Reigning Funniest Comic in Texas Linda Stogner Is Opening Up More Comedy Opportunities in Dallas.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Linda Stogner is the reigning Funniest Comic in Texas — and possibly the hardest working one, too.
She appears on some of the biggest and best comedy shows in the area — including her upcoming shows this weekend with Arsenio Hall at the Arlington Improv. She and comedian Jan Norton also produce the weekly showcases at Backdoor Comedy Club, which help put a spotlight on some of the area’s brightest talents. And that’s all in addition to her Emmy-winning work as a filmmaker with KERA.
Stogner has the charm and the writing craftsmanship to make her onstage flights of fancy reverberate with audiences. She spins comedy gold from her curious personal history, and the idiosyncratic thoughts that dance through her mind.
We talked about the deep pride she takes in having received the title of Funniest Comic in Texas, the way DFW’s comedy scene continues to evolve, and the work she and Norton have put into keeping Backdoor Comedy open to performers looking for opportunities.
You are the most recent winner of Funniest Comic in Texas, which is about to start up again this year. So first question: How did it feel to win Funniest Comic in Texas?
Well, that night was magical. It was really, really, really something. My friend had somehow hoped or prayed or had instinct, and she had brought roses, and she had given me roses. I had tried out before a few times, and I’d get in the finals, but, y’know… But then finally winning was a really special moment. It was really cool. It meant a lot to me. And my kind of comedy’s a little different, I feel like for me that it was an “I did it my way,” kind of thing.
A lot of pretty recognizable people in Texas comedy have gone through and won. Did it change how other comics act around you?
Maybe [for] people who don’t know me. And I think so, a little bit. People forget pretty quick, so unless you’re going around saying, “Hi I’m Linda, I’m the winner,” you know what I mean? People kind of forget.
So you don’t introduce yourself as Linda Stogner, Funniest Comic in Texas?
[Laughs.] A few times, but that’s a private thing. I don’t know that it’s lasting, that people put that label on you forever. And most of us are all friends anyways, so they might tease you about it but it’s not a thing you laud over anybody. Contests are that way — it doesn’t really mean you’re necessarily better than anybody else, it just means that things aligned in your favor so that it worked out. But contests are hard, they’re really hard.
So this year, since you won, you’ll host the finals, correct?
They haven’t said anything officially, but traditionally that’s how it works.
Is that gonna be weird, to just be the host and watch it all from a distance?
I don’t know, since I’ve not done that part yet. I’m not sure how it’ll feel. I think everybody’s excited for the winner, and at that moment, handing it over or announcing it is always a very special moment for whoever it is. I’m not sure about hosting the show, if that’s going to seem odd, but I’ve seen everybody else that’s won before do it, so it seems pretty cool.
What do you think something like Funniest Comic in Texas adds to the scene, for the comics, but also for audiences?
For whatever reason, I think people like contests. Audience members like contests. Contestants, not so much. You get nervous. You worry about all the different things. But I think audiences like them because you see good shows usually, because people are trying to do their best. You see everybody putting forth their A game. There’s just some kind of excitement in the air. I think for audiences in the scene, they’re always kind of intrigued. In terms of, I think it revives it, for all the time that it’s happening, people are kind of excited. Each comic will bring their friends, so it blossoms out into this big arena of people coming to see it.
Let’s talk a little about Backdoor Comedy, the club you co-run. It’s different than Hyena’s and the Improv, where you don’t have a headliner, you do a showcase format. Has it always been a showcase?
Yeah. Jan Norton is the other person running it, she’s a comedian as well. Basically, back in the day, when we started, there weren’t any open mics. There was one. We went up and they said — we did our sets, three minutes — and they said, “We’ll get you back on in about three months.” It was like, well, that’s a long time. So we thought we would just start it. We had no idea [what we were doing]. We just put it out there and learned things as we went along. The showcase format has always been kind of a fun format because you have a variety, and I think people like that. Customers like that there are all kinds of people going up, and all kinds of comedy. It’s a lot of fun to see the differences. And if you happen to not like someone, they’re not up for very long, so it moves right along to someone you will like.
It’s funny, because I did the open mic at Backdoor — it was one of the first places I went to in Dallas, and it felt very much established by that point. It’s weird to hear you talk about this as something like so many of the other DIY shows here where you take a shot in the dark and see what works. It’s weird to think about Backdoor that way.
