Christian Hughes Is Dallas Comedy's Unconventional Gatekeeper, Even If He Won't Admit It.
Welcome to Humor Us, a new column in which local comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other local comedians about the ol' funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Christian Hughes has a knack for producing comedy that's esoteric, sharply realized and maddeningly clever. He's performed stand-up for roughly five years at this point, and he's earned spots in a number of comedy festivals — including the Devil Cup, the Dallas Comedy Festival, the Big Little Comedy Festival and, later this year, the East Texas Comedy Festival — for his efforts.
More than just a fixture at Dallas Comedy House (DCH), Hughes also co-hosts the Deep Ellum spot's weekly Tuesday open mic with fellow comic Grant Redmond. Through DCH, he's been able to explore comedy outside of stand-up, too. He plays a prominent role in the just-released sketch “Name in Vein,” a collaborative project that came from DCH's Sketch to Screen class.
Hughes is part of a show this Saturday at Mable Peabody's in Denton that features several very talented comics, including… well, including me!
I've known Hughes for well over a year, and I've seen him perform many times in that stretch. With most comics, that kind of familiarity would make it easy to predict what he'll do on stage. But just last week, he managed to do something during the #NOSHOW event at the Texas Theatre that took me totally off guard.
Here, I talk to him about that, among other Dallas comedy-related things.
So, I just saw you at #NOSHOW at the Texas Theater last week, and you did something I hadn't seen before, which, I don't want to give away too many details, but it was sort of a hybrid of stand-up comedy and a performance piece. How often do you do something like that, where you kind of blur the lines between stand-up and something that's more like a sketch?
I feel like it's easier to write for. Even though stand-up is in your voice, it's way easier to write for a character, and I feel like you can get away with more with a character. You can kind of put on the visage of another person and be able to channel things you think are funny through that character. It's way more freeing on stage. I know that's kind of contradictory to what a lot of people think stand-up is, because for a lot of people, getting up onstage and doing stand-up is freeing for them, and it offers them a sort of soapbox for them to stand on, but I guess I'm a little more protective of myself onstage, so it's kind of nice to shed that armor and channel ideas through a character.
You've definitely done more performance-type work recently. You've had a couple of videos come out, including one that was just released, “Name in Vein.” You were also in a sketch that was released a few months ago, “The Problem with Group Texts.” What can you tell us about these projects?
“Name in Vein” was part of our Sketch for Screen class at DCH. It's been a blast. It's kind of a big, collaborative effort where everybody writes together; it's a big group-write thing. “Name in Vein' was the product of about six weeks of writing and putting together a shot list. Then we shot and edited it all together with the help of Michael Bruner, who's the assistant teacher in the Sketch for Screen 2, which we're in right now. So yeah, it was a blast. A lot of fun. It's a lot different, writing with a group, because you really have to make sure everybody's ideas are getting brought up. It takes a little more time to build all that stuff together. We're super happy with the final product. We're hoping to have three more sketches come out this term, within this eight-week period. We're finishing up the writing, pretty much everything is shored up, we're punching [the scripts] up now and getting together a shot list, and we'll start shooting next month.
What happens after the class is over? Does this group stick together and keep working?
Hopefully, yeah. We've kind of dwindled down a little bit, just because various people had personal reasons that caused them to leave the class, so now there's just four of us. We're all fairly close and we all write really well together. There's a lot of good chemistry. The idea is once we finish up, we go on to Sketch for Screen 3, and that's going to be [producing] an actual pilot. So we'll write the pilot for whatever we decide the show to be, submit that and make a sizzle reel, and submit that to festivals and see what buzz we get.
What does it take to get into a class like Sketch to Screen?
There's a couple levels that you have to go through. You have to at least have taken the Sketch course at DCH. And, for the Sketch course, you have to have at least completed levels 1-3 of Improv. So [Sketch to Screen] is a little bit more of an advanced course, but it's well worth it. All of the classes are great.
How long have you been involved with DCH?
