Sunday, September 8, 2013

A "Spirited" Story of Shame

 We all have stories in our lives that we don't like to tell.  Sometimes we are embarrassed by them.  Sometimes we are ashamed.  This is my story about the time I almost killed someone.  But that is not why I don't like talking about it....



I don't mean to brag, but I went to college on a sports scholarship.  And by "scholarship" I mean $300, and by "sport" I mean the Spirit Squad. 

That's right.  I was a male cheerleader, or as I prefer being called "a guy who held up cheerleaders by their butts." 

As you might guess, cute cheerleaders had a lot to do with why I joined the squad.  I know a lot of guys think males cheerleaders are "gay".  These are often the same guys who prefer to join the football team where they can wear tight spandex pants and slap each other on the butt.  (Much less gay)

I can't really criticize people who make fun of male cheerleaders, because for years I was one of them.   When I was asked by someone on the spirit squad if I would join, it was hard not to laugh in his face.  He pleaded with me that they were really short of guys for the squad and needed more and eventually I agreed to give it a try.





The next day I was introduced at cheerleader practice as a potential recruit and immediately all the girls perked up.  A cute little 95lb blond was the first to speak up.  "Perfect!  He can practice with me" she chirped.  Then in a fluid movement she yanked off her warm up pants, revealing a pair of short shorts.  Those shorts were then pulled off exposing even shorter spandex shorts underneath.  Then, like in a scene from a letter to Penthouse, the blond walk over and said "Show him where to put his hands on my ass!" 

For the next hour I practiced throwing the 95lb blond into the air and catching her butt in my hand.  Afterwards they asked if I would like to do the same thing for three more months, as well as get paid a small scholarship, be given lots of school sports gear, and go on a trip to Disneyland (Regionals were in L.A.).  I wanted to say "you had me at grabbing butts" but instead I just said "sure." 

Thus I became a member of the University of Idaho Spirit Squad for the fall Basketball season.  Every game I would clap, chant, and throw cheerleaders into the air.  Unfortunately as the season went on I got better and better at what I did, and that meant I started moving up in weight class.  Instead of the 95lb cutie that I started with I was soon throwing a girl who weighed 110.  She was followed by another and another of increasing weight until I was eventually throwing up a cheerleader who weighed around 160lbs.  Now there is nothing wrong with a cheerleader weighing that much, but she probably shouldn't be flying in the air.  At least not when I'm the one who is supposed to catch her.

This is how it came to be that I almost killed someone.  (Obviously I didn't or I wouldn't be writing a humorous blog about it.)

It was shortly after I was paired up with the previously mentioned 160lb cheerleader.  Not only was I supposed to throw someone who was heavier than anyone I had thrown before, but I was also asked to do a new throw move.  I'm sure you don't give a crap about cheerleader throws so lets just say that I was supposed to catch her, but instead she tumbled behind me and came down head first on a hardwood floor. 

An hour later I was with the rest of the squad in the emergency room finding out the girl I dropped would be in a neck brace for the next 4 months.  The doctors said she had fractured a couple vertebrae in her neck, but fortunately didn't damage her spinal cord. 

It's an interesting feeling to think that you almost killed someone (or at least nearly paralyzed them from the neck down).  Feelings of guilt, panic, and shame are pretty overwhelming.  Fortunately I was surrounded by a group of people who felt obliged to cheer me up.  (Probably because it was in their job title.)

The "veteran" cheerleaders on the squad told me this kind of thing was fairly common and many of them had suffered similar injuries in their career.  I remember thinking "You women are crazy!  You're willing to risk permanent injury just so you can be popular!"  Looking back years later it makes a lot more sense.

After the dropping incident I continued throwing cheerleaders for another month (albeit at a lower weigh class).  The season ended and I graduated shortly after.  Do I regret my decision to join the Spirit Squad?  No.  In fact, had I not graduated I probably would have done it again the following semester.   However, the experience has not been without repercussions. 

