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Laugh It Up

Leslie Barton

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Name: Leslie Barton

Social: Twitter/Instagram

TrunkSpace: Was comedy always in the cards? Were you a “funny” kid, even at an early age?
Barton: Yes. But I drank a lot as a child.

TrunkSpace: When did you decide to pursue stand-up comedy as a career and did you make a plan for how you would attack things?
Barton: Comedy will do with me what it sees fit. My only plan was to not sleep with any comics after I started doing it.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a comic?
Barton: I wish that wasn’t such a difficult question. My voice? I don’t have one – or one that I maybe feel is as fulfilling to me personally as I would like. I keep my creative voice open to change. Right now I’m combining painting and comedy and LSD.

TrunkSpace: Is the approach you take now on stage different from the approach you took when you first started out? Is it one act that grew into itself or would you consider them two completely different acts?
Barton: If I try to recreate anything from when I started, it’s the nervousness. And the looseness. And the sobriety.

TrunkSpace: Is the neon “Open” sign in your brain always turned on, and by that we mean, are you always writing and on alert for new material?
Barton: Of course. Some people have writing all the time anytime, some people have writing scheduled. Those are the people I envy a little. I need more of a schedule.

TrunkSpace: How much work goes into a joke before it’s ready to be tested out in front of a live audience?
Barton: I think one has to be pliable when creating. Be ready with your equipment, ie: pen, paper, phone. Maybe you’re thinking immediate thoughts with a general write up, or you save your one sentence for an open mic and see what you get with that. Or you start a writing group by gathering three to five comics that only hate each other a little and that you think are funny.

TrunkSpace: If a joke doesn’t seem to be working, how many chances do you give it in a live setting before you decide to rework it or move on from it altogether?
Barton: I try and figure out why I like it so much and go from there. Some jokes just fall out of pop culture, too.

TrunkSpace: Is it possible to kill one night and bomb the next with essentially the same set, and if so, what do you chalk that up as?
Barton: It’s also possible to kill one set, drive across town and fail miserably at another mic, the same night.

TrunkSpace: Does a receptive and willing audience fuel your fire of funny and help to put you on your game for the rest of your set?
Barton: A hot crowd is the best crowd, and I hate wasting it, but I still do, if I’m being honest. It’s also on the comic to raise the bar and try and read the audience and consider which jokes might work best.

TrunkSpace: What is your most memorable performance experience (good or bad!) that will stick with you for the rest of your career and why?
Barton: Too many to count: performing a set with the Altercation Festival people at the now defunct Fire House booked by Matt Micheletti. Fucking hardly anyone was there, but I had a great set and it was such a good show.

It’s hard to say what drives me. Comedy is what I imagine surfing to be like, with its learning curve and unpredictability.

TrunkSpace: How do you handle hecklers? What approach do you take?
Barton: I kind of started talking over them early on and still kind of do that, unless they give me a great idea for a comeback. They are unruly children.

TrunkSpace: What are your thoughts on the stand-up landscape in 2018? Are you optimistic for the future of live comedy?
Barton: Who knows what people find funny, now or in the future. But as soon as everyone starts outlawing comedy, only outlaws will do comedy. Besides, I’m as optimistic as any white, middle-aged woman with no children, that owns a house. I can always live in my attic and die there. That’ll be funny to me.

TrunkSpace: Finally, who do YOU find funny?
Barton: People that are trying to do something beyond what I see on a daily basis. Broken people trying to act fixed. And old scary movies. And bad dreams and irony. Plus old British comedies. Mel Brooks. Richard Pryor. My mom was pretty funny. My dad. Erma Bombeck. Marquis de Sade. Bill Hicks. Jessica Kirson. These are a few of my favorite things.

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Laugh It Up

John Poveromo

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Name: John Poveromo

Socials: Twitter/Facebook/Instagram

Why We’re Laughing: Superb writing combined with the kind of relaxed presence behind the microphone that puts an audience at ease, Poveromo delivers on a brand of funny that builds within the set, transforming external laughter into internal contemplation that lasts well after you leave the club.

TrunkSpace: Was comedy always in the cards? Were you a funnykid, even at an early age?
Poveromo: The short answer is, yes. (Laughter) The slightly longer answer is, I grew up around funny people, who all had different kinds of funny. My dad was sort of ‘life of the party’ funny, while my mom and her side of the family were very clever funny. My great aunt and uncle were from Brooklyn and no one could tell a story better than they could. They knew exactly where to inject humor into a story, and could tell it the same way every time. So in a lot of ways I grew up trying to emulate all of them. I remember laughing a lot, and thinking it was something I should bring back to the classroom, much to my teachers’ chagrin.

TrunkSpace: When did you decide to pursue stand-up comedy as a career and did you make a plan for how you would attack things?
Poveromo: I decided to do it after my first semester of college was over. I had never wanted to go to college in the first place, but that’s what you did. Doing anything else seemed like it was a one way ticket to pumping gas for the rest of my life. At least that’s what my math teachers lead me to believe. I wound up giving stand-up a shot and was hooked right away. I dropped out of college, got a full time job at a bank (as you do), and did stand-up after work and on the weekends on any stage that would have me. My thought process was, I could spend four years at a place that was designed to hammer square pegs into round holes, or I could have 10 years as a comedian under my belt by the time I’m 30 and do something I love for the rest of my life.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a comic?
Poveromo: I think it changes over time just like everything else. I think I had a voice in my 20s and now it’s evolving more so as I’m in the beginning of my 30s. For me it was more of a struggle of chipping away at everything that wasn’t authentically me on stage as I was off. Not to say I’m on all the time, but if you meet me off stage I’m the same guy.

