Stand … and deliver: Top comics share insights

A boy walking down the street throws a quarter up in the air intending to catch it in his hand. Only the quarter lands in his mouth and ends up lodged in his throat.

His father tries unsuccessfully to get him to cough it up. He gets an assist from a female passerby who, trying to help, grabs the young boy in, ahem, a particularly sensitive area.

Up, almost instantaneously, comes the quarter. The father thanks the woman for saving his son’s life, and asks, impressed, and noting the odd manuever that she used in doing so, if she’s a doctor.

“No,” Charlottesville comedian Jim Zarling said, delivering the punchline with the look of the cat that ate the canary, “I’m a lawyer.”

Zarling is the driving force behind the Charlottesville Comedy Roundtable, which he started after beginning his own standup career and coming to the realization that he’d better improve his craft if he had a little help from friends in the business.

“You write material, you get feedback, and that way when you go on stage, you’re not just testing out stuff that you don’t know is not going to work,” said Zarling, who also serves as the host of the monthly Top Comic events at the Gateway Theatre in Downtown Waynesboro.

The series began with a competition modeled on the “Last Comic Standing” series on NBC. Charlottesville comedian Joe Shea emerged victorious from the 16-comic field at the Nov. 25 Gateway finale. The 21-year-old credits the Charlottesville Comedy Roundtable for helping launch his standup career. “I never really thought that it was something that regular people just did,” said Shea, whose comedy covers a range of topics, including his day job at Bodo’s Bagels in Charlottesville and substance abuse, including a bit about not feeling bad about marijuana use as long as he has a friend who is older who also uses marijuana.

“So I’d like to thank my grandfather for that,” Shea said, before clarifying that he hadn’t verified that information, and that he felt the need to clarify that because his grandfather was in the audience for the show.

“The vast majority of the stories that I tell come from things that happen to me and make me laugh, and I write them down on a Post-It note,” Shea said. “I almost never sit and think of something funny. I just try to convey what is funny to me in a way that everybody will understand.”

Brad Foster is treated by his compatriots in the Roundtable as the unofficial Roundtable sounding board. Foster resisted the urgings of friends to try standup thinking that his personal conservative outlook would be a drawback. Some advice from Zarling helped him get over the hump. “Jim said, People are people, and they like to laugh, so just go up and tell your jokes,” said Foster, whose standup routine is storytelling-intensive by design.

“It’s a very difficult form of comedy, because you still have to put jokes in there. You can’t just tell funny stories. So you have to find the right balance between storytelling and joke-telling, which is not always easy. I’ve had several times where I thought, This is going to be great, and then I get up there, and it’s just a room full of blank stares,” said Foster, whose bits include references to his days in the United States Marine Corps and being set up on dates by friends as a well-known nice guy.

A hundred eighty degrees in the other direction is T.J. Ferguson, a Nelson County native with a degree in theater who tried standup in part because he was “tired of always doing other people’s material.” His own material tends to fall in the realm of the jaw-dropping, with bits about his dog, which he named “N—–,” just to make it uncomfortable for his white friends when they came over to visit, and about what he did when his girlfriend told him that she was pregnant.

“I packed my s— up and left. Had to let her know she was with a real n—–. I’m not saying all black men are bad fathers. I just happen to be a black man, and I know that I will be a horrible father,” Ferguson said.

“I think most of my comedy works because of shock value. I start off on one thing and end up somewhere totally in left field, and people don’t see it coming,” Ferguson said. “You’re going to touch on some sensitive subjects. You’re going to say some things that not necessarily everyone may want to hear. But it’s comedy, so it’s not necessarily a way of life. It’s just something to make people laugh.”

Standup – good standup, anyway – is a craft. Which is to say, it’s a step or two or more beyond just being the funniest person that you know.

“I always wondered, Could I take that to another level?” said comic Julian Close, who came in second in the Top Comic finale, sharing, among other things, his thoughts on the invasive nature of Christmas caroling and the eureka moment that he had upon being asked out on a date after an embarrassing episode in which he’d ended up by accident in a woman’s restroom.

It’s a “big leap,” Close said, “between having been funny all your life and being someone who’s gotten up on the stage and tried to be funny in front of a group of strangers.” His first standup show met with some success, and that was enough to get Close to give the business a legitimate shot.

“I felt like, OK, I’m going to study this as a craft, I’m going to learn it, I’m going to see how well I can do with it,” Close said.

There’s no real trick, no how-to manual, no right way to go about it. Standup is an art, a craft –  “the difficult part is deciding how to edit it, how to decide, This part worked, this part didn’t, honing it down to something more refined,” Shea said – and, to Foster, a sense of confidence. “I take the attitude that I’m the funniest person in the room, and that this audience is going to love me, and all I have to do is go up there and show them how awesome I am, and everything will go well,” Foster said.

There is one hard and fast rule, though, Zarling said. Be quick about it.

“I find that for me I’ve got like 30 seconds to 60 seconds to get them on my side. And if I tell a really great joke that they all like, the rest of the show is easy, because they’re like, This is Jim, I know where he’s coming from. It’s all downhill from there. if that 30, 60 seconds goes by, and they don’t get the first joke, or they think I’m no good, it’s incredibly difficult to get them back,” Zarling said.

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