Knox Comedy

On that Precarious Relationship Between Televised Sports and Stand-Up

Every single time I’ve had to rely on a major sporting event to end on time for a comedy show to begin, it has gone into extra frames. I’m only exaggerating slightly. To accurately tabulate times that Murphy’s Law has kicked in to make that team kick the extra field goal, plate that last-minute run, or sink that last-second basket to send that audience-distracting game into nail-biting overtime would be impossible. The only time I’ve performed in Denver, the Broncos went into overtime (and lost to) the Baltimore Ravens, delaying the beginning of my show and basically ruining a close friendship with my friend there. In my DC life, the Capitals had a special knack for going into overtime only on the nights when my shows needed to start and end by a certain time. Suffice to say, I’ve known sports (both college and professional) to be a natural enemy of stand-up comedy for about as long as I’ve been involved in it, but until the events of these past couple of weeks, I didn’t realize just how detrimental venues allowed football to be, or at least what a good straw man it made for management.

Within a span of two weeks, both Twisted Mike’s Tap Room and Side Splitters Comedy Club announced they would be suspending all comedy activities in light of football season. For Twisted Mike’s, that meant a weekly special event was disappearing. For Side Splitters, it meant doors closing; numerous staff have been put out of work and many regional comics, most of whom perform nearly exclusively at Side Splitters (for political reasons I have no need to expound upon here), have been denied their crucial, primary outlet. Many comics, including me, were upset about the announcement of the former. Regarding the latter, though, reactions ranged from surprised, to dumbfounded, to enraged (listen to Side Splitters regular Dean Jennings rant about it here). Fortunately, for Side Splitters, it turned out that football was the straw-man; Steve Hofstetter and his partners are re-opening the club this weekend.

Without over-diagnosing the inner mechanics behind Side Splitters’ decision to shutter their establishment, the idea that a club would use football season as their excuse, even as a front, is remarkable. I suppose there are few other places on the planet (even within the United States) where locals would give the club the benefit of the doubt with that reason, as far-fetched as the idea may seem to most.

On a personal note and in full disclosure (I guess), I am not a football fan. I didn’t grow up paying much attention to the NFL, and outside of a couple years in college going to Orangemen/Orange games (if that name transition dates me at all), I haven’t been too invested in NCAA football either. This is obviously not to say that comics are or should be at all adversarial about sports. Two of my best friends I made doing comedy in DC, Evan Valentine and Mike Eltringham, are both long-time devoted Redskins and Giants fans, respectively. Both have generated extensive comedy material both onstage and off about their favorite teams (and in the case of Dan Snyder, biggest shitpiles of owners).  Some of my favorite memories of my tenure in Long Beach involved meeting up with Tim Palmer on non-comedy nights to watch Lakers games, enjoying Tim’s one-man reaction show every bit as much as the actual game. My fellow Knox comics Michael Shibley and JC Ratliff are both devoted football fans (Shibley has actually become one of my go-to’s locally on the subject of any sport). On a personal front, I’ve thoroughly documented my own obsession with hockey for as long as I’ve had access to the internet.  I would be lying if I said my indignation at these comedy cancellations had nothing to do with my dislike of American football, but many comics who love the sport have still reacted similarly. Every comic, regardless of his or her sports fandom, must contend with the inevitable distractions that come from sporting events. Despite the preponderance of DVRs and On Demand programming, live sports retain their appeal for being live. Most of these sports, especially the North American “big four” professional ones, are often live at the same time as stand-up.  Eltringham even admits that sports can have a negative reflexive influence:

The hardest part for me as a comic was going to those mics because you figure in your head, “Well, no one’s going to be there, and I like watching football, so I may as well stay home.” It’s like a built-in rationalization not to push yourself to work harder.

photo (1)

Knoxville comics Bryce Houseal, Sean Simoneau, Evan Brooks, J.C. Ratliff, and Michael Shibley watch the Colts/Broncos game after the open mic at Preservation Pub. September 7, 2014.

I have no delusions about the juggernaut effect that football has, especially in the American South. I would rather drive my barely-insured car off of the Exit 389 ramp than make the mistake of driving anywhere near the UT Campus within twenty-four hours of a Vols home game again. Few Americans under the age of 60 can remember a time when the Super Bowl wasn’t the single biggest informal national holiday of the year. That being said, this is hardly a uniquely American dynamic. We spent several weeks listening to sportscasters from across the pond about how Soccer is “a religion” throughout most of the world. If you want to actually make a Canadian viscerally angry, bring their team to the brink of a Stanley Cup and lose.

So, the big question that came to my mind in light of the local announcements was whether comics in other parts of the world had to contend with this in light of their most popular sports in the way that we Americans do with football.