My sister-in-law loves to make fun of me for being a college cheerleader.  What's more, she was at the basketball game when I dropped the girl and likes to chide me about it whenever she can.  I'm sure I'm going to have to explain to my son some day why his Aunt keeps calling me "butter fingers". 

As for my soon-to-be born daughter...  I always thought being the father of a cheerleader would be nerve racking because of all the horny boys looking at her.  Now, if my daughter tells me some day that she wants to be a cheerleader I can tell her it's too dangerous and she has to play a safer sport.  Perhaps hockey...







Monday, August 12, 2013

How "I" write a Joke

     Probably the most common question that commedians are asked is "How do you write your jokes?"  It's the same way people ask musicians how they write their music.  While everyone can see and understand how a joke or song is presented on stage, it's really hard for someone unfamiliar with the process to understand how to create it out of nothing.

     Even though joke writing is simple the process can be complex.  This is in part because it differs for every comic.  George Carlin has said in past interviews that 98% of his material he knew would be funny before he ever said it on stage.  On the other spectrum Jerry Seinfeld is famous for fine tuning his jokes over countless sets until it is "ready".  Most comics fall somewhere in between, but ultimately a joke starts as an idea, then is formed into a single joke, refined after several presentations on stage, and then expanded on into a larger bit.

    One of the best ways to describe this was done in the comedy documentary "I am comic" which I will briefly paraphrase:

First you have a basic set-up punchline joke.  Several insert and tag jokes are written around the joke until it becomes a "bit."  Several bits formed together create a "chunk" of material (anywhere from 5-10 minutes).  Several "chunks" put together create a "set" of material (30-60 minutes).

      In this model bits are usually about a single topic such as an ex-girlfriend.  Another bit about breaking up with said girlfriend, and a third about getting back on the dating scene could be combined into a "chunk" about relationships.

     This format also makes it easier to understand how we comics can memorize a 60 minute set word for word.  Instead of memorizing the entire 60 minutes we focus on memorizing each bit individually.  Then we just have to remember which bits go together in each chunk.  It makes it a lot easier to mix up the set without forgetting which jokes we have already told.

     Again this is all general information about how comics write jokes.  The specifics of writing jokes vary greatly from comic to comic.  The easiest way of explaining my process is to take you step by step through a recent joke that I incorporated into my set-list.


STEP 1:  THE IDEA

     Every joke starts with an "ah ha" moment.   Something that you think of or that comes up which you realize could be a joke.  Anyone who hangs out with me long enough will notice that I will routinely say in conversations "I need to write a joke about that."

     This particular joke came while I was driving with my family in a Cost Co parking lot on a busy weekend.  It was one of those parking lots where everyone is moving really slowly and you start getting frustrated with other drivers.  As it happens my wife and I were stuck waiting for an extremely large pick-up truck to back out of a parking spot.  With the exception of people who need them for actually transporting large loads or going to off road locations, I never understand why anyone would ever need such a large vehicle.  This particular truck seemed even more so as it was unnecessarily suspended an extra foot off the ground, making the bottom of the door 2 and a half to 3 feet above the ground.  My wife and I noticed that the truck was pulling out of a handicap spot and started joking about how any handicap person would even be able to get into such a vehicle.  That's when I noticed that the truck's license plate was from Texas, and I told my wife "maybe being from Texas qualifies as a handicap".

     My wife let out a loud laugh and I knew a joke was born.  Now all I would have to do is write it. 


STEP 2:  WRITING

     When I say that I "write" jokes I really mean that I "form" jokes.  Writing implies taking pen to paper and creating a paper trail of material.  If I'm lucky I'll remember to write an "idea" down so that I don't forget it later, but even this is rare.  My "writing" consists of me saying the joke idea out loud to myself, hearing how it sounds, and then finding a way to make it sound smoother.  I then repeat the process until I have a somewhat polished idea of what I can say on stage.  Almost all of this writing is done in my car.  I drive 50 thousand plus miles most years for comedy so that leaves me with a lot of free time to talk to myself. 

      Shortly after I saw this Texas truck I began a 20 hour drive to Oklahoma where I was performing at a couple of clubs.  Along the way I formed a joke about the topic. 

