Aaron Orlovitz

It has been two years since Aaron Orlovitz officially began his stand-up comedy career on Utah stages. Since that moment, thinking people everywhere have questioned what they had done without him for so long. Orlovitz is the thinking man’s comic—he’s smart, he’s articulate, and he is oodles of neurotic fun. Already, this bearded be-wonderment has become a force to reckon with in the Beehive State’s comedy scene. SLUG got to him at a time when his career seems to be skyrocketing, just before he inevitably breaks into the big time and gets too famous to talk to us.

 

Orlovitz is a Utah transplant, having moved here as a teenager from the East Coast. “It was shitty,” he says, “but Salt Lake is way better than Cincinnati.” He brings a unique perspective to the table, being raised in a two-religion household where his mother was Jewish and his father was Christian. A lot of material is inspired by his life and much of his material is centered around being half Jewish. “There were a lot of weird situations that would arrive as a result of that.” Even now, he finds humor in things that most recovering-Mormon comedy fans wouldn’t understand. “I went to the UK and was hanging out with these chicks, and because I was Jewish, they kept asking me about my circumcision.” The way he puts it, they “badgered him” all night to see it. Not yet a celebrity, Orlovitz already gets in Beiber-esque situations. He rarely goes “blue” with his comedy though, so the junk-talk is purely anecdotal.

 

Onstage, he gives off a perfectly uncomfortable and neurotic vibe, which he plays up. His voice shakes a little bit as he talks about his insecurities. Many of his jokes are rooted in the strange things he thinks of, has done, or have happened in his past. For instance, his dad used to tell him outrageously funny stories as a kid. “We were driving through the mountains in Tennessee and there are these signs that say “look for falling rock.” And he told me that Falling Rock was this young Native American boy that disappeared a long time ago and that if you found Falling Rock you’d win a prize. I believed that way longer than I should have.” Orlovitz sounds like he already came from funny genes as his adventures with his dad growing up make multiple appearances in his jokes.

 

Starting the dream young, Orlovitz wrote an essay in the fourth grade about how he wanted to do stand-up comedy when he grew up. As he finally did grow up, he had a lot of encouragement to get onstage. “I always had a lot of friends tell me that I should.” But, he didn’t know how to begin that journey. “When I started comedy I had no idea that there were other comedians or how to become a comedian.” He was lucky enough to have started out opening for his friends’ bands before doing an open mic, which led to him getting more acquainted with the stage. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable, even now,” he says. “I’m a little neurotic, you know. You’re never fully comfortable with that. I feel like if you were, you wouldn’t be funny. I think discomfort is funny. Being uncomfortable is when people do funny things. If everyone had all the comfort they desired, there would probably be no funny people.”

 

It hasn’t always been an easy ride for Orlovitz, though. “I dropped out of society for like a year, and I was a squatter and an active anarchist,” he says. “It made me grow up quite a bit.” It was this life event that changed and humbled him, creating the kind of young-but-wise comedian that you see onstage. “Basically, I learned that I still hate society and government, but it’s easier just to give in, I guess. I matured a lot, you don’t have to entirely give in. I still express an amount of rebellion with my comedy and in general.” It’s become a big part of why he does comedy.

 

“I was a philosophy major until I dropped out and started squatting,” he says. Indeed, he is a smart guy who deeply understands philosophy, a theme that weaves in and out of his material. “A lot of philosophers try to define humor. Aristotle talked about it—how humor has to be relatable, how it needs to be ridiculous and all of these different things. Personally, I’m not sure that humor is a thing that even has a philosophy. I think that humor is a way to express philosophy. I think that you can use comedy and humor to make a point about something, about the way the world is, about the way your reality is, about even weird shit like how we know the things we know,” he says. This idea becomes clear when Orlovitz is onstage, blending his life, observational humor, and the deeper meaning behind it all. “I think that comedy and humor could possibly be a form of thought that could get us closer to the truth.”

 

Orlovitz has made giant strides in the two years since he started. “I feel accomplished with the show Nicholas Smith and I run together,” he says. That show is the monthly comedy spectacle Dungeons & Comedy, where Orlovitz helps host and play Dungeon Master. The show just moved back to its original location at Muse Music in Provo and pits together a handful of comedians who not only put on their sets, but have to battle it out in an irreverent and hilarious game of Dungeons and Dragons. He’s really proud of it. “We have a little bit of a cult following growing,” Orlovitz says. “There are four or five Provo High School kids that come to every single one of our shows.”

 

Orlovitz has noticed that he’s found a sort of purpose in being part of the comedy scene, and not just in his Dungeons & Comedy shows. “In some ways it’s comforting because it’s a shared experience,” he says. Orlovitz points out that there is a connection between the comedian and the audience when he is onstage. “I like that people are laughing at my problems,” he says. “It makes me feel better about them, and I hope it makes them feel better. It’s a sort of vulnerability; it’s like letting them into me. If people connect with me and they laugh, that’s a really good feeling. They don’t have to feel vulnerable.”

 

This is the other part of what keeps Orlovitz going, week after week, hitting as many stages as he can. “I really like the sound of a laugh. It’s a very selfish thing. It feels good to me to get a laugh, and that’s why I keep doing it.” He’s surprisingly optimistic for a self-proclaimed Anarchist. “I would like to do it forever.” Although his realist side then kicks in and he admits that it doesn’t have to be a goal of making it his primary source of income. “I’ve made a lot of good friends in comedy. Part of the reason I still go is that open mic is just a room full of my friends.” It is the friendship and the laughter that drives him to keep getting up onstage, “even when I don’t feel like it,” he says.

 

You can check out Orlovitz this week in Park City at the Egyptian Theater, as part of the Stand-Up Utah! lineup including comedians Eric Ripley, Paul Sheffield, Aaron Woodall, Abi Harrison, and Alex Velluto, with host Christian Pieper. Tickets are between $15-$25, sold online or at the door at the Egyptian Theater. Dungeons & Comedy also returns to Muse Music in Provo Nov. 14, with another all new lineup for only $5. Let Orlovitz help you get your intellectual nerd on, and check out some of the best local entertainment this state has to offer.

The Pop Festival – Edited by George McKay

The Pop Festival – Edited by George McKay

The Pop Festival: History, Music, Media, Culture

George McKay
Bloomsbury
Street: 05.21

This is a book for history buffs, cultural academics, musicians and those diehard music fans who set out every summer to attend festivals like Coachella or Lollapalooza. As a history nerd myself, it was fascinating from a social perspective to see how festivals have changed over the last 60 years within the social climate of wherever they were being held. Assembled from 14 essays that run a time span from the 1950s until now and cover ground in the U.K. as well as the U.S., The Pop Festival is the most comprehensive collection explaining the underlying nature of music festivals. From humble beginnings of community folk festivals to political movements and to the evolution of the EDM festivals of our time, there is something that will intrigue everyone in here. The essays are each fairly short with their own distinct tone and voice, so each story and era feels self-contained. Yet, they weave together a vivid story of where we’ve been, with eyes on where we are now. Fun fact: Did you know that the term “raver” was being used all the way back in the ‘50s? For many more insights into how we got where we are today, this book will sometimes read a little like a text-book, but you will learn some interesting tidbits to impress your friends with on your road trip to your next show. –Rachel Jensen

I Am Salt Lake: Live, featuring Chris Holifield, Paul Duane, Kerry Jackson and Levi Rounds. Photo: Rachel Jensen

Chris Holifield has created a podcast that embodies what it is like to be a part of one of the best cities in the country. The I Am Salt Lake podcast has released 192 episodes as of this article’s publication, covering all sorts of SLC folk, including musicians, activists, artists, comedians and public figures. He brought his podcast to the stage at The Club at 50 West downtown, bringing together a stand-up comedian, a radio host and a talk-show host for a night of weird questions, even weirder answers and a hefty dose of The Beatles hate.

 

Starting off the night was legendary local comedian Levi Rounds entertaining the crowd with his standup fare. He maintains that he is not a hipster, though random strangers have accused him of being one because he lacks the ample derriere to hold his pants up without suspenders. Rounds talks about insecurity, anxiety, self-medication, and Garth Brooks. He’s recently taken up golfing which, for most men in their 30s, would not be comedic fodder—but have you seen Rounds? He’s the exact opposite of any golf enthusiast, but he does tout the advantage of playing a sport that allows one to drive around drunk.

 

Holifield joined him onstage to begin the familiar question-and-answer portion of the I Am Salt Lake podcast, yet with slightly more irreverent questions. I Am Salt Lake typically delves into the lives and stories of individuals that make up the fabric of this great city. However, because Rounds, Kerry Jackson and Paul Duane had each been on the show previously (episodes 122, 74, and 176 respectively), their stories and accomplishments have already been discussed at length. So, Holifield what any great host would do—he asked hard-hitting questions, some of them involving zombies. Holifield asked for advice that Rounds would give to his younger self on the first day of High School, and he was obviously not expecting the mostly-joking answer of, “Kill yourself.” They discussed some of Rounds’ weirdest moments with roommates, what he would choose for his last meal, and what he would do if he became president. The biggest revelation was that Rounds unapologetically and absolutely hates the Beatles.