TrunkSpace: Is the approach you take now on stage different from the approach you took when you first started out? Is it one act that grew into itself or would you consider them two completely different acts?
Poveromo: The act is always evolving, but when I started I definitely would go on stage and wing it a lot. I had some ideas of where I wanted to go and what punchlines I wanted to hit, but I liked putting myself on the spot. I felt it was more important to be fast on my feet than it was to rehearse the same five minutes, club to club. As of right now my act is about justifying my own existence.

TrunkSpace: Is the neon “Open” sign in your brain always turned on, and by that we mean, are you always writing and on alert for new material?
Poveromo: I have that little notes app on my iPhone always primed and ready to go. I’ve got joke ideas and notes stored in there from 2011. Actually, I just recently sat down with a friend of mine who has a knack for organizing and he put everything into this crazy excel spreadsheet catalog thing for me. It’s really incredible. I’m not an organized person so this helped a lot.

TrunkSpace: How much work goes into a joke before its ready to be tested out in front of a live audience?
Poveromo: Wait, wait hold up… there’s supposed to be work involved? Hoo-boy, am I in trouble.

Usually I’ll have an idea for a joke, find out where I can squeeze it into the act and see where it takes me on stage. I’m constantly trying new stuff, if I don’t I get really bored up there.

TrunkSpace: If a joke doesnt seem to be working, how many chances do you give it in a live setting before you decide to rework it or move on from it altogether?
Poveromo: Every comic has a joke they love that’s never worked on stage. Or works like once every three months. I think jokes can be reworked all the time and there’s some that have taken me years to perfect. At this point I know what will and won’t work on stage, but if I had to give it a time limit before you toss a joke, I’d say three times with three different audiences. If it’s still not getting the response you need, you gotta sideline it for the time being.

TrunkSpace: Is it possible to kill one night and bomb the next with essentially the same set, and if so, what do you chalk that up as?
Poveromo: Yup. Did it the other night actually. It was a showcase show and I was closing it out. The audience was only there to see their friend and they were tired by the time I got up. The set was the same jokes that killed opening for Gilbert Gottfried a couple weekends before but I was getting nothing from the audience. There’s one joke in particular that I was thinking of posting on my Instagram as an example of how a joke can crush one night and get crickets the next.

TrunkSpace: Does a receptive and willing audience fuel your fire of funny and help to put you on your game for the rest of your set?
Poveromo: Absolutely. The audience is a far bigger part of the show than they think sometimes. I had a weekend of shows mother’s day weekend, which is notoriously slow. The first night there were only 12 people in the audience but they were 12 people who really loved comedy and came for a good show and we had an absolute blast together. The next night we had about 40 people who you would have thought were taken hostage and forced to watch the show. Those are the nights when it feels like work.

TrunkSpace: What is your most memorable performance experience (good or bad!) that will stick with you for the rest of your career and why?
Poveromo: Hands down, opening up for Jimmy Fallon when I was still a baby comic. It was my first time opening for a national headliner. He was on tour prepping to take over “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and he had come back to his home club, Bananas in Poughkeepsie, NY. We did five sold out shows together and he couldn’t have been nicer, or funnier. I met his family and they praised my set, which was amazing because I really got a sense that they understood what it’s like for the new guy coming up since Jimmy was so young when he started. Something like that will keep you going for a while.

TrunkSpace: How do you handle hecklers? What approach do you take?
Poveromo: I don’t get a ton of hecklers. Not the hecklers you see comics “battling” it out with on YouTube. I perform all over the country and honestly it doesn’t happen that often. I do engage with the crowd a lot though and when that happens they tend to get overly drunk and chatty but I just handle them in a very playful way. It’s fun watching them dig their own graves.

TrunkSpace: What are your thoughts on the stand-up landscape in 2018? Are you optimistic for the future of live comedy?
Poveromo: Stand-up comedy is more important now than it’s ever been. We need comedians who are willing to push limits, cross lines, and take us to places that make us uncomfortable and laugh at the same time. We’re in Trump’s America right now, and in that America it really does seem like comics are the only ones able to cut through all the bullshit and get to what’s really going on in the world. He seems to have forced both sides of the isle into their corners to the point where liberals can no longer tell the difference between jokes and statements, while conservatives have cornered the market on the victim game. It’s kind of a weird time for comedy, though I’m staying optimistic. There’s that whole Samantha Bee thing going on right now and she’s brilliant and funny, but I really wish she hadn’t apologized for the joke about Ivanka. She apologized and called it inappropriate. Comedians are supposed to be inappropriate. Racist? No. Inappropriate? Yes. In her case, it’s her job to be inappropriate while making a point. If there’s people who can’t comprehend that, fuck’em. You know? There’s a reason why entertainers, especially comedians, don’t work at the Gap. If we wanted to let the cul-de-sac culture dictate what we do and say the rest of our lives, that’s where we’d be.

TrunkSpace: Finally, who do YOU find funny?
Poveromo: I could list a bunch of famous comics who I and everyone else I know admire here, but they get enough press. I’ve got a lot of close friends in comedy and because we’re always working the clubs and the road we don’t get to see each other a lot, but when we do it’s a blast. Just recently I got to hang out with one of my closest friends and big brothers in comedy, Joe Starr, who came to watch me at Governor’s and wound up doing two guest sets – showing us all how the fuck it’s done. Another close friend of mine, Carole Montgomery, is in Los Angeles right now touring her stand-up show, “Women Of A Certain Age,” which is incredibly funny so if you get the chance, go see it! I just got to meet and work with Taylor Tomlinson for the first time who is fucking hysterical. Then there’s my friends Joanne Filan, Ryan Metzger, Vinnie Nardiello, Ty Raney, Jess Alaimo – who are all great comics from Jersey.

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Laugh It Up

Emily Winter

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Photo By: Phil Provencio

Name: Emily Winter

Socials: Twitter/Instagram

Why We’re Laughing: Smooth and polished like a precious stone, Winter delivers comedy gems for any season. Rain or shine, hot or cold, you will laugh yourself silly.