      At this point the joke followed a standard "a funny thing happened on the way to the show" format.  I began by describing the biggest truck that I had ever seen, finalizing that it was parked in a handicap spot.  (I figured this fact alone would get a laugh) then describing that the truck had a Texas license plate followed by my punchline about how that qualifies as a "handicap."

      The joke was now written, but I wasn't sure if it was funny.  The only way to tell would be to try it on stage.


STEP 3:  FINE TUNING

      Sometimes when you write a joke it gets the reaction you expect.  Sometimes it gets the opposite, and sometimes it gets a surprise laugh where you weren't expecting.  This particular joke got a combination of all three when I delivered it on stage in Oklahoma.  Yes, the expected punchline got a laugh, but a secondary punchline seemed to go unnoticed by the audience, and something I didn't think would get a laugh did. 

      On the first night that I told the joke I got a laugh after mentioning that I had just seen the biggest pick-up of my life.  I didn't really think that in-and-of itself was funny, but to southern crowds it had the appearance of me being a naive northerner surprised by the good-ol-boy ways of the south.  Whatever.  A laugh is a laugh and I'll roll with it. 

      Mentioning the handicap spot got a laugh, aided by an improvised tag of how anyone in a wheel chair could ever get into such a vehicle.  But when I mentioned the license plate from Texas there was no laugh, at least not until I said the obvious punchline of that fact qualifying as a handicap. 

      I had hoped the punchline would get a double laugh by leading the audience towards the punchline, then stopping just short for a moment and letting the smart people in the audience figure out where I was headed and then spoon feed it to the rest of the audience.  This didn't happen, but it's not clear if that's because it's not funny or because the audience wasn't smart enough to make the connection.  (Welcome to the south)

      As I somewhat expected the joke offended several "Texans" in the audience, but they were easily silenced with a stock joke about congratulating them on being smart enough to get the joke.

     After the week of fine tuning I now had a new introduction for the joke, a new way to deliver the punchline, and a follow-up tag.  In essence I had my "bit" and it read like this:


Things are different down here in the south.  I think I saw the biggest pick-up truck of my life this week. *
You know the kind of truck I'm talking about.  Extended cab, extended bed, giant no-way-is-that-street-legal tires.*
It had a suspension that put it three feet off the ground, and here's the kicker.... parked in a handicap spot!*
As if anyone in a wheel chair could ever get into that vehicle.*
No handicap sticker either by the way.  Normally that would make me upset, but this particular truck had a license plate from Texas, and I think that qualifies as a handicap.**

Apparently there are some people from Texas in the audience who were offended by that joke.*  Well good for you being smart enough to understand it.*

(* indicates pause for audience laughter  **pause for potential applause)


     That is how the joke currently is performed on stage.  It won't stay that way for long.  I'll continue tweaking it.  Taking out parts that don't work that well and adding more tags.  Eventually the "bit" will be good enough to add to my joke Rolodex (which I keep in my head) and I can use it whenever I'm in a "blue collar" area. 

      This bit is about 50 seconds long and contains about 7 audience laugh moments.  If I'm lucky I can write about two such bits a week.  I'll keep the ones that work, and fine tune the ones that don't.  That way by the time I perform at the same room I will have 15-20 minutes of new material.  The trick is to take the time to write all of the jokes down so I don't forget them.  At least thanks to this blog I have this one bit backed up. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Ha Ha in the Hereafter



I like to think of myself as a good Christian.  And by that I mean I make it an effort to go to church every other month or so.  Last year on one such Sunday I saw something that I had never seen before.  A near death experience.

You would think near death experiences would be more common in church since most of the people in attendance are so old there is a good chance some of them knew Jesus personally.  I'm sure when I'm older I'll attend church more.  It's like an all night study session before a big final. 

The near death experience I witnessed was not a major scare.  A man had a heart attack in the middle of a church service.  Fortunately it was a minor one and the man was alright.  Paramedics came and took him away while most of us secretly mumbled our jealousy of how he got to leave early. 

