Dalton Pruitt Isn’t Sure Comedy Is An Art Form, But He’s Pretty Sure Comics Should Be More Than Just Glorified T-Shirt Salesmen.
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.
Dalton Pruitt has made impressive strides in his not-quite-three years of stand-up comedy. He’s appeared twice at the East Texas Comedy Festival, and was invited to perform on the last comedy show at Rubber Gloves. I spent a good deal of my time at Oaktopia watching random people stop and gush over his set at the previous evening’s Joketopia, too. I was also on that show, but whatever, I wasn’t jealous or anything.
Pruitt will readily dive into subject matter that can make some audiences – and even other comics – squirm. His onstage daring sometimes causes people to overlook his innate grasp of how to construct a great joke. Practically from the time he started, Pruitt has been able to deftly use language and crack timing to spin great comedy from unique and challenging topics. His combination of fearlessness, dogged integrity and writing acumen make him one of the best and most exciting comics I know.
You can see Pruitt performing with me and others at Lola’s Trailer Park in Fort Worth on Wednesday, November 9.
Here, we talk about his views on comedy as a career, as an art form (or if it’s an art form at all), and the importance of building a stand-up scene where you live.
You just competed in your first Funniest Comic in Texas competition. Can you talk a little about the experience?
It was silly. When it got announced they were doing FCiT this year, I didn’t have high hopes, but I decided I’d compete anyways. So I signed up. It’s weird, because I’ve been doing comedy a little while now, I still get nervous when I go up, but nothing terrible. But when I got to the Addison Improv that night, I felt nervous like I ain’t felt in a while. And then I saw the competition when it actually started, and I was like, “Oh, this feels like another open mic.” [Laughs.] So I saw comedians going up – I was 8th in my round – and by the time I went up I was like, “OK, I think I got this.” And I did my set, and it went really well, I had a really good set. The nature of the competition is people bring people. I only brought two people, I brought my roommates. The winners are usually whoever brings the most people, but this was fine because the winners, Alfred Kainga and Brad LaCour, are funny dudes. They deserved to win. I came in third. I was happy with it. I was happy with the outcome. I had a fun night. It’s just a weird competition.
With third, you’re technically in contention for a wild card spot, right?
Any idea when you’ll know about that?
I have no clue.
As a concept, how do you feel about competitions?
In the digital age, when everybody knows everything about comedy, I don’t really understand it. It’s a creative field, it’s subjective. There are elements that are objective, there’s people who are objectively terrible. But at a certain level it’s subjective. It’s left to the taste of the audience, so I feel like doing a comedy contest, I don’t really understand it. I don’t know why you’d make comedy like a sport, we’re doing this because we’re bad at sports.
I want your perspective on this since you’re younger, and you’re someone who puts a lot of thought into comedy – do comedy clubs feel like a viable thing? As someone who’s intending to be in comedy for a long time, do you see comedy clubs being around for most, or even some, of your pursuit of comedy?
I see clubs being around for sure. You and I, we’ve talked about this at length previously, I think the comedy clubs, with the way a lot of them are run – this is my very amateur, I ain’t been doing it awhile, this is just what I’ve seen – it’s a dated form, a dated way to present comedy. The two-drink minimum, the opener-feature-headliner format, it doesn’t always seem conducive to creativity and to making comedy feel fun. It can make it feel like so much work, and so much heartache. You see headliners who have to sell T-shirts to make their living, and that seems strange to me. That’s kinda the nature of the business. You want to tell jokes, but ultimately you’re a T-shirt salesman.
Is there an alternative? Or are we just tethered to an art form that maybe just doesn’t draw much money?
We need to be careful calling it an art form. [Laughs.] We need to hold the word “art” in higher regard. I think we do this because we love it, and to do it to want to make money, that’s not the best intention to have. But yeah, at a certain point, you want to eat, you want to put food on the table doing comedy. I don’t know how to make that happen, and I don’t know what we’re really doing. We live in a world right now, with social media, it’s all positive affirmations, it’s all, “Chase your dreams and it’ll work out.” Nobody really offers the possibility that, hey, this might not all work out. I think to get into comedy, you gotta get in and understand there may never be money. It may be a dying art form. [Laughs.] I don’t know. Put all your eggs in one basket if you want, that’s kind of what I’m doing right now. But I’m terrified, because I don’t know what’s going on right now.