 

I Am Salt Lake: LiveJackson was next up, and entered the stage spectacularly with a queued up version of “Let it Be” by The Beatles, prompting Rounds to run off the stage in disgust. However, in a moment of forgiveness, he did return to the stage to banter with Jackson and Holifield. Jackson has been a longtime radio personality and DJ in the state, who can currently be heard as part of the X96 Radio From Hell show, as well as the Geek Show podcast. He’s perfectly comfortable with a microphone, and extremely entertaining with his quick wit. It’s revealed that if he were to ever become Governor (it’s not in the plans) he would privatize liquor sales in Utah. And if he got bigger than that as President? He’d deregulate the FCC, because, of course. We also find out that Jackson knows a scarily abnormal amount of things about zombies and the impeding zombie apocalypse. Holifield learned the hard way that you cannot simply ask a zombie-phile about what he would do in the zombie invasion, because you’ll be met with a barrage of follow up questions like, “Are they fast zombies or slow zombies?” among others.

 

Finishing out the trio of talented individuals was Paul Duane, entering the stage in his signature short shorts, pantyhose and black heels. He recounts how the style came to be after a strict Mormon upbringing. Jackson awkwardly asks about his shoes, “Are they women’s size?” Holifield got to ask Duane just a few questions before the silliness of the four of them on stage devolved mostly to making jokes about being raised Mormon and how much Duane hates karaoke. This is not a bad thing, as absolutely everything about this four-way conversation was the height of entertainment. The guys talked about some of their “firm stances” that they had on various subjects, such as Round’s hatred of the Beatles and Duane’s hatred of karaoke. They were schooled by Jackson, who said, “I used to be you guys, and then I mellowed the fuck out.”

 

The banter between the four of them was priceless. They were able to ask each other some final questions before the audience questions. Local photographer Cat Palmer got up to ask about their guiltiest pleasures. Duane’s guilty pleasure is the band Simple Minds. Jackson, who has been a DJ since the days of Simple Minds remembers the first time he had heard them and said to himself “That sounds like Billy Idol on ’ludes.” Soon after, the panel of guests were more interested in asking their host about his stellar beard. I have never learned more about beards in my life, and I think we all left more informed about the process that a beard undergoes to look fantastic. It’s pretty hard work—you’d be surprised.

 

I Am Salt Lake is available for free on iTunes, Stitcher, or your other favorite podcast platforms. You can also view all of the past episodes and more information about the show at iamsaltlake.com. The Club at 50 West hosts comedy, live music, and other live entertainment. To see what they have coming up, you can like them on Twitter, Facebook, or check them out at 50westslc.com.

Gallows

The Gallows
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Street: 10.13.15

 

Ah, found footage films, when will you fall out of fashion? I’ll admit, the found footage genre has its moments, and I am not quite yet in the camp that has sworn them off completely. Without this super-cheap, highly effective format, a lot of horror films might not ever see the light of day. Having the ability to shoot on a small, shoe-string budget, clever enough horror movies that would have typically been straight to DVD affairs are getting a new foothold. This is thanks to the gamble on the fact that the success rate on these flicks is pretty decent, and in the event that it doesn’t even do well at the box office, these cheap little scare fests can still turn a pretty good profit. I was actually more impressed when I dug in a little bit and found out that The Gallows wasn’t just a studio attempt at cashing in on the genre, but it was an actual passion project that just so happened to get picked up by recognizable names upon it’s first rounds out on the market. You may have seen the “Charlie Charlie” marketing campaign that went viral, about the same time they were trying to push a new franchise horror movie villain: “Charlie has his noose…” I wish the producers wouldn’t have tried so hard, and this may have found better footing as a sleeper hit, or a word-of-mouth film.

 

I liked it, but probably because I like horror films, clever new settings and places to be scared of. The setting of the majority of the film is an old High School at night, primarily the auditorium. I’m pretty sure that every High School older than 30 years has a story about how their drama department, stage, auditorium, etc. is haunted. This took me right back to all of the folklore surrounding my own school. A cursed play is being brought back on the 20th anniversary of a tragic accident that took the life of one of the young actors during a performance. Realistically, though, if a student accidentally hung themselves on stage while involved in an extra-curricular activity, that drama department would not only be non-existent, but absolutely any and all faculty involved would have been out of a job. They bring back the play anyway, and with it, the ghost of Charlie.

 

Now, at this point, if they had just left it at “The Ghost of Charlie” I would have had nothing but great things to say about this horror flick. For “shaky handheld cam footage” it’s actually shot pretty well, and the foreshadowing is solid. I was cheering for the ghost to win, as there is only one likable character in the bunch. I don’t hold it against the film, though—those were choices that were made and I can see why they all made sense. This may be a case where a producer or studio gets ahold of the source material and sees a marketing opportunity. It has been awhile since we had a good new serial killer in a series that becomes a multi-year franchise. This was not the film to try to bring in a new monster. The death of Charlie was tragic, but we are meant to believe that he’s out for revenge. No spoilers here, as even the trailers were set up to make us believe that Charlie is a brutal killer and no one is safe. Sadly, I think that a story focusing around a teen who died accidentally and stuck around the school is more eerie than a teen who died accidentally and is now inexplicably pissed and will possess and kill those who dare to … act? It tries to explain it, but the revenge angle is weak.

 

There are some good paranormal elements and some great jump scares in The Gallows. The atmosphere is eerie, and there were moments I had to pretend to be checking my email on my phone so I didn’t get too scared. You’ll enjoy it more the less you think about it. Take my advice—there is a moment that was the obvious original ending. It’s not life-altering, but it works and has a good blink-and-you’ll miss it visual. Turn off the DVD or Blu-Ray right at that exact moment or you will unfortunately see the most contrived, tacked on, all-loose-ends-tied-up ending that I have ever seen in a film since, well, Paranormal Activity. What a coincidence that the finished projects of great indie films were completed by the same people? Don’t hold it against them, just stop your viewing there, and enjoy it for what it is: A decent Halloween flick that will entertain, but won’t keep you up all night.

 

Diversity Breeds Comedy

 

If you picture legendary comedians, a long list of diverse comics probably comes to mind—both men and women with different styles, stories and from all backgrounds and walks of life. How does Utah, being predominantly of a white Mormon demographic, factor into a national comedy scene? Do we have what it takes to produce quality comedy on par with the rest of the nation? If you’ve been to a comedy show in our great state, the answer will not surprise you. In our very own backyard, maybe in a little coffee shop, bar or comedy club near you, we have some of the most diverse comics to make any joke-junkie feel right at home. In part two of our three part series on comedy in Utah, we wanted to get an in depth look at how comedians see themselves and the scene in the state. SLUG sought out three of the busiest and funniest comics and grabbed some pizza by the slice at Downtown’s very own Maxwell’s to chat.

 

Diverse Comics

 

If you are even a casual fan of local comedy, chances are pretty good you’ve seen one of our three diverse comics on a stage or at an event. Andrew Jensen is the taller half of the comedy improv duo ToySoup with Troy Taylor, and he’s been on the comedy circuit for the better part of 14 years. Basically a one-man creative force of nature, Jensen can also be seen doing stand-up comedy, film, sketch comedy, and organizing events like Comedy Carnivale, which he co-founded with fellow comedian Christopher Stephenson. Jensen has often used his comedy chops for charitable causes. He and Taylor recently taught a workshop for students at Skyline High School. In the past Jensen has participated in charity fundraisers for MS at local venues like Mo’s Neighborhood Grille, and part of the proceeds from Comedy Carnivale went to benefit MS as well.

 

Natashia Mower began her comedy career just over three years ago, and she’s already one of the top performing comedians in the state, with her recent win of City Weekly‘s ARTY award for best local comedian. She’s hard at work on multiple shows, including Funny Fridays at Sandy Station, which she helped start and organize. An advocate for the gay community, she’s been interviewed for a comedic article in Huffington Post’s Gay Voices and has performed at the Utah Pride Festival. Mower has also worked with Create Reel Change, a local organization set up by comedian and film maker Brian Higgins that uses creativity and art to battle mental illness, depression and PTSD.

 

Last, but certainly not least, we have Jay Whittaker, who has been involved in Utah comedy for over four years, and is one of the busiest in the business. He’s a self-proclaimed geek who can talk for hours about super heroes, video games, and all things comic book related.. This makes him a favorite on panels at FanX and Salt Lake Comic Con, and as a regular on the Geek Show Podcast. Whittaker is a familiar face on the standup circuit throughout Utah, including multiple headlining shows at Wiseguys Comedy Club. He’s also one of just a handful of black comedians in the state, a group that’s been growing as diverse comics grow in Utah.

 

Diversity on Stage

Diverse Comics
Andrew Jensen is one half of ToySoup, a local comedy act.

We really do have something for everybody when it comes to comedy shows. “We have a pretty diverse group for Utah,” says Jensen. “There are a lot of different comics and different styles.” He doesn’t think it would be shocking to outsiders, though. Comedy nationwide tends to draw audiences and performers from all walks of life. Mower points out that all kinds of different styles are welcome and accepted on comedy stages.“There are occasions where you get fatigue,” she says, “like ‘ugh, this person was just like the last person talking about the same thing, over and over again,’ or when a show is inundated with Mormon jokes. But it’s really rare that it happens anymore.” These types of comics come from the mainstream in the state, and they do really well with audiences that connect with material from the world that they know. The types of material or people that go against the mainstream breathe fresh life into the norm. “There’s definitely way more shows now where there’s something new and unique to comedy,” says Jensen.