TrunkSpace: Was comedy always in the cards? Were you a “funny” kid, even at an early age?
Winter: NO times a million. My mom is pretty adamant that I was NOT a funny child, and I had no interest in comedy until I was in middle school and started watching “Seinfeld” and “Friends” and hanging out with a very funny girl, which sort of blew my mind because I thought “funny” was for boys. Even when I figured out that I liked comedy and could be funny, I didn’t realize that I wanted to pursue comedy – or that it would be a viable option for me – until after college.

TrunkSpace: When did you decide to pursue stand-up comedy as a career and did you make a plan for how you would attack things?
Winter: After college I was working as a news reporter in Wisconsin, but spending all my free time trying to write a comedy pilot. So after just three months of being a reporter, I quit, moved to my parents’ home in Illinois, worked at the mall and took a script writing class at a college in Chicago. From there, I applied for an internship at “The Colbert Report,” got it, and moved to New York. I only had to waitress in Times Square for a few months before getting a job as a Vogue contributing editor’s writing assistant, and that allowed me to afford to stay in New York and work on comedy writing. It would take five more years for me to get the guts to go on stage. I never saw myself as a stand-up, but it’s hard to break into professional comedy writing without being part of the comedy community. I figured I would try stand-up to boost my writing career, but I (surprisingly) fell in love with it from the first time I took the stage.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a comic?
Winter: Some days I feel like I still don’t know who I am or what my voice is! But I’d say it took me two years to start getting comfortable on stage, then three more to really open up and add some performative range. I feel like my point of view was relatively set from the beginning, but that’s because I was older than most when I started doing stand-up, and I had already lived through the years of discovering your identity, beliefs, politics, and sense of humor. And by starting late, I’d also (mostly) grown out of the urge to say things for shock value alone.

TrunkSpace: Is the approach you take now on stage different from the approach you took when you first started out? Is it one act that grew into itself or would you consider them two completely different acts?
Winter: I used to write my jokes out. I couldn’t conceive of any other way to create an act. Now I do a mix of free writing and just blabbing at lightly attended shows to find new material.

I think I still use one joke from my first few years, but most of my old material is just not that good. My act is always evolving – I keep things I like, I chuck jokes I’m sick of or jokes that don’t get as many laughs. And I weave old jokes into new ideas.

TrunkSpace: Is the neon “Open” sign in your brain always turned on, and by that we mean, are you always writing and on alert for new material?
Winter: Yes and no. Since I’m a writer too, I spend a lot of time thinking, “Where does this comedic idea belong? Is it a tweet? A stand-up joke? A New Yorker submission? A pilot? A graphic? A sketch? A text to my boyfriend? A slideshow? A game? A one-off themed live show? A character? A song?” Trying to figure out a place for an idea is a challenge in itself, and that takes up a lot of my time and mental hard drive, both when I’m awake and asleep. (I dream about the mundane parts of comedy almost every night. It’s a little embarrassing.) But I do think it’s important to be able to stop seeing the world through the lens of “how can I use this for comedy.” Sometimes you just have to be a person and genuinely connect with the world and people around you. Otherwise you are a sociopath.

TrunkSpace: How much work goes into a joke before it’s ready to be tested out in front of a live audience?
Winter: Not a lot! If I have a new idea I’m excited about, I’ll try it that night, unless it’s a high stakes show: one that’s super packed, or attended by particular people I’m trying to impress, or if I’m being paid well to be on my A game. But typically, I’ll start with solid material, test out new material in the middle of my set, and then end with more crowd-pleasing material. This allows me to see if a new joke has legs without it tanking my entire set.

TrunkSpace: If a joke doesn’t seem to be working, how many chances do you give it in a live setting before you decide to rework it or move on from it altogether?
Winter: If a joke isn’t working at all, I’ll probably kill it after about three tries. If parts of it are getting some laughs, I’ll keep working on it, either until I find something I like better, or it gets polished up into good material.

TrunkSpace: Is it possible to kill one night and bomb the next with essentially the same set, and if so, what do you chalk that up as?
Winter: Yes! There are so many variables every time you perform: audience members, audience size, age of audience, room setup, temperature, mic volume, lighting, stage height, what you’re wearing, how you’re feeling, the host, where you are in the lineup, state, city, and neighborhood you’re performing in, how you’re introduced… the list goes on and on. Your job as a comedian is to try to navigate all of these variables, but there is no “right” way to do that. For every show, the answer is different. That’s what makes every show a unique experience, even when the material is the same.

TrunkSpace: Does a receptive and willing audience fuel your fire of funny and help to put you on your game for the rest of your set?
Winter: Hell yeah! As a comedian, you always walk into a showroom hoping the audience will be warm and receptive. If you can get a collective energy going, it creates an almost tangible buzz in the room. This is why show hosts are always trying to get people to sit in the front row – they’re trying to fill in the space between the comedian and the farthest laughter to create a unifying, collective electricity. So fill in those seats! The entire show will improve!

Photo By: Steve Shohl

TrunkSpace: What is your most memorable performance experience (good or bad!) that will stick with you for the rest of your career and why?
Winter: Ah man! One time pretty early on I was bombing my dick off at a show, and then suddenly I got a HUGE laugh. I was thrilled that a joke had finally worked, even though I continued to eat it for the rest of my time on stage. When I got off stage, I realized a button was missing from my dress. Another comic informed me that it had popped off during a punchline, revealing my bra, and that’s why everyone had been laughing. That moment will keep me humble for the rest of my career.

