Author: Rachel Jensen

The Loft is a great place to catch your favorite Utah comics. Photo: Rachel Jensen
Comedy traveled up North to start the spring in style, bringing five local comics to the top floor of the Ziegfeld Theater—aptly named The Loft—in Ogden as part of a new monthly event. The lineup for the night included such local comedic favorites as Tommy Milagro, Marcus Whisler, Jason Harvey and Melissa Merlot, as well as introducing a relative newcomer to the stage, Calvin Dittmore. Our generous host for the evening was owner and comedy-lover Quinn Kapetanov, keeping things fun and running right on schedule.
If you don’t mind a little travel time from Salt Lake City to our infamous sister city up north, The Loft in Ogden is a great, and more than affordable venue for comedy. The show started promptly at 7 p.m. with about two dozen comedy fans in attendance, which was about perfect for the intimate setting. The whole place looked and felt like a comedy speak-easy, and the password was simply a fiver. The whole vibe from the crowd was a good one—they were there to pay attention and laugh at some jokes. This is not your normal comedy audience: no bar distractions, no drunken hecklers, no loud college kids. The starting lineup each brought 15 minutes of material, and were met with a warm reception.
Starting the night was newcomer Calvin Dittmore. Though he’s fresh on the scene for Utah comedy, Dittmore has a long background in improv and his stage presence did not disappoint. Being originally from Utah, he’s now just returned home from living in L.A. He compared his journey to the beloved Disney movie Homeward Bound, which he watches in order to “feel emotions.” Dittmore looks like such a clean cut, exceptional young man, like any honor student, which was surprising when he went on to compare nursing homes to The Walking Dead. He’s a big fan of zombie jokes, as were the audience, and this would be a more than welcome theme for the night. The audience was rolling in laughter as he finished his set up by talking about a seedy Hollywood strip club called Jumbo’s, complete with scary clown décor and bruised up, B-rate strippers.
Next up was SLC veteran comic Tommy Milagro, right at home and able to make jokes about his half-Mexican, half-German heritage. He made a few well deserved and on-point jabs at the local Ogden police department. They are the only ones who would automatically assume he’s part “brown,” as he’s the self-proclaimed “whitest brown guy you’ll ever meet.” Tequila is Milagro’s medicine of choice. He’s got a drinking and buying problem, and he knows that there are much scarier things in this world than a haunted house—like a downtown Salt Lake City Walmart. Following Milagro was the one-and-only Marcus Whisler who brought out his guitar and wooed the crowd with his epic song-writing. He dedicated his first song to all the hot girls in the audience, one that was about “diverse shit,” in quite the literal sense. Whisler threw back to Dittmore with an ode to gentleman’s clubs called “Beta Male,” and then he finished up with his crowd favorite about strange and unknown encounters after a night of heavy drinking entitled “Where’s the Cat?” For first-timers seeing Whisler, this one adds in audience participation, including a Spanish verse where you get to yell out, “¿Cual gato?”
Continuing the action was featured comic Jason Harvey, spouting his love for old people and their trusty scooters. He has apparently put extensive thought into geriatric coitus, and ladies, he’s single. Harvey does wish that old people would remember cooler things, with some interesting and mixed results. From old people we move on to strippers, another theme for the night. We explore interesting real estate opportunities, like the strip club in Ogden that’s next to a gun store. Strippers make more than comedians in monetary compensation, which is a sad fact we all learned, and these dancing girls have made Harvey a firm believer in evolution, but that is a story you’d have to hear directly from him to really “grasp” it. He went on to provide some brilliant comedic gems like running a daycare on ecstasy, his take on werewolves and the irony of American Eagle Outfitters. Once he let the audience in on his favorite combination of words, he became a little worried he might be a really bad person (for the record, those words are “orphan funeral”). Harvey is always raw, always funny and extremely unique in his thought process, this set was no exception.
Finishing up the night was headliner Melissa Merlot, in a fancy Selfie T-shirt that was actually pretty cool. She’s got some good theories on beverage pairings, and I learned that coffee is great for showers, but wine is more of a soaking-in-the-tub drink. For those not in the know, Merlot is an avid reality TV fan, and she’s formed some interesting ideas about human biology from watching 19 Kids and Counting. Hearing this, I’ll never think of tents, camping or the stretchiness of female lady bits the same ever again. Dating in the digital age is always humorous for Merlot, trading sexy pictures “like pogs” that get sent to her. Like Harvey, she’s possibly in the market for an elderly partner, but she’s firmly against going into it for the money. She is strictly into dating much, much older men with viable internal organs. Her philosophy on improving the financial state of this country involves using de-motivational pictures on credit cards, and it is brilliant. You can typically see Melissa Merlot featuring and hosting shows each month all over the Salt Lake Valley, as well as ask her for more financial tips on saving money.
A trip up to Ogden has never felt more worth it on a Thursday night. If you can make the jaunt, or you’re one of our Northern neighbors, do not hesitate checking out comedy nights at The Loft. There will be a new line-up on the last Thursday of each month featuring an 18+ show. The cost is $5 cash at the door, and the audience is welcome to BYOB if they are of the appropriate age. The Ziegfeld Theater and The Loft are located right next door to a tasty food and ice cream spot, and there is ample parking (which is always a selling point for those of us used to hostile SLC parking). The shows are hosted by owner Quinn Kapetanov and produced with the help of another Utah funny-man, Steve Uribe. The Loft is also home to Off The Wall Comedy improv. Details and future show information can be found at Ogdencomedy.com.
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Everything Tina Fey touches turns to comedy gold. Photo: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Everything Tina Fey touches turns to comedy gold. Photo: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Mark my words: Everything Tina Fey touches is magical. She is the Fairy Godmother of comedy, and her newest Netflix exclusive is no exception. From the cast to the music, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt stands up to its name and is a solid, feel-good comedy. The 13-episode series explores some very dark subject matter in a way that leaves you believing in the resilience of the underdog.