 

When it comes to different styles of jokes and topics for material, Whittaker is excited for all the up and comers, like Shayne Smith. “We’ve got a straight edge guy now, and that’s great! And he’s a super nerd!” Working comics often rely on other comedians to bounce ideas off of, because the difference in styles adds a new dynamic to their material. Whittaker is proud of the fact that there are so many great, diverse comics with unique voices. “The community here is fucking strong,” he says. He’s an experienced performer, and yet can still encounter situations where the material he wants to use doesn’t hit home with the crowds he’s delivering it to. The trick that separates the pros from the amateurs is making this type of situation work in your favor, and opening up new ideas to an audience. For example, he recently did a set explaining “Black Lives Matter.” “Half of the audience immediately turned on me,” he says. “How would I expect to talk to a room and explain Black Lives Matter and make it informational and humorous without alienating the crowd?” Understandably, there may not be a connection to the circumstances, but his job is to build a connection between himself and the audience. “It’s hard because you have to sit there and bring them down to your level.” Whittaker has had to sit through many uncomfortable sets with out-of-town comedians, and newcomers trying to be edgy. Comics using the N-word in a mostly white state tends to alienate the crowd. “They’re not going to relate to it,” he says. If anyone can bring an audience on board with new ideas, it’s the comics who have had to work harder to bring them down to the same level. “You have to find the common ground. All of us, we have to work faster.”

 

Our panel of diverse comics are all extremely hard-working, personal and relateable, so they haven’t changed the stories or jokes that they tell. Their material comes from a genuine place in their own lives. Mower learned how to adapt what she wanted to say with all audiences. “Recently, I realized there were stages and rooms where I was forcing material that wasn’t going to work or I’d have to approach it differently,” she says. She hasn’t really ever had an issue being herself onstage. “I have never really felt anything against any of my jokes about being gay—that’s just all silly and dumb anyway. The thing that I talk about a lot that’s becoming way more prevalent with my comedy that’s hard to get people to figure out how to relate to is dark humor.” She’s proud of that material, but had to learn how to work it into her sets in a way that would be entertaining. “I had to find a way to keep it light enough, but I still want to get the point to land,” she says. “Unfortunately, you just have to get them on board first, and then be like ‘ok, will they follow me in this direction. Just be real with me for a second.” Mower can also adapt to more mainstream crowds and has no problem doing clean comedy. “The second you say ‘don’t curse,’ I won’t curse,” she says. “It’s just really not a problem for me.” Her sets flow really well in between silly jokes and harder hitting material. “Dark stuff is really just always the challenge. Gay jokes are never a problem, because I keep them really light. Some of them are dirty, but you can just take them out.”

 

Diversity in Styles

 

Jensen and ToySoup have been the odd man out due to their performance style onstage. “The improv world doesn’t like us because we break the rules,” he says. “Whereas in the standup world, we’re not really standup either. We don’t write down our material.” They have also had to learn how to adapt and use this to their advantage, and by doing this they have thrived. “We do kind of have an advantage when we’re on a standup show, and then all of a sudden there are two people (ToySoup) doing a set and people are like, ‘check out this shit.’ It’s an opportunity to say, well sure, we’re not these guys.” Audiences welcome seeing something new and interesting, but Jensen has had his own obstacles with being a different kind of act. “I struggle with that because many times I’ve thought, ‘Well, they’re not going to like us because we don’t have a microphone and we’re different,’ but it is an opportunity,” he says. Jensen has learned to enjoy hosting and playing with the crowd, it’s a very comfortable situation for him. “The problem I have with standup is that I feel like I could be better at it if I actually focused on it, and put time into it. The problem with being a comedian and an entertainer is that you really have to focus on one thing. If you try to do too many different things you’ll just be OK at a bunch of things,” he says. “If you’re going to do standup, just kill it at standup.” Jensen is actually of a rare breed of comedian that can cross those lines and still make it work. Having diverse comics makes each comedy show unique. Utah doesn’t have a shortage of original acts, from comedic clowns, to avant-garde abstract comedy, improv, song and dance, and everything in between.

 

Jensen does think that those who can grasp improvisation make the best show hosts. “You never know what’s going happen at a standup show, or any show for that matter,” he says. “Sometimes it sucks because the next comic could be amazing, but because the crowd isn’t into it anymore, then they have to try to win them back. That’s why it’s so necessary to have such an awesome host.” Many experienced comedians like Jensen do hosting gigs as well as their own shows. “That’s where I do think that improv is an advantage in hosting because you learn to read the crowd in improv. If they don’t laugh, then you go, ‘oh shit, what do I do next?’” Whittaker says, “That’s because you have to think on your feet. If you can do a hosting spot, it’s not all about you. It’s about the headliner or the event, you just have to think on your feet. You can’t do your original set.”

 

diverse comics
Though Natashia Mower is still relatively new to the comedy scene in Utah, she’s already one of the top performers in the state.

Mower, Whittaker, and Jensen all agree that performers get better by stepping outside of their comfort zone from time to time. Jensen says, “It’s good to have people that do shows, people that put together shows, people that don’t that just perform, and people that do other things. You have to have them all. If you figure out what you’re good at, and then do that, that’s perfect, because you all can’t do the same thing. That would just suck.” Whittaker believes that it’s important for comedians to diversify what they can do onstage. “Comics are entertainers. If you’re going to be an entertainer, you kind of have to wear more than one hat.” Early on, he learned how to branch out and started picking up different gigs in commercials, and film. Mower thinks that it’s about the things you need to do to promote yourself. “You’ve got to say ‘yes’ a lot,” she says. It’s important to know your worth, and know when to say ‘no.’ “Say no to things that will hurt the comedy scene. Stop saying yes to those people. It makes the scene bad.”

 

Mower thinks that having the mainstream mix with something more unique is a great combination.“If there’s predominance of white males or anything else, that works to your advantage. I don’t feel like I’m up against anything, because if you’re on a show and you are the odd person out, they are going to eat it up if you’re good.” She feels like a break in the norm is refreshing, but it’s about the material and quality of jokes delivered more than anything. For instance, there could be a lot of white males doing a show together and they can all still be really good and really diverse in their styles. “It’s not to say that there’s a pigeon hole, I don’t think,” she says. Whittaker feels that the perceived obstacles aren’t really there, or they are manufactured. “Am I one of the token black dudes? Yeah, but do I use it to my advantage? Fuck yeah!” Being different, and being good at being different, whatever that difference may be is the key. Mower agrees: “It’s not so much of an obstacle as an opportunity,” she says.

 

Comedy shows in Utah

 

Having performers with lives outside of the status-quo breeds comedy. Whittaker understands this is what makes comedy work the best. “When you bring in all of these people, there’s a fine level of discomfort, and within that discomfort, that’s where you get it. You bring in all of those people from different walks, and it’s funny—it’s almost magical.” Jensen agrees and brings it into perspective from a local level. “I also think that part of it is that in this society here in Utah, in this culture a lot of people are raised sheltered, and it’s kind of broken out now so that those people want to go to shows and see how the other half lives,” Jensen says. “They’re kind of on the edge now where they are like ‘wait, there’s a world out there.’” Jensen admits that he was one of those sheltered people at one time, and he wanted to break out and experience more. “It opens their mind.” He doesn’t think that material should be tip-toed around so as not to offend. “People I think are sophisticated enough to get a joke. They get that we’re joking.” Mower points out “It’s perspective”. She says, “there’s a difference between silliness and blasphemy. You can make fun of something and not be completely shitting on it.” She’s got advice on how to handle those situations “Always assume that your audience is smart, and if they end up being dumb, have some jokes for dumb people ready.”

 

Jensen has learned the secret to winning over audiences in Utah. “You’ve just got to be true to yourself, because if you’re not true to yourself, then the audience sees that right away.” He’s performed in front of corporate crowds, college crowds and all-ages crowds. “You can’t go into it thinking, ‘Oh, we’re in Utah, there’s a lot of white Mormons here, we’ve gotta be super clean.’ I know a lot of Mormons, a lot of my family are Mormon, and they still think I’m funny. I just have to be myself. They know who I am.” He understands this perspective, because he used to be on the other side, and can still relate to it. “Sure, they don’t want to hear a show that’s super dirty, but that doesn’t stop you from being who you are. You’ve just gotta respect that. Be who you are, and the people that want to be around that will come to your shows.”