TrunkSpace: How do you handle hecklers? What approach do you take?
Winter: Kill them with kindness. My first tactic is to kindly ask a heckler to stop. Sometimes, audience thinks comedians like it when you heckle, and they just need to be educated. If that doesn’t work, I’ll usually say something to let them know that I’m not happy, but will also get a laugh and keep the mood up. For example, I’ve told men, “You’re so handsome. It’s too bad you’re so annoying.” If that doesn’t work, I’d probably signal for the show’s host to ask them to leave. Luckily, I’ve never been in a position where I’ve felt threatened by a heckler who refused to leave and there was no one around to kick him out, but I know that stuff happens.

TrunkSpace: What are your thoughts on the stand-up landscape in 2018? Are you optimistic for the future of live comedy?
Winter: I live in Brooklyn, and the market is soooooo oversaturated right now. There are too many shows and too many comedians. It’s great that there are always shows to do, but it’s a pain to produce quality shows when you’re competing with other shows in the same neighborhood – or even on the same block! One positive thing is that the Brooklyn scene has been very dedicated to diversifying lineups. You won’t see an all-white, all-male lineup in Brooklyn the way you did just five years ago, which is awesome. A diversity of voices is what makes a comedy show great.

TrunkSpace: Finally, who do YOU find funny?
Winter: Some comedians I love and admire are Mary Mack, Ophira Eisenberg, Josh Gondelman, Kyle Kinane, Aparna Nancherla, Jo Firestone, and Chris Calogero. I love Chris so much that I hunted him down and made him my boyfriend!

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Laugh It Up

Johnny Azari

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Name: Johnny Azari

Socials: Twitter/Facebook/Instagram

Why We’re Laughing: Combining a bad boy persona with a social commentary spin that cats like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin made iconic to their comedic brand, Azari is saying things that he hopes will resonate beyond punchlines.

TrunkSpace: Was comedy always in the cards? Were you a “funny” kid, even at an early age?
Azari: As a kid all my teachers called me a “good kid with bad behavior.” Still not entirely sure what that means. I think I was always a comedian. It was just that nobody pulled me aside and told me that that was what I was doing – they just called me an asshole.

TrunkSpace: When did you decide to pursue stand-up comedy as a career and did you make a plan for how you would attack things?
Azari: I fell into comedy from touring the country singing sad, sad blues music. I would be in dive bars in towns like Evolution Is Illegal, Idaho, just bumming everyone out. So in between songs I try and chipper things up. Didn’t take long ‘til the banter became the show. So in July of 2015 I made the conscious choice to just do stand-up without the music. That’s when I stopped my tour and did a month of mics in Chicago. I haven’t looked back since.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a comic?
Azari: I don’t think you ever stop looking for it. Your voice changes as you grow as a human being. But I knew from the get I wanted to be a rebel comic, outlaw and going after the truth and society’s hypocrisy. Observational day to day, “this is why I’m a loser” comedy never appealed to me. I feel like we are manufacturing our own extinction as a species currently and there just isn’t time for any art to address anything but that. But that’s me – a self righteous prick who’ll whore out the revolution to get his fireman smackled.

TrunkSpace: Is the approach you take now on stage different from the approach you took when you first started out? Is it one act that grew into itself or would you consider them two completely different acts?
Azari: I think my narrative hasn’t changed much. The growth has been in learning to cut the fat and keep every sentence funny, or at least try to. Also as I progress I’m leaning more toward cleaner comedy. It’s harder and when done right way funnier, and, you can reach a larger audience. Dirty is always there if you want it. She follows you around like a three-legged dog. Clean takes a lot of thought and skill.

TrunkSpace: Is the neon “Open” sign in your brain always turned on, and by that we mean, are you always writing and on alert for new material?
Azari: It has been until recently. I did 36 shows in 27 days over 8,000 miles and four states. I was grinding the first draft of the new hour together in that time. When I got back home from that I turned everything off. Xanax, Netflix, and forcing my wife to fuck me while I lay on my back and sob for two weeks. But normally I don’t stop writing. I can’t stop if I want to. My brain just grinds constantly. Thank God I found comedy, a perfect outlet for the neurotic.

TrunkSpace: How much work goes into a joke before it’s ready to be tested out in front of a live audience?
Azari: Depends on how I feel about it. Most of them I finish pretty fast.

TrunkSpace: If a joke doesn’t seem to be working, how many chances do you give it in a live setting before you decide to rework it or move on from it altogether?
Azari: Three to five.

TrunkSpace: Is it possible to kill one night and bomb the next with essentially the same set, and if so, what do you chalk that up as?
Azari: That happens for sure. Though when you do it all the time it doesn’t feel like bombing anymore because you aren’t filled with the fear and terror that normally comes with bombing. After you do a bit enough times to know it works, when it doesn’t land or certain parts don’t hit, you know it’s the room and then you have to start playing the game to twist their minds into your narrative so similar jokes later in the set won’t die.

TrunkSpace: Does a receptive and willing audience fuel your fire of funny and help to put you on your game for the rest of your set?
Azari: Of course. A performer can only give the room what the room gives them. If the room feels like a roofied fat chick you have to carry to bed, then that’s how your set feels. But if they are lively and know they are at a comedy show and that their feelings don’t matter in that room, then you can have a lot of fun.

TrunkSpace: What is your most memorable performance experience (good or bad!) that will stick with you for the rest of your career and why?
Azari: I played a nudist colony once as a musical act. I closed by getting naked and singing “Blowin’ in The Wind” by Bob Dylan. They did not think it was funny. Fucking hippies.

TrunkSpace: How do you handle hecklers? What approach do you take?
Azari: I can very easily get to evil very fast so I have to check myself. Usually I can ignore it and pretend I didn’t hear. If that doesn’t work then I ask nicely. Then I talk to them like a child. If they continue, I go Adolf Hitler on their ass and make the room seriously tense. I have a bunch of handles, none of them are funny because fuck you for interrupting a staged performance.

