SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Today there is a whole new breed of aspiring stand up comedians, and the standards of what constitutes humor is evolving markedly.
Comedy as a craft has evolved since the 1950’s when ground breaker Lenny Bruce first smashed down barriers in between what could be spoken and what was forbidden in public in America. He had an open, free style that often launched into what was once considered obscene.
Even though the first amendment was in place, Bruce was one of the first to verbalize and incorporate social commentary, religion, satire, free speech, and sexual topics topics of the day to the American public. Right or wrong, he paid a price for doing so. He was arrested on obscenity charges, lost his home to foreclosure, died of an overdose, and was pardoned posthumously by then New York State Gov. George Pataki in 2003.
The following conversation with Christian Thomas, who resides in Albany, took place in Saratoga Springs at his parent’s home, where he spoke about the things that make him laugh, where he got his first opportunities to perform and those comedians that inspired him.
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Comedy often reflects back the culture of the day. Counter culture comics George Carlin and Richard Pryor spoke openly about the pervasive drug culture in the 1970’s, reflecting those years, and now here we are all the way to some of your current day favorites, Kumail Ali Nanjiani and Kyle Kinane. Christian, your legend may loom large in “toga”, as you put it, but please tell the readers who may not know you a bit about yourself. You’re 19, and actively trying to hone your craft as a comedian.
Thomas: “A lot of comedians have emulated that style. The comic Ari Shaffir is really into the shock value of it. He got into huge trouble because he did a joke after (Kobe) Bryant’s passing. His agent and his friends dropped him, and cut him off for a very distasteful joke.”
(Reporter’s note: On the day that Bryant, and one of his children, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash, Shaffir tweeted out an incendiary comment on Twitter without regard to waiting anything resembling a respectful interim: “Kobe Bryant died 23 years too late today. He got away with rape because all the Hollywood liberals who attack comedy enjoy rooting for the Lakers more than they dislike rape. Big ups to the hero who forgot to gas up his chopper. I hate the Lakers. What a great day!”)
Thomas: “Those comments were someone trying to get a reaction, like a 13-year-old ignoring you just because they want you to notice them. Not all his stuff is like that that particular joke. A lot of my friends are huge fans of his, but it’s weird for him to now start jumping on to a social justice warrior bandwagon when his entire career has been about controversy. I don’t really like him, to be honest. I think he’s all right.”
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Did you see that as taking advantage of someone and their family at the worst possible time?
Thomas: “There are a lot of comedians who believe you should be allowed to say anything, and if you get offended, you’re stupid. I’m telling jokes; don’t take them seriously.”
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You don’t get to choose what offends people.
Thomas: “On stage, I try not to offend people. Off stage, – can I swear?”
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I can’t guarantee it will be printed in a family newspaper.
Thomas: “If I’m just talking to friends from school, or other comedians, we’ll all say stuff that’s offensive ‘cause we all know each other. We’re not going to get offended by what we say. If I meet someone new, I’m not going to tell some heinous joke to see how they’ll react, because I don’t want to offend them.
“I do the same thing on stage. I try to do material that will relate to the widest audience possible.”
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Stand up comedy can be a very intimate thing; often the comedian is in close proximity to people. Not every performer roams a stadium sized stage. It’s like any new relationship; you’re testing the waters to find a language to reach them.
Thomas: “I feel like with comedy, it’s really easy to tell what the audience is about. I’m still new and trying to figure it out, but as you get into it, you learn to gauge the audience very well. I think it was Mike Birbiglia, another comedian, who said “Laughing is the physical response to agreeing with what someone says.” That’s something I try to take into account with every joke. That’s why I don’t get why people try to go for shock value; it doesn’t make much sense to me.”
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If you were to ask “What makes you laugh?”, I think some would respond that they laugh at the moment they recognize themselves in what someone is saying. There was a wonderful show on television called Candid Camera that ran from 1948 until 2014. The producer was Allen Funt. They had a catch phrase: “Caught in the act of being yourself.” I know I laugh when I see myself reflected back in what someone has said. Sometimes it’s pretty; sometimes it’s not. Hopefully we can laugh, because that’s what we all have in common-our own imperfections.
Thomas: “Or that you can relate and understand why a person did what they did. When comedians start out, they’re told to find their voice or point of view. I don’t know if I I’ve found the voice I’m going to stick with for years, but it’s hopefully my point of view that will make it funny.”