 

Whittaker gets passionate and philosophical about the need for comedy. “Standup is one of the last forms of free speech. It’s one of those things that you have to sit down, shut up, and appreciate.” He goes on to say, “When the apocalypse happens, you can’t go see a movie, you can’t listen to a song, who can make you laugh right there?” The comedians agree with him. “Laughter, it really is one of the last ways to communicate. It brings us all together,” he says. Jensen thinks that this is due to just the basics of a live comedy show. “There’s a ton of vulnerability when you’re onstage. When you go out there and lay it on the line, I kind of feel like the more you do comedy you want to say something meaningful, and make it funny, but you want to connect with that crowd.” Jensen says that the feeling onstage is powerful. “You’re being vulnerable, and they’re being vulnerable back and saying ‘we accept you for what you are,'” he says Being in an audience is a different experience than seeing it on TV. Whittaker says, “Go to those shows because now you get to see it happen.” He feels that it is all about those organic moments that happen at live shows to make it worth being there. It’s an experience that you have with the comic. The audience feeds off the comedian, and the comic can talk about what’s going on in the crowd, making each show unique. “Come see a standup show because you’ll discover things that you didn’t even know that you like, you’ll have fun.” Mower nods and agrees with him,“Nothing beats it.” She’s still a huge fan of comedy shows, and loves going to see live comedy.

 

Unity, Not Competition

 

Jay Whittaker yearns for more stages dedicated to comedy and more opportunities. “We need a place like the Comedy Store that stays open until 2 a.m. We can barely do 5–6 rooms a week. In big cities like New York City you can do 5–6 rooms a night.” He thinks that now is a pivotal time for Utah comedy. “Right now people need to be as creative as possible.” With festivals and big comedy shows taking place in the state, we’ve got a national eye on our little scene. Mower agrees enthusiastically. “Keep it going, but going in the right direction,” she says. “Be creative, be on your game, because people are paying attention.” She points out that comedy shows are getting more random walk ups to see comedy, the crowds are no longer only comics and friends of comics. Festivals like Comedy Carnivale and multiple podcasts have opened up new avenues for comedians. Promotional tools through social media, word of mouth and media coverage have also helped the comedy scene thrive. Mower believes that the steps for people interested in seeing comedy are simple. “Start locally. Even just liking SLC Comedy Scene or liking Wiseguys on Facebook will make sure you’re going to find out about stuff going on.”

 

Mower wants to get rid of the idea that comedians are in competition with each other. “We’ve gotta stop using words like that, just in general,” she says. “I mean, there’s jealousy that creeps in, but I had to learn to use that as motivation.” She remembers that she’d see people who were really good, and it was intimidating, but she actually needed that. “If you’re in a room and no one inspires you, get out of that room. Just think, ‘oh thank god that you’re here’ instead of ‘oh fuck that guy, because he’s better than me’, but really ‘no thank god you’re here because you’re pushing me.” Jensen, having worked in film as well, equates comedy to being on a big film crew. “In the film world, it takes a lot of people to make something good. A lot of people. It’s not just one guy’s idea, it takes a bunch of collaboration to make it work. And I think that’s where it is an issue, it’s not a competition. I think it’s totally personal. People are worried internally about what they are doing.” Whittaker remembers a time when he started and there was a lot of in-fighting in the local comedy world. “There was a divide when I first showed up, and I was like ‘great’. Then there was a peace time. The peace time was so nice.” Within that peace time he talks about, more open mics and venues popped up, and with those, new comedians. “That peace time was great because we needed that.”

 

However, Whittaker hates the politics. “The thing that I hate right now—that I’ve actually hated since I started, is the fucking politics.” He’s struggled with aspects of the comedy scene, and that some performers bring too much negativity with them. “I used to be the most optimistic guy, and now I can’t even get out of the house because I don’t personally like hanging out with comics. It’s too fucking negative.” Mower understands this first hand. “With comics there is an energy that you can relate to in some ways, but it brings you down. Where as with people like ToySoup I like hanging out with them because it’s a fun creative energy. It’s an ‘up’ energy,” she says. “It’s like, this is how I actually feel, I feel creative. But with other people it’s like ‘you wanna kill yourself, too?’ Cool, let’s just talk about that again.”

 

Passion for the stage

 

Despite having to battle against moments of negativity, these three remain passionate and dedicated to comedy. Whittaker recently did a show in Rock Springs and he took newcomer Eric Ripley with him. He says that not only did Ripley kill it on stage, but that he was excited to follow him. “That’s the mindset that people don’t have.” This kind of positivity helps comedians in multiple ways, if one succeeds, they all succeed. Jensen agrees, “That’s what I don’t get! When you’ve been to a show that’s an overall awesome show, it’s a euphoric amazing feeling. When it’s just you, there’s something missing out of that show,” he says. “You want the whole show to go well.” Jensen refers back to what Mower said about being inspired. “Because if you’re not inspired, why are you doing it? What’s your motivation for doing comedy?”

 

Mower points out that over the last few years, so many great new diverse comics have entered the comedy scene. “Seeing how many new people come around, and even being inspired by those who have only done a few sets, you think, ‘oh, you’ve got something to say, this is cool, I’m excited to see you grow and find your voice.’” She firmly believes that as a comic she wants to just support others, and ignore the negative talk. “If I’m ever feeling like ‘this sucks I don’t wanna be in this scene’ or I want to move, I feel like there are still people you need to support and kind of encourage.” Jensen agrees and recommends to “surround yourself with people that are uplifting.” Whittaker adds to this sentiment and says “surround yourself with people that are continuously doing projects.”

 

Diverse Comics
Jay Whittaker speaks at a panel during Salt Lake Comic Con 2015 [Matt Brunk / unlifephotography.com]

Whittaker admits that there have been times he’s struggled, but he’s remained focused on his job. He hadn’t been having a good time on stage for awhile, and just needed to let it out. “I go out on a Saturday, and had one of the best sets I’ve had. Just because I finally felt it.” He was able to reconnect with why he became a comedian in the first place. “I was tired of focusing on the politics and I was like, I’m just going to focus on my craft. Remember why you started to do this, it’s just to make people laugh.” In fact, many comedians have struggled with moments like this. In over 10 years onstage, Jensen can relate. “Bring it back to the focus. It’s that focus that you have to have on what you want to do, and you have to find that in yourself. Why are you onstage? Are you onstage to make other comics laugh? Then you’re not there for the right reasons,” he says. “You’re onstage to entertain others, and you like that feeling and you like that laughter and the audience, and maybe you are getting something artistic out of it, and it’s freeing you. That’s when you come back to where you are.” He sometimes admits that he realizes he just goes through the motions. “But it’s good, it’s freeing. It opens your soul up and you find out why you’re really there and what you’re doing it for.” Jensen gives sage advice to all struggling comedians and entertainers “Get excited about what you’re doing and believe in it, because people are paying attention.”

 

There are those out there that begin a career or hobby in comedy as an outlet or a purpose. Then, there are those out there that find a passion for the stage, like Jensen, Mower and Whittaker. Even those people who don’t necessarily fit in, or are not quite the norm, the misfits, the outsiders, and the weird kids, they can have a voice and a story to tell. All it takes is that passion to get onstage, and the drive to keep going in the face of struggles or negativity. This is the beauty of comedy as an art form, there really is something for everyone inside of it, and there are places for every type of person at the table. Being different as an entertainer is a strength, not a weakness, and can open you up for meaningful connections with an audience. If you have ever thought about seeing a comedy show, or trying out standup comedy, feeling different should not stop you, it should empower you. Utah comedy has proven that our diverse comics are on par, or even surpass, other comedy scenes, and that leaves the door open for new faces and voices to come join in all of the fun.


For more information on standup comedy in Utah, check out the other pieces in this series!

We Live For Funny: The Evolution Of The Utah Comedy Scene

Life on the Stage in Utah Comedy: Advice for Aspiring Professional Comedians

Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Eight Season

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Street: 08.15.15

 

The Big Bang Theory is one of those shows where you can get home from work, slip into some comfy sweat pants, and binge watch without having to put too much effort into it. If you’ve missed out on all or part of the previous seasons, you can still pick this up and find it enjoyable without having to know too much about what has come before. For those of you who are fans, let’s face it, the number one reason you watch is to see the things the socially inept Sheldon will say (or sing).

 

Season 8 starts off after the cliff-hanging seventh season finale, where Sheldon decides to run away by train and never come back. Cut to two months later, and Sheldon has had his pants and other belongings stolen, so he is forced to finally come home. Not to be a buzz kill here, but if this type of stunt were pulled by any other adult in his position, they’d come home single, evicted and fired. However, Sheldon faced minimal consequence other than contractual extra dates with Blossom, er, Amy, who is played by Mayim Bialik. Other than that, the characters have not grown up or changed, merely, progressed into life. Penny has cut off her signature blonde locks, and she’s finally living as Leonard’s fiance (still weird). Raj has a girlfriend who is entirely too good looking for him. So, rest assured, the nerds and geeks are still nerds and geeks.

 

There are a few things I had never noticed when watching the previous seasons of The Big Bang Theory. Because you shouldn’t be over-thinking a silly show like this, I would advise against doing anything other than decompressing and sinking deeper into your viewing furniture. For instance, this show may be entirely too smart for some viewers. However, if you’re a little geeky, or know someone a little geeky, it will hit home as difficult concepts are actually spelled out and even played with. Although, it’s kind of unfair that the women on the show are either portrayed as dumb and hot, mean and hot, or genuine and dumpy. When the guys decide that they need a weekend to create and invent because they’ve been slacking, the girls decide to go to Vegas, because of course that’s what girls would do. Later, we also see Bernadette and husband Howard fight about her being the primary bread-winner. Points for being a show portraying some successful, smart women, and then take a few steps back in time for the way their dynamic in the group is illustrated. To give credit though, there is an insightful debate between Bernadette and Amy about the moral dilemma of Bernadette being featured in a girly magazine as a sexy female scientist. After I over-analyzed everything a little bit too much, I gave up and just gave in, immersed in all of the witty wonder.

