There’s a Lot Standing Between Tyler Elliott and the Stage, But He Doesn’t Let It Stop Him.
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.
One of the first lessons you learn when you start standup is you had no idea how clueless you really are about the medium. It can make the first few months rocky even in the breeziest of circumstances.
Tyler Elliott’s entrance into standup was far from breezy. While most people enter into their local standup scene, Elliott (and fellow comic and friend Brandon Davidson) lived in Tyler, TX when they decided to pursue comedy, which meant there was no standup scene to enter. Their beginning was filled with long road trips, and the struggle to bring a form of entertainment that was almost wholly foreign to their neighbors.
To be fair, that dearth of opportunities became a sort of opportunity in and of itself – they were able to start an open mic, and they quickly parlayed their love of comedy into a local festival, the East Texas Comedy Festival (which celebrated its fifth year just a few months ago). However, they were also at a loss for the resources and seasoned voices most of us can lean on when we try to find out footing as performers.
Elliott’s – and Davidson’s – growth may have faced steep odds, but talent helped push them forward. Elliott’s soft-spoken delivery can sheathe the bite hiding in his bits. He has a knack for assembling original, engaging ideas, and capping them with dynamite punchlines. His work onstage exhibits boundless creativity and a deep understanding of humor – I’m always excited to hear his next new joke.
I talked with Elliott about his start in standup, the explosion of opportunities he’s enjoyed this year, and how he balances his standup and his family life. You can see Elliott perform in the semifinals of the Funniest Comic in Texas competition at the Addison Improv on November 19.
You started not technically in Dallas – you were in Tyler, TX, right?
That’s right. It’s about 90 miles east.
So what was it like starting in a smaller area?
We went to open mics maybe once every two or three months. So not a lot of experience.
So you would travel to Dallas to do comedy?
Yeah. Well, we tried to do an open mic twice in Tyler. Our friends and family came the first time. And then the second time, we didn’t have an amp. So just talked into a microphone to even less family and friends. They were already tired of the four minutes of knock-knock jokes.
How many performers would you get at those mics?
The first one was me and Brandon Davidson, who’s also from the Tyler area and started at the same time. There were maybe six people on the show, it was people saying, “I’ll try it.” Basically we were all trying. And we [Elliott and Davidson] were the only ones to keep trying it.
How long had you been doing comedy before you started going out to Dallas to perform at open mics?
Pretty immediate. We did two open mics in Dallas. We started at Hyena’s [Comedy Club] in Dallas Wednesday nights. Went one Wednesday, didn’t go up because our ride…he had to get home to go to work the next day. We [Elliott and Davidson] drove the next time, and we went up at…probably 2 in the morning to Patricia Sweeney [Sweeney oversaw the weekly open mic at this time] and Adrian [Lara], he was the host of our block of comics, and there were two people there. I did horrible jokes – I think I still have the audio, it’s garbage. And then we took two months off – the standard two months you take after your first open mic – until we could both get away from our families and go again. I think it was Dallas Comedy House the second time. Landon Kirksey was the host at the time. I had a joke…basically the punchline was I give myself AIDS, and he repeated it – he got back onstage, “Oh that guy wants to…” he repeated it three times. So that was a pretty good open mic. So he and I went to the guy who managed Legends Hotel and Restaurant and got our open mic. A guy came to the second mic, saw us, and he talk – lied, basically – with us to the manager at Liberty Hall, and we got to put on the East Texas Comedy Festival. It was the Funniest Comic in East Texas. We both submitted and got in – thank God, right under the wire – and so technically it was a pretty full crowd, a theater. People paid like $20 a ticket. And that was like our fifth open mic. I had no idea. Like, I ate at McDonald’s earlier that day and thought, “Oh, that’s a pretty good thought, I’ll try that onstage tonight.”
So it wasn’t a traditional way to start, it was kinda dumb. We kept doing shows there, and we’re lucky it never went as bad as it should have. And then we’d try to go to Dallas at least once a week. That was usually Backdoor. When people would ask, “Where should we do comedy?” people would say Backdoor, Hyena’s, Dallas Comedy House. But they tell you to go to Backdoor because you get your mind set differently, because you can’t cuss. When you call in you get a pep talk, and you get to go up the next week and do and talk for three minutes. We did that once a week, every week. What was the question again?
[Laughs.] We were talking about your start in comedy.
Oh, yeah. That’s how it started.
You kind of got thrust into that position of building a comedy scene when you just started, but it seems like you were able to get some traction. How long has the festival been running now?