 

The story opens with four women in conservative, hand-made garments singing about the apocalypse in a bunker. Their sing-song explanation of why they believe the apocalypse has come upon them is that they are “so dumb.” Then, a bang at the door, and a SWAT team comes flooding in to rescue them. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) greets the sunlight with a beaming smile that she survived the apocalypse and everything is still out there. We learn down the road that Kimmy was taken as a teenager from her yard by a cult leader, along with her other three captives. While the four women get a taste of fame on the talk show circuit speaking about their ordeal, Kimmy gets a taste for New York City, and she doesn’t want to go back to her small town in Indiana.

 

This is the kind of show you can binge-watch without guilt. From the first episode, the wit grabs you and the bubbly Kemper (“The Office,” “Bridesmaids”) keeps things fresh. Right off the bat, the auto-tuned news theme song sets the stage that these females are “strong as hell.” As the cast of characters are introduced, die-hard comedy fans will squeal at the supporting talent. One of my personal all-time favorites, the legendary Carol Kane, plays the nosy but well-intentioned landlady Lillian Kaushtupper opposite Kimmy’s new roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess). Kimmy Schmidt quickly finds employment with the helpless and clueless Jacqueline Voorhees played by Jane Krakowski who, to my utter delight, is essentially reprising her role from 30 Rock as a high-maintenance and out-of-touch woman clinging to her youth. The supporting appearances add to the roster, with Jon Hamm showing up as the smooth-talking cult leader Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, and Tina Fey as the horribly incompetent lawyer sent to prosecute him for the kidnappings. Rounding out the amazing cast are additional comedic powerhouses in guest appearances: Martin Short, Horatio Sanz, Amy Sedaris, Nick Kroll and Matt Lauer to name a few. Every character holds their own, and every storyline could be their own show from Titus’ job hunt foibles and costume choices, to Jacqueline’s “foot slut” failed marriage.

 

While seeing the world through Kimmy Schmidt’s innocent eyes, the series tackles some very tough subject matter in a naïve but straight-forward way. Not only does it deal with the kidnapping and brain-washing of four women, but we also watch Kimmy struggle through the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-like symptoms of her ordeal. She doesn’t let things like people sneaking up behind her (and her subsequent ninja skills), or her irrational fear of Velcro stop her, but it does leave the people around her wondering about her past. Outside of Kimmy, her fellow characters deal with very real world topics like immigration, poverty, street harassment, dealing with infidelity and peer pressure to do drugs. This is played off in such a realistic and funny way, and never feels like you are watching an after-school special or one of those Full House episodes where the kids had to learn a tough life lesson. Jacqueline struggles with finding her identity as she goes through the first stages of divorce and breaks her bounds of co-dependency. Her character is much deeper than “ditzy blonde New York City housewife,” as you find out that she actually was a rebellious Native American teenager who ran off to the big city.

 

What I found the most impressive were the vast range of characters that you may not typically see on a network TV sitcom. You’ve got a strong supporting lead in Titus as an African-American gay man, Kimmy’s love interest is Asian-American, and her other strong-willed former captives do not include women who are traditionally seen as brainless sex symbols, like Donna Maria Nuñez (Sol Miranda). The theme of willpower and sisterhood are woven throughout, without shoving a pair of “traveling pants” down your throat. Kimmy Schmidt makes you want to overcome, persevere and bring neon pants back.

 

