Tyler Simpson Worries That Dallas’ Comedy Supply Isn’t Meeting The Demand.
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.
Tyler Simpson likes to stay immersed in comedy. He works actively on his stand-up, while also being a fixture in Dallas’s improv scene. Oh, and he does sketch comedy — live and filmed. Plus, uh, puppets. He works with puppets now, too.
As a stand-up, he’s long stood out for his tendency to eschew planned material, preferring to conjure fantastic conceits in the moments before taking the stage (or even after he’s already taken the microphone). As a social media persona, this toss-off attitude sometimes puts him in some weird situations — as, full disclosure, he once detailed in an essay for this very site.
Maybe that’s why he’s lately been focused on developing his written work onstage, which these days can veer nimbly from wonderfully silly one-liners to engaging (and sometimes cringeworthy) personal accounts.
Simpson will be part of Literal Cats, a new stand-up showcase at RBC in Deep Ellum that kicks off on August 31. In advance of that show, I spoke with him about his variety of comedy pursuits, how his stand-up has changed over the years and his perspective on Dallas’ comedy scene.
So, I’m finally in a situation to ask you this: What’s up with the puppet improv you’ve been doing?
[Laughs.] The puppet improv is something I’m very proud of that also sounds — to normal people — like the worst thing you could ever see onstage. But it’s actually my favorite thing to be a part of. My buddy, Daniel Mathews, is a puppeteer. That’s his trade. He does stuff for Chuck E. Cheese. That’s the only reason this happened. I would think this is lame, too, if you’d asked me three years ago, “Hey, do you want to join a puppet improv troupe?” I would say, “Fuck, no. That sounds insane.” But it all happened by chance, because I was hosting a block party where Daniel and another improviser, Nick Scott, were doing a two-man puppet-prov… thing. Daniel asked me to be the arm of one of the bigger puppets. I didn’t have to do anything but be the arm, but being the arm for that little 10-minute run was some of the most fun I’ve had doing improv. I had to act as this weird brown monstrosity’s right arm, and just thinking about it that way, and acting with Daniel as he was talking, it was a great way to create comedy. We have these really dumb puppets. One of my favorites — the one I actually get to practice with — is just this little blue [puppet]. It’s the tiniest one we have. It’s this little thing with googly eyes and a cowboy hat. Just having this dumb blue blob with a cowboy hat, and having to give him life, and a background story, and living in him for the one or two minutes I am him, it’s weirdly freeing in this weird way. It’s restrictive and freeing at the same time. I can’t just talk like a normal person with these puppets, because it looks lazy. It’s fun doing it, and it’s fun convincing adults that this is good to watch, convincing them that you can be 30 or 40 and still connect with these kids creations — where this little blue guy with a cowboy hat is going through a divorce, or lost all his money gambling. Using these silly puppets to talk about these adult things makes it easier to talk about these things. It’s freeing in its own way.
You’re pretty invested in stand-up, but you’re also involved in sketch and improv. Do those aspects help each other? Do they get in the way?
I’m constantly worried that one arm is withering while I’m working out the other one so much, but I think they all help each other. It’s great because when I don’t feel like one is a good place to talk about something, I can go to the other one. There’s dumb ideas that I wanted to do — like, I wanted to do something about Obama doing improv. I had a note on my phone, “Obama doing improv” for two years, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I wasn’t going to go onstage and do an Obama impression of him doing improv, it just wouldn’t work. And then I got to work on a sketch show, and that was one of the first sketches I pitched, and it went off like gangbusters, and people were like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” I got to have one of my friends do Obama, and it was super fun. Just being able to realize an idea in the way that it should be realized, having all those different forms of comedy, it’s great. But sometimes it does feel like I’m ignoring one. It’s hard to juggle them all and feel like I’m doing them all a service, because I love doing them all equally.
How would you feel if you got a big opportunity for sketch or stand-up, and you know you’re not going to be able to do the other things for like six months?
Fuck it! [Laughs.] Is it paying? Is money coming my way? Because, yeah, I could live with that.
You could live with one arm.
[Laughs.] If they’re paying me good money to cut off the other one, yeah. I mean I would never not do the other ones. I wouldn’t give up stand-up, and I wouldn’t give up improv. I love those things, and they both do different things — they both serve my brain, and give me peace in different ways, and enjoyment in different ways. I could never not do those. Sketch as well. But if one became… I don’t know. I want to be good at everything, but if one thing started benefiting me, that’s hard. Because, yeah, I couldn’t give any of them up. But if one started paying me, I would do that one more for sure.
You’re doing a show at the end of this month at RBC. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
It’s a show at the RBC on the 31st? [Laughs.] Clint [Werth] is putting it on. I guess it’s the first of a monthly show he wants to do there? I think it’s really cool that he asked me, because most of the time I think Clint hates me. [Laughs.] That’s our friendship, it’s back and forth where I think we’re good friends, or I think he hates me.
This is the first show, so there’s really no precedent for it. Does that change how you approach things?
I try to view every show as my first time, because it’s usually my first time in front of [that crowd]. Nobody knows who I am. But with these shows, especially when people ask me to do a grand opening, I want to be as excited as everyone else is. I want to bring that excitement to the stage. Because sometimes you go up there and people treat it like an open mic, where you’re kind of just going through the motion of telling your jokes, you’re not really hearing yourself. Or you’re not really paying attention to the crowd, or treating it special. For these shows, especially to do RBC, which is a great venue, [I want] to treat it like a show. Really fucking knock it out of the park, y’know? Try to mirror the excitement everyone else has, or get them to feel it if they don’t have it. Like, “Hey, this is exciting, it’s new, it’s cool!” You’re getting this awesome comic to put on a monthly show for you. [Clint] knows what he’s doing. It’s like his Twilite shows. I was really bummed when those ended, because those were super fun. I think Clint’s an awesome host. It’s weird seeing this grumpy ball of hair and plaid just walk up to the stage and just says the silliest shit. You don’t expect it. But he clearly cares and puts a lot of effort into stuff. So it’s just trying to give back and pay respect by trying to give the same care in performing.