 

Basically, if you are a hardcore fan, you’re already going to want to buy The Big Bang Theory season 8. The blu-ray comes with a digital download copy and costs a pretty standard $49.99. The digital copy streams through Flixster, which leaves quite a bit to desire, as it would stop and buffer and lag 4–5 times an episode. This season contains 24 episodes, and by my math that would suggest that you could spend a good 12-hour weekend day on getting through the whole thing, and then save the extra features for a bonus round, including their Comic-Con panel. Depending on your level of dedication, the blu-ray set may be worth it just for the extras alone. At the end of the day, there’s a lack of really good sitcoms on TV anymore, so just skip the ‘reality’, and enjoy something that’s a little bit better written.

Krissie Shelley stand-up performance
Krissie Shelley found comfort and solace in the local comedy scene.

The world of podcasting and podcasters has become as diverse as any form of entertainment. You could get lost in a rabbit hole and never find anything that resonates with you, but every once in a while, you might come across a gem of a show, and you will wonder how you went through life without it. We have one of these sparkly gems right in our own backyard: “The Totally Real Podcast That is Real,” a podcast that sets out to ask funny people serious questions. Krissie Shelley is 50 percent of the female-fronted show. She’s a stand-up comedian, and thoughtfully entertaining. Shelley joined SLUG for a big heaping plate of nachos and cheese fries at Mo’s Diner in Salt Lake and when we weren’t just casually talking about serial killers, we talked at great length about comedy, podcasting and Tinder.

 

Krissie Shelley originally hails from Wisconsin, but now calls the Salt Lake Valley home. She started in stand-up comedy three years ago. When Shelley was at a low point in her life and felt that comedy was a good place to go as an outlet. “I think going to open mics or being around comedians in general is a great place to go when you just need to be yourself and say things you’re thinking and not be judged,” she says. Here, she found purpose and a reason to get out of the house. “This Salt Lake scene is really supportive of each other,” says Shelley. “It’s just a place you can go where you can just unwind and not stress out, and just get stuff off of your chest. Then, at the same time, you also learn that you can take stuff in your life and just adapt it so it can help you. If you are just really depressed and you hold it in so you stay depressed, that’s really unhealthy.” She has found inspiration in other comedians who “tell it like it is” such as Lewis Black, John Mulaney, Louis C.K., Kathleen Madigan and Maria Bamford. Comedy, she feels, recharges her. It is a chance to be around people who have had similar feelings. “It’s a really great place for people who have a hard time or who are misfits—who don’t really fit in with typical society,” she says. “You tend to shock ‘normal’ people.” Through comedy she has connected with and met other ‘misfits’ like herself, with other familiar experiences. “It is really accepting,” says Krissie Shelley. “There’s a great group of people here that you can kind of turn to when you just need to go to and find a solace. I find that to be the artistic community and the comedy scene. They are very open and loving.”

 

Being female in general has been hard in the mostly male-dominated world of comedy. That’s been changing, though—not only on a larger national scale, but even locally. “It’s so nice to have more girls,” says Shelley. It’s nice to finally get looked over and just be left alone.” With more women, she feels that there isn’t a token female to pick on. “I actually saw one comedian rant about women on stage and how he can’t focus on his set when he’s staring at their bodies,” she says. It’s just kind of like, ‘You’re a bastard.’ Why don’t you just focus on your set instead of being an asshole? I’m sorry but that’s YOUR problem. It’s a cop-out.” She feels that some of the issues she had starting out were just some of the other comics adjusting to another female, and that things have improved quite a bit. She’s seen others gradually just becoming nicer in general on the comedy circuit. “I would say that the vast majority of guys here are stand-up guys,” says Shelley. “It’s just like having a million brothers that are super cool.”

 

Krissie Shelley has a greater passion for sketch comedy, but enjoys the flexibility that stand-up has to offer.

Krissie Shelley speculates that local comedy has become more female-friendly because there are more women joining the ranks. In the past, girls have tended to come and go very quickly in comedy. “I’ve seen girls that are so talented that I’d kill to be them, and they’ve left the scene,” she says. “It makes me sad because it’s just the drama.” It’s not a problem of talent, but a problem of fitting in and having a place. “I think it just depends on how much you want to do it and how much you really enjoy it,” says Shelley. “Girls who want to do it will put up with some of the bullshit because we love the art of comedy. Period. But some girls who try it out and are really talented at it—maybe they just don’t love it enough or they’re still finding themselves. Everybody kind of finds the thing that they love, and maybe it just wasn’t comedy, and the drama was enough to drive them away.” As a mom, with an 11-year-old daughter that wants to become a famous actres. Shelley is kind of torn on it—on the one hand, she just wants her to focus on being a kid. On the other hand, she also started out on the stage very young and never turned back. She has already broken down and admits that her daughter has now got an agent.

 

Shelley describes herself as a “burnt-out drama geek” getting her start performing in High School. She’s always had a love for sketch comedy, but liked the flexibility of stand-up, which she began to pick up as an outlet just over three years ago. Krissie Shelley is a lover of podcasts herself, but mostly enjoys intriguing stories told by fascinating people. She points out that her favorites are Sword and Scale, Serial and Thinking Sideways, as she’s interested in true crime and serial killers. Along with her friend Annie Wagner, she discovered that they both had the desire to do a podcast, so she learned how to record and set up a makeshift studio in her living room. The Totally Real podcast runs about one hour on average, with new shows almost weekly. The biggest challenge in recording is getting everyone together and finding the time to produce the show. Even with the challenges, these two funny ladies have clocked in 26 episodes since their debut in December 2014, featuring interviews with local comics, teachers and other funny people from online and in the community who are interesting.

 

She states that the goal has always been to have on people that are funny or fun to be around, and present a serious topic that never goes too seriously. However, she’s doing the podcast for her own reasons,“If I don’t have a place to go talk, I will lose my mind,” says Krissie Shelley. I just need to vent, which probably isn’t healthy.” The duo tackles serious topics but also take a pause to work on their own social experiment, which is using Tinder. In all fairness, Tinder started as a running joke, now they are on it talking to people. “It’s been an interesting experience, and I’ve changed my view on Tinder since starting the podcast,” she says. “Before I was like, ‘This is an app for douchebags. Only douchebags judge people by what they look like.’” She has fully disclosed the podcast on her Tinder, as her main purpose there is to use it as a social experiment. “It does provide tons and tons of comedy gold.”

 

Over time, she’s had some interesting feedback from people who have been through the same situations. “I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just me,” she says. Shelley’s not sure what do when people seek her out looking for advice or instruction. “I think they think I’ve already been through the wringer and I’ve come out on the other side, so I might have insight for them. Which in some ways is true, but also, I’m an incredibly messed up person. So, my advice may not be great.” In the future, it would be great for her to see the show become more successful, but right now she enjoys just having the ability to do it. “I would honestly love for it to take off,” says Shelley. “There’s something about getting together and brainstorming and recording with people. It’s just picking people’s brains and understanding how they think, and there’s something that I really love about that.”

 

Currently, Krissie Shelley has no big plans and dreams of grandeur, and yet her passion still shines through in every episode or performance that she does. “I’m only doing things because I would be depressed if I didn’t. And I think that everyone should do that. So if nobody listened to my podcast, I don’t care. I’d still keep and paying for it and doing it for the rest of my life, because, why not? Why not enjoy it.” Her advice and insight is simply this: Do things for the love of it. “You don’t need someone else’s validation. Everybody has something to give, just find out what you love and do it as hard as you can or as hard as you’re able to.” As for ways to support the passions of comics throughout Utah, Shelley advocates to support local comedy. “Especially the women comics. I always say that, and maybe it’s mean to the guys, but I think the women need more support out here,” she says.

 

After taking a break from recording this summer, the newest episode of ‘The Totally Real Podcast That is Real” will drop this week with guest Andy Gold. You can check it out for free on Stitcher, iTunes, or anywhere you can find quality podcast material. If you’re not a podcast junkie yet, you can also check out the show on their website. Twitter @thetotallyreal and Facebook. Also check out Krissie Shelley on Twitter @krissietweets. Get out and check out local comedy and open mics to see more of her, and other great local comics nearly every day of the week.

There has been a lot of talk and chatter about our humble little live comedy scene, and the stand-up comics it produces, here in Utah. Once merely a stop-over in a traveling act, Utah may not have been a destination for comedy in anyone’s mind. These days, comedy fans can see a high-quality comedy show nearly every night of the week, and the opportunities for new comedians are plentiful. We’ve come a long way in quality, quantity and making a name for ourselves on a national scale. In the first of a three part series to uncover the ins and outs of comedy here in the state, SLUG sat down for a beer with three veteran comics on the Utah scene, and we got to know things about Utah comedy that even its Bishop doesn’t know.