And who better for a football-averse comic based in the South to talk to about this than a comic based in Vancouver who doesn’t like hockey? Brendan Bourque, who works at a comedy club in Vancouver and runs a successful open mic at the Sin Bin sports bar on Sunday nights, has several bits about how much he hates hockey. Regardless, he understands that it will always create obstacles. However, he has never heard of the Canucks outright cancelling shows at a club or otherwise:

“Having clubs shut down during sports seasons is something that never happens here. It can be tricky for the weekly bar shows such as the one I run at Sin Bin when there’s a big hockey game, often we’ll have to delay the start of the show a bit until the game’s over, and if the Canucks happen to make the playoffs, well, that can get even trickier. I work in one of the major comedy clubs here in Vancouver, and in the 1.5 years I’ve been an employee, I’ve never heard of the club shut down for a sporting event. Sometimes it can tough to fill seats, but the show always goes on.”

In French Canada, the reaction to the idea of preemptively closing a club over sports was generally similar among the comics I contacted, though the individual reactions and experiences were varied and opinionated. I reached out to my buddy Mo Arora, a Montreal native who recently located to Atlanta, asking if he had encountered any hockey-related obstacles while performing up there. He admitted that certain nights, particularly during the playoffs when the Habs, Leafs, or Sens are playing, getting 15 people to a show can be a herculean task. But then again, the NHL spreads its influence out over a span of six to eight months. For the unfamiliar, the NHL season (like that of the NBA) runs for 82 games, with league action happening nightly (rather than concentrating on three or four days per week like American football does), and an individual team plays every two or three days. During rebuilding years, the percentage of any NFL team’s fair-weather fans does have a noticeable (if not night-and-day) effect, on comedy crowds. The same is true in the Great White North. As Arora says, “Year to year, you can guess how good or bad the [hockey] team is based on the size of comedy audiences.”

Taking fair-weather fans into consideration or not, Bourque’s note about the playoffs is not to be taken lightly. My own spring-time comedy experiences in DC ­(which is known for particularly non-aggressive sports fan-bases) during the peak Ovechkin years (’08-’11) are testament to this. While delaying our start time at Solly’s Tavern because the Caps and Flyers were in overtime was hardly ideal (especially when we needed to be done in time for a band to set up and play after our show), I’d be the first to admit I was glued to the flat-screen at the bar in back just like anybody else. (Fuck you, Joffrey Lupul. Still. Six years later). Montreal comic Mike Carrozza shared a similar story with me about his first time doing comedy:

My first ever set was the night the Habs got knocked out of round two (or one) playoffs. It was exciting because they hadn’t made it that far into playoffs for a while and they were doing well. People really believed they had a shot at making it to the finals. Anyway, I’ve been a musician for a long time and a buddy of mine who ran things at a bar called Mad Hatters was trying to come up with show ideas to draw more traffic to the bar. I told him I was thinking of trying stand up and if he made it happen, I’d do my first set. He contacted a bunch of comics and threw the show together and spaced on there being a possible game that night.

I was nervous as fuck which is very unlikely me. I hyperventilated when game time was almost over and things seemed like the Habs were going to win and move on to game 7. So at least I’d be performing to a happy crowd who’d be a little supportive. Last minute or so, philly scores and they go into overtime. The show is pushed back til after the game. Except they didn’t end after one OT. They did two. And philly only scored near the end of the second one. I’d never been so invested in a hockey game in my life.

That night people were wearing red and blue and watching that game except for me, other comics and three of my friends. When they lost, it was brutal. Then Preston got on the PA and announced there was a comedy show about to happen. I almost bailed. The room wasn’t having it and I went up and bombed with the exception of a large blond lady who seemed to like what I was doing. Ever since, I’ve been mindful of the Habs schedule to be sure I’m not up against a rivalry game or an important match up that could sour a show.

Although hockey is “Canada’s game,” friction between hockey fans and comics is hardly exclusive to north of the border, as Reggie Watts proves with this hilarious story of the time he got much more than bargained for while opening for Soulive in Philly.

In conclusion, on all three counts, fuck the Flyers.

Where was I? Oh yeah, dynamics. Looking at this time-schedule-wise, the NFL season spans 17 weeks between Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays, with occasional Saturday games after college football ends (high school games, and rare professional games, consume Friday nights). The NCAA season spans 12 games, not including bowl games which, according to Mike Shibley, “no one gives a shit about unless you’re a die-hard fan of that team.” There is no quantifiable way that football (as a broadcasted, mass-marketed entity unto itself) has specifically impinged upon comedy. On the night of the Tennessee-Utah State game on August 31st, the weekly open mic in the Speak Easy at Preservation Pub had its strongest, most attentive crowd in well over a month. Empirically, it would seem that any adversarial relationship between sports and comedy occurs on a fairly case-by-case, rather than systematic, basis. Side Splitters had operated its club in that same location for five years before preemptively closing down due to the hypothetical impending loss of business over football (or at least publicly stating they were). According to Left Hand Comedy founder Collin Gerberding, the management of Twisted Mike’s decided to prevent potential conflicts between audience members there to watch football and watch/perform comedy by removing the comedy. In other words, outside of occasional one-nighters and a handful of nascent showcases, established stand-up comedy has been (at least prior to the Side Splitters re-opening) eradicated from West Knoxville. My own highly essentialist opinions about West Knoxville notwithstanding, this is significant. West Knoxville may have negligible foot traffic and a population incapable of centrality, but there is a present population out that way with disposable income, and a market for comedy exists outside of just the one club. This reality leaps to the fore when one considers the uniqueness of stand-up comedy as an entertainment form, next to other more ubiquitous, less cumbersome/attention-demanding ones like happy hours, game nights, and karaoke.