Oh wow, yeah. It’s had so many stages. When we first started, we were in a place called Repo’s Pizza, and the owner had free pizza for all the comics. And that lasted two weeks. [Laughs.]
I was going to say, I don’t see that working out for him.
No, he was losing money hand over fist. We had a lot of people interested in performing comedy, not all of them comedians, who just came for the pizza. “Yeah, I’m a comedian.” [Laughs.] So that didn’t last. We had the same thing, a whole lineup of all kinds of comedians. We were learning as we went along. We added a wooden stage, we found a better way to do it — we were packed. Once we got off the ground, the word got out really fast. It was back in the heyday of comedy, but we were packed. [The owner of Repo’s] had trouble selling his other business, we were the highlight. I think he had to close down the business. We’ve been in all kinds of places. We’ve been in a sandwich shop, we were in a bowling alley — we were in a bowling alley twice. We were in another pizza place, we were in another place called Vickery Feed Store, which actually burned down. Ashleigh Banfield — she’s on CNN now — but she was a local reporter and did a story on us, and we would pop out of the rubble. It was very odd, because it was sort of heartbreaking for us, because our place had burned down. And she wanted to do a funny story.
So wait, she wanted to make a lighthearted story about your club after you burned down?
I think she was trying to match the comic angle. “Oh they’re funny, they’ll be funny about their club being destroyed.” I don’t know that the concept worked. [Laughs.]
Does that video exist anywhere?
I think so, I think I have it.
I would like to see that someday. [Laughs.]
I should put it online. [Laughs.]
You and Jan have been running Backdoor for a while now, have there been moments where you’ve thought, “I don’t know how I’m pulling this off?”
Oh my gosh, I think we’ve totaled it at eleven places. We were in Deep Ellum a while, we were over in East Dallas, in a sports bar. I think it ended up being eleven places. But no, every time — people don’t realize that reshaping a business so that it’s suitable for comedy is hard. You’ve got to have it intimate, it’s usually a very small space. Sometimes the ceilings were high, so we had to figure that out. We always had to build a stage, we’d try to do a backdrop. The struggle still continues. It’s trying to find people, audiences. Luckily now, we have a brand. We are definitely the little guy in the scene. The little comedy club that could, because we don’t have the funds. We didn’t ever really want to make it into our being entrepreneurs so much, because often, when that happens, people focus less on performing and more on business. And both of us were all about performing. We just wanted a place that gave us the opportunity to have a real crowd, who looks at the comics. Sometimes in bars, you’re background, the comedy’s background. People don’t even turn around and look at you. So we really focus on a place that’s positive and upbeat, the audience actually looks at the stage. They get served, very similar to the models of Hyena’s and the Improv, places that do things really well.
A lot of comics who get to your level, where you’re getting bigger and more interesting gigs, it’s harder for them to get out and do a lot of open mics. But with Backdoor having an open mic, and having a showcase, you probably get to interact with new comics more than most people who’ve enjoyed the success you’ve had.
I get to see a lot of the new guys coming along, and the thing that’s really cool is you get to see people when they first start, like a Dustin Ybarra, who’s out in LA, or a Cristela [Alonzo], who’s out in LA and had her own show, and many more, not just those two. But you can see them start, and as they develop, and as the opportunities happen… I run into a lot of people. Sometimes they don’t know that I’ve necessarily been around, they just think I’m one of their friends. I see a lot of the new guys. But I also go to open mics as a performer, and I see a lot of them there. I like that new, fresh love for [stand-up]. Because as you know, as you get older into comedy, we’re all jaded, and you lose that infatuation. Not totally, because I still love standup so much.
So what’s your typical experience putting together a weekend of shows at Backdoor.