 

Utah Comedy – The Comedians

 


(L–R) Jason Harvey and Christopher Stephenson contributing a bit of absurdity to the Utah comedy scene.Christopher Stephenson
started his Utah comedy career out as a fresh-faced 18 year old, hitting his first open mic 13 years ago in 2002. “I started out as a very happy, positive kind of comic. I wasn’t negative in any way. I had really clean jokes. I had a lot of tampon jokes and a lot of feminine hygiene jokes for some reason. My style has physically changed a lot.” If he could go back and do anything different? “It would be just to write as honestly as possible.” The trick, he says, is that “you have to take what you’re thinking and make the audience see it the exact same way you do.” Still performing and going strong, Stephenson is also one of the founders of the Salt Lake City Comedy Carnivale, performs at the current Funny Fridays at Sandy Station and was also one of the legendary hosts at the long running open mic nights at Mo’s Neighborhood Grille.

 

Melissa Merlot performed her first open mic in 2005, or as she does the math, five years ago. She’s a natural pick to host numerous long running comedy shows and events all around Salt Lake, won a City Weekly Arty Award for Best Comedian and took over as host for the long running K-Town Komedy shows at Club D.J.s until the last show earlier this year. “I started out as a mini Kathy Griffin,” Merlot states. “All my jokes were about famous people and celebrity gossip.” She laughs, “I actually have the VHS tape of my second open mic ever! They used to record you with VHS.” It took Merlot about a year to weed out her carbon copy elements of celebrity gossip entertainers. “When I started writing more real stuff about my life and being more honest I got a better reception from the audience and that’s kind of how it changed.” She’s learned a few tricks over time that she wish she’d known back then, “I’d write my jokes down!” Sadly, some of the best jokes she feels she’s ever done are now gone forever. “You never really know what’s going to work until you’re on stage.” With the new digital age of recording capabilities at a comic’s fingertips, this is something that can still happen, but is less likely as most comedians are now documenting everything. These days, Merlot has been focusing on her love for hosting, including two years at K-Town that was first started by comedian Steve McInelly six years ago.

 

Finishing out the panel of veterans in the Utah comedy scene is Guy Seidel. Seidel stepped onto the comedy scene just over 7 years ago and is now a common name in the Utah comedy club scene. He has hosted and headlined shows at Wiseguys Comedy Club, and has opened for numerous comedians on their stops in the state. Seidel remembers his early sets, “I was really high energy when I started. I was a long-haired idiot.” He started out doing shows at the old Trolley Square location for Wiseguys. “Trolley Square was great for local comics,” he says. “Aesthetically it was beautiful. Even if you got 50 people in that room it was electric.”

 

Stephenson, Merlot and Seidel are household names for even casual fans of Utah comedy, and they all still perform regularly. This gig doesn’t always become a career in comedy that pays all of the bills, and comics often wait decades for their big break. While Utah hasn’t pumped out any worldwide stars, the performers in this state have made names for themselves with some Utah comedy regulars breaking onto the national scene. Ryan Hamilton—who Seidel calls “Disney Clean”—and Bengt Washburn, both still come through Utah regularly when they are touring after starting here locally. Meanwhile, Seidel has teamed up with Comedian Marcus, who was on Last Comic Standing, and the two of them frequently perform on stage together, typically with a guitar in Seidel’s lap.

 

It isn’t rare that some of the hardest working comedians will often travel the country for a few weeks or months out of the year, making a name for themselves in other bars and clubs. Many comedians that have started out in Utah have relocated to bigger cities like L.A., Chicago, Las Vegas, and New York City, where opportunity is more prevalent. This means that quite realistically, at any point in time the next ‘it’ comedian can be someone whose roots are firmly in Utah comedy—and we’ve got an amazing talent pool to pick from.

 

An Evolving Art Form

 

All comics evolve on stage over time. It can often take a long time, even months or years—to develop a personal style and stage presence that is unique and genuinely entertaining to watch. Over the years our panelists have learned new tricks—and seeing them now is vastly different than seeing their sets when they first started out. Stephenson remembers, “I would write about a lot of TV commercials. It took a long time but then I decided to start writing about more personal things.”

 

Each comic starts out with pretty easy material, typically these are things that are observational, just to test the waters. Seidel adds, “TV is easy to write about when you’re first starting.” He also points out that the problem in this formula is that these types of jokes often have short shelf life. “I think when [you] start, you’re just doing what you think a comedian is supposed to do,” he says. Merlot agrees with him on this, having seen many comedians do similar material starting out. “You’re just doing what you’ve seen,” she says. “After a while you kind of find your own thing and your own voice.”

 

As a rookie Seidel started out with topical material that he no longer does. “I had a Nickelback joke. The premise is basically that Nickelback sucks. Now everybody fucking hates Nickelback, so they see it coming.” Not all jokes can age well and remain winners as each of the comedians miss some of their old material, but they have learned this lesson for the greater good. “If it’s just about you, it becomes timeless,” says Merlot. “I had this awesome joke about Tila Tequila that I can never do again!”

 

A Change in Scenery

 

Melissa Merlot brings Utah comedy to new venues.If you can count on one thing in the Utah comedy scene, it’s that comedy venues generally don’t last forever. When it comes to venues hosting comedy, Seidel says, “It’s cyclical. When one goes another, one pops up.” Some of the locations that have hosted comedy in the past would surprise newcomers. Christopher Stephenson recalls a time when he and other comedians like Levi Rounds were performing stages at the Urban Lounge and Burt’s Tiki Lounge, where they first featured Doug Stanhope when he came through town.

 

Stephenson remembers playing at Burt’s with Rounds: “The last show we opened for at Burt’s was a punk band called ‘Shat’. They wore adult diapers and giant cock dildos. And there was brown smeared all over the diapers and up their backs. They were incredible. There were dicks hanging off the microphones. That was also the first show we ever had done where we couldn’t smoke inside.”

 

Merlot has hosted shows in the past at both Club Vegas, which later became Sin City under different management. Then, there were Tuesday night open mic shows at The Vibe in The Complex. Going back even further there were the venues and comedy clubs owned by another veteran comedian, Keith Stubbs. First there was Laughs and then Wiseguys—which opened in West Valley City in 2001. The Trolley Square location for Wiseguys—in the old Hard Rock Salt Lake section of Trolley Square—ran from 2009–2012. Seidel believes that over the course of the last few years, the crowds and comedians coming through Wiseguys have gotten better, with big names getting booked, and shows happening nearly every night of the week.

 

All three comedians had fond memories of the old downtown location for Mo’s Neighborhood Grille. Stephenson says, “My most comfortable time, and the time I was probably having the most fun with it, was when I was running Mo’s with a collective of comics.” He ran shows with the likes of Arthur Carter, Bob Bedore, Toy Soup, Levi Rounds and Cody Eden. “Every week, all these same comics would be at the show. We owned that room. We would all get on stage and everybody was so relaxed—and it was so free-flowing.” Merlot remembers the old set up there as well, “It was very supportive. Mo’s was really behind comedy.”

 

Mo’s ran comedy at its original location from 2002 until 2013. “I had a blast there,” Seidel remembers. Stephenson added, “Out of all the rooms I miss, I miss it the most.” Part of its success was that Mo’s was also all-ages, and they brought in some pretty strange comedians. Merlot and Stephenson remember some of the names that came through: Neil Hamburger, Sean Rouse and Andy Andrist, to name a few. Seidel recalls the success of that Sunday night show. “Mo’s had a lot of consistency, too,” he says. Now a room will go up and be dead in two months—it doesn’t have enough time to build a following.”

 

“Everybody was really into each other’s comedy, too,” says Stephenson. “That’s something that I haven’t every really found since then.” He remembers that the same people in the audience were coming back consistently, sometimes for standing room alone. Troy Taylor, (‘Toy Soup’), started the weekly comedy show at the old Mo’s location downtown around late 2002. The show was held every Sunday night at 10p.m. “It ran that way for so long,” says Stephenson. “It was really cool to be a part of that.” He credits that venue and show to his strong beginning and it helped him get to where he is now. “That really gave me my roots when it comes to my writing and my style, and I made lifetime friends,” he says.

 

Comedians have lost such venues such as Sin City, 5 Monkeys, The Complex, Muse Music Cafe and Club D.J.s, However, the scene has been getting a surge of venues over the last 2–3 years. Now new shows at the U of U, the new Mo’s Location on 1300 South, and Sandy Station—which has its own separate room for shows, and supports comedy extensively—have started to crop up. More venues are being added all of the time to this growing list. “It takes a very skilled and savvy person, especially in this scene, to put on a successful show that runs for a long time,” says Seidel. The new trend is that established monthly comedy shows are sticking around, and while the show will move from venue to venue, it takes its following with it.

 

An Evolving Comedy Scene

 

One of the biggest changes that all three note is the influx of female comedians into the local scene. When starting out, Merlot remembers being one of the few females in town, and often the only one on any given line-up. “There’s way more women now,” she Says. “It wasn’t the case when I started at all. I was always the only girl that was out there all the time for a long time. Women weren’t as interested or as willing to try. Now it’s totally shifted and there’s a lot of women doing it and they are all really funny. They care about writing, they care about jokes.” This can be attributed partially to the mainstream picking up more female comics, and exposing general audiences to the fact that, yes, women really are as funny as the guys.