It’s nearly impossible not to watch this whole series in one sitting, and the second season hasn’t even been confirmed yet. The buzz for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is still on the rise, spreading by word-of-mouth faster than any other online series. This is a show that is edgy enough even for the most hardened pessimist and still happy enough to watch with friends or family. It remains truly “Unbreakable” while sneaking in a strong dose of non-traditional characters and feminist themes that any boyfriend or husband will gladly sit through. I recommend spending the time between this season and the hopeful next installment by watching this over and over again until all of the “feel-goods” are absorbed directly into your soul.
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The comedians of Jokers Gone Wild set out top shock themselves—literally, with a shock gun—at Shocknado on April 11. Photo: Lindsay Murdock
The Jokers Gone Wild secret to success: put on a revolving showcase of local comics, invite everyone and their grandma, add alcohol and wait for the magic to happen. Their April show returned to their home turf at The Fifth in Bountiful and brought with them four of the hardest-working comics in Utah. Hosted by Joker Mike Mireles, and featuring an opening set from fellow Joker Gone Wild Marcus Whisler, the crew welcomed Steffan Reed, Christopher Stephenson, Levi Rounds and Nicholas Smith for a very “shocking” night. Joker etiquette would dictate that anytime someone on stage yells “Sarah says what?” you yell back “Drink, bitches!” and start chugging. Shocknado doesn’t just describe the shock style of some of the best uncensored comics locally, but the best prop addition to any comedy stage—a fully charged stun gun.
Starting off the night was Marcus Whisler on his guitar singing the next Billboard hit, if the next Billboard hit was entirely about excrement and destroys all of your Megan Fox fantasies. If you can answer “Where’s the cat?” let him know. Otherwise, just chant along with “What cat?” He included a new song, complete with ukelele, about “self love,” which is exactly what you are probably thinking about. For decency’s sake, I won’t provide a lot of details on this, but it was pretty funny. He was then shocked by Mireles two times. Though the effects were mild, Whisler does have the picture-perfect “scared face.” Mireles spent a few moments talking about life’s milestones, like when he decided to “man-scape” but didn’t know where to stop. He imparted some brilliant tattoo wisdom: If you have a memorial to someone on your body, make it clear that is what it is or some socially awkward comedian might some day try to make a joke about your living bodily shrine.
Steffan Reed was up next, and was a good enough sport to allow Mireles to shock him on the arm. Reed’s comedic style is comprised of good long setups, satisfying payoffs and some Lewis Black–level rage shouting. Reed had plenty to say about how effective “LOL” is, but he just likes to say it as it’s spelled: “lull.” His thoughts on people who comment on porn websites led to a tirade of epic proportions that ended in amazed silence, only to be broken by a heckler in the back of the room with a brilliantly timed expletive: “fuuuuck you.” Suicide notes were then discussed, and I learned that the way we deal with suicide socially has become a bureaucratic system with requirements. His history of suicide notes was both enlightening and hilarious.
Following Reed was Christopher Stephenson who joined Mireles on stage, but opted instead to turn the stun gun on the host. This decision would later be his undoing. Stephenson shared stories of having to buy weed from some dude in his mom’s basement, which led him to come up with some very interesting thoughts on the legalization of everything—just envision drug drive-throughs. In a special treat, we were brought deep into his psyche and childhood with an embarrassing story about that time he obviously blew his curfew, crawled through his window pants-less and brought shame onto his family. Stephenson has never been more raw and funny than in this moment. He talked about getting so high he was yelling at his coffee machine, how he loves trashy T.V. and how Lady Gaga wants to go to space—yes, space. In the end, Stephenson craftily defeated our resident hecklers and he left the stage victorious, only to then be shocked with the stun gun by Levi Rounds.
When Levi Rounds got onto the stage, his stunning spree was far from over—he also decided to turn the stun gun on Mireles. He talked about male insecurity and why he has to wear suspenders, resulting in a time when he was unjustly called a hipster. The best thing I’ve ever heard was a simple math justification on paying for abortions, then he explained a correlation between dentistry and suicide. He’s also had some hardcore metal-sounding moments that, when explored, weren’t very metal at all and would make anyone feel kind of bad for his cat (the cat is totally fine, by the way). Finishing his set, the audience listened intently to his rock n’ roll comedian story, and we all learned, for better or worse, that Rounds has more game with the ladies than many of his counterparts.
Finally, the headliner of the night Nicholas Smith went up to face the stun-gun. Proving that there was still a brave soul left in the room, he turned around, dropped his pants, and took that stun-gun like a man. He did his usual set about puppies, sunshine and charity work with youth groups. Just kidding, it’s mostly about suicide. Smith filled us in on his ideas for brutally honest dating videos. He compared his manhood to the loneliest ghost “that haunts the men’s bathroom of a lesbian bar.” His stories don’t disappoint for shock value, so there really isn’t a good way to talk about his horrific accidental bonding experience with his cat. It includes some, well, bodily fluids and the cat being in the wrong place at a really wrong time. When Smith talks about his mother and Alzheimer’s disease, it’s actually very sweet and funny as well as raw and extremely real. He also expressed the ethics of why he could never commit suicide (good thing he’s not a dentist). His preferred death would be at the altar of metal, and there was a lot of cursing that followed that could not be written down.
In the best twist of the night, and a secret which the majority of the audience was able to keep, the whole show was dedicated to Nicholas Smith. Whisler and Mireles brought Smith back on stage to honor him for being such an integral part of the Utah comedy scene. He was honored with an interesting bouquet of barbie heads and a carrot cake including a picture of him and the text “NDS- Impregnate us all!” A recorded message from Steve McInelley praised his hard work and dedication, as well as what a great guy and friend Smith is. The audience gave Smith a standing ovation, then all in attendance signed the show banner as a final present to him. Smith began to tear up, and still made it look like the most metal thing ever. This gesture capped off a great night of comedy, honoring a great comedian and all around great guy. Check out Nicholas Smith, Jokers Gone Wild, and the amazing comedians on the show at any one of their local gigs performed all over the state.
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Natashia Mower’s comedy star is on the rise in Utah. Photo: Cat Palmer
Natashia Mower is one of the hardest working comedians currently in the Utah Comedy scene, and she’s one funny force to be reckoned with. Her quick and accessible comedy is second only to how genuinely nice she is as a human being. She is like the peanut butter to the, well, peanut butter on a spoon of comedy, because peanut butter is vastly important to her very existence. SLUG caught up with Mower to chit-chat about everything from her love of all things funny, her dedication to Salt Lake, and all of the crazy things she’s been up to lately.

 

Mower started out in the local comedy scene about three and a half years ago, and she quickly made a name for herself alongside other recognizable comics in Utah, earning various accolades, nominations, and features on numerous shows across the state. She said that, starting out, she still felt really new for a pretty long time, but she dove right in with everything she had. “I was unemployed at the time, so I was able to go to every second of comedy that I could. I remember doing comedy with just two people in a coffee shop (Ben Fuller and EK) but every second I could get, I took it.” That’s when things began to escalate. Her style of comedy is what she calls “joke-oriented.” She doesn’t pull any punches or try to tell long stories, she just delivers good, quick comedy. Mower typically sets it up and then throws you a punch-line: concise and crude. “I really like take it to the dumbest or crudest place possible. I’d feel like a fraud if I didn’t do that. I’m not trying to change anyone’s opinion, necessarily.”

