How Stepping Onto the Wrong Bus Led to Shahyan Jahani Doing, Teaching and Helping Book Comedy In Dallas.
The gap between wanting to do comedy and actually doing comedy can be tough to bridge.
As discussed in the interview below, Shahyan Jahani made the transition thanks to a mix-up at the bus stop that led to him being dropped him off in front of Dallas Comedy House’s original location on Commerce Street. That happy accident led to him finally trying an open mic.
His strong stage presence and writing would lead to quick success, too. Jahani is now one of the teachers of DCH’s stand-up comedy classes, and he helps run the venue’s new weekly Friday night stand-up showcases.
Not a bad way to deal with stepping onto the wrong bus, huh?
Jahani has a natural charisma that’s complemented by his ability to mesh a sharp, deadpan wit with flights of comic imagination that take jokes to unexpected places. He’s fearless enough to reveal the comedy in some of his most ignominious moments, and charming enough to keep the audience on his side as does so.
I talked with Jahani about his role in providing a weekly stand-up show at DCH, his start in Dallas comedy, and how you actually teach something like stand-up.
You recently got involved with booking a series of stand-up shows at DCH. Can we talk some about how that came about?
They’ve started weekly stand-up shows at Dallas Comedy House, and we’ve got them running every Friday at 10. They’re four-hand shows, so we’ll have an opener who does some time, then we’ll put in a guest spot, then a feature and a headliner. They stay within the hour. If they go over, it’s alright, but they’re really fun shows.
I know DCH has done stand-up shows before. What makes this new series different from previous efforts?
The ones that were done before were a lot more sporadic, and they weren’t regular stand-up shows. I think what they were finding was that a lot of times people were coming into Dallas Comedy House and thinking, “Oh, cool, a comedy place! I’ll come check out a show!” And they’d either come to a show, or they’d expect stand-up and they’d see improv and sketch, which is totally great, but I think by and large a lot of people — people who weren’t really in the know as far as different styles — they’d think “comedy” or “comedy house,” and they’d think stand-up. When they don’t see that, they’re kind of confused — not necessarily displeased. But it was clearly in demand. People like to see something they’re familiar with, and stand-up comedy is something people are familiar with in comedy venues. Trying to make it more of a regular show was the goal, and having it be more frequent than a monthly showcase or something like that was kind of the intent that David Allison and the staff at Dallas Comedy House had.
Beyond the consistency, was there anything you guys came to the conclusion on as far as what you’d done previously versus what you wanted to do with this new series?
So, what they’d done previously is, like I said, it was sporadic, monthly shows — not really much to them. But with this one, and with the stand-up program coming through DCH now having two levels of stand-up, they were looking to bring in some new people with some promising talent, and to having some guest spots on weekend shows. Friday night shows at 10 o’clock; it’s a good spot to have when you’re just coming up. Butk also, the hope would be to bring more stand-up presence to Dallas Comedy House, because it’s typically been a very improv- and sketch-heavy venue, and I think they kind of want to establish themselves as multifaceted, not necessarily a one- or two-trick pony.
I have to say, I can see that confusion arising over the name, because “Dallas Comedy House” can carry a comedy club vibe in the name.
People can be confused! Sometimes they’ll come in expecting stand-up and see improv, and [they’ll] see good improv, and think, “Oh, wow, nice. That wasn’t what I expected but I still had fun.” But give the people what they want, so to speak. If people come in expecting to see stand-up, there needs to be a presence of that. Other clubs in the Metroplex, some of them exclusively do stand-up and don’t really dip into other realms of comedy. It’s great that Dallas Comedy House does several different types, but we’re definitely trying to expand the presence of stand-up comedy at DCH.
You also help teach stand-up classes, correct?
Yeah. Myself, Paulos Feerow and Katy Evans, we all teach Levels One or Two. We’re all cross-trained to do all of them. They’ve been great programs, pretty highly sought after. Prior to me coming on to teach, it was taught by Lauren Davis and Paulos Feerow. It was only one class a term sometimes. It would be about half-full — six to seven people. Now we’re filling up at least two Level One classes, and about every other term we’ll fill up a Level Two class. It’s been fun. I’m currently teaching a Level Two class this term. It’s been a great time. It’s nice because Level One is kind of like, “Let’s get acclimated, let’s figure out how to write jokes,” and stuff like that. Level Two is like, “OK, you’ve invested a little money in this and perhaps you’re more serious about this, so let’s try to hit the ground running.” It’s been fun developing material, and making it engaging for people.
So much of stand-up can involve being personal, confessional. How do you approach teaching stand-up when you have to encourage people to start opening up and talking, but in a group setting? When you’re onstage, you’re onstage alone; when you’re in a class, you’re in a group.
