Brett vs. Brett: Stand-Up Revengefuck

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Lameass Megalomaniac (Photo by Sue Mattson)

 

Brett Emerson claims to be a comedic genius, brilliant writer, and master storyteller. Personally, I don’t buy it. In all the years I’ve known this Frankensteinian scoundrel, I’ve been subjected to all manner of slothful and slovenly behavior, lewd anecdotes, sacrilegious tomfoolery, vulgar musicianship, and indecent exposure. Oh, but now he says he’s a stand-up comedian and he’s slithering back to La Crosse to do a big hometown hoopla for all his degenerate friends. How nice. I’m sure his act is appropriate for our fair community. People, this man is a menace to the frail fabric of society, and he doesn’t deserve to be within a hundred feet of a public forum. Unfortunately, as I am La Crosse’s go-to guy for interviewing the suburban rich and famous, I was tapped to hold a discourse with this loathsome specimen. What follows is, without question, the lowest point of my esteemed journalistic career.

 

Brett Emerson: You’re looking well.

 

Brett Emerson: Well, you’re looking amazing!  What are you doing after this interview?

 

Emerson: Cut the crap.  Just tell me about your stupid stand-up.

 

Emerson: Ask me nicely.

 

Emerson: Are you serious?

 

Emerson: (Makes kissing faces) Lick me.

 

Emerson: Fine, you idiot. Please tell me about your magical adventures in comedy.

 

Emerson: Wellll, since moving out of La Crosse in 2010, I’ve lived in beautiful Bellingham, Washington, located between Seattle and Vancouver and about as far northwest as one can get in the continental United States.  It’s only slightly larger than La Crosse, but there’s a massive arts and music scene out here that is really inspiring.

I’ve always been a huge comedy dork, even since I was a little kid. I grew up listening to Bill Cosby and George Carlin, and I’ve watched Comedy Central since its very beginning. I’ve always had this goal of being a comedian, whether it was in the format of stand-up, sketch comedy, or film. I have notebooks full of ideas that have never made the jump from theory to reality. The problem was that I’ve never been in a place in which I could regularly get all the ideas out of my head and into those of other people.

 

Emerson: Well, that, and you’re astronomically lazy.

 

Emerson: Well, yeah.

 

Emerson: So how was Bellingham any different?

 

Emerson: A lot of what’s happened in Bellingham seems like a series of deliberate accidents. During the four day drive from La Crosse to Bellingham, I listened to nothing but stand-up, pumping myself up to get here and start looking around for stand-up open mics. When I arrived here, Bellingham didn’t seem to have much in the way of open-mics, but when I looked around for venues I discovered the Upfront Theatre, which is a fantastic little improv theater full of brilliant people who make up comedy off the tops of their heads. Just genius, creative chaos. My first impression was that I had found my tribe.

I’ve spent three years studying and performing improv with these people, using stories and characters to figure out myself. They’ve also always held a monthly stand-up show at the Upfront, but I never got on stage enough to draw together any sort of confidence or material. Other forums popped up around town, but they were always on nights I worked, so I couldn’t go.

Yet blind, stupid luck would lead me to a particular bar on a particular night four months ago, when I randomly met a guy who was starting up a new, weekly stand-up night that I could make it to. And so a terrible beauty was born.  I had the good fortune of stumbling into the ground floor of Bellingham’s exploding stand-up scene, and things are getting bigger and better. I put it this way: for the first three years I lived here, I averaged five minutes of stand-up every six months. For the past four months, I’ve been doing up to thirty minutes per week. And I’m far from the only person reaping the benefits.

 

Emerson: I was at that awkward, shambling mess you refer to as your first stand-up show at the Casino.

 

Emerson: So was I, so that figures. When you have a leprechaun in the crowd heckling you, it makes you question your whole existence. Really, I just wanted to vomit every malformed joke I ever thought of out onto the audience that night, because I honestly didn’t think I’d ever get the chance again.  That was forty minutes of sheer stuttering embarrassment, but I’d have also severely regretted not doing it.

One of the best things that improv has taught me is how to fail. How to enjoy failure and keep moving forward. How to adjust to things not working out the way you envisioned them and still turning the situation into something amazing. I’ve failed, a lot, and active failure feels a lot better than passive failure.

I’ve done horrible improv shows and horrible stand-up sets, sometimes so badly that I’ve wanted to run away and never put myself out in front of people ever again. And then I come back the next time, and nobody remembers that I sucked but me. People seem much quicker to remember the times when you were awesome. Except you, of course.

 

Emerson: Of course. For you, what are the differences between doing improv and stand-up?

 

Emerson: It’s the difference between forgetting and remembering, winging it and being very prepared. When an improv show is over, it’s over forever. Never replicated. I’ll maybe think about the show for the rest of the night, but the next day, it’s a past life. In contrast, I record everything I do in stand-up, and I listen to my show over, and over, and over, and over. I’ve largely stopped listening to other comedians since I became one. Not out of narcissism or arrogance, but because I became so obsessed with developing every nuance of my material that I never stop thinking about it. I’ve never been so absorbed in anything, ever.