 

She has been a fan of comedy since about the age of 13, recording late-night comedy on a slew of VHS tapes, and scouring the comedy bin at FYE for something that wasn’t Larry The Cable Guy. Mower remembers watching Ellen DeGeneres’s old comedy specials from the ’80s, so she became a great early influence. Then she got into sketch comedy, and would wait up to see the old SNL episodes from the ’70s that used to air at 3 a.m. on Sundays. Soon, she started to get an idea of what she liked and didn’t like. At the time she started going to see shows, she’d see people opening for the comedians coming to town and decided she wanted to do just that. So, eventually, she just went for it. “It took me a long time to figure it out—like four or five times onstage just to figure out how to tell a joke.” She thought about what it was like experiencing the process for the first time. “It’s like sex … Just kidding, everyone says that. Just getting brave enough to do it, and the first time it feels great, but it’s different for everyone.” One of the things that may hinder other performers, she thinks, is that they start out not taking it serious enough. “I want to kill it every time, and I know that’s not going to happen every time, but you have to get in the mindset every time.”

 

Once she realized that people were taking notice, and other comics were beginning to ask her for advice, it hit her, “I think I’m doing something right, so I’ll keep doing this.” Anyone who’s seen Mower onstage is happy that she did. “All of a sudden, I figured out I had an influence on others.” Part of what she thinks is important is encouraging the Salt Lake comedy scene to grow. Within just the last year, she feels that the scene has gotten even better. “Now, when people come through Salt Lake for an alternative show, there’s lots of support and we have stuff to show.” Salt Lake does have a lot to be proud of, with thriving club and alternative scenes and people just striving to get better. “I’m really proud of our scene! We’re really good, and people just don’t know it yet.” She talks about the pressures of being advised to move to other scenes where people are being noticed more. While she’s considered it only for a useful change of scenery, it doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere for some time. Different alternative scenes like Los Angeles are beginning to thrive and even book big-name comics onto their regular shows. “I don’t know if I’d want to live in L.A., but my dream would be to make it like that here.” Mower loves her city and everything Salt Lake has to offer, from the gorgeous scenery to all the fun things one can find to do. She even says that, “There aren’t too many assholes here.”

 

She feels like she’s gained a lot by embracing comedy. “I always knew that I aspired to do something comedic. When I figured out that stand-up was how it would translate or manifest, it gave me so much direction. Nothing feels as rewarding.” Being funny was all she ever really felt good at. Her advice to other aspiring comics out there? Just BE funny. With all the people trying to force it out there, or not enjoying their time onstage, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that. “Just be funny. It’s as simple as it can get.”

 

Mower has got a lot of projects out there to be watching for. Currently, she’s hosting Funny Fridays at Sandy Station, with a rotating set of local comics every week. It’s a chuckle-inducing bang for your buck. She’s also been seen frequently on Sunday Night Specials at Wiseguys Comedy Club, which is a free show. Her recent notable contribution is taking part in a new comedy series, Knickerbockers, with Andrew Jensen and Troy Taylor of Toy Soup. “It was a really new experience for me! I’ve never written anything except for a joke. Being able to sit with Andrew, Troy and Melissa [Merlot] and write episodes was really rewarding.” This hard-working woman isn’t even finished with that—she’s also got her podcast with local favorite Jason Harvey called Sketch Sandwich that just released its first episode on EarWhole Media. We’ll be seeing this and so much more out of Natashia Mower and the Salt Lake comedy scene, I have a feeling that we’ve only just seen the tip of the iceberg.

 

You can catch Natashia Mower (with Jason Harvey) on an upcoming show featuring Chris Thayer at Mo’s American Diner on May 18 at 7:30 p.m. for just $5. Follow Mower’s super-funny musings on Twitter @tashiamo. Check out Facebook.com/KnickerbockersComedy for more info about Knickerbockers and to see exclusive clips, behind-the-scenes info and trailers. When you’re done there, also stop by earwholemedia.com where you can check out Sketch Sandwich as well as a bunch of other amazing local podcasts.
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Christopher Titus headlined the show at Wiseguys with a rousing set of mostly new material.
Christopher Titus is unapologetically raw, angry and hilariously funny. His rant-style monologues are similar in fashion to other comedy greats like George Carlin, or even contemporaries like Bill Burr and Louis C.K. (whom I had never heard of until Titus opened a new world of comedy for me). He is the reason many people have become fans and participants of comedy, myself included. Getting to see Titus on stage is such an amazing experience, and although his stand-up specials can be streamed and purchased with ease online, I’ve never seen him live without a packed house. His live performances are peppered with unexpected audience participation (more on that in a minute), personal additions to stories and a lot of raw emotion that can’t be matched on a DVD.

 

Titus always takes the chance to stop by Wiseguys here in Utah when he ventures out on tour, and we’re lucky enough to have him make appearances here about once a year. He’s never shy to tell Utah audiences what he thinks of us either—that is, he loves it here. We get kudos for being such a fun and attentive audience, and smart enough to always get the jokes. I will say, the audience member in the front row at the showing I attended would soon be a running joke through his set—her uncontrollable snort-laugh was compared by Titus to “Predator being in the audience tonight.” When she’d get going, the audience couldn’t help but laugh at the joke, as well as her snorting crescendos.

 

The show opened with a monumental set from local comedy favorite Christian Pieper. He likes to talk about how he’s a “Big Guy,” his wife’s Asperger’s Syndrome and those “cool” Mormons. Pieper really connects with the audience in a way that is both endearing and relatable.  By the time Titus came running onto the stage, the audience was loosened up and ready to laugh. Don’t think you’re going to get feel-good jokes about being a husband and father from Titus. For instance, his first comedy special  was titled Norman Rockwell is Bleeding. He brings the absurdity of real life to the stage, which can either make you feel better about your own, sad life or make you nod your head in agreement with him. “Yes, I also had crazy exes and extreme parenting, and sometimes my children make me cry myself to sleep.” With his newest comedy special, The Angry Pursuit of Happiness (see, I told you feel-good wasn’t a theme here) airing on Comedy Central the same weekend that he appeared in Salt Lake, he took the opportunity to share some brand new, unpolished material. This included some of his usual themes about family dysfunction, marriage and divorce, and his unconventional relationship with his father, but he also wove in new narratives about being a dad and hoping that you’re not totally screwing up your offspring.