It’s a good question: How do you teach someone stand-up? And anyone who I tell I teach stand-up, it’s like, “How the hell do you do that? What’s the approach?” And it’s kind of what you said, it’s kind of forcing people to get personal with themselves. And the approach we take is to say: Listen, all of you have things that are embarrassing, unique, different about you. Whatever you’re comfortable talking about onstage, talk about it. If you’re not comfortable about something, don’t talk about it. It’s not like a high-pressure environment. The class setting is really supportive. You’re right, stand-up is absolutely a lone-wolf type thing, and it’s very hyper-critical. You’re being criticized either with laughter or no laughter by audiences, and at the same time you’re being criticized by comics, who are saying this guy’s good, this guy’s not. We really try to… me personally in the class, I try to boost them up as much as possible. By the same token, I’m not sugarcoating anything. If I don’t think something’s gonna land well, or if someone’s doing something really basic or misogynistic or terrible racist jokes, I’m gonna say, “Listen, I’m by no means gonna police your jokes, but that ain’t gonna fly, and you’re gonna hear crickets in many cases.” We try to get them to get personal; we do a lot of writing exercises. In the first day of Level One, we tell them to recall five unique things about you, five embarrassing things about you, or embarrassing instances, and five things you love or hate about your job. That’s an inspiring chunk of information we take from them, and from there they pretty much write themselves. I try not to say, “Hey, you should say this instead,” because I want it to be all from them. Their showcase is their thing. They get on and they do the damn thing. But, yeah, it kind of lends itself to get these guest spots at these shows on the weekend. It’s nice. I really hope it grows, and it kind of becomes a known showcase in the DFW Metroplex. We’re making active efforts to pull people from out of Dallas as well. We’ve got Arielle Norman coming in from Austin. Yusuf Roach is doing a set as well. These are people we’re pulling from Austin. We’re trying to stick with driving distance from Dallas as far as pulling people in, but whoever can get here and do a Friday show, it’s been fun to reach out to those people, because they’re pretty receptive, and they like to come in. And having a headlining title is a nice thing. Arielle Norman is awesome; I saw her do an open mic at Hyena’s a while back, and she did great. And Yusuf is really good, too.
You talked about people coming into your class with material that can be misogynistic or racist — uncomfortable stuff. How do you address the issue of people leaning into their most shocking ideas just to get a reaction? How do you walk a line of, “I’m not saying you can’t say that, but if you do, there will be consequences.” How do you communicate that?
You can most definitely tell them they can’t do that. Or you can strongly advise them to not do that. But by the same token, I also tell them I’m not moving [their] mouths onstage. How do you deter them from doing that? I say over and over, “Try to take the high road, try to make the smartest joke you can.” There are millions of dick jokes out there, there are millions of taboo topics being talked about. Your joke ain’t gonna be the most unique one. Chances are, someone has a better one. Write smart, write personal. One can make the argument that stand-up is a one-way conversation where you’re talking at a group of people, and you’re not expecting a response except for laughter. That’s the response you’re wanting. We’re trying to say, “Take the high road with your writing and be smart with your jokes.” You don’t have to do brainy jokes. You don’t have to do political, smartass, really educated humor. Just don’t do something that would be hurtful to a group of people. Also people really get spooked when you’re like, “Look, if you do this, you’re going to alienate a portion of the audience.” That’s the last thing any comic wants to do, they want to keep everyone engaged. So if they’re struggling, or they’re harping on a topic where I’m like, “Listen, you can’t be saying something like this, you’re going to alienate this group of people,” they’re like, “Oh, well, I don’t want to do that.” No one innately wants to hurt people’s feelings.
You started in Dallas, correct? How did you get into the scene?
Oh, man. I took the wrong bus. Literally, that’s how it happened. I had my license suspended, so I was taking the bus places. I wasn’t paying attention one day; I was real bent over and tired after work. The stop I was at had many buses, and the time for my bus came through, and it was just the wrong one. I got on it and, before I realized it, I was in Deep Ellum. It was on a Tuesday, and that’s when they were still at the Commerce location. The bus stopped right in front of it, and I had been really flirting with the idea of going to an open mic sometime. But due to my current situation, I couldn’t get there easily, couldn’t do anything like that. I was really hesitant, was making excuses, of course. And then just by chance, [I] hopped on the wrong bus, which stopped in Deep Ellum, and I was like, “Alright, well I know they have an open mic.” I was really early, so I literally just sat in business casual, with my backpack with my laptop — just sat and watched a show. I saw Grant [Redmond] and Christian [Hughes] host the open mic, and they told me if I wanted to sign up, I had to send an email. I jotted the address down, and the rest is history. I got onstage a couple of weeks after that, and it was like, “Alright, this seems nice.” [Laughs.]
So you started at Dallas Comedy House just because you got on the wrong bus. How’s it been finding your way through Dallas comedy?
