Standup vs. Storytelling: Part One

    Education Corner November 15th, 2012 By Dustin Fisher

    First off, I don’t fancy myself an expert in either standup or storytelling, so find a few grains of salt to go with this article. I do, however, fancy myself an expert in knowing and dissecting the difference between two things that I am approximately average in. Take that with your choice of spice.

    I first got into standup comedy as a dare I made to myself in December 2007 while living in Ohio. I busted onto the scene with a victory in my first standup contest. “I knew it” I thought to myself and out loud on my facebook page. I should be touring by year’s end, but it would probably take me a year or two until I got that half hour Comedy Central Presents special. I’ll need an agent, maybe a publicist. Somebody with a graphic design background preferred.

    That contest turned out to be the climax of my standup career.

    It turns out the business doesn’t work the way I thought it did. I reaped the rewards of winning that contest – a weekend’s worth of emceeing (telling five minutes of dick jokes while people were being seated and ordering their food) – then went back to hustling as many open mic nights as I could around the Cincinnati area. It was told to me on many an unsolicited occasion that stage time was the first, second and third most important things in standup. Location isn’t even in the top ten.

    After my quick rise to the middle, I moved to DC and realized that I had to start over from scratch. Apparently, my marginally above average reputation was non-transferable. I couldn’t just drop off a resume with the DC Improv. I was turned onto a website called where there was a list of all open mic nights in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area, organized by day of the week. This is where I learned of the Speakeasy. Most open mic nights simply listed the host, his or her email, the location and time. The blurb about the Speakeasy claimed that this was a themed storytelling venue that I would have to attend once before performing so I would know what to expect. It also went on to say that if my material would be offensive to gays, Muslims or homeless people, “don’t bother saying it here.”

    Despite my future Comedy Central Presents special, I had never even heard of storytelling as live stage performance, at least not on its own, separate from the standup world. My first thought is that this sounded right up my alley. My second thought is that this place sounds pretty arrogant, telling me I had to attend a show before I could perform. This was obviously for the other people, those that don’t have future agents and hot young graphic designer publicists on their payroll. But I was intrigued, and not exactly in the habit of pissing off people I need favors from, so I decided to oblige this “attend before you perform” rule.

    I showed up to find 200 people willing to pay $10 each on a Tuesday to see a show. And the show was incredibly professional. There was a stage with a curtain behind it, a spotlight and complete and undivided attention given to every minute of every story by every person. I had just gone to about five other standup open mic nights from the same website prior to this one and shows started over an hour late, audience members carried on conversations during some acts and I had literally performed for just the other comedians and the bartenders before. The Speakeasy was another level of organized. No wonder they make you go to an event first. I would have been woefully underprepared. The tellers all had polished stories, despite several of them being first-timers. And the crowd. Seriously? 200 people. All laughing and attentive and applauding at the end. This is awesome.

    That was April 2009. I have only missed two monthly open mic nights since then. And after performing there in May 2009, I just can’t go back to five minutes of dick jokes.

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