 

Watching a seasoned comic work out their new jokes is actually an amazing experience. This is vastly different from attending an open mic with a “win some, bomb some” approach to jokes. Even his untested material is amazingly funny and insightful. There seemed to be even more truth and emotion behind it, because this man is on stage telling you about his real life: the good, the bad and the really messed up. He doesn’t seem to pepper his stories with too many cheeky insights, crude punchlines or one-liners. He’ll tell you exactly what he’s thinking, and make you face your own thoughts about it. Maybe being a parent isn’t the miracle we’ve all been led to believe it is, but it does have it’s moments. Maybe that person that you once thought you loved was actually evil incarnate, but at the time, you didn’t foresee Armageddon on the horizon, and you probably survived to love again. If you attend a Titus show with a spouse, girlfriend, loved one, parent, or child, there will be moments in his set where you two look at each other, lock eyes and burst out laughing, because that’s your life, too. It may be hard to admit you were a crappy child to your parents, or you and your significant other play the same games everyone else does, but this is like therapy, and rather than wanting to punch something or cry into a decorative throw pillow, you’re more likely to embrace laughter as the best medicine, shrug your shoulders and admit that sometimes child abuse sounds perfectly reasonable.

 

He finished out the night with his fast-paced monologue from Angry Pursuit of Happiness, where he eloquently puts the rat-race that we call life into perspective. It’s authentic, but it’s certainly not pretty and gets a little bit dark at times. However, that’s the way we like it. I mean, we’ve all had that moment with a parent or someone that we look up to where they have mortified us in public. In Titus’ case, it just happened to be his dad, as an elderly man, talking loudly in public about what he had to do to prepare to have sexual relations with his elderly wife. Not to spoil it, but it does involve an injection into a very sensitive appendage on the human body, and the story is even more horrifying than even that visual. Titus takes it in stride, shares it with millions of strangers onstage, and it makes his set all the more brilliant because of it. At the end of the night, you do realize that facing what we all think about, being able to laugh at misery and misfortune and ourselves is highly cathartic. And then you take a deep breath, finish your beer, and laugh about everything again on the car ride home.

 

You can check out any of Titus’ specials all over the internet or purchase them with ease on his website at www.christophertitus.com. Also, check out his hilarious podcast on Combustion Radio. You can also find both his and his wife’s wickedly funny twitter feeds. However, if nostalgia is more your thing, go back and revisit his old Fox series Titus—it is still as good as you remember. If you ever get a chance to see him when he’s passing through locally, take it, you will not regret it, and you’ll have new fodder to talk to your shrink about, if you even need one at all after his show.
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Natashia Mower got the crowd laughing early with her punchline-driven style of comedy. Photo: Rachel Jensen
Salt Lake City got a taste of L.A. for one night in a small, homey Downtown establishment. SLUG was there when Chris Thayer stopped by Mo’s American Diner to tell his own brand of awkward and hilarious jokes, and he brought a friend, Anna Seregina. Chris Thayer is a hard-working rising star who originally started out in San Francisco and is now located in Los Angeles. You’ve probably seen him on the Pete Holmes Show or on Holmes’ podcast, You Made It Weird. He’s toured the country and appeared on a variety of different comedy festivals and shows. He is also the co-founder of the weekly LA comedy showcase, The Business L.A. His tour companion, Anna Seregina, is the other producer on The Business L.A. and a co-host on Terrified with Dave Ross. She’s been all over the map from comedy festivals to acting in independent film, and her immense talent shows on stage. When these two got in, after a slight gas mishap, it was a glorious merging of the L.A. comedy scene and the SLC comedy scene.

 

Hosting the night was Salt Lake’s very own Jason Harvey, who is unapologetic about envying crackheads and reveling in the hilarity of orphan funerals. He’s cut his hosting chops by taking the reins on multiple SLC shows, including his extremely funny Comedy and Other Opinions. The next two opening acts are both currently making the rounds all over Utah, starting with Alex Velluto. Velluto’s sweet and shy outward persona do not make his material equally warm and fuzzy. He covers everything from lofty sperm to suicide notes and then brings it back around to discuss the real price of a testicle. Still fresh on the local scene, his jokes are so spot on that they have opened doors for him that new comics often take years to aspire to. Next up was Natashia Mower hitting it hard with her easygoing, yet sometimes craftily crude, style. She brings set-up, joke, and punchline in with such fast succession the audience often doesn’t have time to breathe during the laughter. Who wouldn’t laugh at her tales of drug-peddling co-workers and her past of working at a movie theater with more than eager patrons? She’s got hormones that make things weird for her, and a lack of glasses that would make proving her point all that much easier. As always, Mower killed it on stage, and everything was set up for our main acts.

 

Anna Seregina is the kind of hilarious pretty girl we all get told far too often doesn’t exist in comedy. After a few minutes into her set, she proves all of those critics dead wrong. She set the mood by trying to relate to the Utah crowd, and like pretty much all of us, she knew a guy from St. George that slept with everyone but her. Her awkward years as a teenager who was new to the United States would beat out any awkward teen story I have ever heard, but due to her pursuit of the American dream (which in this context was apparently Korn and JNCO jeans) she is where she’s at today—that is, onstage in front of a wildly entertained crowd in our small little bar. The part that killed me, though—and every single person in attendance—was her nearly silent physical comedy.