TrunkSpace: What are your thoughts on the stand-up landscape in 2018? Are you optimistic for the future of live comedy?
Azari: Comedy is booming. It’s more popular than it’s ever been. I love seeing the range and explosion in the art. It makes me happy that there is so much to laugh at.

TrunkSpace: Finally, who do YOU find funny?
Azari: My dad. He’s a funny fuck. Besides him, all the people that every other comic says inspires them. (Laughter)

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Laugh It Up

Ellory Smith

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Name: Ellory Smith

Socials: Twitter/Instagram

Why We’re Laughing: Smith’s brand of personal comedy serves as a tour guide through her emotional pain and shows us all that even in darkness there are slivers of light to be found.

TrunkSpace: Was comedy always in the cards? Were you a “funny” kid, even at an early age?
Smith: I wasn’t funny as a kid, but I was definitely odd. I didn’t have a lot of friends and spent a lot of time in my own head. I always knew I wanted to write, and thought for a long time I’d go into poetry or creative writing or something. My senior year of high school, I started doing stand-up and realized there was a way to utilize my love for writing and need for attention that didn’t have the sort of… pretentious review process that creative writing sometimes involves.

TrunkSpace: When did you decide to pursue stand-up comedy as a career and did you make a plan for how you would attack things?
Smith: I was studying Writing for Television and Film at Emerson College, and doing stand up two to three times a week. I was paying attention in class, but really only my writing classes. I knew I wanted to be a comic and write for television, that I wanted both of those things. I couldn’t see another option. I had read enough about people in the field to know that if this was something I wanted, I had to go after it as though I was training for a marathon. Writing a lot, performing a lot, putting aside anything that wasn’t comedy – at least at first. When I moved to LA to finish college, I immediately upped how often I did stand-up. I began going up four to five times a week, and seeing shows on weekends. It became my entire life, to the detriment of some things (friendships, relationships) but it was all I wanted, and it felt like I could never have enough of it.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a comic?
Smith: I’ll let you know once I find it. I’m six years in now, so give me another six and hopefully I’ll have gotten it down.

TrunkSpace: Is the approach you take now on stage different from the approach you took when you first started out? Is it one act that grew into itself or would you consider them two completely different acts?
Smith: I think when I started, I was so young I was just trying to imitate comedians I loved. I was doing just observational material, nothing raw or honest or interesting. Now I try to be more open with the audience, I am still worried that they don’t love me or think I’m funny, but first and foremost I want them to know that I am here and in pain and ready to talk with them about the things that make me most human. It’s a fine line to walk, when people see comedy they are looking for an escape, they don’t want to hear about my trauma necessarily. But I’m up there looking for connection and love and validation, and maybe that’s too much to ask for, but I’m going to keep asking for it anyway.

TrunkSpace: Is the neon “Open” sign in your brain always turned on, and by that we mean, are you always writing and on alert for new material?
Smith: I write everything down all day long. When my father was dying, I wrote down every detail. Not necessarily for stand-up, just to remember it. I guess it’s a way to not cope with the things going on around me. But, then I have the notes for later and I can mine them for something funny. I do this at gas stations, grocery stores, funerals. Ultimately, it’s rude. But my note pad and I are one in the same and where I go it will be.

TrunkSpace: How much work goes into a joke before it’s ready to be tested out in front of a live audience?
Smith: Stand-up is like an experimental science. There are a lot of variables to getting something right. A joke is ready when you’ve written it, and you will only find out if it works through performing it. That’s what open mics are for!

TrunkSpace: If a joke doesn’t seem to be working, how many chances do you give it in a live setting before you decide to rework it or move on from it altogether?
Smith: If I am in love with a joke, but after five or six tries in front of different audiences it doesn’t work, I table it until I can find a better take. Or I bring it to someone I know is funnier than I am who will help me find what is going wrong. That being said, a good artist knows when they have shitty work and is able to move on from it.

TrunkSpace: Is it possible to kill one night and bomb the next with essentially the same set, and if so, what do you chalk that up as?
Smith: Absolutely! It’s easy to blame the audience for this, but again, there are a lot of different variables. Maybe you weren’t as confident, maybe they weren’t paying attention, maybe your tone was off and when they weren’t laughing you got hostile. It could be anything. I think it’s important to pay attention to WHAT went wrong so you can fix it for next time, and not take any of it too personally. (Easier said than done!)

TrunkSpace: Does a receptive and willing audience fuel your fire of funny and help to put you on your game for the rest of your set?
Smith: A good audience is both like having the most intimate conversation and playing a very good game of tennis. You can ping something to them and have the audience send it right back. It is wonderful, it will only raise your confidence, making you more daring, more willing to try risky material. It is nice to feel trusted.

TrunkSpace: What is your most memorable performance experience (good or bad!) that will stick with you for the rest of your career and why?
Smith: One time a man threw some of those Mardi Gras beads at me while I was on stage which is a few different layers of rude.

TrunkSpace: How do you handle hecklers? What approach do you take?
Smith: I cry very hard until they apologize to me.

TrunkSpace: What are your thoughts on the stand-up landscape in 2018? Are you optimistic for the future of live comedy?
Smith: I personally am excited for it! People seem to be enjoying stand-up a lot, it’s getting very popular. I think it’s a good thing that homophobic, transphobic material is getting less acceptable. Hopefully we’ll be moving towards a more accepting space, and away from “I hate my wife and mother-in-law” tropes.

TrunkSpace: Finally, who do YOU find funny?
Smith: Pain, loss, love, fart noises.

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Laugh It Up

Maxi Witrak

MaxiWitrakFeatured

Name: Maxi Witrak

Website: www.maxiwitrak.com

Socials: Twitter/Instagram

Why We’re LaughingWitrak’s subtle and subdued delivery allows for the punchlines to sneak up on you, often tickling your funny bone well after she has already moved on in her set, making for a surprising game of comedic catch up!