The most appropriate thing would be to expand our control group outside of North America. Enter the comic and soccer fan Alex Perry. I met Alex when I performed in Camden Town years ago, around the time he was beginning his podcast “Comics Talk Football.” I was unaware of any other podcasts that integrated stand-up comedy with sports fandom at the time. The Sklar Brothers’ nascent sports material had yet to become a serious institution, and “Comedifans!” which my friends Sumukh Torgalkar and Justin Golak ran out of Columbus, didn’t start production until 2012. With this in mind, I thought I would pick Alex’s brain for ways in which British stand-ups countenance the juggernaut influence of soccer:

“It’s not that much of a problem here really, certainly not to the extent that clubs have to close. Football’s very popular here, but the vast majority of games are during Saturday and Sunday afternoons, so there’s not much cross over. There’ll be one game on a Monday night, but really if you’re going to comedy on a Monday you’re already a more than casual audience. Champions League games are Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and occasionally comedy attendances might be down if an English team has a big game. But these games are intermittent.

The World Cup is much more of a problem, especially as British comedy audiences are always down in summer as people like to be outside and celebrate the rare heat. Personally I don’t book gigs on game days during the World Cup. I took one as a favour to a friend this summer, it ended up getting cancelled and I missed most of USA v Belgium which was one of the best games of their tournament.

I think football probably has another bad side which is it’s a huge part of British culture but very difficult to talk about on stage as audiences are too partisan and tribal. I’ve had plenty of hecklers pipe up when they hear my home town and want to know my allegiance (without me mentioning the game or whether I’m a fan).”

Alex Green, the Bay Area music journalist who wrote the 33 1/3 book on The Stone Roses, opened one chapter about a phenomenon that does seem unique to Americans and baffling to Brits: lifelong allegiances with no geographic basis. He has never met anyone in Britain who, for example, grew up in Manchester, went to school in Manchester, lives in Manchester, and yet supports Arsenal or Liverpool. Based on all accounts I’ve heard, a culture like that of DC’s urban population who’ve never come anywhere close to Texas (save for switching flights in DFW) who bleed Cowboys silver would not exist in the UK. Teams like Real Madrid have fans spread far and wide, but like the Los Angeles Lakers, those fans follow their favorite athletes (e.g. many North Africans and Zinedine Zidane, many South Asians with Kobe Bryant, douchebags and Cristiano Ronaldo) rather than specific clubs. Allegiances, while certainly heavily geographic in the US, tend to, for related reasons, tend to be less explicitly tribal. I have yet to hear a story of a comic being confronted or threatened for simple allegiance to a football team in the US (though I’m sure they exist). However, crowds do respond negatively to people who trash any team ineffectively.

“Unless you are really good at pandering, it pays to be unbiased about football. You can lose a crowd if you try and shit on their team in the wrong way,” Boston McCown, the MC of the Preservation Pub Sunday night open mic, told me recently.

Side Splitters had been open since 2009, and until just recently, had never publicly expressed any concern whatsoever about “football season” significantly hurting business, so it was of little surprise that the club was just using it as a distraction.  I have no data covering how many comics consider themselves “sports fans” (getting it would no doubt result in hours of confusing statistical extraction and failing to extinguish the inevitable flame wars that would erupt), but I feel it’s safe to say that the percentage of comics who consider themselves “sports fans” is analogous to the number of civilians (or total people within society) who consider themselves such. Most comics have their allegiances, and some even structure their comedy schedules around their favorite teams’ schedules. Some comics like Bill Burr even use local sports teams as a conduit to fervent regionalisms. In other words, they make it a point to see what the fuss is all about, wherever they go. Understanding a local sports culture, much like reading into a regional artistic or political culture, can only enhance somebody’s comedy. However, on occasion, those who control our stages feel the need to let these hypothetical bottlenecks get the best of their business decisions. As we have done in Knoxville, comics anywhere will both keep following their teams, yet will always find new places to perform and keep going whether or not the game is on.

One thought on “On that Precarious Relationship Between Televised Sports and Stand-Up

  1. One time I went up and joked after the local loss, “I was just thinking, I don’t care who wins, just someone fucking win…” unfortunately the best laugh of the set. Of the four left around…

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