 

 

Seregina wanted to show us what Madonna’s first foray into stand-up looked like. Already I was thinking, “This is going to be good.” One certainly does not associate the Pop Queen with a comedy routine. If you haven’t seen it, Madonna’s set was genuinely filled with some awkward mic stand adjusting, jokes that were super unrelateable, and a sprinkling of narcissism. You know what they say makes good comedy? Take what’s funny to the next level, and just keep going from there. She took the awkward mic stand adjusting to epic new levels that just never seemed to end, she ran with it, and they got funnier by the second. At one point she was straddling the stand, half out the door, and every heavy breath into it would make the room explode in riotous laughter. I am pretty sure I pulled an ab, if that is something that can physically happen. After her set, Jason returned to the stage, and all he had to do was re-adjust the mic stand to have everyone bust into laughing again.  He had discovered a moment of comedy gold.

 

Our headliner of the night did not disappoint. Chris Thayer got onstage and apologized for being a few minutes late, due to the fact that he had to hitch-hike to get gas just as they were getting into town. This isn’t a particularly common sight in Utah, but some of our people here are nice enough to give a stranger a lift, especially if that stranger just by chance looks like a very clean-cut return missionary. I think this is a sign we’ve already accepted him as one of our own. He joked about his “dad outfit,” but again, when in Rome … right? His set was a fantastically awesome mix of some surprisingly dirty-ish material mixed with a kind of innocent awkwardness, though from what could be observed, his once awkward self has kind of turned into a very blunt and sometimes dark comedian, which are the best kind, really.

 

Like many people, he’s got some great Tinder stories and a pretty good reason to sometimes wish he was into dudes. In his aforementioned awkward years, he lets us all in on the time he first started looking for roommates off of Craigslist, and found that his need for approval could be compromising when trying to form a living situation with drug dealers. With L.A. being Thayer’s home he doesn’t even have to go far for material. In such a weird city, he’s had the opportunity to be a bouncer for a night at a club, which led to the most phenomenal impression I have ever seen of Guy Fieri, and that’s one of the ones that got a little dirty (with some amazing response from the crowd). He covered all of the good comedy bases: drugs, buying molly, his (sadly, dead) mom, brushing his teeth, being a “heartbreaker” at a young age and watching a woman’s ponytail get fondled gently. Thayer accepted a few requests from the audience, who had him run through some improv material on mortgage jokes. When he finally ended his set, he talked about the struggles of unemployment, which provided the gem “Your friends aren’t who you want them to be.”

 

This was my first time getting to see Thayer and Seregina on stage for a live show, and they did not disappoint. The best part about it was seeing two seasoned comics on tour from L.A. merge with our budding local scene so well. Each comic of the night had their own style, and every one of them had the crowd laughing constantly. This is exactly what a Monday night should contain, good food, great atmosphere and really spectacular comedy.
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Dream With Me
The Crossroads
Still from The Crossroads

Local filmmakers, actors and writers put their skills to the test last weekend for the 2015 installment of the 48 Hour Film Project and subsequent short film festival. Starting Friday, June 12, registered teams celebrated the 48-hour time-crunch kick-off by drawing a genre from a popcorn bucket, and then racing to get their films in by the Sunday, June 14 deadline. Despite not knowing their genre in advance—possibilities ranged from Musical to Fantasy to Romance to Horror as well as everything in between—teams only had 48 hours (plus a 30-minute drive time to cut down on accidents) to cast, write, shoot and edit a 4–7–minute short film. SLUG was lucky enough to sit down with 48 Hour Film Project producer Brian Higgins to see what makes this one of the world’s most unique film challenge experiences.

Higgins started out as a 48 Hour Film Project participant for five years in Boston, and he’s now been the producer for the festival in Salt Lake City for the past six years. “Seeing the creativity of what people can do in 48 hours is incredible,” he says. “You don’t have a film on Friday, and then on Sunday you do and then you’re watching it in the cinema.” Each year has different groups, ranging from 48 hour veterans to brand new teams across all ages, backgrounds and artistic styles. This year, Salt Lake City hit a new record: of the 32 entries, only two were submitted after the deadline. Late entries can still be screened at one of the three screenings, however, they are not eligible for any of the awards with the exception of the audience award. What makes this such a unique film challenge is that you are not only competing against your peers in your city, you are up against filmmakers around the world, from Tokyo to Sydney to London. Winners from each city go on to compete again—at Filmapalooza at Grauman’s Chinese theater in Hollywood—where the winners get screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France. This means that every year, any actor, director or cinematographer from any town in the world, including Salt Lake City, has the chance of getting discovered at Cannes just by making a quick and clever short film over the weekend with some friends.

There are some elements that make the 48 Hour Film Project unique, and that is that you never know what you’ll get. Teams range from one person to 100 people, and a budget of pizza money to being able to afford full scale props and effects. Each year has a different set of requirements that have to be included—as a challenge and to make sure the films aren’t being made in advance. This year contestants had to feature a character named Greg or Gretta Maisel, feature a key chain as a prop, and use the statement “Your guess is as good as mine.” Interestingly enough, this year, none of the teams drew the coveted horror genre, which doesn’t mean there was a shortage of stage blood or shocks. This year there is an animated film in the running as well as a short period piece featuring an antique B-17 Bomber. Higgins points out that the beauty in the films lies in the creativity of the teams. “You can use these three things to see where they take you, but some people just squeeze them in.” He also muses, “We had a lot of drones shooting footage last year.”