 

With female-centric comedians showing up on Netflix and in movie theaters, including the likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, and many others, more women are seeing an opportunity to get into comedy, and giving it a shot. “In the mainstream comedy world, you don’t see a lot of women,” says Seidel. However, Seidel thinks it’s a numbers game. With fewer women in comedy, the really great ones stand out faster. “You go to an open mic and there are 30 comics,” says Seidel. Ten of those are good. Of those 30, how many are women? Maybe four.”

 

Merlot agrees that there are some women on the mainstream radar now. However, she does respond back with a laugh, “Yeah, but they weren’t even around when I started!” Regardless, not being the only female on the scene has been great for Merlot, and other comedians welcome the change. “Guys just accepted me as one of the guys, but now that there’s really ‘hot’ chicks doing comedy, guys tend to behave a little bit better and try harder with their jokes,” she says. Male comedians locally are becoming more sensitive to overtly sexist material and misogynist sets—which is, in turn, bringing even more females into a more welcome atmosphere for comedy.

 

As a genre, stand-up comedy goes through ebbs and flows, just like any entertainment form. Stand-up had a big heyday in the ‘80s, and another huge resurgence in the 90s, but somewhere in the early 00s it fizzled out for awhile. However, nowadays, the ease of access to comedy on the internet and through other forms of technology has created a new fan base for stand-up comedy. Comedians have multiple platforms to get their material out there, whether it be through YouTube, Vine, social media or other mediums. Merlot attributes some of this to the new surge in podcasting. “It’s inspired a ton of people to get out and try comedy,” she says.

 

Stephenson has noticed a new trend as well. “Another thing that has grown is [that there are] more younger people,” he says. “When I started, I didn’t know anyone who was even close to my age. Now when I go to open mics there are multiple people there that are 18, 19 or 20. I think they are starting it because of the accessibility of comedy.” With this, some of the styles are changing as well. “Narrative comedy, I think, has become more mainstream,” says Stephenson. It’s not so much sitcom or set-up and punchline jokes, it’s a lot more storytelling in layers.” Stephenson gravitates toward this style because it is what he is a fan of, the millennial favorites being Louis CK, Christopher Titus or Bill Burr. “[George] Carlin didn’t appeal to youth, but these guys do,” Stephenson says.

 

 

More Diverse Than You’d Think – A Style for Everyone

 

Guy Siedel performs at a Utah comedy staple—Wiseguys.Part of what makes the Utah comedy scene so great and keeps it on par with other big comedy metropolitan areas is that even on a small scale, one can find a lot of diversity in performances here. This goes for the types of people doing the comedy, their backgrounds and their unique styles. “I think you’re going to see diversity with comedy anyway, because it’s the reason we do it,” Merlot says. In Salt Lake alone, we’ve had various successful improv groups, wacky comedians, physical comedy and clean comedy, which has an obvious market behind the Zion curtain. But, is there really a crossover between clean comedy and the uncensored market? Seidel has seen it both ways, and understands it doesn’t have to be conflicting. “I think that those people that specifically need to have clean comedy don’t go watch local comedy.”

 

Something that all uncensored comics learn—sometimes the hard way—is what Stephenson points out: Uncensored comedy needs real substance. “Blue comedy”, in the style of Andrew Dice Clay for example, is often purposefully crass, rude and abrasive, and doesn’t seem to have a footing here even within some of the more loose crowds. Some comics hit the scene and try to be edgy just for the sake of being edgy, but they don’t tend to last long. Merlot remembers that when she first started out there was a comic who did some pretty intimate jokes about his sex life with his wife. This comic’s wife was always in the audience and usually the only one cheering him on due to some of the more graphic descriptions in the set. “If you have a really funny premise, I can understand saying stuff like that, but if that is all you have, it doesn’t really work,” says Merlot as she laughs.

 

Just as venues change, popular styles in comedy will also have shifts. “There’s been a big surge of the awkward comic,” Seidel says. Awkward, nerdy comedy is on the rise, just as the whole industry is making a shift to include geek culture and fandom. There really is a style out there for everyone, and material that suits all interests. The execution of any given style is an art form, are not everyone can travel off the beaten path. Some comedians who stick with one type of material and never learn how to tell different types of jokes seem to be the doomed entertainers that can disappear overnight.

 

New Opportunities

 

With new changes in comedy, the amount of opportunity for starting out has grown with the demand for new comedians hitting the stage. “The amount of open mics has been nice,” says Stephenson. “I think that when there’s a need for something, and you’re not getting enough of it, [other comedians] go out and start these new shows.” It’s true that sometimes they dissolve, but other times they stick around and do pretty well.

 

Part of the problem, as Seidel sees it, is that “they get whoever is available for a show. If you invest into comedy, you’re going to want the better comics.” Merlot sees the other side of the issue as well. “It’s hard when you put up comics that aren’t ready,” she says. “It sometimes turns the owners against comedy.” It kind of becomes this double edged sword—you’ve got more shows and more comics but because there are so many of both, a lot of these new venues or monthly shows will just take anybody who is interested.

 

Seidel believes this is an unforeseen low point in the emergence of new talent. “There are people who promote comedy shows that get people to come to a comedy show,” he says. “Then there are people that will get the barrel scrapings of an open mic and say ‘hey, do you want to be on a show’ because, really anybody can put on a show. That’s different, because people are just getting their family to come out.” It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a high quality comedy show, and one that is just starting out and may not go anywhere. Seidel mentions that this is the symptom of the increasing presence of social media. “These days, anybody can build a fan page and take a picture of themselves at an open mic and suddenly they are a comedian,” he says. “Anybody can say, ‘I’m a comic’, and they’ve done two open mics”

 

Merlot agrees that social media has changed the game, but has seen this happening since the Myspace days. “That’s really frustrating because comedy is really an art, and now that you have social media, anybody can take advantage of the art, just like they can with photographers and painters,” she says. “It’s just so saturated now.” There is a silver lining, however. With more venues and more comics to fill them, there are even more stages to perform on. Stephenson says, “It gives people that want to get up the opportunity to just get up onstage.”

 

Over the last decade, there has been a consistency in some of the available competitions and festivals. The Rocky Mountain Laugh Off, which has been running strong with Keith Stubbs organizing it since 2001. However, the show is now sometimes sporadic, and may not always be hosted in Utah. There was also the Salt Lake Comedy Festival. Presently, even more competitions—typically more focused and hosted by a single venue—are popping up, like those at both Wiseguys and the new Club 50 West.

 

The newest edition in festivals is Stephenson’s Comedy Carnivale, which he started with Toy Soup’s Andrew Jensen. The Carnivale provides several days’ worth of diverse comedy and has gotten some surprising national attention. Matt Knudsen came out for the inaugural year, and he submitted to the festival with his Conan tape. “It’s gotten more traction than we’ve anticipated, so it’s been a lot more work than we ever thought,” says Stephenson. This year the Carnivale is taking a hiatus in order to secure the proper permits to bring it back again next year—bigger and better than ever.

 

Controversy, Charity, and the Future

 

Though, there have been some well-publicized rifts between different factions in the Utah comedy scene, there are those that seek to bridge the gap. In reality, there may be some back-and-forth bickering at times, but the comics do form a fairly close-knit community. Realistically, any entertainment scene is not without controversy and scandal. Merlot, Stephenson and Seidel all share memories of the biggest scandal within the last ten years. A certain comedian, who will not be named here (but members of the comedy community who remember will gladly share), was arrested in a situation where he was caught with some underage pornographic images. Merlot tells the tale: “The vice squad came to my roast because he was supposed to be there and they were going to arrest him.” This happened a few times, as he was almost arrested again at another venue. Thinking this was the end to an unfortunate comedy career, it was shocking when this individual then popped back up on the radar about five years later, this time impersonating a British Comic using a fake name. After being exposed a second time, he then came back as a photographer that later got busted for stealing photos from online content belonging to other artists. This rocked the comedy community and they rallied to combat the scandal. In this case, wrongdoing and fraud were important to bring to light so that other comedians and venues would not be taken advantage of. This isn’t abnormal when you see the comedy community at large in action as they will band together to combat injustice, sexism, and fight the ‘good fight’.

 

Comedians do understand that there is strength in numbers, and that the opportunity that their platform provides can do some occasional good for others. In years past, Travis Tate has raised money for the Ronald McDonald house. Seidel has held a very well-publicized and attended Comedy Cares event at Wiseguys for the last seven years around Christmastime. “I have a public voice—might as well use it for more than dick jokes,” he says. Merlot recently did a charity event earlier this year called “Save Forrest” for a member of the podcasting community who had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Steve McInelly ran two shows, which he started with his wife Carla, each December from 2009-2013 to raise money for the Utah Food Bank. “We did two shows for the Utah food bank that usually brought in about $500 each time and 1,000 lbs of food.” He also did a fundraiser and charity show for a young lady in the Kearns community that needed money for a surgery in which he raised about $250 and the venue, Club DJ’s, matched it to make $500.