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Any of these crafts are competitive. A lot of people are trying to do this. What makes your voice different ? The successful ones seem to take a different hook on something very common.
Thomas: “The funniest thing about any entertainment, painting, movies, books is the more personal you get, the more people can relate. I’ve never understood new musicians that pop up sounding exactly like someone else; you’re not going to stand out.
“One time I brought my friend to an open mic at the beginning; I’d never been booked and was just enjoying the process. This was in Albany at the Lark Tavern. I didn’t kill, I had an all right set. When I finished, I asked him how I did. He said ‘You were different than the rest.’ I thought ‘Awesome. That’s perfect.’”
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It takes guts. We’ve spoken about the offensive factor in a politically correct time. Some of the observations a comedian makes are going to offend somebody. I would think the purpose of having a voice is to be original. Bob Dylan shocked people on July 25, 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival when he walked out with an electric guitar in the folk era. That one creative risk for the sake of the message almost exploded in his face. It changed a whole musical era, creating room for trying different things creatively. What I’m hearing from you is you have the courage to be creative.
Thomas: “That’s what I love about the Albany comedy community. We’re all friends, very supportive of each other. No drama.”
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Is it a diverse group? Culturally, male and female?
Thomas:“Stand up in itself is a very white male driven thing, which is unfortunate.”
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In this area?
Thomas: “No; in general. If you look back at any of the great stand up comedians, most of them are white males.”
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But we have many cross cultural comedians now, and more women.
Thomas: “In Albany, as far as stand up, it’s still largely white dudes.We have a couple of girls, but that’s it.”
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I know you have a broader experience than that because you’ve been to clubs in New York City. What does it take to get an opportunity to perform in Manhattan?
Thomas: “It was cool. I did a”bringer” show at Broadway Comedy, at on West 53rd Street in New York . It’s where you have to bring a certain amount of people in order to get stage time. I had seven people, a connection that got me in, and was able to get on stage. They have to assured that you are going to bring people in with you.
“You’re not getting paid. In order to get your name out there you have to sacrifice. All your guests had to pay $20.00 to get into the show and they had had to order two drinks or items from the menu, minimum, at a New York price.
“I’m doing another one March 6, at Stand Up New York on W 78th Street, but honestly, I may not do another bringer show. I’m not going to buy into that when there are shows around here I can get. It’s corrupt.”
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You’ve heard that expression that people “pay their dues” to get where they want to go? The question would seem to be what kind of price are you willing to pay in several regards. When did you first become aware that entertaining was something you wanted to do?
Thomas: “It was weird. I thought everyone had an urge to entertain. As a kid, I thought you go to college, get the degree, and get a job in an office. That’s what I thought. I slowly realized that’s not what I want at all. That’s not going to make me happy.
“I was inspired by a lot of comedians, I started listening to a lot of their podcasts and was connecting to the people as opposed to their actual comedy.”
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The podcasts filled out a sense of who they were and why. It sounds as though you felt as though you knew them.
Thomas: “They’re doing podcasts to get their name out there, and it’s working. They may not go into it with the intention of it being a marketing tool, but it’s effective. I don’t see anything wrong with that. That’s what inspired me to go into it.
“A few things attracted me about comedy; you’re in full control of everything. You control what you say, when you go up; you’re the business, and the CEO. I can do what I want, when I want.”
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That reminds me of an experience at art college where they asked you to collaborate on a painting with another student. My first question was “Who gets to sign it?” I wanted my own voice, my own thoughts, my vision to be represented and I didn’t want to share the doing of it with anybody. No team players in the art studio.
Thomas: “Exactly. Collaborating can be a beautiful process, but when you have to sacrifice some of your ideas, it becomes a nuisance.”
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I don’t know. Do you think Lennon and McCartney felt that way?
Thomas: “Probably not. They were best friends.”
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What is the basic structure of a joke?”
Thomas: “Set up, punchline, tag. Steve Martin always said being a comedian is a lot like being a magician. You always need something in your back pocket. I think of a joke as a set of stairs. Each step is a laugh that keep the audience engaged. It’s such a subtle craft that most are not aware of. I try to put the hook in at the doormat level. I want to keep people wondering where this is going.and it builds until the punchline at the top, where I push them off the deep end.”
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Christian Thomas performs at the Comedy Club open mic nights in Saratoga Springs, and at comedy venues in Albany.