TrunkSpace: Was comedy always in the cards? Were you a “funny” kid, even at an early age?
Witrak: I was never the class clown or cool enough to be “the funny one.” Usually I was the one making a weird joke that all the cool kids kind of made a side eye at me for. One day after a joke one of these girls sort of goes quiet, squints at me, and goes, “…OHHHHH, you’re being FUNNY!” And it was like this whole time she/they hadn’t realized they were jokes and after that I made sense to them.

TrunkSpace: When did you decide to pursue stand-up comedy as a career and did you make a plan for how you would attack things?
Witrak: At first I liked sketch and improv, but those all demanded too much extra time of trying to organize people before even getting to get down to the work. As someone also pursuing acting and trying to have a life I thought of trying stand-up so that I could just rely on myself.

When I started, I thought I could bypass the slog of open mics by trying to out-write the process. The thought of staying up late night after night sounded miserable to me. So I was doing real shows every few weeks as my only stage time and was awful, of course. Somewhere in there I decided to stop being casual about it and let myself care enough to go for it. Every day I’m doing something towards it – writing, doing an open mic, doing a show, seeing a show, even if it’s just watching standup online. I literally check off each day that I’ve done something.

I think when I realized stand-up was my passion though was when going to the shows I would get insanely jealous of the comics. Just aching to get to be up there whether I was good or bad. I think if you find anything where you’re looking at the big sharks doing their thing and all you want to do is swim with them, even if you get torn to shreds, that’s how you know you want it.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a comic?
Witrak: I’m still discovering it, every set. Sometimes I’ll watch a comic’s special and find that my entire set that night has picked up their accent, if you will. What I always try to steer back to is, who do I most want to get to be? What kind of person am I most jealous of because it seems like they’re having the most fun?

TrunkSpace: Is the approach you take now on stage different from the approach you took when you first started out? Is it one act that grew into itself or would you consider them two completely different acts?
Witrak: When I first started out, I’d describe myself as the poor man’s Amy Schumer. A lot of crude dick jokes and dad incest one-liners just because I was trying out the misdirect and play on words for the first time. I was also completely cut off from the audience, like I was reciting a presentation.

A lot of times I really want to fall back on the comfortable feeling of knowing each line by rote, but I’m starting to move into the space where I can just talk to the audience and be comfortable relying on myself to be my own parachute. Either method could kill or flop, but only one of them is exciting and worthwhile to me.

TrunkSpace: Is the neon “Open” sign in your brain always turned on, and by that we mean, are you always writing and on alert for new material?
Witrak: Always. I’m known for making myself a quick note on my phone anytime something funny or strange happens (or, since the damn iPhone Notes slowdown, scribbling on my hand). It’s got to be annoying as hell for my poor friends – because as much as I want to enjoy the laugh in the moment my wheels are already turning for how to spin it into a bit.

TrunkSpace: How much work goes into a joke before it’s ready to be tested out in front of a live audience?
Witrak: I’ll take something to an open mic as soon as I think of it. Sometimes it’s a half thought that occurred to me as I’m getting ready to go on stage, sometimes I’ve dumped three pages of word vomit on one theme into my laptop and have to start sifting through all that rubble for the tiny viable chunks that emerge by talking through it out loud. If I can talk through my thought process and get some response from the other comics, I know there’s something there and just have to keep tightening and tightening it ‘til I get it clean. Usually it crystallizes within a few mics; sometimes I have to go back to the writing table and squint at it ‘til I dig the final version out. But I don’t like to invest the time in getting it 100 percent lean before taking it to a mic and sizing up whether it’s viable in the first place.

TrunkSpace: If a joke doesn’t seem to be working, how many chances do you give it in a live setting before you decide to rework it or move on from it altogether?
Witrak: I don’t put much store in the volume of reactions at an open mic, but if I’ve done something in front of a live audience two to three times and already taken a closer look to see whether I’ve set it up in a way that just isn’t making sense from the audience’s perspective, I’ll scrap it. I keep everything in case some bit of it is salvageable as an observation but sometimes by abandoning it for a few months I inadvertently end up writing a bit with a different premise that absorbs it.

TrunkSpace: Is it possible to kill one night and bomb the next with essentially the same set, and if so, what do you chalk that up as?
Witrak: Totally possible. I try to avoid blaming the audience but they have probably the most to do with it. I used to be a very competitive horseback rider and when I would get frustrated for a bad ride my trainer would always say “don’t blame the horse.” AKA, take responsibility for it, and use it to make you better. If you’re always blaming the audience or the writing of the scene or the horse, you’re never going to turn that awareness inward and make the needed changes to improve.

But yes, it is totally possible to have just a crap audience. Often it’s the environment – something in the circumstances have psychologically set them up to be poor audience members during your set. Time of night, demographics of the audience, quality of the venue’s food, whether there’s a door that keeps opening and closing and grabbing attention, seating arrangement, etc. Sometimes the setup makes the audience feel like they’re at a play and afraid to make noise rather than being active participants. I’ve done some painful sets in makeshift venues.

TrunkSpace: Does a receptive and willing audience fuel your fire of funny and help to put you on your game for the rest of your set?
Witrak: Absolutely. The more confident you are, the more fun you’re having up there, the more you start reaching for those bold choices or improvised moments that take it to the next level.

TrunkSpace: What is your most memorable performance experience (good or bad!) that will stick with you for the rest of your career and why?
Witrak: I finished a set one time and one of the male comics on the show came up to pay me all sorts of compliments about my writing. He offered to help get me on his friend’s show because he thought I was really funny, then immediately undercut it with “and you’re pretty cute, so sure.” I think any female reading this knows the precise and insidious difference I mean between a compliment on your appearance and a compliment on your appearance at the expense of the rest of you. Someone hitting on me doesn’t send me into a rage. Someone bullshitting me about the thing I’m working my ass off for does.