Although the man didn't die it did occur to me that if you have to die, church isn't a bad place to do it.  For starters you are already in the place where your funeral will be held, and you are dressed in your Sunday best.  Slap a little blush on the face and you're ready for your open casket.

Secondly, I'm not sure how the point system of heaven works, but I'm guessing dieing while in church has got to count as a bonus.

"Were you a good Christian?" asks Saint Peter.

"Was I?  Let me tell you where I just came from!"

I wonder about the afterlife sometimes.  In movies they always show dead people walking around stuck in whatever outfit they were wearing when they die.  That's great if you get hit by a car on the weekend while wearing cargo shorts and a t-shirt.  But what if you get hit by a car on Halloween?  Now you have to walk around for all eternity dressed as a sexy kitty?  What's worse, you're a guy!  Sure it seemed like a funny idea on your way to the party, but by your third century in the afterlife the joke has to start getting old.

The other way they show heaven in the movies is with everyone dressed in white.  White suits, white dresses and white robes.  Not bad if have a dark skin tone or hair color, but think of all the poor red heads.  For a ginger with freckles, having to wear white forever is it's own type of hell.  Or at least hell for everyone who has to look at you (insert gay cliche snap).

My biggest concern with the heaven/hell concept is it so often is portrayed as an all or nothing scenario.  Either you get to spend eternity in bliss, or are cast into a foreverness of suffering.  I always wonder about those who fall just short.  Can you imagine if you are just about to get into heaven, but are denied access because a week before you died you ate the last girl scout cookie without offering to share it with your wife?  Now you have to wait out the end of days getting poked by a pitch fork because you can't resist Somoas.

Will I get into heaven?  I guess it depends on if God has a sense of humor.  I'm hoping he does, otherwise heaven would be a pretty boring place.  I don't like the idea of taking the hereafter too seriously.  It seems like it would take too much fun from the here and now.

As a child the concept of death used to be my biggest fear, but at some point I just stopped worrying about it.  I realize there is a good chance that neither heaven nor hell exist, but it seems to me the chance of an empty nothingness is even more unlikely.  It's a law of science that matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed, so it seems to me the same is likely true for a soul or consciousness.  In some form or another my life energy, whatever you wish to call it, will go on.  The only question is where.

If, however, my assumption is false and my death brings only oblivion.  I take solace in the knowledge that I will never know I am wrong.  Therefore my theory on the hereafter can only be proven true and if it's not then it doesn't matter. 



Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Chicken and the Egg Solution



       Here's a fun thing to do the next time a Philosophy major tries to impress you at a party by asking a bunch of theoretical questions such as "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"  Look them right in the eye and say "the egg".  Then when they will undoubtedly ask "What did the egg come from?"  You can respond with a simple "Something else." 

       At this point you can do one of two things.  Either walk away and leave them confused or continue to stare at them until they ask you to explain.  If the latter happens roll your eyes like you are talking to an idiot (philosophy majors love it when people openly mock their intelligence) and then give them the following explaination.


The Chicken and the Egg Solution:

      The underlying argument about the chicken and the egg mystery is that the cycle of chicken to egg and back to chicken appears to be a loop and where as a circle has no beginning or end the mystery seems unsolvable. 

     This argument is faulty because we know there was a time when neither chickens nor eggs existed and therefore the loop had to start somewhere.  Genetic studies show that modern chickens were domesticated from multiple wild bird species between 5,400 and 8,000 years ago.  Thus at some point in that time frame the chicken and the egg made their first appearance.  The trick to identifying when is knowing what counts as a chicken.

     To define a chicken you must have some definition that separates it from its similar bird ancestors.  It doesn't really matter what this definition is (height, weight, temperament, beak size, etc) as long as you realize that one does exist and can be scientifically identified. 

     Thus you can imagine that as the wild birds were slowly evolved into what we consider the modern day chicken there was a wild bird that was very similar to modern chickens, but fell just short of what could be defined as a chicken.  It then had an offspring (egg) that was just different enough from it's parent that when it hatched and grew up it qualified for the definition of the modern day chicken. 