This year was the fifth one. It was more shows. The first one was just one show, the competition. We did that a few more times, then moved into a more traditional festival format. There’s a local improv group that has a night. This year was five nights in two different locations. It’s gotten bigger.
Is it weird trying to establish comedy in an area that’s smaller and more conservative?
It can be, because…not so much the conservative, but…I started out trying to be very shock, dark humor, and very much bring my religious issues on the stage. Just not reading an audience. A crowd…some of them have been to Dallas and been to a show, but the most experience a lot of people had is watching a comedy special, and it’s just one person. When they buy a ticket for a headliner, it’s like, “Wait, why is this person here? Where’s the headliner?” They start looking at their watches. They brought Henry Cho for a show, he’s a very clean comedian.
Was that for the festival?
No, it was just a show. Last Christmas he was brought in. But there were people asking in the crowd, “Is he gonna be here? Or are they gonna project him on video?” They couldn’t believe it.
So people thought they were paying to see him show up on video?
They thought you paid for the ticket – it was sold out, there were people from all over who’d never been to comedy – but…yeah. To answer the question. [Laughs.] It’s hard. I’d rather be on a show, have them ask me, and when I get there everything’s done. Just tell me what time I do, and sometimes you get paid for it. It’s very different. It’s very fun when it happens, but the buildup for a show you put together is stressful. And then it’s a relief when it’s over.
You talked about your material being more shock-heavy at the start, can you talk about how your material has changed over time?
When I started, still up to just recently, I tried to be dark and kind of a shock…I really looked up to Anthony Jeselnik. You have these people you look up to and try to emulate that. It would work in bars – it would absolutely work in bars – and absolutely work around people my age, but you get to a show where there’s older people. It’s just not reading the room. I’m doing this, this is what I wrote down on the paper, this is what I’m doing. As you start doing comedy clubs, or you start doing showcases, and these traditional shows, you have to adjust. I feel like I still have some of that where maybe somebody feels bad for laughing at it, that “Oh I feel naughty for laughing at that,” if that makes sense. But it’s definitely not gasping, and me going out of my way to shock. It’s something you learn over time, you learn to adjust your jokes. Some of those jokes are still there, I just cut the horrible thing at the end. Reworked it or softened it.
It seems like you’ve been a lot more active working in Dallas. You started working in Dallas this year, right?
Yeah – March of this year. It was JR Brow for Thursday, Friday night was the Sklar Brothers, because they rotated to all three Hyena’s clubs over that weekend. And Thursday night is traditionally the rough show. It’s the a show, and you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s the free show, people are going to be very excited.” And that was the first time I’d ever performed a weekend show, and it was rough…it went alright. But the next night, it was with people who are famous, to me. Most comedians, when you do shows with people and you tell your coworkers, if it’s not Jeff Foxworthy, Jeff Dunham, or Louis CK even, they don’t know. You have to defend their honor, basically. But yeah, 2016 is where it’s fallen…I’ve gotten really lucky. And there’ll be spaces where it doesn’t, but when it rains, it pours. There’s multiple weekends doing something or getting on a show.
It does seem like just in 2016 you’re working more club dates, traveling more, you advanced in the opening round of Funniest Comic in Texas. Was this your first time competing in the contest?Yeah.
So you’re advancing after your first attempt. How’s that feel?
I feel pretty lucky. The first round, there were fifteen people, and there were tons who I had worked with or wanted to work with. People that have been around longer than I have that I really respected and consider friends. Sheridi Lester, David Jessup – I’ve worked with David a bunch, he’s a great guy to know, to ask questions about comedy. So the two people advance – they announce three people, if someone dies, or there’s a sex scandal or something and they can’t fulfill their duties as semifinalists. I got second place, so I get to move on. That’s what I wanted to do. I feel very lucky – very lucky to get up there and not eat it. And just do material I know that works. Very lucky.
You’ve had a busy year this year. I know you had your first kid a couple of years ago, how did that affect your doing comedy?
I took a break. Obviously. She was born in October 2013, and basically the rest of that year I would say no to stuff. Some of that was out of my control, people wouldn’t ask me to do stuff, so it really worked out for both of us. [Laughs.] But yeah, I definitely feel more guilty leaving the house and going to do stuff. I’m more selective with the stuff I’m asked. I’m lucky enough to be asked to do stuff more often than not. Do I really want to leave Amy – my wife – with the kid overnight? You change. And then you…I started when I was already married. There’s none of this, “Dating’s hard, you guys,” and not only trying to impress a crowd, but trying to impress people. So that’s different, too. Starting as old…thirty’s not super old, but starting when I did gives you a different perspective.