Heavily involved since 2012. I moved back here from college in 2011, and 2012 is when I started going to the open mic, when I started getting to know Amanda [Austin, the owner of Dallas Comedy House], getting to know Landon [Kirksey] whenever he was hosting the open mic. And then I guess 2013 — or 2014, I can't remember which, but one of those years — was when Grant [Redmond] and I took over for Landon and started running the open mics. I've seen a lot of changes, but it's my favorite place to do comedy in Dallas. Amanda does a really good job cultivating an environment that's really supportive and friendly to a lot of ideas. I think all of the stuff that we put on stage, and now put on screen, is a big reflection of that.
You've been running the DCH Open Mic for a couple of years now. What's that experience been like?
It's fun and it's fulfilling some nights, but some nights it's a pretty big beat down. It's open mic. We've had the opportunity to see a lot of cool people come through, we've had the opportunity to put up a lot of people that need to be seen. But, on the same side, we see a lot of shit. [Laughs.] So there's always that. And I'm usually hosting towards the end of the night, so I usually see the majority of the hard stuff. But that's open mic. When Grant and I started doing open mic comedy, we went to the Hyena's Arlington open mic, which isn't even a thing now, and for an entire summer we were the last ones to go up, every week, and we had a blast doing it. Part of earning your stripes is waiting in a shitty bar for hours to go up and then telling five minutes of dick jokes. But having gone through that gauntlet of doing all of that, a part of me likes the end of the night, when you have people going up for the first time who have no idea what they're doing and trying it out. It's fun to watch. You still have those guys that think they're the funniest person in their friend group and just eat the biggest dick. [Laughs.] And it's like, “Yeah, I knew that was gonna happen.” It's fun, and it's cool, too, because we know, for at least four hours on Tuesday, we get to see some of our favorite people in Dallas, and that's a blast. And we get paid to do it.
Do you feel like people treat you differently when they think you have some kind of power or access in comedy?
Most definitely. It's weird, because I don't feel like I garner any of that. I don't deserve that by any means. I think it's just, because I can put your name just a couple of spots higher on the list, people are like, “Oh, man, I gotta get in good with him!” And it's like, “Whatever, man.” I think it's weird. Especially people starting out that don't really know who's who in Dallas comedy. There's this weird sense of [how] I don't want to seem standoffish to them, but they can be weird and intimidated. Just come up and talk to me! I'm more appreciative of someone who comes up to introduce themselves so I can put a name to a face, as opposed to someone who just emails in, then doesn't show up because we didn't put them in a good spot.
You take some fairly unconventional subjects in your comedy — like the Civil War and Teen Court — and find ways to bring them onstage. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing style?
I guess that's just me. I like a lot of weird stuff, stuff that's not necessarily pop culture-relevant. It's been a while since the Civil War's been pop culture-relevant, not that it's ever really been a “popular” topic. I think it's just very reflective of my pastimes, I love reading about history, military history in particular. I'm always looking for an avenue to express that knowledge base that I have. That's just the easiest way to do it, through stand-up. Plus, I just have weird shit happen to me. Like Teen Court, that was one of the weirdest experiences of my life, having to sit in a room of just some of the worst people, and I just ran a stoplight. Like, “I definitely do not belong here.” I think just taking stuff that puts me out of my comfort zone and being able to channel that onstage is a big part of my stand-up.
Is that always how you've approached it, or has your style changed over time?
I think it's changed over time. It takes a little bit of time to figure out how to do that and kind of get the skill set to put these things into words. It's experience, just getting up and going up. I think it's easy for everybody when they start to sort of go for the low-hanging fruit, or stuff that's probably offensive to most people. It's easy. A lot of people start that way. I started that way. Everybody I started with, we all kind of started that way, just because we all knew we could get a cheap laugh, or groan, or something like that. It takes time to find your voice, and I think I'm still searching for my voice. You just go up enough, and you realize, “Oh, there's a way better way to take this.” And you figure out over time, “I can make this funnier.” When you're reading anything from a historical standpoint or whatever, [I] just try to look out: “There's humor here.” It's just a matter of sifting through that, and making something that's actually relevant and funny.
So we have a show this Saturday at Mable Peabody's [in Denton]. What do you hope to see from a local show like this one?
Like from an advertising standpoint, or a performance standpoint?
Let's go performer first. If you're performing on a show, what do you hope to see from it?