     And on that day the first chicken was born from an egg that was produced by something similar, but ultimately different from a chicken.  Hence the egg came first!




Monday, May 6, 2013

To Puke or Poop: Stomach Flu's Ultimate Purge

It's a scary moment that I prayed I would never have to face.  When a bout of stomach flu causes diarrhea and vomiting to hit at the same time and you have to make a split second decision about what end of your body goes into the toilet bowl.

Like having to choose which of your children you would save first in a fire it's a question that you think you know the answer too, but will only really discover when faced with the decision. For myself it came down to which mess did I think would be easier to clean up? 

As a parent to a small child I am not unfamiliar to handling dirty diapers, but it's another thing when the mess is in your own pants.  For this reason I decided vomit was the lesser of two evils and chose to remain seated while my doomsday scenario played out. 

Many people might ask why not use a garbage can?  I'm sure you have one in your bathroom near the toilet?  Yes I do, but instead of a can I have a wicker basket and as the garbage is mostly used to hold toilet paper tubes it does not have a plastic liner.  Thus using it to catch the contents of my stomach would be nigh impossible to clean and would likely smell so bad I would be forced to buy a new one. 

Instead I was left with option two, which was my bathtub.  Not a bad decision, especially since I had vomited so much by the time this the only thing left in my stomach was Pepto-Bismol.  The problem was that while the tub was next to the toilet it wasn't so close that it could be easily reached. 

Thus I found myself in the bathroom one terrible day, stretched in an awkward pose between my bathtub and toilet while my body purged from both ends.  As terrible as I felt at the time I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and probably would have if not for the dry heaving. 

When the stomach flu hit it caused about 8 hours of gastrointestinal distress.  I lost so much fluid I dropped 10 lbs in a single day.  Had I needed it I would have scheduled a colonoscopy the next day as I'm sure my system was thoroughly flushed. 

It was hands down the worst stomach flu I've ever had, and set a new personal record for vomiting (7 times in six hours).  But like any good comic at least I have the sense to realize the humor in it and that means more material for stage.  My apologies to the squeamish in the audience. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The "Hopefully" Ugly Face of Comedy

I've recently had people start pointing out to me that I'm losing my hair.  And by "people" I mean complete strangers.  Some people would be offended or disheartened by these comments, but I take them as a good sign for my stand-up comedy career.  While most people (especially those in the entertainment business) would suffer a career setback with the loss of their looks, I am fortunate to work in the only industry where it helps to be homely.
Ryan Wingfield  There's a reason why attractive people don't do stand-up comedy.  And it's not because it's so easy to get work on "The Bachelorette".  The truth is no one wants to laugh at someone who is good looking.  Not because what they said isn't funny, but because it doesn't sound funny coming out of a good looking face.

When you think about comedy, almost all jokes are about you laughing at someone's expense.  Either you are laughing at yourself, laughing at a third party (a person in a story), or laughing at the person who is telling the joke.  A good comic will mix all three types into their set, but because people can only laugh at themselves for so long before getting pissed, and because comics can only make fun of other people for so long before people start thinking of them as a jerk, the wide majority of jokes you will hear on stage involve the comic making fun of themselves. 

Self deprecating jokes are the safest jokes you can tell.  People are always comfortable laughing at someone who asked for it.  Hence the first joke 90% of comics make is a rip on them self, most often their appearance.  This is why fat comics have so many jokes about being fat, short comics joke about being short, and ugly people talk about their looks. 

I've often argued that nothing bad can ever happen to a stand-up comic because all it does is give them more material that they can use on stage.  Gaining weigh, getting older, and losing your hair are all fodder for new jokes.  The problem with attractive people is if they don't suffer from these flaws they can't joke about them without sounding like they are either bragging or lying. 

Think of several famous comedian.  George Carlin, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, or Jay Leno.  None of them may qualify as ugos, but they're definitely not on any sexiest celebs list.  The same is true for female comics such as Phyllis Diller, Rosanne, and even Ellen DeGeneres (sorry every lesbian ever, but it's true).

