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Washington D.C. may not be a city that embraces comedy with open arms, but you knew that already. That is why you found us. Here you can get information, interviews and insights on the best local stand-up, improv and sketch comedy this city has to offer... 4 Now. You can reach us at dccomedy4now(at)gmail.com. LET'S DO THIS, DC!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

DC Comedy Spotlight: Jimmy Meritt

A really supportive (and successful) comic in the DC comedy scene, Jimmy will be embarking on a thirty state college tour this year, on top of plenty of local club work. If you get a chance, check out his comedy (cause he's funny) or just have a chat with him (cause he's a swell guy).

Where did you first perform?

I had a lot of small steps growing up before I had the big step, that lead me into DC Comedy proper. I was always a stand-up comedy enthusiast, so in high school I’d written around three or four minutes of jokes, and every few months I’d find a random place to perform it. My first onstage performance ever was at my best friends “Eagle Scout” ceremony. Since he was the man of the hour, he got to decide what sort of entertainment went on, and he brought me in. I also performed a few times at Church Banquets, and school functions throughout high school.

(click away for the rest of the 'view)

Once I got to college, I was able to grab a few more performance opportunities. I did a bit of acting in an improve troupe, but the most stand-up heavy stuff were these coffee-house open mics the school would put on. It was primarily folk singers and some acting monologues, and I would do the four minutes of stand-up I had. After a while, I was the permanent host of these, but a lot of what I did there leaned more towards sketch comedy then stand-up.

Two years into college, I dropped out to attempt to make a full, earnest run at it. My first DC Open mic was Soho Tea and Coffee, run by Paul Schorsh. The week before I went up, my roommate and I went to watch the show and check it out. The actual night of my performance, I came with three people- a girl I had a crush on, and her parents. What could go wrong? Since those three meant I had brought the most people, I went up last. It gave me plenty of time to get nervous, and by the time I was next up my heart rate was going pretty fast. I’m eternally grateful for the intro Paul gave me- “This is his first time up, but I’ve got a good feeling about him”. That gave me a nice surge of confidence, and I was happy with how the show went. I’m almost glad I didn’t tape it- I’m sure if I watched it now I’d be horrified, but at the time it felt like a rousing success.

When did you realize that you wanted to do comedy?

It’s hard to say, I’ve been excited about comedy for as long as I can remember. During one summer break, probably fourth or fifth grade, I would stay up late watching David Letterman. Once school started again, I was devastated that I would have to go to sleep and miss him. My mom worked out a deal with me where I went to bed at 9:30, then she’d wake me up at 11:30 to watch David Letterman, then send me back to bed. This went on for years, and was probably a chief contributor. It was either awesome or terrible parenting, depending on which book you read.

Neither of my parents are at all performance oriented, and neither are really that enthusiastic about comedy, so to this day we’re not quite sure where I got the bug. Whatever it was, Letterman was the trigger.

Who were some of your earliest influences? What about them captivated you?

Well, obviously David Letterman is the top of the list. He still captivates me to this day. The main thing I find funny about him, and all the comedians I enjoy, is his ability to be both silly and clever. A lot of the comics that I would consider the “smart” comedians come across as snobbish, and a bit stuck up. So, even though I really enjoy the jokes, I still kind of chuckle instead of a full guffaw. And, a lot of the really silly, weird comedians don’t have enough structure for me to really enjoy the jokes, or they’re too random to really relate too. So, I really enjoy the comics who are able to do both, and Letterman is top of the list. Other then his humor, I also just find his personality in general to be compelling. Even when he’s not funny, he’s intresting. A lot of his callbacks and running gags go over the course of several weeks, so it rewards long time viewers. And, he’s very guarded in terms of his personal life and real opinions, so it’s intresting to me to try to study his body language and figure out what he really means- often it’s hard to tell if he’s being sarcastic or not, and he sneaks in some very pointed statements.

Steve Martin is another comedian that was a huge influence on me- in High School I listened to “Lets Get Small” at least once a week. Like Letterman, I enjoyed his ability to be both silly and clever- I really don’t think there’s anyone better at the set-up/punchline/tag joke formula. He’s got a few jokes in particular that I think are absolutely perfect writing. And, past that, he’s one of the comedians that you can really tell is having genuine fun onstage. He’s not pretending, he’s not trying to work up enthusiasm, he’s just getting onstage and having a genuine BLAST. Every time. Or, if he is pretending, he’s excellent at it and deserves the accolades for that.