 

Emerson: How do you go about developing your material?

 

Emerson: I’m learning the benefits of being prepared so well that you can throw the notes away. At first I had a basic idea for things I’d want to do in a set; then I’d get out there and bullshit my way through and listen to the recordings and hear what worked and what needed work. Very oral tradition. The aftermath remains the same, but when I’m working out new stuff now I’m much more apt to plot things out beforehand and bullet point each turn of phrase. I’m getting way better at memorizing my sets, which oddly frees me from the program. I was always a great test taker in school.

 

Emerson: Are you still a creepy little pottymouth?

 

Emerson: Oh, of course, but that’s not all there is. I’ve learned how to sneak in the shock rather than beat people over the head with it. Oddly, I used to be really afraid of telling jokes that were cleverly profane while wholly unafraid of verbally shitting everywhere, and yet the one joke which earned me the worst reaction, a full gasp, was a really mundane one about country music fans. To be fair, I told it like crap that night.

I’m really into terrible puns. I love silly one liners. I love conceptual comedy about ideas and inventions. I love talking about all my insane adventures and insane feelings and philosophies. I’m a filthy nerd, but I’m still a nerd, and I’m not so afraid of showing that off anymore.

 

Emerson: You sound happy.

 

Emerson: I am happy. Probably best ever happy. This level of satisfaction and ambition is completely alien territory.

 

Emerson: Sounds wonderful. Soooo, you wanna get out of here?

 

Emerson: Hell yeah, stud.

 

The grin of a man who just scored with himself.  (Photo Sue Mattson)

The grin of a man who just scored with himself. (Photo Sue Mattson)

 

Oh God, what have I done? Brett Emerson will play the Cavalier Theater & Lounge on Thursday, September 19th at 10pm. I, unfortunately, will be there.

 

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Y Marks the Spot: The Staged Chaos

I can’t say that in the past year I’ve spent nigh-homeless – sleeping on an air mattress in a flea-ridden house on the verge of collapse, getting rejected for jobs I’m grossly overqualified for, and counting my comatose life by the week instead of by the day – I’ve never considered moving back to La Crosse.  Sure, I would have been really unhappy and felt really defeated, but every so often it felt like defeat, at the very least, would bring a little stability and familiarity.  As much as I find a great deal of fault with it, La Crosse is my home.

Yet there was one point which I reminded myself of every time these regressive thoughts crept into my depressed brain.  It pretty much became the last line of defense that kept me out here in Washington even in my most frustrated lows.

La Crosse doesn’t have improv.  So I can’t go back.

I found improv on the day after I arrived in Bellingham, though it would be a month before its importance to me took shape.  On the second day, my new roommates showed me around my new city’s fantastic downtown, where I wandered around a bit wide-eyed.  We drifted into a small coffee shop, and everyone else in my group ordered things.  Since I don’t drink coffee and don’t care about measly café food, I lingered off near the wall, thumbs in pockets, and I stared at the giant block of fliers upon it.

There was one poster which I gravitated toward, a mockery of Pulp Fiction’s cover art in which Uma Thurman’s hip sneer replaced by another girl’s silly smirk.  Clearly the show it was hyping seemed like something that I’d be into (especially if they brought out the Gimp), but as I was still overwhelmed from crossing half the country it flew over my head.  We left the café and wandered across the street to a record store, where I found a Wesley Willis album for sale – a clear and time-honored indication that good things were in store for me.

A few weeks later, the poster and I would again cross paths.  One thing I’ve long wanted to start doing is performing stand-up comedy, but I hadn’t been able to find a consistent open mic in La Crosse to work on it.  One of my goals in coming to Washington was to find a comedy venue and start performing, and a quick Google search in this pursuit brought me to the place advertised by Fake Uma.  This would turn out to be the best Google search I’ve ever done.

Discovering improv at the Upfront Theatre was the same sort of lightning bolt to the brain that happened to me when I started writing these sorts of things and seeing them in print in the Second Supper.  Like, Jesus, I didn’t have my entire life and the rest of the world figured out after college, and there were still plenty of amazing things about myself and said world to find.  I found one such game changer during the Upfront show on the Thursday before my improv education began.  The hour and a half of people on stage, just making shit up, was both hilarious and a serious revelation.

I’ve described the way I felt watching that show the same way to a few people, and a year into improv hasn’t dulled the feeling at all.  It felt as though I had found my tribe.