When I started doing this interview series, it was hard to find people who were doing things in Dallas. People were performing in Arlington, or in Denton. But it feels like it’s shifting. What do you think of the scene around here generally, as far as what opportunities and shows are available?
It’s always been… The problem with Dallas is it’s so spread out. Denton and Fort Worth are considered “DFW,” in that they’re all in that DFW moniker. It’s cool because the variety of places you can perform is insane. But it also sucks ass because you have to drive sometimes an hour and a half to still be performing in DFW. To me, it still feels like there aren’t enough opportunities here, not enough shows. There aren’t enough places for some of the best people to do their work. Hyena’s is really the only place that allows newer people to open. It’s really the only place that has comics from out of town come — that and the Improv. You barely skim the surface of comedy at either of those places. I don’t know what the solution would be for that. I know [Dallas Comedy House] itself is trying to bring in more stand-ups. They had Beth Stelling come in not too long ago – fuck, almost a year ago now, never mind. But I know there is kind of a mandate of getting more outside stand-ups. But it feels like we barely have cool acts from outside Dallas coming in. I can’t think of the last time a comic I really love has actually been here.
At the clubs, or at all?
I guess, yeah, at the clubs. But, even then, I don’t know. I remember seeing Brendan Walsh… that was the last comic I really like who I saw at a club. He did Arlington Improv on a Saturday at, like, 4 in the afternoon? I remember it felt way too early for a comedy show, and everybody else agreed, because there were maybe 20 people in that show. It was crazy, y’know? It was wrong.
Do you think we have an audience to sustain more shows here?
I think there’s a hunger for that. You go to DCH on a Friday at 9, or any of the Saturday shows, and there’s generally a good crowd of people who’ve never been there before. And there’s people who are interested. I think it’s not consistent enough, though. It’s weird. It’s like the snowball seems to dissipate before it ever gets to roll. You get a little inkling, like, “Cool, I think we’re about to start building something!” And it goes away. That’s something that’s been bothering me, especially lately. That’s why I’ve been trying to work on things that I feel like are interesting and consistent. Because I think consistency is a problem. And I’m to blame for that as well. For every good show you can see of me, there are probably just as many bad shows. It’s struggling to find an audience and keep it. Just trying to do whatever can to get people interested. I think there’s a want for it, I think there’s a need. I think the supply is getting better, but it hasn’t met the demand in the way that the demand is there.
When I first met you, you were almost exclusively focusing on crowd work. It seems like lately you’ve been integrating more written material. What’s going on?
Trying to get work! [Laughs.] I’ve had way too many club owners tell me that they like me, but what I do is not allowed for hosting. You can’t host and riff, because that’s for the headliners. They’re the ones who get to work the crowd. That’s sadly where I was most comfortable. When I started, I enjoyed working the crowd because what I wrote was bullshit that I hated to say. Because I didn’t know how to write for myself, and I felt like I was more myself when I was talking and joking with people. It’s a mix of me trying to actually get work as a stand-up, and honestly what my main goal is with stand-up. I always want to be funny, I want to make people laugh, but I want to say interesting things. And it’s hard to do that when you’re just asking a couple how long they’ve been dating. “Hey, how long you been dating? Anyways, let’s talk about why we’re all here.” [Laughs.] It’s a mix of those things. I don’t want to get comfortable, so I want to push myself to try and be the best I can be.
On the subject of writing, you’ve been drawing more from your own background, I’ve noticed. You grew up a Jehovah’s Witness. Did it take time to get comfortable bringing that stuff to the stage?
It’s still hard. It’s hard for me to think of how it’s funny.
Is it a discomfort thing?
Yeah, a little. I feel bad because there are a lot of people I love who still believe that. I’m still contending with the fact that I don’t think it fucked me up, but the longer I’ve been out of it, the more I realize how much it has fucked me up, y’know? [Laughs.] Like how I see the world and stuff. I think being a Jehovah’s Witness gave me a lot of traits that made me a good person. But it’s also given me a lot of traits that I have to combat, and reckon with myself. So it’s just been this weird struggle, being OK with knowing that it was kinda shitty, and honestly just being able to find what’s funny about that, and really pushing myself to find what was funny about that. It’s a little more therapeutic in that way, and I get worried sometimes that that’s more self-serving than it is fun for the audience. I’ve seen a lot of people go up and just talk about their problems, and it just comes off like a one-way therapy session. Also being able to figure out how I would talk about it. Have you ever had that thing where you look at something in your head, and it’s, “I think something’s wrong with this, and I think there’s something funny there, but I don’t know how I would say it.” It’s that abstract view that you just can’t form. Do you ever feel that?
If I can just rattle it around in my brain, get the pieces together, I could say something. I feel like these past few months especially, I’ve been able to form those thoughts better or at least get an inkling of it. It’s turning into this slow drip of like, “OK, I know what I want to say about this now.” It’s still forming, it’s still getting to the meat of it, but it’s starting.
One last question: Are you still getting blow-back from your “Gay for Trump” tweet?
[Laughs.] No. That pretty much died.
You think you can top it before the election?
Man. I don’t know if I’ll be able to top it before I die. That’s the sad part.
Tyler Simpson performs at RBC on Wednesday, August 31. More info on that show here.