So what makes you hesitate to call comedy an art form?
It seems fraudulent. It is fraudulent. That’s with any art form, but let’s talk about comedy specifically. What are you doing? You’re talking at people. You’re putting people in a position where you’re saying to them, “I’m so much better at talking than you, that for the next however long I’m up here, maybe four minutes or forty minutes, I get to be the only one talking, because I’m so cool and interesting.” That’s inherently – that’s a fraud. There’s people out there doing cool stuff, tangible work. And we’re just talking about our wing-wongs.
To be fair, audiences typically don’t spend all this time and energy crafting exactly what they’re going to say in that four or forty minutes. There is a writing element to it.
There is. There’s a creative element, there’s a lot of work that goes into it. But it’s a very abstract thing, it’s not tangible. The whole idea of entertainment is very… entertainment only exists because we have the constant awareness of impending doom, and so we need an opener, a feature, and a headliner to give us an hour-and-a-half escape from thinking about our mortality.
It almost sounds like you feel guilty about being involved in creative work versus something – by your words – constructive.
Doesn’t everybody? Doesn’t it seem like – with anybody who’s creative – that the people who’re happy with it, who think they’re doing good work, typically suck?
Doesn’t it seem that way? It feels like you always have to be second-guessing yourself and wondering why you’re doing it, and what’s the purpose of it. Because otherwise you’re just smashing watermelons.
I do want to talk to you about writing. You put a lot of effort into crafting material. When you sit down and write, what do you hope to produce?
Literally anything. I’m not a very disciplined writer when I sit down to write – and I mean the physical act of writing. Comedians call themselves writers, but a lot of that writing is just scribbling some incoherent nonsense on a cocktail napkin. When I sit down to write, and put pen to paper, I want to do my best to organize my thoughts, and come up with some kind of narrative, something I can take to the stage comedically. And very seldom does that happen when I sit down to write. Comedy writing for me, a lot of it is just trying to get comfortable with just going onstage with a loose idea – or nothing – and having the urgency. The audience is there, I have to provide something, I have to make it happen. That’s where a lot of it comes from. I’m in front of the firing squad, and I have to save myself. That’s where a lot of the ideas I get come from.
It’s been brought up a few times, from other comics and audiences, that you aren’t shy about doing material that’s dark, or that’s considered blue. Is that by design?
I don’t know. I think that’s just my sense of humor, and my annoyance with a lot of bullshit I see in comedy. I see a lot of people doing real cookie cutter stuff. Which I guess is fine, maybe. I don’t see enough people just taking chances and having fun onstage, and working through an idea. I guess at open mics you just want to get a laugh. But I enjoy taking something horrific or gross or whatever, and being like, “Here’s this horrible, terrible thing that I’m talking about, how can I present it to this room full of strangers and make it be funny?” I think it’s a fun challenge. It’s not for everybody. There are definitely people out there who can talk about everyday things, just the minutiae of everyday life, that are hilarious. That’s just not for me. I enjoy taking the darkness, if you want to get poetic about it, and spinning it into something funny.
Do you feel like, in terms of what you produce, in terms of what you like to take to the stage, do you think a comic has to read the room? Or do you think you have to read the room?
Oh, you have to read the room. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.
Yeah? Can we talk about it?
Sure. So I guess I’m clever, but there are times I have material that’s just shocking, and I have to learn the hard way that that wasn’t a very good joke. I did the last East Texas Comedy Festival – I don’t want to go into the specifics of the joke, but it’s about seeing someone’s penis, and I don’t want to go into any more detail than that. The bit itself, just starting it, the audience hated me, and because of my defiance, I continued the bit, and they hated me even more. And because I was very angry with them and myself, I ramped up the rest of my set and got progressively darker and darker, and I ended on a joke about Terri Schiavo.
That’s kind of a deep cut.
It’s such an old reference, I don’t know, something about old references, especially old references about tragedy, is just funny to me. That audience was so…they hated me, dude. I’ve had other experiences like that, but that was the most recent. You do have to read a room. You can’t just go up there and do your normal stuff. If it seems like the room ain’t gonna have it, maybe try to figure something out.
Can we talk about the sketch stuff?
You’re working with some other comics to put together a sketch show. Is this the first time you’ve worked on something like this?
Not even through school or anything?
I mean I was in theater in high school, but we kind of just fooled around in there, we didn’t really do anything.