In terms of early influnences from local comics, Jared Stern and Adam Ruben both pulled me aside and gave me some very good advice starting out. To them it was a minor thing they probably don’t remember, but the attention meant a lot to me in those early months.

What was your first paid gig?

It’d be hard to place the actual first gig in which money changed hands. Starting out, there’s always local comedians setting up these showcases in bars. Four comics go up, and get ten or fifteen dollars each, something along those lines. I started getting invited to those fairly early, but I’ve always suspected that was more due to be being a nice, respectful guy that was fun to be around then any sort of inherent skill in comedy.

A few of the early paid shows do stand out. Back in the day, every week there was a group of four or five of us that did an open mic at Fraizers Bar in Baltimore. Matt Morrison was in our little club, and he brought all of us along one week to do a paid show at UMBC. I enjoyed the feeling of our open mic crowd becoming more “legit”. Also, the 955 Club in Richmond felt like a big deal, because it was a healthy drive away, which meant it was on the road. It was also a bit of early validation that my material could work outside of the bubble I had created, but a lot of the crowd there were supportive Richmond comics, so it still felt like a safety net.

The one that really made an iconic difference to me was my first weekend hosting at the DC Improv. I had performed there once before, at a monthly contest they used to do. I had come in third place, and although I wouldn’t admit it at the time, not coming in first or second was a bitter disappointment. I did manage to get a booking out of it, though, and I spent months prepping for it.

To me, the DC Improv felt like a step from the open mic trenches into being a real comedian. I built it up in my mind as being the beginning of my comedy career- I would get a tape from it, I’d have a real club on my resume, it would give me a bit of credibility. But, even past that, I also looked at it as the first real chance to perform outside of a safety net. At an open mic, especially DC open mics where the crowd tends to be nice, there was never a real element of risk to me- the crowd had gotten in for free, they knew we were all just starting out. I think my enthusiasm also rubbed off too, which made them inherently root for me in a way I felt that a paying crowd wouldn’t.

For my first night up, I told none of my friends to come, since I just wanted a pure dose of what performing in a comedy club would be like. I put enormous pressure on myself- I felt like if I did well there, it proved I could make a good run as a comedian, but if the weekend had been a bust, I would start to reconsider some of the choices I’d made. Thankfully, the breathless anticipation had paid off, and the show went well. I remember after my very first MC set there, I walked back into the green room and literally jumped up and down with excitement for a solid minute. I felt possibilities that seemed abstract were suddenly more concrete, and that moment is still pretty high up on my list of all time favorite moments.

Do you ever want to convey a message?

“Message” is probably too strong a word for what I’m doing, but there’s a definite approach to my material I decided to take early on. There wasn’t going to be anything edgy about it-My political beliefs are generic, I’m sort of suspiscous of a lot of the alternative comedy movement, and I’m not a particularly dark person. I knew that my comedy wasn’t going to be breaking new barriers- I’m pretty mainstream, so there wasn’t going to be any element of danger to seeing my show. But, I didn’t want to blend into a crowd either. There’s a lot of goofy looking, skinny white male comics in their mid-twenties- so I made it a goal to put as much of my personality in as possible. I feel like at the end of a thirty minute set, everyone in the crowd should know EXACTLY who I am. My sense of humor, my interests, my insecurities. I wanted to completely put the essence of myself out there.

In terms of joke structures, there was another particular pet peeve of mine I’ve worked hard to address. I’m a massive geek. I grew up on comic books. I camped out eleven days for Star Wars. I watch Battlestar Galactica, and every week me and my crew get together for Dungeons and Dragons. But, there’s never been a geek comedian I’ve enjoyed. I feel like every geek comic takes the same structure, of being insecure and talking about how no one will have sex with them. To me, it’s a lot funnier, honest, and unique to talk about being a geek who is successful in relationships. A lot of the bits I’m most proud of hit on that subject. A geek having sex is funnier then a geek who isn’t having sex. Being confident and proud of the fact you camped out for Star Wars is a stronger choice. (An example of this method working that validated me a bit was Napoleon Dynamite- what made that character funny is the ratio between how dorky he was vs his confidence level. If he was a sad sack, the movie wouldn’t have worked.)