We used to have a lot more comics — we’d have fifteen, and everybody would get five minutes, more or less. But what we’re trying to do now is we have less comics, and we’re trying to give them more time. As you know, if you’ll help us MC [at the open mic] we’ll get you on at the weekend. Weekends are kind of hard to get to, because once you’re part of our team, part of our family, and you want to perform, you’re always there. You always have your spot. People like Paul Varghese and Aaron Aryanpur have always got their spot. Billy McFarland, Sheridi Lester, Thomas Nichols, people who are regulars, if they don’t have gigs, they’ll come out. But the good thing is that we have all levels. On a weekend show you’ll have the main guys staying polished, or trying a new joke. Then you have the middle level comics, who are just starting to get hired at the other clubs. And then you’ll have some people who’ve done really well at the open mics, and they’re ready to branch out into MC’ing. It’s cool because you help people. That sounds corny, but it really is a great feeling that you participated — we as Backdoor, Jan and I — participated in these guys growing. We don’t take credit for it, but we did provide a stage. They did the work. It’s fun to see that, to see them go up the ladder and go off and pursue their dreams. Even if they stay here and pursue their dreams, you see them grow as an artist, and that’s very rewarding.
We talked a little about your set, and your style, and how it’s different than other comics. Has your approach been consistent, or have you changed it up over time?
When I first started, I was more of a character. And some people even think I’m a little bit of a character now, but I’m much more, in my opinion, I’m not [a character], but a lot of people can label you a certain way. That part, I don’t really consider different, but what I’m talking about is the choice of material, and the style in which it’s delivered, in the sense of unusual material, or act-outs, or bugs. The topics are not necessarily familiar.
You started in Dallas, correct?
I know you’ve performed in many different places, but this has been your consistent home. What is your impression of Dallas’s comedy scene?
It shifts. It’s constantly changing. So you see different comics come and go. Right now, the scene is a little different because there are so many pockets. There’s a Denton pocket now, there’s a Deep Ellum pocket, there’s sort of a Hyena’s pocket, there’s a Backdoor pocket. With so many places, people have different home bases, let’s say. So there’s not a lot of crossover. Whereas in the older days, you pretty much had Backdoor, and maybe if Hyena’s or the Improv were doing an open mic. So there were fewer places to go, so everyone originated in similar places. But now it seems like there are different players at different ones. I try to go up at all of them — I haven’t been to Denton yet, but I’ve heard that it’s awesome. I’ve heard it’s really, really good. I’d love to go up there. But I go to Dallas Comedy House, I go to Hyena’s, there’s been years where the Improv had it, here at Backdoor. So I know a lot of the different people, but a lot of the people sort of stick to their home base. I would love for some of the folks who haven’t tried Backdoor to come give it a shot. If anyone’s interested, let me know, we are trying to open it up more, to experiment.
Do you feel like people are losing out by not taking advantage of all the opportunities that are opening up? You talked about starting and having one open mic, versus having enough to where people can specialize. Do you think people aren’t taking enough advantage of how much is available right now?
I’m not really an expert, so I don’t know as much, but I think that if back when I started, if there were this many places to perform comedy, I would try to perform at every one of them. I still try to do that. I’m also a filmmaker at KERA — I have too many hats — so it doesn’t give me a lot of time to go out there. But every experience, you learn something. As many places as you can perform, not only the number, but the different kinds, go for it. Writing and performing, that’s what every successful comedian says you have to do. Write and perform, write and perform. Because you never know when you’re going to have some kind of breakthrough, or, “Oh my goodness, that’s where I need to be.” It just kind of happens when you’re not even ready, and it changes your world.
Let’s address the future a little bit: What advice would you want to give to the next winner of Funniest Comic in Texas?
If you’re not already, probably pursue road work. And not necessarily the Hell Gigs, but legitimate clubs. Because you have this title — I’ve had it for one year, but unofficially it’s been two years since they did it — but you only have it for a certain period of time, so try to maximize it. I can’t prove that it officially helps, but I think it helps with festivals. I recommend festivals, it’s a different experience than what you get at home. They have good and bad, just like all stand-up has good and bad. I would say don’t limit yourself. Do as much as you possibly can. Because when you’re at home, taking a break, there’s someone else filling a spot, where some producer is seeing them. Just do as much as you can. Go showcase in Austin, or Houston, or even go out to California. It’s very hard as a nobody just to walk in, but if you have that title — and I can’t guarantee that it gets you special treatment, but I really believe it helped me — it does prove that you have chops. And Texas is a big state, and this year they’re really opening it up, as opposed to just Texas, other people are invited all over. I’ve done Boston[‘s comedy competition] before, and it’s not just Boston comedians, it’s people from all over the country. I would say that in any way you can utilize the title, go for it.
Cover photo by Mark Woods. Linda Stogner performs with Arsenio Hall this Friday and Saturday at Arlington Improv. For tickets and other info head here