So what can you tell us?
A mutual friend of ours, Tyler Simpson, asked me to start writing sketches with him and a group of other people. I’d never done it before so I said yeah, that sounds exciting. We all met one day, we all pitched ideas and stuff. It was my first experience being in a writers’ room situation. I picked the pitches I liked of everything we came up with, and started writing scripts. I’d never written scripts before. My reference point for scripts is plays I’ve read, so my scripts look like plays, and not like scripts on script-writing software. So I don’t have a good idea of what I’m doing in that regard, but it is fun to work out that element of creativity, writing stuff for other people to perform, and having to create a narrative. When you write scripts or prose, or whatever you do, you have to craft an actual narrative. That’s fun. It’s very difficult. To do stand-up is terrifying because you’re bringing yourself onstage and talking, and putting yourself at the mercy of the audience, but to bring a script you wrote, and to have that scrutinized by everybody, that’s also another level of anxiety. It’s a strange feeling.
Is this something you’d like to keep pursuing?
Oh yeah. I think in comedy, if you just pick one form of it to do, you’re not going to go very far. Which kind of sucks, because I really love doing stand-up, and I’d love for that to be the only thing I have to do, but that’s just not the way it works. You have to dip your hand in a few pies and branch out, get outside your comfort zone. So I’m hoping to fall in love with it more, and to get better at it, and to get better at other avenues of comedy and creativity in general.
You’ll hit three years of comedy in January, right? Do you feel like your approach to the business side of comedy is starting to change?
Oh no, I despise the business side of it. I wish I didn’t have to deal with it. Unfortunately, if I want to do it for a living, I do. But yeah, the business side of it sucks. I’m not good at it. I’m not good at networking. I don’t know how to rub elbows. I don’t want to, really. I don’t want to create business cards, I don’t want to create a fan page, I don’t want to tell people to follow me on Twitter, but that’s the way it is right now. But as of right now, no, I am punk rock – just let me do my thing. I don’t want to deal with the business side of it, but at a certain point I’m gonna have to.
What do you think of the Dallas comedy scene?
It could use some work.
I mean, yeah. Look at it – you’ve got…how many clubs are there? Four or five?
Five to seven depending on your definition, I think.
There’s not that many clubs, there’s not that many open mics, and what open mics there are only exist to sell cocktails — which, that could be said for any open mic, obviously. It’s very difficult to find places to work on getting good at this. And then beyond that, there’s not enough shows going on. There’s a lot of cool shows happening, and a lot of our friends are putting on these cool DIY shows, but there needs to be more. There needs to be less people clawing for whatever spots at a club, and more of all of us working together to do really cool work, and put on cool shows at other venues. I feel like that’s what’s going to make it better. The clubs are autonomous. The clubs make plenty of money, and they don’t really need new talent. So, knowing that, why would you exhaust so much energy trying to get into that part of it, when your talents would be better served working with your friends and putting on a cool show at a pizza restaurant or a bar? Just taking a detour outside the traditional system. I think that’s what Dallas needs more of, and I think we’re getting to that. A lot of us are working towards that. And if you look at other cities, there’s a lot of other cities that suck. I think Dallas is good, it’s easy to get jaded about it, but it’s fine. It’s fun.
With your interest in DIY and building from the ground up, do you feel like you need to go to a New York or an L.A. as much as people would suggest?
I don’t know, I’ve never even been to those cities. That’s the pilgrimage, right? That’s where everybody wants to go. The cup has floweth over, you know? It’s over saturated. It’s too many people, especially now. Show business now is so – what’s the word? – democratized. We live in the age of the internet. You see people on YouTube making a living, they don’t have to go to L.A. or anything. I’m not saying we’re YouTubers. I don’t know if moving to L.A. or New York is the right decision anymore, because the real estate is outrageous, everybody else in those cities are already trying to do what you’re doing – I don’t even know if it’s possible to make friends in those towns. It seems like such a monumental task for very little actual progress. I think you’re better served creating something where you’re already at, something you can be happy and proud of. And I wouldn’t know how to do it, but make a name for yourself where you’re at, and have fun doing it. Maybe at some point go chase show business, but I think a lot of us are chasing this vague idea of success, but I think actual success is having a good time with your friends.
Cover photo by Ravi Kiran.
Dalton Pruitt performs at Lola’s Trailer Park on Wednesday, November 9.