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Comedy at the Old Folks' Home: Q&A with Adam Kessler

I’ve performed comedy in a lot of unlikely scenarios: a construction company holiday party in a classic car showroom, a graduation lock-in party in a high school gym, a private birthday get-together for a large Mormon family in Puyallup. Telling jokes in a setting not designed to accommodate standup is challenging, and I’m proud of powering through these random bookings to earn a check for plying my trade. They’re rarely fun but they pay well and test your comedic abilities to their limits. I classify these types of shows under the category “hell gig.” 

Pasco comedian Adam Kessler has made a certain type of hell gig into his bread and butter: the retirement home show. Kessler recently made the leap to full-time touring comedian and many of his bookings these days are at old folks’ homes. As a family man and comic who works entirely clean—no profanity, no adult situations—his act naturally lends itself to wholesome settings like corporate events and church fundraisers. But if you're familiar with the type of humor that passes for family-friendly these days, perhaps a more accurate descriptor of Kessler's act would be “clean but actually funny." He's a seasoned jokewriter with veteran chops who also performs at casinos, clubs and roadhouses throughout the Northwest.

I'm fascinated by Kessler's booming sideline entertaining codgers in God’s Waiting Room because it's something I'd never attempt. I asked him a few questions about his foray into geriatric entertainment.

How did you break into the retirement home circuit?
I had the idea a few years ago so I contacted a local retirement community. I did a free show during their lunchtime. The first half of the show was awful then I turned it around. I loved it and had to try more in the future. 

Has anyone ever died or had a medical emergency during one of your sets? 
No. There have been alarms going off for people who needed help from the nursing staff, but not for people at my show. At a recent show everyone had call buttons on their wrists, sort of like a Life Alert, to call when they need assistance. I joked that if I don't do well, all of those are going to go off at once so people can escape. No one pushed their button.

How are these gigs different from a regular standup show?
It's not different. There are people there and the job is to make them laugh and have a good time. I have to keep in mind that there's no one in my age group and no one has a job. They've lived full lives and seen so much. I'm just as interested—maybe more—in hearing their story as they are in hearing mine. Because of that I do crowd work a lot more than I would in a comedy club or casino. The more talkative the crowd at a retirement community, the better the show. The pacing is also more forgiving—it doesn't have to be joke after joke. Sometimes letting them interact brightens them up and engages them more than my jokes ever could.  

What kind of material do the old folks like? What don't they like?
They like set up/punchline jokes. They react well to one-liners too. They like stories and clever wordplay. They don't like puns. Jokes about having kids are hit-and-miss; some of them had children 60-plus years ago so they've forgotten what it was like. Most don't connect to current events or technology. If they don't use the internet then your jokes about Facebook and Instagram and Smart Phones aren't gonna work. I treat the shows as corporate gigs: I don't bash them; I want to be invited back. I don't do jokes about being old or adult diapers. I do jokes about doctors and pharmacies and they like that.  

Have you learned anything from performing for the elderly?
At my first retirement community show I learned that they don't necessarily want to hear a standup-comedy act, they want to connect. They love telling me jokes—before, during and after my show. They're not a different species; they're just older than us. They like fun and they laugh at funny jokes. I've had comedians ask me "Do they laugh out loud?" Yes, of course they do.

Photo courtesy of the Tri-Cities Area Journal of Busines

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