It reminded me that even though the comedy circles are small and it might feel like I constantly have to put up with that type, I can still choose who I invest my time and respect in, and I’m really lucky to have met quite a few bonafide good human beings so far. I do my best to surround myself with the genuine good guys who treat me like just another comic and not just a “female comic.”

TrunkSpace: How do you handle hecklers? What approach do you take?
Witrak: I’ve had people disrupt a show but never outright heckle. Hating on an audience member is off-brand for me; I want everyone to have a good time. And if I shame someone outright, the whole audience is going to shrink inside themselves. I try to bring everyone in on the joke including the person who’s causing the problem, like they’re the drunk friend we’re humoring by giving a final beer while taking their keys from them.

TrunkSpace: What are your thoughts on the stand-up landscape in 2018? Are you optimistic for the future of live comedy?
Witrak: Living in LA spoils me, because no matter what type of comic you are, you have a place to work on your craft. For the individual comic, it’s difficult to find a niche, especially given how being clean or not can funnel you different places. But for comedy as a whole, both branches further the craft in their own way; the clean ones have to come up with smarter stuff in order to work within those constraints, while the blue comics can explore and blow up existing boundaries.

I’m hoping that people will continue to come see standup live; it still seems like such a mystery to most people who aren’t in it. I’ve overheard audience members say they’ve heard a comic “do that bit before” and complain about jokes being repeated. I don’t think they realize that as easy and improvised as a skilled comic may make a bit seem, each of those five minutes were painstakingly crafted over time. Or for people who like to listen to comedy albums, it’s like owning a CD versus going to a concert. You’re getting the shiny studio-perfect version while only the people who show up at the live show get that unique, shared, imperfect experience with the magic of in-the-moment discoveries.

TrunkSpace: Finally, who do YOU find funny?
Witrak: Tig Notaro, any day of the week. She is so unbelievably present – she does not let a single bit of roadkill go under her tire without getting out of the car to inspect it. There are comics I love who write hilarious bits and make me laugh out loud from behind my laptop when I’m home needing some inspiration. But she is truly for me the embodiment of Steve Martin’s opinion that people come to know a comic’s “taste” and that’s what they come to see. Or what Garry Shandling scribbled in his journals – people don’t care what song Elvis is singing, they came to hear him be the one singing. Tig has brilliant bits, obviously, but she could be reading from a Chinese takeout menu and have everyone dying on the floor because her style and point of view are so razor-sharp you just want to hear what she thinks on everything.

Witrak is performing at the 22nd LA Comedy Festival this week. For more information and the schedule, visit here.

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Wingman Wednesday

Echo Kellum

EchoKellum_best17of17
Photo Credit: Lesley Bryce

* Feature originally ran on 04/28/17

It’s a super terrific day and here’s why. Echo Kellum who plays superhero Mr. Terrific on The CW’s “Arrow” stopped by TrunkSpace to let us pick his brain about his skyrocketing career, including his laugh-inducing work on standup stages across the country where many first fell in love with the Chicago native.

With “Arrow” set to return for a sixth season in the fall, Kellum will be continuing his crime fighting ways, but in the meantime we sat down with the “Girlfriend’s Day” star to discuss the first time he suited up, navigating the passions of the fanboy landscape, and… Mr. McGibblets!

TrunkSpace: What was going through your head the first time you saw yourself in the full Mr. Terrific persona?
Kellum: For me, I grew up loving comic books and knowing that I wanted to be an actor, it’s always been a huge goal of mine to be any type of superhero. (Laughter) So, to do it with a character like Mr. Terrific… going through the audition process and then seeing him become a character to finally putting on the suit to getting his suit upgraded and to finally getting his feel out in the field… it’s been such an amazing world-changing experience for me. Like, I’m actually on a show that my friends actually like for the first time ever. (Laughter) It’s such a cool, wonderful thing to be a part of and every day I count my blessings and I’m just so grateful that I’m getting to bring this character to life.

TrunkSpace: It definitely seems like that in this day and age, the holy grail for an actor is getting to play a superhero character because not only does it look like a hell of a lot of fun to play, but it usually means a recurring role, right?
Kellum: Yeah, for sure. Absolutely. And that was another thing… the fact that they wanted me to come on as a series regular was huge. I was so thankful for that.

TrunkSpace: And congratulations are in order because you’ve been picked up for next season as well.
Kellum: Yeah. Season 6!

TrunkSpace: We know you probably can’t give away too much with how the current season winds down, but is it safe to say that you’ll be back next year as a part of season 6?
Kellum: You know, they keep telling me I will, but you never know. (Laughter) It’s like, “I’m back!” and then dead on episode 2. You’re like, “Nooooooo! Why?!?!” (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: We’d imagine it can be pretty intimidating stepping into a show that already has an established on-set atmosphere and tone. How long did it take for you to feel at home and a part of the “Arrow” family?
Kellum: If I’m being honest, like the first day I walked on the set, I felt so at home and at ease and that was mainly because of Emily Bett Rickards. And then meeting all of the other actors and everybody involved with the show… they really did make it so easy and seamless and just a wonderful experience to be a part of. They treat you like one of their own and when I became one of their own, it felt so right. They treat every guest star, every recurring character… they treat with such respect and class and humility. It really just makes you feel welcome.

And in the other aspect of that, as far as the character… I think he’s still trying to find his way. He’s still trying to get to that place where he feels like he’s a working cog in the team and somebody who they can really count on. I think the fans are still trying to figure that out too and connect with him more. It’s been a really cool journey.