How do you feel like that changes your comedy?
I can talk about them. You get material from that, and you can talk. I talk about my daughter being so big – she was really big, she was almost eleven pounds. It’s a way to brag, you can bring it up. And after the show you can show her pictures of her and it’s not weird. Some people ask, it’s not invasive or anything. It’s just a way to brag about your kid. Being a dad is the best.
You’re around a lot of people who approach comedy with that more lofty aspiration, they talk about grinding and being all in…is it weird to hear people talk that way when you have more going on outside comedy?
More to lose? Yeah. I really can’t #grind as hard as I’d like to #grind. #Grind. Can you write #grind in the article?
Put a hashtag in front of all of it. I can’t submit to these festivals, because I feel guilty paying whatever the fee is, and if you get it, you’re gone. I feel guilty being gone. A lot of my weekends are comedy. Sometimes the only time me and my wife get to go on dates are when she goes on the road with me. Which is nice, because we both have moms who watch our daughter who live near us. But yeah, I’d like to make it something…right now it’s turning into less of a hobby to more of a serious thing, and I don’t think I could ever not do it. I get grumpy. Living so far away, and there’s dry spells…I get grumpy. It’s very obvious that I haven’t talked to strangers. And then you work with…I work at a school, which is fine, but I don’t – anywhere I’ve ever worked, if you can call this [comedy] a job, it’s the only job where I totally relate to all of my coworkers. Some of the open mics it’s about coming to talk to people, like you, or Dalton [Pruitt]. Anybody. So yeah, I can’t go all in. I have to have a job to provide for a family, and provide for myself as well. But I wouldn’t have wanted to start at twenty, it would’ve been a nightmare. Single and twenty. I don’t know how some people do it. I think about when I was that age…yeah.
With everything you work around to do comedy, do you get frustrated hearing people without those kinds of obstacles complain about their issues with comedy?
No. I worry about myself. Everybody’s different. There’s no set how to do this, there’s no…I get frustrated, and it’s from living somewhere else. When I get asked to do a show, I do material every time. I don’t, like, “Bleh…” I think that comes from not doing it a lot. I see that here where someone does so many shows, and they say, “I’m just gonna go up and see what happens.” I think if you show up, show up and do material. The crowd hasn’t seen you, so why not do your best stuff? I think that helped me with getting into Hyena’s. I went to a couple of their mics and just did material that I do on shows, and just…you never know who’s going to see you. I’ve told you this. At Prophet Bar, a bar show, it was great – it wasn’t a huge crowd, but it was full of people I wanted to work with and do open mics with, people who’ve only seen me do three minutes at Backdoor. And I had ten minutes. I know that kick started something. I had people tell me, “I didn’t know you had more than three minutes.” They’ll vouch for you now. If they need to book a show, “Hey, he can do ten minutes, I’ve seen him do it.” But they wouldn’t say that for me if I went up and said, “Eh, there’s six people here, I’ll just do whatever.” That can turn into magic, if you’re comfortable doing that, but I’m not. I stick to the paper. I stick to what I wrote down. I still do that, but I look at the audience now.
What are your thoughts on the Dallas comedy scene?
I like it. It’s the only scene I know. More happening than in the Tyler, TX scene. I can honestly say that, with Tyler, I’m one of the top two comedians in Tyler, TX comedy of all time. I like Dallas. There’s tons of opportunities to do shows, and there’s clubs here – Hyena’s, Improv, and you can do single shows at DCH and Backdoor. And there’s bar shows. If you’re friends with comedians on Facebook, you’re invited to all of these shows…and it’s everywhere, it’s DFW, it’s Denton. It’s everywhere. I like it. It’s the only thing I know. I like the people who’re in it. I like my coworkers. I’m just lucky enough to come over and do stuff. I was in town tonight, just lucky enough to be on a show.
You’ve had a lot happen this year. What’s one thing you really hope happens in 2017, comedy-wise?
Just keep working and getting better. I’m a host now [at the comedy clubs], I’d like to feature. That means doubling your stage time, that’s pretty stressful, but you don’t have to steer a show, you just do your time and get off. So that’s my goal, to be a feature. To do feature-level stuff. I’d like to be the Funniest Comic in Texas. And if I just make the semis that’s fine, but anybody that’s in it would like to do that. I’d just like to get better, and just have the opportunities where people want to see me do standup.
Seems like a good goal to me. Thanks for talking with me.
Yeah man, cheers.
Tyler Elliott performs in the semifinals of the Funniest Comic in Texas competition at the Addison Improv on November 19.