Dream With Me

At the 9 p.m. showing of the Group B set at the Broadway Theater, 11 films (one was a late submission) were screened. The genres on the ballot ranged from “fish out of water” to “superhero.” After the screening, a short Q and A took place with the directors and some cast members. Cleverly named team Alpaca Punch thanked their puppeteer in the audience for “making the piranha tail move just right.” Team Red Leader and their Romance short Your Hand in Mime featured a mostly silent film with the protagonist being a mime falling in love with a pretty waitress. Nick Markham let the audience in on why they went with a silent film as a choice “There was a flash mob of about 50 Peruvian dancers who showed up”. They filmed at the Salt Lake City Library, which is usually relatively quiet and peaceful, “Of all the days for a Peruvian group from Colorado to show up,” he says. Also screened in Group B was the period piece Dearest Gretta, where the lucky team procured the B-17 Bomber and authentic vintage costumes. “To be honest, I just got really lucky with it. I had an in with the WWII guys,” says Freelance Film’s Lance Nelson. “The hardest part was not laughing. The Utah Military History Group are the funniest guys I’ve ever met. I was laughing and trying not to shake the camera.”

The films that will play at the June 23 award screening have all won awards based on the judges decisions, and they will all be sent to the Headquarters in Washington D.C. Winners will be announced as their films play. Higgins encourages others to take part in this and other film events. “Just knowing that I’m part of the creativity of Salt Lake and that just keeps getting better and better. It’s a wonderful place to live.” Higgins, originally from Ireland, calls himself a “trans-media” story teller, running this festival as well as others in the valley, and also has a focus on mental health through film called Create Reel Change. He states that the what filmmakers can get out of the challenge is “Validation, and love and support from their peers, and the opportunity to screen, and smiles for everyone.” He’s also got advice for future participants. “Keep it simple. A lot of people fail because they overreach. Simple film, small teams, and have fun.” The formula for success: “Structure. It’s a timed competition, so structure is important. And rely on the community.”

The awards show is at 7 p.m. at the Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City and tickets are $12 at the door. You can also check out Brian Higgins’ other projects Create Reel Change and Filmulate, as well as see his stand-up routine sometime around town. More information on the 48 Hour Film Project can be found at 48hourfilm.com the Salt Lake screening information can be seen at 48hourfilm.com/en/saltlakecity/.

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In Movie Nerds We Trust
In Movie Nerds We Trust
Quinci Staker and Christopher James join forces to create In Movie Nerds We Trust. Photo: Rachel Jensen
Christopher James is a local standup comedian, screenwriter and nerd extraordinaire. Quinci Staker is a film buff, actress and cheeky redhead. Together, they are In Movie Nerds We Trust, a Utah podcast featuring uncensored, often hilarious discussions on movies you should watch when you just need some honest suggestions. The duo often teams up with other film nerds in our great state, including comedians, artists, filmmakers and expert geeks. In their short time on the airwaves, they have managed to feature 22 episodes (so far) with over 20 guests, and have talked about more than 60 featured movies, not to mention the tangents that will often get airtime (Flubber, anyone?). The show is always free to download or stream, is locally produced and locally sponsored. The films, on the other hand, run the range of everything that Hollywood has produced—winners, losers and everything inbetween. They took a chance to sit down with SLUG to get into the nitty-gritty of their podcast, their philosophy on why people love films, as well as their own love for the medium.James is a movie nerd/connoisseur who has been a fan of movies since he was a kid, watching late-night movies with his mom. Interested in the behind the scenes and what he saw as “the magic behind it,” he was sucked into the world. Movies became an escape for him. “There’s always going to be one thing that spreads out over time,” he says. “It spiderwebs out.” I found out that he was a big fan of dark films like Batman and Beetlejuice as well as goofy comedies like Billy Madison and Bio-Dome. He started out as a standup comedian nine years ago, partly due to his love for comedy and the films that had grown on him. It was a kind of hybrid for him.

He took a break from comedy to pursue filmmaking in his early 20s, spending a few months pounding out a script and actively trying to get it made. His repertoire includes some short films as well as an elusive “stripper documentary” that he didn’t delve into too much, to Staker’s surprise. He has decided that comedy is more of his thing these days. He says, “Making people laugh is one of the best gifts that someone can have.” He’s been interested in documenting the conversations people have about film for awhile. “I feel like everyone likes movies, despite who they are or what they do,” says James. “It’s weird—it’s one of those things that if you love something, you can jabber on about it.”

The bubbly counterpart to James is Quinci Staker, who was born with film in her blood. She has been acting since the second grade, focusing on film when she turned 18. Staker and James met on a casting call that he did on his script. In fact, he still had her head shot years later when she joined his podcast, which wasn’t creepy at all or anything, according to Staker. Her goal is to be able to take a part in at least one film in every genre, and her passion has always really been in drama. This is her first podcast, and she jumped on the opportunity to co-host, as she shared the same love and nerdiness for film as James.

When James approaches people to be on the show, he asks for their top 20 favorite films. “Everybody has their go-to movies that they either love talking about or they love telling people to see.” He’s got the set up of mics, a laptop, and couches in the living room of his apartment. James sees this as an opportunity to have an uncensored talk about movies where anything can happen with people who are experts on the movies that they love. “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover,” says Staker. “I know that there have been a lot of people and the stuff that they’re into, you would’ve never known in a million years.”

Staker reminisces on her favorite episode, “When Cinematic Animals Attack,” with the one and only Melissa Merlot. “I don’t think I’ve really laughed as much as I did with Melissa,” she says with a huge smile on her face. James agrees, “Melissa has the most infectious laugh, and she could say the stupidest thing, and I’d still laugh.” One of their most memorable moments was on the recent Roadtrips episode where things got really uncomfortable and up close and personal between James, Staker and guest Shayne Smith talking about their, uh, sexual encounters. “Every episode has genuine moments, and I can pick out a favorite moment from every one,” says James.