And, it’s a more honest choice in general, since I’ve never met a girl who cared. Girls don’t like Star Wars, but they don’t like football either, and sports fans do fine. Girls just don’t date geeks who have poor hygiene and don’t present themselves well, it has nothing to do with interests, and I think it’s fun to find ways to explore that.

What's hacky to you?

Right now, my main pet peeve is a lot of the alternative comedy being done at open mics. The idea of “It’s funny because it’s not funny!” is lazy, dishonest, and misinformed.

The conundrum is that Patton Oswalt, who is basically the figurehead of the alternative comedy movement, is my favorite comedian. But, other people really into him have completely taken the wrong idea from him. Patton Oswalt is one of the most accessible comics there is, material wise. If you listen to his CDs, the first two or three minutes of every bit is him painstakingly giving you every piece of information you need to enjoy the joke. He’s brilliant at introducing ideas and concepts, so that by the time he gets to the punchline, you’re completely on the same page. Yet, for some reason, alternative comedy guys have watched him and decided “We don’t need to be accessible at all!”.

There’s an inherent dishonesty to it that bothers me as well. We get someone whose only been doing comedy maybe six months, and their entire persona is “I hate mainstream comedy! Fuck the comedy clubs, man!”. But, if you talk to them, they have absolutely no experience in mainstream comedy clubs at all. They’ve never done a weekend show, they’ve never been asked by management to tone down their acts, they’ve never had any sort of experience that would sour them. They have no honest disdain for comedy clubs at all, they are just parroting things they’ve read and heard. I’ve heard people repeat things I’ve heard in a Patton Oswalt interview verbatim, sans any opinion of their own. Their entire art is based on a marketing pitch by another comedian.

And not to harp on it, but I dislike people who have never done comedy before stepping in with the attitude that they are better then mainstream comedy. There’s an arrogance to it that throws me off. Just focus on being funny.

(I do think weird, alternative stuff can work, though, I just wish people would put more thought into it. There’s nothing inherently funny about sitting onstage eating graham crackers. A set-up punchline joke works because you set up tension, then break it. Funny alternative comedy sets up tension, then never breaks it, so you laugh at your own pace. Set up expectations past “It’s funny because it’s not ordinarily done onstage”.)

How do you feel about the comedy scene in DC?

I like the variety available in comedy flavors here in DC, and I think it’s a benefit to both comedians and audience members. If you go to the DC Improv, Wiseacres, and the Baltimore Comedy Factory, each show will be very different, in terms of performance styles and audience expectations. This is great for audience, because after a weekend at each club they’ll be able to know what style they enjoy the most.

This is also great for the comics that choose to take advantage of it, because you can both find what room style you’re most suited too, and train on how to adapt your presentation for different rooms. I knew early on that if I was able to have a successful set with the same material in all three venues, there wasn’t going to be a lot of places I’d have a hard time. Just having DC, Baltimore, and Virginia so close is really advantageous for training yourself for the road.

I also think we’ve got a good mix of community and competitiveness, which I think is an important balance.

What would you change?

In terms of the scene itself I think we’re in good shape, my only disappointment with the scene is the lack of audience enthusiasm. Most open mics I attend are really solid shows. New comics show potential, and skilled professionals are committed enough to swing by and do sets. If you go to an open mic in DC, you’re going to laugh. But, no matter how much promotion we do, there’s no way to force the audience to get excited about it.

You’ve been on the road pretty consistently this last year, and have been doing comedy as your primary job. Was there a specific break or choice that allowed you to make that coveted jump?

I was lucky enough to be invited on a thirty state College tour, which has kept me busy. It’s nice being full time now, but once summer rolls around it’ll be back to clocking in every day.

I had read about the college tour on an internet posting early last year, and it seemed right up my alley. They were looking for someone who could do a twenty minute set, had some improvisational experience, and wasn’t into drugs or partying. Reading that, it seemed like exactly the sort of thing I should be involved with, so I dropped them an e-mail and my promo tape. Sadly, by the time they had gotten to my tape, they’d already found someone. So, I stayed aggressive with it, dropping them an e-mail every few weeks just asking how the tour was going, and trying to strike up a rapport. So, I stayed fresh in their minds, and once this year rolled around they had an opening for a feature, and brought me along.