DCH is a great place to start because a lot of people are very welcoming, and the open mic was super nice. One of the first people I made friends with was Carey Cool Tripp. He does a lot of work in Denton. Ccrazy funny guy, very outgoing. He and Clifton [Hall], who was bartending at the time there, I got along really well with them. And the atmosphere was nice. I was still super scared and reserved. I would practice — like, rehearse my set. because I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t feel comfortable talking out loud and rehearsing my set in the lobby area, so I would go over by where Luscher’s Red Hots was, in that alleyway, and do my set in the alleyway to myself. Which sounds super depressing, and it absolutely was, but that’s kind of how I started. It was a good welcoming environment. I went to DCH a lot at first. That’s kind of where I stayed. When I learned about more open mics, I kind of ventured off and made more friends. I, too, took the [stand-up] class at DCH with Paulos and Lauren. That’s where I started off, really. That’s kind of where stand-up really picked up for me, because I was having trouble writing stuff, and I was having trouble formatting stuff. I learned how to do it from some really talented people.
So, as someone who works with people who are learning comedy, how does that instructing affect you as a writer?
It helps because it’s like an additional day of doing comedy for me. It’s not an open mic for me that I go to on Mondays; it’s a class I teach. It’s good because some of the things that are the most basic concepts of comedy, we kind of forget because we get so jaded, or we’ll be so deeply ingrained in something that we’re into that we forget the basics. It’s been fun to dabble in that a little bit. You remember the root of how to write a joke. The setup and the reversal. The most classic form. And when you’re teaching it over and over again, it lets you really analyze your material. And really, honestly, it keeps your material pretty tight. Before when I was writing from the stage, I would be more verbose — just work shit out in whatever direction I could. But now I’m just like, even if I’m writing from the stage and trying to do something off the dome, it’s like, I can package it a little better because I have that mindset of this needs to get out in 30 seconds or less. And I’m not a big LPM [laughs per minute] comic, but the payoff needs to be worth whatever I’m leading up to. That’s kind of what we preach – make the end part funny.
It sounds like teaching makes you really aware of those fundamentals.
Yeah, but at the same time, being in it for so long, you want to venture off into some alternative stuff. Because traditional white bread stand-up where you’re just onstage with a mic, talking about your whatever. I really admire people who do something unique, or people who do alt-comedy, or anybody who has a different style than me. While it’s good to stick to the fundamentals, sometimes it’s good to venture off into la la land.
Looking at where you are right now versus where you were when you started, what’s the most surprising thing to see yourself do now versus what you saw yourself doing when you just started?
My concept of comedy was like, “You have to hit hard, and you have to hit hard and fast with your jokes, and be aggressive!” Easy answer, I probably thought I was supposed to be more aggressive than I am. I’ve found that to not necessarily be the case. You don’t have to necessarily be loud, aggressive, in-your-face comedy. There are tons of people who are a lot more on the quiet side, but incredibly… like Andrew Woods, he’s not loud or in-your-face, but he’s super funny with his delivery. There are a lot of comics who’re under the impression that you have to hit hard and fast, and it’s not at always the case. But I respect people with different styles, I like it.
So what do you think of the DFW comedy scene?
Hopefully it’s on the rise. DCH booking these Friday shows, we’re doing our best to bring other acts in – acts in Dallas who need a spotlight put on them, and bringing in some students for guest spots. I hope it’s on the uptick. I enjoy it, I like it, I think it’s pretty welcoming. I heard from a guy who was in town from LA last week, and he goes, “Man, it’s cutthroat in LA, New York, Chicago – people are basically boxing each other out, throwing ‘bows, to get spots.” I think Dallas is slightly more supportive, but it’s still everyone at the end of the day gunning for the same two, three, four clubs — whether it be guest spots, features, headlining, what have you. It’s kind of an unfair answer I’m giving because it’s all I know; I haven’t experienced the comedy scene too robustly outside. When I was in LA for the iO West Scripted Comedy Festival, I got a little taste of what comedy was like out there. It was fun — and it was a little cutthroat. Every Uber driver is an actor. It’s different out there, and it’s really saturated. Here, I feel like there’s a lot of hidden gems that just need to be brushed off and put on display a little bit. Because there are a lot of really talented people here. Every once in a while, LA will suck one of those guys up and they’ll move out west. There are not a lot of people moving to New York. If I was moving, I’d go to New York.
You’re a New York guy?
Yeah. I think New York makes you sharp. I think it goes back to what I initially perceived stand-up comedy as being — like fast, sharp-wit comedy. These New York comics, they embody that to a T pretty much. LA comics, I’ve heard different things. It’s fun, I like it. From what I can tell, the Dallas scene is good. It’s doing good, I hope it gets better. I always hope it gets better. It’s the city I live in.
And you’re contributing to the new scene.
Doing the best we can!
The new crop of comics is a reflection of you now. Is there any pressure there?
I’ve got plausible deniability. Paulos or Katy could’ve taught them, I don’t know.
Cover photo of Shahyan Jahani by Andrew Sherman. Head here for more information about Jahani’s stand-up classes at DCH.