I’m big into chaos and goofing off and making things and the eastern religion stripes of nihilism, and improv satisfies all of these sensibilities.  It’s something that I both knew from the start I’d be great at, and it’s a process which has made me get over myself and work really hard to get better.  Improv has made me proud of failure.  It makes me less paranoid and insular and frustrated.  It makes me a far better writer (when I stop being lazy or depressed and actually write).  It taught me to get over my own agendas.  It has made me far more brilliant.

Improv has been the one consistently good thing I’ve had going in the past year.  Sometimes, it was the only good thing.

After a year of classes, I now perform about once every other week in the Upfront’s student portion of its Thursday shows.  A group of six of us will go out, get about a half hour of time, and go berserk making shit up.  Sometimes we screw up, sometimes we’ll say horrible things that derail the scenes, but mostly we destroy the crowd.  After just about every show I leave feeling as though I’ve helped to accomplish something amazing.  I feel like an architect who makes skyscrapers out of the sky.

This is something I want to keep doing.  I don’t care how, or where, or with whom.  The Staged Chaos is in my blood and in my future, and that alone has made my adventure worth it.

Y Spy: Here’s Johnnie/Haf-Sac

Yes it does.

What: Here’s Johnnie/Haf-Sac

Where: Plan B, Bellingham

When: Friday, August 13th

The real star of Plan B’s Friday the 13th show was Billy Dee Williams.  Lurking in the shadows of the bar’s stage, the cardboard cutout of the Colt 45 spokesman managed to make its presence felt throughout the night.  While the show’s two bands tore through pop-punk (with a twist) and acoustic rock (again, with a twist), Ol’ Lando presided over the festivities, benevolently giving the night his blessing.

Here's Johnnie

After years of plying their grownup breed of pop-punk around the bars and basements of the Midwest, Here’s Johnnie has brought their game to Washington.  Their first show in their new home took place at the Plan B Bar, playing to a full crowd.  Whether singing about the living dead or breaking out drinking songs, Here’s Johnnie kept their intensity bright, yet throughout their set, the band mixed party chords with clever parts, with at least one member of the group left-fielding their role at any given time.  They weren’t afraid to leap into solos, play with time signatures or key shifts, or let songs go beyond standard single length, all of which snared those lured in by their catchy hooks.   “Get Right” was the night’s best example of how much the band could both honor and subvert genre conventions, its complex bassline leading the wails, speed, and smashing.

The set was much more than your average teen-baiting pop-punk.  Instead, Here’s Johnnie offered music set to appeal to those who at the very least can buy a beer.  Avoiding the expected route served the band well, and Here’s Johnnie made an excellent first impression.

Haf-Sac, Lando

The beatboxer who serves as Haf-Sac’s drum section was amazing, and without a doubt he is the group’s main attraction.  Still, as the show went on, the remaining members of the trio – the band’s bassist and its singer/acoustic guitarist – balanced out the act.  Though the beatboxer certainly lent the band a sense of the unusual, Haf-Sac boils down to an acoustic rock bar band that carried its performance with covers and irreverence.

If inserting the chorus of Cutting Crew’s “Died in Your Arms Tonight” wasn’t enough evidence of this, Haf-Sac offered up the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” to excite the crowd.  It was pulled off well, though the beatboxing became unhinged in the fills.  Their original material included “The Beer Trilogy” (its conclusion being the wonderfully-named “Beer Shits”), and their final song was a moody audience participation number titled “Pussy Whipped,” where angry young men beat their belts against the ground.  And, bowing to Lando’s presence, Haf-Sac played “The Imperial March.”

The band put on a fun show, and its premise is both interesting and well executed, but some points in the set – especially toward the end – seemed to float by and didn’t stand out.  As a whole, the band didn’t really kick in until “The Beer Trilogy.”  After that, they kicked back and enjoyed the show, and that worked well enough.

Lando approved.

Damn Right.

Y Spy: Jennifer McKee

Jennifer McKee

What: Jennifer McKee

Where: The Northwest Washington Fair

When: Friday, August 20th

Jennifer McKee brought an arsenal to the fair, and the result was a confident performance of country pop.  The seven members of her backing band carried her self-assured vocals with a flood of sound, which more often than not worked in the show’s favor.  The bass might have been a bit overpowering at times, and the guitars were a bit too soft, but the ultimate result was a slick, well orchestrated show that was built for a larger venue than the red bleachers on which the audience sat.

Love songs with such conventional titles as “Happily Ever After” and “Kiss Me Goodnight” seemed tailor-made for radio, yet McKee slipped in a few curveballs amidst the singles, most notably a self-effacing tune poking fun at her own celebrity crushes.  A few covers showed up in the setlist, and if there was a weak point in the show, it might have been McKee’s cover of Sheryl Crow’s “Soak up the Sun,” which didn’t feel as confident as the rest of the songs.

Throughout the concert, McKee led the proceedings with poise, working the crowd with a veneer both energized and cool.  While the band’s performance was excellent, McKee more than held up her end of the bargain, and the two elements played off one another and caught the audience.