A crowd's always nice, because sometimes that's not the case. Even if there's not a big crowd, I like an involved crowd, one that wants to be there. That's a nice thing about Denton; nine times out of ten the crowds are engaged. They want to be there. They made a choice. I think that's part of Denton and its culture. There's so many independent showcases for music, and for comedy, and for performance art in general that people show up to. [The crowds] are used to this, they're used to a smaller venue and a more intimate feel. They're there because they want to have a good time. It’s way better than putting on a local showcase at a bar where nobody cares about comedy, where you're just kind of ambushing them with jokes. I think that that's primarily it. Even if there's not a big crowd, just having a crowd that's engaged, and supportive. I think that makes it better for crowds and performers.
Going back to the promotion side. Do you think it's easy to make it known that there's a local show happening? Do you think there are good avenues for promotion?
Yes and no. So much depends on who you're getting it out to. For Dallas, shows have struggled — notoriously struggled — for years because we're not really a big performance city. With Austin, you can have performances every night and every bar has a stage. It's a little more work to get the word out here. I feel like you can get enough people through Facebook advertising or tweeting; it just depends on where you are. Denton's a little bit easier just because there are posters that students will walk by and see. But here it's a little bit more of an uphill climb.
So what are your thoughts on the comedy scene in Dallas? Do we have a strong scene?
I think we're strong, and I think we're very undervalued as a scene. I went to New York last year for a comedy festival called Devil Cup, and I was the only person from Dallas there. I think I was the only person from Texas at the competition, which is weird because usually there's a lot of people from Austin or Houston who come up as well. And talking to people [at the event], nobody knew who we were. Nobody knew we had comedy clubs. Which is amazing for an area that has five — well, six, technically. [Note: We have actually have seven, officially, between the three Hyena's clubs, two Improv clubs, Backdoor Comedy Club and DCH.] It was a little shocking to see that, so I think that people don't give us a lot of thought. Austin gets a lot of credit because they have the festivals, and they book a lot of really big people down there. But the scene's growing. There are so many people who sign up for the open mic that we can't put them all on the list, which is a good problem to have, for sure. But it's one of those things where you just have to keep generating content. To quote my old roommate and comedian Chris Darden, “Content is key.” You just have to keep on putting stuff out there. Through groups at DCH, through other independent groups that are putting on sketches and putting up videos and stuff like that, that's just going to put us more on the map, and we're just trying to involve as many people from the scene as possible to build that. All in all, we are definitely growing, but we have a lot potential to make it even bigger.
So as the co-host of DCH's open mic, you get to spend a lot of time with most, if not all, of the new comics who start in DFW. Can I get the Christian Hughes Etiquette Guide for New Comics?
[Laughs.] It takes a lot of courage just to go onstage. I get that. As somebody who suffers from a lot of social anxiety, going in places where you're brand new, I know how intimidating it is just to talk to people. Especially talking to comics, because we're all assholes half the time. But we've all been there. We all started at that level. Just introducing yourself to anybody, whether it's the host or other comics, is probably the best thing you can do, just to get your face time with people, so people get to know you. Because at the end of the day, nine times out of ten at least, you're not going to get booked or put on any showcases if you don't know anybody. It's all a relationship game. Making those relationships early, and getting a little face time is big. I would say that going blue, comedy-wise, is probably not gonna serve you well. A lot of people think, “Oh man, I've got this,” and they go up and tell a bunch of dick and fart jokes, and it immediately turns the audience off. The cleaner you can get, the smarter you can get — and that can serve you so much better than going blue. Some people only want to do blue comedy. There's a market for that, but it's pretty saturated and it takes a long time to break into. Go clean — cursing's fine, I curse onstage — but content-wise, [going clean will] serve you so much better. We see a lot of comedy. We know what topics are well covered or trite. So if you can get a really good take on something that hasn't been covered a lot, then go for that. That's why I do all the weird stuff I do. I like covering topics that haven't really been worked on. So I would just encourage anybody that's thinking about it to approach it from an innovative standpoint, as opposed to, “I saw another guy try this, I think I can do the same thing, and talk about the same stuff.” And also, just don't be an asshole. [Laughs.] That's probably the biggest thing. And don't be weird. We get a lot of weird assholes. It's unfortunate, but it's a pretty common theme at open mics. [Laughs.] That's the big three: Be as original as possible, talk to people and don't be an asshole.