Comics who hit it big are a lot more likely to be extremely goofy looking.  Just look at the success of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.  Larry the Cable Guy is probably the best example of a comic who has exaggerated his bad looks for self deprecating humor.  (I'm sure it was a lot easier then writing good jokes.)

The truth is it is easier to laugh at someone who you think is below your status then it is to laugh at someone who is above your status.  This same psychology is why the best comedy rooms are when the comic is not on a raised stage (where the audience is below them looking up), but when the audience is in theater seats (looking down at the comic).

I also believe this is one of the reasons why women have a hard time succeeding in comedy.  If the female comic is even slightly good looking the women in the audience feel threatened and automatically dislike her, and the men in the audience stop listening to what she's saying and start imagining her naked.  If the woman is gay or unattractive (such as Ellen or Rosanne) both of those "distractions" are removed and the female comic can succeed on her own merit.  Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but I would estimate 90% or more of successful female comics fall into one of the two categories.

Does any of this mean that good looking people can't do stand-up?  Of course not.  It does mean that they do have a natural handicap while less attractive people have a natural advantage.  It's almost an exact reverse of any other job. 

So I don't mourn the loss of my hair (or as I call it the "growing of my forehead").  Instead I embrace the inevitable decline of my looks and the expansion of my waist.  If all goes as planned I'll hit it big just about the time that I'm too ugly for any groupies. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Why Fish Doesn't Count as Meat

An Irishman walks into a bar.  The bartender says "Hi!  Can I get you a Guinness?"

"No thanks," says the Irishman.  "I gave up beer for Lent."

"Well then I guess you'll want a whiskey", says the bartender.

"Yes," says the Irishman.  "Make it a double."



This is one of those jokes that's funny because it's true.  This month the season of Lent kicked of.  It's a period of observance and sacrifice that most Christian faiths follow as a lead-in to Easter.  For those who don't go to church very often it means you should look at a calendar, because one of the two church services of the year that you attend is coming up soon.t

For Catholics, like myself, Lent is a time of the year when we amp up our Catholic guilt to 11.  Most "good" Catholics increase their charity work and at the same time try to "give up" a vice.  For example this year the Pope gave up being the Pope.  The day before Lent begins is called Fat Tuesday, better known as Mardi Gras.  It's supposed to be a day when holy people could eat, drink, and get their fill of vices before having to give them up.  My guess is most of the people throwing beads in New Orleans aren't going to church the next day.

Unfortunately some slightly less than good Catholics, like myself, sometimes replace an old vice with a new one.  (See the joke above)  What someone gives up is unique to each person, but the church does make some blanket reservations for the entire congregation.  The most well known of which is no meat on Fridays. 

Those who were alive during WWII may remember that Catholics used to abstain from eating meat on every Friday during the year.  It's probably one or the reason sales of Mac N Cheese were so strong in Boston.  In the 60's the Pope decided that meatless Fridays was too hard for most people and decided to reduce the meat restriction to Friday's during Lent.  Hence modern Catholics like myself only have to remember 6 days of the year that we aren't supposed to eat meat.  Most of us remember this about halfway through eating a cheeseburger.

One of the interesting exemptions to the "no meat on Friday" rule is fish.  While beef, pork, poultry, lamb, and all other land creatures are forbidden, Catholics are allowed to eat as much fish as we want.  Many people might ask why fish doesn't count as meat.  These people might also be Catholics.  My entire life I've asked why fish isn't meat and I've never gotten an answer.  From what I've learned there is no answer.  All I've ever been told is "it just doesn't count as meat."

Someone told me once that they thought fish doesn't count because it's the only animal that Jesus ever ate in the bible. I'm no biblical scholar, but I don't ever remember Jesus talking about being a fish vegetarian.

My best guess is since most of the apostles were fishermen before they began hanging out with Jesus that they pushed for the exemption to help their fellow co-workers.  For those of you who think I'm being blasphemous I want to point out that I'm a professional comedian and if you're a good Christian then you'll forgive me.