 

The Utah comedy scene is currently thriving all around—as long as you know where to look. Finding shows is as simple as reaching out on Facebook or Twitter. Social Media has been a great platform to publicize and promote shows and venues, as well as get a glimpse at active comedians’ working thoughts and raw material. A handful of the current venues to check out variety shows, open mic nights and showcases featuring a mix of local and national comics are: Mo’s Diner, Wiseguys Comedy Club, Sandy Station, Club 50 West, The Loft in Ogden and the Covey Center for the Performing arts in Provo. However, it is just as easy to catch various bar shows and other venues happening all the time. You can see local comedy at a coffee shop, diner or college campus near you! Open mic nights are happening between 3–5 nights a week, with more opportunities opening up frequently for those who want to give stand-up comedy a shot. And remember, what makes comedy great in Utah are those who support it, so get out there and bring a friend to see for some of the best entertainers this wonderful state has to offer.


For more information on standup comedy in Utah, check out the other pieces in this series!

Diverse Comics: Something for Everyone in the Utah Stand-Up Scene

Life on the Stage in Utah Comedy: Advice for Aspiring Professional Comedians

Criminal Minds: Season 10

Criminal Minds: Season 10

Criminal Minds: Season 10

CBS/ ABC Studios/ Paramount
Street: 08.25

I have always been a fan of crime drama, psychological thrillers, and suspense. However, I had never actually watched Criminal Minds until I picked up the latest DVD box set for this latest season to have aired, season 10. I actually wonder why I haven’t bothered to check this show out until now, it’s right up my alley. At first glance, it has all of the normal crime drama stock characters. You’ve got your handsome Fox Mulder–esque central dude, your older, wise father figure, your could-be-a-model guy, intelligent and pretty yet effective girl, awkward young genius, fish out of water rookie, and the ever present quirky, nerdy research assistant (she’s plucky, odd, and can find anything about everything!). The beauty about these kind of shows is that they are all pretty much self-contained. You can watch the characters grow and drama unfold if you take them in order, or you can enjoy each story as it is episodically, with a new crime to solve and killer to find.

Season 10 is the Jennifer Love-Hewitt season. She’s the newbie, the fish out of water rookie. She’s smart, capable, and tough as nails. You get little bits and pieces of exposure of her back story. She starts out undercover, posing as a young girl interested in taking some photos for an older, creepy suspect. Turns out, he’s a pedophile, and she’s the one arresting him. Flash to a few episodes later, she’s got a young teen at home, but the relationship seems a little non-traditional. You’ll find out when there’s a terroristic plane crash that she’s got a little touch of PTSD from 9/11, and that kid she’s got at home? She was orphaned when the twin towers fell. I’m not sure how this helps her be a better agent, but it makes her more human, and won’t prevent her from doing her job. The rest of the details of the team are a little muddled. It appears there are a few inter-office relationships, and some of the team have been through hell together. That’s about all you really need to know to enjoy it from here on out.

First, let’s talk about the things I enjoyed. Interesting characters, new plot twists and things you wouldn’t normally think of to throw into a show like this. It reminded me a little bit of the good years of the X-files, without the supernatural element. You get some pretty hefty psychology thrown in there, lots of big terms for specific mental illnesses and fetishes, and some new and interesting ways in killing people. I guess that after nine previously successful seasons, you’ll have to think of something more clever than “junkie,” “sex-offender,” or “creepy guy that is really obvious.” There were times I was trying to predict what would happen based on my extensive knowledge of True-Crime, and I would either be surprised, or impressed that they pegged a specific profile based on other well known cases.

Now the bad. Please don’t let this dissuade you, because this is the kind of show that newbies to the genre would thoroughly enjoy. However, jaded crime junkies like myself pick up on a lot of things that are just quick expose or go-to tropes. Signs of either formulaic writing, or just trying to cram a lot of things into a set network-approved 52-minute time frame. There are certain things in this kind of television that drive me absolutely crazy. One are the moments of expose that seem contrived. You’re trying to tell a gripping suspenseful story, and sometimes you need to have a character tell us something that would take too long to show. Having cut my teeth on true-crime dramas like The First 48, I know that it takes longer than a five-minute meeting to come up with theories on a criminal profile, and to uncover things like motive. Sometimes in a real crime, motive will never be determined. For all intents and purposes on this show, you will always get a motive, and you will sometimes get this in expose, James Bond–villain style. A few times, you will just have a character make a lucky guess, that breaks the case, like our resident genius, Dr. Spencer Reid does when he just starts rattling off hotly debated physical ailments that could lead someone to paranoia about their condition. That’s another thing that was slightly jarring. By this time in the series, every crime is being committed by someone who has some form of mental illness or weird fetish, which makes it seem like these things are exclusive, crazy equals killer.

Other moments that stuck out were the stereotypes. Pretty woman is abducted, knocked out, and bound onto a table. What is she wearing? Jogging clothes. Ten guesses on what she was doing when she was targeted and taken. Groan. But my number one gripe was our nerdy technician. She’s a great character, and a great portrayal of a woman on a crime show that doesn’t also have to be drop dead sexy. I want to punch the costume designer in the throat for thinking that all smart tech-savvy women also want to dress like a hipster emulating a 1950s housewife while trying to be a comic book geek. Also, every time she was on the screen helping them solve a crime, she was able to look things up on various databases and internet searches in lighting fast speed (I’m sure she wasn’t using cable) she would always end it with “I’m sending the coordinates.” Not even Google Earth is that effective. It makes for really good drama, but this is not how crimes are solved, and that level of technology doesn’t exist anywhere. Maybe it’s just a deterrent for all would-be killers out there?

If you have been a fan of this series, check it out. It was nice seeing Jennifer Love-Hewitt back in a good drama. I’m pretty picky when it comes to my crime shows, so I’m not enticed to pick up the previous nine seasons and have a viewing binge. However, I will say it was smart and entertaining enough to keep me watching and wanting to go on to the next one. The show is predictable enough if you are an armchair sleuth, however, if you are a diehard crime drama fan, you’ll be a step ahead, and not in a good way. It was worth it for one viewing, and worth a recommendation. As far as television goes, it’s not the worst thing that’s on your basic prime-time lineup.

Portlandia: Season 5

Portlandia: Season 5

Portlandia: Season Five

IFC and Video Service Corp
Street: 08.25

Fans of Portlandia rejoice! The latest season of the hilarious, Lorne Michaels–produced sketch show has a little (or a lot) of something for everyone to get excited about. These half-hour, PG-13 friendly episodes feature SNL’s Fred Armisen and the wonderfully talented Carrie Brownstein. Season 5 is packed full of guest stars, clever insights, and hilarity. If you’re new to Portlandia, just sit back for the ride. Armisen and Brownstein play multiple characters in this episodic sketch show. Some episodes contain one full story, others interweave multiple stories. The two main players will often switch genders and play up stereotypes with amazing results. This is the thinking person’s sketch show–the elements of SNL are present but minus the silly celebrity impersonations.

Some of the impressive characters that Armisen and Brownstein have come up with are not only unique, but super entertaining. The season starts with the origin story of two of their recurring characters, Toni and Candace, a pair of feminist bookstore owners. These two ball-busting working girls started out in the book industry in the ’80s. Pit against each other to accept a job after a merger, and competing for the attention of a womanizing boss, it’s like Working Girl on a glamour decade coke binge, and it’s wonderful. The satire is strong with this one, and the episode reminds us of a (probably fictionalized) time where women were novelties in business and slept their way to the top. Not that it’s a spoiler, but the two women end up working together to stick it to ’80s misogyny. That’s not the last we see of these two characters, and when we meet them again, we are treated to a lot of really well timed Armisen man-nipple. Most sketch characters in drag are funny just for the fact they are painfully awkward in women’s clothing. It’s an understatement that Armisen really commits. In fact, in nearly every episode not only Armisen but also Brownstein can be seen in gender-bending roles.

This latest season pulls out all the stops as far as guest stars go. The roster of guests is a long list of people you’d want to be friends with—friends that will play a small role in a five-minute sketch. A few of them are in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roles, but watch for Justin Long in a May/December romance, Ed Begley Jr., Brigitte Nielsen skydiving, Natasha Lyonne selling marine mammal experiences, and Jeff Goldblum trying to hock time shares while on a date with Olivia Wilde. I squee’d in delight when Shepard Fairey showed up in a commercial for an indie-cool art supply store. The ever-funny Jane Lynch helps plan a ‘shitty punk’ barbecue for some yuppies, Parker Posey is very Parker Posey–esque in a ’70s disco afro, comedian Kumail Nanjiani shows up, and Matt Groening from The Simpsons plays himself in an epic showdown of the battle of the Barts (with an uncredited cameo from the voice of Bart herself, Nancy Cartwright). Stick around to the end and you’ll see Steve Buscemi, Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, both Paul Simon and Paul Reubens, and another SNL alum, Seth Meyers.

Before I was able to get my hands on the DVD set, I had seen various shorter sketches pop up on the show’s YouTube channel. The longer versions on the DVD of these little gems are totally worth watching the show in its entirety. For example, the goth couple planning their living wills was one of my favorite sketches I’d seen on the show, and that’s what got me into Portlandia to start with. The full length version takes on the YouTube clip for few minutes longer, giving it a better ending and a more realized concept. This show takes on hipsters, pop culture, counter culture and the ridiculous American middle class. We’re all up for ridicule, and we’re all in Portlandia. Whether you’re a fan of this show or not, you will be by the end of the two disc set, and you’ll want to own it so you can watch it over and over again.