was an interesting group of people going to the shows.
Can we talk about how theater spaces and venues can open up opportunities for comics who either weren’t happy, or weren’t quite the right fit for clubs? It seems like a good way to make yourself visible without having to rely on an existing system.
Comedy clubs are a business. And so, y’know, I can’t blame them for their business practices, that they’re trying to put butts in seats. Making sure people haven’t only bought tickets but have also bought drinks and food. And make their money — they have a staff to pay, and crew to pay, and rent, and bills. It’s a hard business, but a lot of times because of all that stuff, who’s on stage is the last thing they think about. Essentially, we’re the giant commercial for what they’re really trying to sell, which is booze and food. Sometimes it’s not the most amazing place to kind of stretch out and experiment, because everybody has high expectations for what you’re supposed to do. There’s a standard everybody wants to have happen at the club, which, again, totally understandable. Of course, people can’t agree on what is funny. So some comedians do really well, and some comedians don’t do so well. And I also think when you run a comedy club like that, you kind of create a lot of expectations for audiences. A lot of them aren’t treated that well. From the moment they walk in the door, they’re pushed around, forced to buy things. The structure of a comedy club, in a way, can put audiences in a bad mood before you start. At a theater, you’re in more control over how the people who enter are treated. There’s a lot more comfort for the audience. I think it helps a lot of people enter more relaxed. Of course, there are also people who enter thinking, “Oh, it’s a theater, I can’t make any noise, I have to be quiet.” But I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. It wasn’t before. Everyone there has this feeling of like, “What’s going to happen?” There’s an excitement about it,. whereas at a comedy club there can be more of a “This better be funny!” kind of attitude.
You’ve had a lot of success lately in acting. Does that change your stand-up, or how you approach it?
It changes it in a way that I’m fortunate enough to be able to manufacture a “road,” if you will, in quotation marks. A “road” that suits me. Like, I’m not totally dependent on the income of comedy clubs to get me by. So I can sometimes go to a place, do a small show, start building there, and take a loss. Or if I don’t break even, it’s not going to be the end of me. Which, there have been times in my career where it was, like, “Oh man, it’s gonna cost all this money to get there, and then I’m not gonna break even. I’m not gonna have rent.” That sort of thing. So fortunately, with the other work that I’m doing, I’m able to sustain myself without being totally dependent on comedy income, which allows me to approach different markets, if you will, different cities, with a little more strategy. I can go in there, do a small show, find out what’s happening, see who the locals are who are showing up for the show, and build from there. It takes the pressure off to have to impress everyone at this comedy club, and hope that they’re going to invite me back and that audiences aren’t complaining about me, etc. etc. I make it sound like a horror show — it isn’t, not all the time. It’s just an environment that’s not the most helpful to coming up with material. Some comedians thrive in that; they need to have all that stuff to make it work for them. And there are a lot of comedy clubs that are great, that keep you very honest with what you’re doing on stage and treat their audiences really well. So I don’t want to say that about all comedy clubs.
As a comic, you see your peers do open mics and cultivate and cultivate, but that’s not something that non-comics see. What kind of experience would you want people to have with this residency?
I hope that people… I mean, I want people to laugh and have a good time, but I want people to experience some silliness. What I’m gonna talk about, some of the things are going to be very challenging, because I do like to open up some issues, especially about race. I like to open up those things and, quote-unquote, “start a conversation.” You’ll hear people say, “We need to have a conversation about race,” but nobody actually starts the conversation. “We need to have a serious conversation about race!” OK… you wanna start? “What? Not now, I got kids, I gotta go, bye.” I want people to come with an open mind. I want to kind of put ideas in people’s heads that they might not have considered, or things that they need to keep considering. All through the lens of absurdity.
Baron Vaughn performs at Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage Productions through September 3. Head here for tickets and more information.