“True story...” Those two words are spoken at every comedy show on the planet, a phrase every comic uses. At the beginning of a joke, it’s to let you know, “I’m about to tell you some crazy stuff!” At the end of a joke, it’s thrown out like a cry for help because the joke bombed. Every time I’m onstage and tell the story about going on a date with a little person (me, 6’8”, she 4’8”), I’m asked if it’s true.
Does it matter? If it bombs, nobody cares if God himself told it. The true story is that the joke wasn’t funny. But if a joke is funny, it may be because it’strue. When a comedian is describing something that actually happened to him, he’s opening himself up and giving a part of himself to the audience. There’s deeper funny there.
One of my all-time favorite comedians, Patrice O’Neal (RIP) once said, “If you walk in as the truth, even if it’s fucked-up truth, nobody can fuck with you. Live in the truth.” An audience may not agree with your truth, but if it’s your truth, they can’t deny it.
Audiences live vicariously through comedians. We can say and do things regular people can’t because it’s inappropriate or politically incorrect. When a comedian rants about his “white guilt” (Bill Burr), how his 4-year-old daughter is an “asshole” (Louis CK), or about her “failed attempts at dieting” (Jessica Kirson), the audience laughs as a form of release, a way to let loose their fears and insecurities. It’s recognition of shared experience. Everybody wins.
A year ago, at the Parlor Live in Bellevue, I launched the True Story Comedy Show. Every month, I invite a few comedians to perform their stand-up and immediately afterward interview them about the “true story” behind their jokes. I start the interview by asking the audience if a particular part of the comedian’s routine was “true or bullshit,” and the audience weighs in. It’s an opportunity to collectively figure out what makes the truth so funny.
Get a comic talking about the true story behind a joke and you’ll find that it’s often crazier then the joke itself. Mark Viera, a comedian from New York, did my one-year anniversary show. Mark does “act-outs,” taking on the voices and physical characteristics of his characters. He has a bit about asking his 9-year-old son to pick up his toys. While barefoot, Mark stepped on a Lego. In a moment of rage, he screamed, “Hey, fuckface! Pick up your toys!”
During the interview, I asked Mark if he really called his son fuckface. “It’s not did I call him fuckface,” he said, “because I still do. He doesn’t listen!”
At Nick’s Comedy Stop in Boston, I interviewed one of my favorite comics, Tony V. Tony’s been doing comedy for 30 years and is one of the founding fathers of the Boston comedy scene. He tells a joke about his mother having Alzheimer’s. On paper, Alzheimer’s isn’t something to joke about—especially if it’s your mother with the disease. Miraculously, Tony makes the whole situation endearing.
In his story, his mother asks how her grandchildren are doing—over and over and over again. Tony just smiles and says, “They’re good mom, they’re good.” He says it with the look of a son who loves his mother and wants her to be happy.
At first, the audience is uneasy, but Tony never gets annoyed or frustrated with his mom. He just politely answers again and again and again. After the sixth or seventh time, the audience knows what’s coming—and by now they’re on-board. They’re laughing. It takes a true master of comedy to connect with a room full of strangers and find humor in tragedy. For both the comedian and the audience, that’s catharsis.
It’s hard to get there. Not long ago, my grandfather died of Alzheimer’s. Following in Tony’s footsteps, I’ve been trying to work a joke about it into my act. The audience’s initial response is to feel sorry for me, so I’m in a hole to start with. The fact that I’m opening up a wound for everyone to share in and saying, “This is something I’m going through, but I’m able to laugh about it”—it can make the audience uncomfortable or it can instill hope. The truth walks a delicate line.
A joke doesn’t have to be true to be funny. But true stories elicit a deeper response than “So what’s the deal with airline food?” schtick. The great comedians use truth like a tool. They stop wanting their audiences to simply laugh and start wanting them to listen.
Jay Hollingsworth will host the True Story Comedy Show Sept. 2 at Bumbershoot, which until two years ago he was pronouncing “Bumpershoot.” True story.