You can check out our website at www. thecomedyproject. com.

What advice would you give comics still working towards “full-time comedian?”

I’ve got conflicting advice, so just take the part that seems to make most sense to you.

One thing I always try to advise is patience. The first focus should always be on becoming as skilled, funny, and loose as possible. The better you are, the more well prepared you’ll be once an opportunity comes along. Also, I’ve noticed that whatever your first impression is with a booker tends to be the permanent impression. I was a little too ambitious starting out, and I got myself a few gigs I wasn’t ready for. At the time, I was excited to be there, but now there’s a handful of clubs where I wasn’t at my best, and it’s even harder to get back in then it was to get there in the first place.

Also, one thing I would encourage is to seek out any opportunity you can, and avoid being discouraged when things don’t work out. One of the things I’ve found really odd about my journey is that the things I expected to be really big breaks panned out to nothing, and the things that turned out to just sort of be little side things turned out to be major.

For instance, a few years back I did a college show opening for the cast of “Whose Line Is It Anyway”. There were 2,000 people in a huge auditorium crowd, and at the time I had convinced myself that it was going to be my big break. It screamed credibility, and I built it up for months. But, once the show was over, I just woke up the next morning and things continued as they had been.

But, just for fun, I auditioned for Comedysports in Arlington. I just did it as a lark, and I figured some improv would help me keep loose onstage. I did it for a few months, then gradually fell away. The woman who runs it ended up being the person that forwarded me the information about the college tour, though, so that ended up being the thing that was a major step.

Do you prefer the road or performing at your home base? Feel free and drop any crazy road stories.

I much prefer the road, if only for the opportunity to perform larger sets. I love performing comedy in thirty minute chunks- with an eight or ten minute set, I feel like I got offstage as soon as I was done saying hello. That’s also the reason I’ll likely never move to New York to pursue comedy there- the impression I get is that it’s a showcase town, and I want to be a feature guy. For what it’s worth, I do plan on keeping DC as my home base for the foreseeable future.

As far as crazy road stories, I’d rather just plug my blog. I’m at www. myspace. com/jimmymeritt, and I update on facebook as well. On January 27th, I’m heading on my next run, and that’s when the ruckus will start again. Or, if you haven’t been reading it before, I’ve got twenty road blogs or so up through the archives, we’ve had some good times.

Any comic who’s taking it seriously knows that at some point there will be sacrifices in the personal life. As a traveling comic, how as it been for you, maintaining that balance of career and personal life?

Relationship wise, it’s been easier now then when I was an open mic’er starting off. In the first two years, I was onstage five nights a week, every week. For a new girlfriend, at first going to comedy shows was kind of a fun novelty, but after a while that wears off, and they wanted to do something else. So, I had many a break-up starting off.

I’m sure if I was just dating now, the road trips would take a toll, but luckily I’m happily married to someone who is in the comedy field, and is fiercly independent enough that it’s not crippling to the marriage. Honestly, I think a lot of the road relationship problems are due more to road vices then due to separation. A lot of the issues I’ve heard cropping up are drug and adultery issues, but I don’t plan on getting involved in any of those things on the road, so I don’t expect any problems. Interviewing her might get you a different answer, though, so you never know…

Congrats on your success. Do you feel like it’s all happening ahead of schedule, behind schedule, or just at the right time?

I’m trying not to think ahead or behind too much, and just enjoy everything as it comes. I was incredibly enthused and pumped that first open mic at Soho, and I’m just trying to keep that excitement for every show that I do.

Jimmy Meritt at the D.C. Improv


Justin Cousson said...

Great interview; this is the kind of stuff that really makes this site worthwhile.

Jimmy, you're been an awesome help. I hope you kill at the AU show!

Avolio said...

Thanks for such a meaty, articulate interview. Great insight on Letterman and the DC Improv, and sound advice for beginning comics. And I wish more comedians left political messages at the door and instead gave us a dose of their own personality, wrapped in humor - with Meritt you really get to know the man as well as the comic while watching his sets.

OD said...

Dug it, thanks for sharing!

Tyler said...

I smiled the entire time I read this, Jimmy I'm incredibly happy for you!

Kill'em out there... and no adultery. Now crack cocaine, that's an undiscovered adventure my friend.