Just to put the hosts on the spot, I had to turn the tables and find out what their favorite movies are. In order to trust these nerds as an authority on the matter, this is the most important question that could be asked. Staker is an all-time fan of Trainspotting, and credits this as the film that got her interested in filmmaking. James names underground and underappreciated dark comedy Death to Smoochy. Although, he’s not shy about his absolute love for romantic comedies, either. Now, if you think you can trust these nerds, you’ve got some podcasts to listen to.

You can download the In Movie Nerds We Trust podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Jordon Mazzioti is their current sponsor and also designed their eye-popping graphics. Check out local filmmakers at the upcoming FilmQuest event, and stay tuned for live events coming up at summer’s end for the duo. You can also follow them on facebook and twitter to get exclusives on new episodes and see pictures from the taping.

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The second installment of What Do You Think, Utah? featured a discussion about the relationship between police and the populace at large. Photo: Rachel Jensen
The What Do You Think, Utah? panel, held at Club 50 West in the heart of Downtown, is a new idea in the Beehive State. Pulling together a panel of experts in a certain topic from fields all over the state, this hour-long program allows frank, honest discussion that includes audience participation on subjects that matter to Utahns. Last month’s program featured a panel discussion of air quality in Utah, and this second installment was a powerful platform to talk about the relationship between our police force and the citizenry at large.

 

The show is hosted by local radio personality and Radio From Hell star Bill Allred, who led the panelists in precise and thought-provoking questions. The Police and The People panelists were Salt Lake City police Chief Chris Burbank, the Director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah, Dr. Rob Butters, as well as lawyer and political figure Bruce Baird and political consultant Dave Owen. Scheduled panelist Reverend France A. Davis was unable to attend due to some unforeseen circumstances. This left the panel completely white, male and middle-aged. However, unhindered audience questions throughout the discussion allowed open dialogue outside of this demographic and included members of the community of varying ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. Allred started out by stating the goals of the evening with the mission statement of What Do You Think, Utah?: “We promise that we won’t suck up to politicians, we won’t suck up to big business, we won’t suck up to the left or to the right and we won’t suck up to anybody. We promise to question everything, and we promise to ask the questions that you want us to ask of the people who make the decisions that affect your lives.” He made the observation that, growing up in Utah, he was trained to recognize that the local were “Officer Friendly,” but that this wasn’t the case with those who may have lived in different areas.

 

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland—as well as the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray—have sparked outrage and protests, resulting in violent clashes between the police and protesters. Thus, questions focused on how race relations affect justice. “The impression is that there is more going on,” Allred starts. Chief Burbank agreed that the problem is that people of color and the poor are policed at a much higher rate. He’s seen an over-policing of poor areas, where the reality is that the same level of crime really exists everywhere. Some issues brought up were that lower income individuals are imprisoned at a higher rate because they don’t have the means to defend themselves against the same crimes that the “haves” might be able to plead out or fight with access to lawyers. Not only do we see a disparity in how areas are policed based on perception of crime, but in those that are being arrested multiple times for minor crimes like possession, rather than offering them rehabilitation to fix the real underlying problems. All of this leaves minorities feeling, as Burbank put it, that the police aren’t a part of them or their community, which leads to distrust and clashes.

 

Proper training and a change in policing is something that Chief Burbank has implemented in Salt Lake City and he has visited some of these problematic areas in hopes to help educate other forces. “We never want to make an excuse for bad police work. Some of what you see on TV is ridiculous.” In regards to the militarization of police being part of the problem Burbank added, “When the police respond to crowds and we show up wearing riot gear, prepared for battle, it says throw rocks and bottles at us.” In some instances, law enforcement agencies are creating an image of inequity by having police bring in revenue by targeting areas where people can’t protect themselves against arrests or citations. Both Butters and Baird brought up the need for more sensitivity training on how to deal with people of color, people dealing with addiction and mental illness, and those with disabilities. Chief Burbank has had great ideas that the Salt Lake Police Department is attempting to implement to assure that we are aware of how certain communities are impacted—such as the Latino community—and how the police force can be expanded to include more people from that community. Dave Owens admits that the fear of the other is, unfortunately, deeply ingrained, but the important thing is to educate and concentrate on how to properly treat all people.

 

The audience members who bravely asked important questions threw out a few heavy-hitters, such as an inquiry on why police killings in the state are only surpassed by domestic violence. Chief Burbank discussed that the real key here is to train officers on how to de-escalate and learn how to deal with people who may be dealing with a mental illness or are intoxicated. Both crime and deadly force are at an all-time low, and huge strides have been made in the way modern policing is being carried out. However, body cams and accountability will only do so much, as officers need to learn how to deal with the people and the communities they serve. Sometimes it is simply just knowing when to walk away from a situation that doesn’t need escalation or immediate attention. My favorite question came when a woman asked the panel, “Who did you go to when you were in trouble growing up, Mom or Dad?” Unanimously the panel answered their Mothers. Chief Burbank indeed acknowledged that female officers are less likely to use force, and that they could always use more women on their team. So, you’ve got an open invitation, ladies.

 

What Do You Think Utah is produced with help from The Utah Foundation. The hour long discussion is free for adults 21+ (or 18 with an accompanying 21+ individual), it’s general admission that does not require a ticket or reservation, and is broadcast live on their website. You can check out the full What Do You Think, Utah? audio podcast or the video from the event on ThinkUtah.org, as well as information on the upcoming shows, suggestions for show topics, and details on the next panel slated for June 24, which will be on health care. They have a growing social media presence on Facebook and Twitter and you can tag them using #thinkutah. Club 50 West is located in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City at 50 West Broadway (300 S.) and you can check out their website for more information on other upcoming events.
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