TrunkSpace: Do you have him figured out as a character? Do you feel like you’re in the headspace of Curtis Holt?
Kellum: Yeah. I really do. And thankfully we have some amazing writers who really come up with so much great material work-wise. But yeah, I really do feel like I’m in the headspace of how they want Curtis and where they’re going with him. Obviously he’s definitely a different iteration of the comic book persona, but I kind of like to think of him as early stage Mr. Terrific… Michael Holt kind of until he gets himself together. Because on this show, obviously he’s a little more awkward and quirky. It’s really about finding that balance where he can still be this awkward, silly guy, but then still kind of be badass in other aspects too.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned that fans were still trying to figure Curtis out and connect with him. Were you comfortable stepping into this world where people are already so attached to these characters as lifelong fans and as such… particularly in the social media age… aren’t afraid to speak their minds?
Kellum: Oh yeah. They’re my people. (Laughter) I know how they can be. I think when it all boils down to it, mostly everything you see is positivity. When you’re fortunate enough to be in a position that any of us are in while in this industry to work on a hit show or a show that people are passionate about, you’re going to get both ends of the spectrum from everyone. It’s just how it works. And if we weren’t in that position we’d be getting zero ends of the spectrum from no one. You just have to be thankful that you’re working out there and living your dream, doing the best you can, and getting paid pretty good to do it. So for me, it’s definitely a thing where you’ve got to take it all in and be thankful for the good love that’s coming in and learn from the negativity that’s coming in and just keep pushing forward.

TrunkSpace: Is there anything in your life, either growing up or now, where you could relate to that passionate comic book fanbase? Is there something that you were drawn to in that same passionate way?
Kellum: For me, definitely anything in the X-Men realm as far as comics go, but really it was video games. For me, video games were my life saver. Video games were the things that I geeked out the most about as a fanboy. I was definitely tough when they would make different adaptations of video games to movies. I’d be like, “What the heck… why isn’t this great?” (Laughter) So I can definitely understand some of the hate. If I would have had Twitter then, I might have let a couple of actors know it. (Laughter)

So I can definitely understand the passion, but the thing is, if you don’t have passionate people about it, it’s not a popular project and you’re probably going to be canceled.

TrunkSpace: What’s so cool about video games today is that it’s now an accepted medium for established actors to voice characters in that world. Is that something you’ve dipped your professional fanboy toy in the water of yet?
Kellum: I have not had the opportunity to perform in a video game, but that’s definitely an aspiration. I would love to voice some video game characters. I definitely want to get into that.

TrunkSpace: You established yourself first in the industry as a comedian. That’s a medium where you write and perform your own material. Was it an adjustment delivering lines from other writers when you made the transition into acting?
Kellum: You know, honestly for me it wasn’t an adjustment because I’ve always considered myself an actor first and a comedian second. Acting was kind of something I just started doing when I was 5 years old in church plays, so I’ve always been saying people’s words. (Laughter) But when I got into comedy, it was like, “Oh, I can say my own stuff.” But it feels very normal and natural to be getting scripts and just going for it, but I also just love ripping and improvising and creating new stuff on it too. But I think I definitely kind of look at myself as an actor first.

TrunkSpace: So how much time do you still save for yourself on the writing/standup side? Are you still currently writing?
Kellum: I always write. I’ve never stopped writing standup material, even when I’ve taken a year or two off. I need to get back into it more… definitely something in the next year. I definitely want to be doing more shows, especially when I’m shooting in Vancouver. I want to be out there pushing the pavement and hitting up a lot of shows. But I never stop writing. I’m always writing. I’ve just got to perform more.

TrunkSpace: Do you think you’ll transition that writing skill set into television and film where you can develop projects for yourself?
Kellum: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I’m writing a feature right now that I hope to shoot next spring when we wrap season 6.

TrunkSpace: It definitely seems more accepted within the business for actors to diversify and be a little bit of everything these days. You’re not as specifically labeled as you would have been two decades ago, for example.
Kellum: It’s true. And what’s funny about that is that it’s not even about being allowed but it’s how you survive now. You can’t depend on just the one thing. Back in the day you’d book one commercial and you’re good for the year. You have to be out there completely diversifying yourself. You have to be into acting and into writing and into director. You have to do it all. You have to be a multihyphenate nowadays.

Photo Credit: Lesley Bryce

TrunkSpace: Well, and they always say content is king, but when you’re an actor and developing your own content, you also then control your own destiny.
Kellum: Very true. 100 percent true. You get to really say “yes” or “no” and determine the flow of how you want things to go.

TrunkSpace: It does seem like standup is one of the few mediums were you literally control every aspect of things. Even in music, you’re still having to give some control away, even if that control is not ownership based.
Kellum: Yeah. That’s why I think standup is the toughest form of entertainment to tackle. Because it is just you. In music, like you say, even if you don’t have someone else, you have an instrument to help you. You have your singing voice to help you. You have all of these other tools. In standup, it’s just you and your words and are you funny. Period. Also, a very solitary experience, but it’s so worthwhile.

TrunkSpace: It must have prepared you for the social media age a little bit because standup audiences seem like the first iteration of the internet troll.
Kellum: (Laughter) Oh yeah. Standup audiences were definitely the first trolls. 100 percent.

TrunkSpace: Finally, you’ve got to tell us how Mr. McGibblets came to be?!?!
Kellum: Mr. McGibblets! (Laughter) “The League!” I auditioned for it and it’s just a fun little role. I was a big fan of the show. Love Nick Kroll. Yeah, they just had me come in and do a little one-off. It was great.

TrunkSpace: See, it wasn’t Mr. Terrific who was your first superhero role. It was Mr. McGibblets!
Kellum: (Laughter) Truth right there!

“Arrow” airs Wednesdays on The CW.

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