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Over the next little while, we'll be talking to St. Louis stand-up performers, and we'll start with this volley of three: Carolyn Agnew, Rima Parikh, and Angela Smith. We’ve sent each a series of questions, not trying to elicit laughs, but to get into their backgrounds, writing processes, stagecraft and tricks of the trade. Each perform in St. Louis regularly and you can find info on their next shows at the end of the piece.
Do you work best with deadlines? Do you write best under pressure? Or do you work more productively when life's playing nice? Have you worked something that's happened that day into a set?
Agnew: I personally feel that the best mindset for creating a good comedic bit is to be able to look at the absurdity of any situation. Twisted logic, so to speak. I personally don't work well with deadlines, and I never write under pressure; it has to be free-flowing, or I stifle myself. Life playing nice is boring; I do best with situations that are kind of dark. I do a lot of stuff that actually happened in the moment.
Parikh: I like having deadlines. I’m in college, so being able to do school and comedy without sacrificing either is dependent on budgeting my time. When school is at its busiest, I feel more pressured to come up with something that I’m happy with in the time that I’ve allocated to writing. If I don’t finish writing a new bit or fleshing out an idea in that time, I know that I’m going to have some pretty bad sets at open mics that week. I’ll talk about something that happened the day of, if it was strange or unnerving enough and I have a general idea of how to structure it into a joke. I don’t really like doing that, though; I like writing things out beforehand, because I ramble aimlessly when I don’t.
Smith: I haven’t found the ideal mindset for creating bits yet. I try to write from a very sincere place, no matter what state I’m in. Most of my jokes are twists on personal experiences. I’m always trying to experience new things and pick them apart to reveal their tiny absurdities. I do try to work in events of the day/week/moment when I can. But only if it fits with the rest of the set. I work well under pressure, but it’s always a relief when a solid bit comes about more than 10 minutes before I’m due on stage.
Similarly, describe your experiences with open mics and how important (or not) they are in how you shape a set, or incorporate new material?
Agnew: Open mics are critical to development of your comedic skill. They will teach you how to approach the stage and an audience; also, you get feedback on new bits. Sometimes positive, sometimes negative.
Parikh: They’re useful for testing out new material and gauging what works and what needs improvement. Going back to the last question, open mics are a good place to talk about an experience that happened that day, because no one expects your set to be perfect. You’re allowed to figure out what parts of that story are funny enough to be fleshed out, and what parts you can trash.
Smith: I feel the same way about open mics as I do about going to the gym. There are plenty of excuses for why I could skip, but I know if I just get in the car and drive there, it’ll force me to do something to better myself, and I won’t regret going. That said, I don’t make it to mics (or the gym) as often as I should. I put a lot of pressure on myself to always deliver a strong set. It’s been hard for me to let go and use the open mic for its intended purpose: to work things out. To bomb sometimes. I don’t fail well. It’s why I don’t know how to roller skate. I’m too afraid of falling down to let go of the wall. Isn’t that the saddest thing you’ve heard in your life? I’m trying to get out to one open mic a week. There are a lot of really solid mics to choose from in this town, and when I don’t get up on a stage for a couple of weeks, I forget how to comedy.
Do your sets involve topical humor, i.e. based on the news, politics, current events or "now" pop culture? Or do you enjoy working with more evergreen-types of material?
Agnew: I rarely do political humor; however, with the recent election, it’s hard not to. My humor is actually based on my life experiences. Funny, I can actually say: my life is a joke.
Parikh: My material is mostly personal, which sometimes intersects with the political (like when I’m talking about experiences with racism or sexism). If I do write more topical stuff that’s less explicitly intertwined with my identity, I still try to connect it back to myself in some way. Even if the news becomes less relevant in the future, I’ll still have some part of that joke to work with if I want to.
Smith: My sets are a mix of all of these things, depending on the nature of the show and how I’m feeling that day. I like to write a couple of current event jokes that I’ll tell at the top of my set. I grew up watching Letterman, Conan, and Weekend Update, and I’ve always been fascinated by how quickly those writers can create good jokes. Most of what I do on stage is autobiographical. I think evergreen material is the smart way to go, but you won’t hear me tell the same jokes too many times, because I get sick of my own material.
Any recollections of your first set? Went smoothly? Better left in the past? What stands out weeks, months, years later?
Agnew: The very first time I went on stage, I had about 20 friends in the audience. I thought I was the best. The very next time I had no friends, and I stank up the room. I realized in that moment, I was hooked on doing stand-up, and I was going to do whatever it took to perfect that talent.
Parikh: It was two years ago at Fitz’s open mic. I remember getting there way too early. For the most part, other comics were really nice to me. I was pretty nervous and had a couple of beers before going up, which I would never do now. It went surprisingly well. People were laughing at the right places (retrospectively, though, those jokes were, uh, not great). I felt way too confident afterwards; in my head, I was like, “Wow, I must be GOOD!” I came back the next week and I ate dog s***, and I was like, “Wow, never mind!”
Smith: My first set was at a show Chris Cyr runs called All the Feels. Technically, it isn’t a stand-up show. It’s a storytelling showcase dedicated to “the earnestness of youth.” I took the audience through a guided tour of the Hello Kitty diary I kept from ages 5-8. Five-year-old Angela was like a tiny Petrarch, if Petrarch pooped his pants every day before recess. She pined over older boys who didn’t know she existed, then went through every emotion writing about them in her diary. It was fun to share something so unique to my life with a room full of strangers. I must have done a decent job, because Chris invited me to co-host the show with him after that. For the next installment, I’m reading love letters I’ve received throughout the years. I keep everything anyone’s ever written to me, so it should be a full show.
If given the choice, would you prefer to: deliver a technically solid, polished, rehearsed, all-cylinders-firing set to a middling-into-it audience; or would rather offer up a loose, spontaneous, messy, circus-wire performance to an appreciative audience?
Agnew: I would like a little of both. Interestingly, all audiences don't want the same thing. You have to know how to read your audience, and respond appropriately. I can do both—polished and loose—well.
Parikh: Oh, definitely the second one. I’d rather have a mutually beneficial relationship where the audience and I are both having fun. Telling jokes that you care about to a stony-faced crowd is pretty depressing for everyone involved.
Smith: I’d definitely prefer to deliver a technically solid, polished, rehearsed, all-cylinders-firing set. I’m not a spontaneous person anymore. I track my entire life in a spreadsheet. As for the middling-into-it audience—even if an audience isn’t 100 percent into what I’m doing up there, I owe it to them and to myself to show up prepared and to give it my best.
The set's over. People are milling around the room. What's the best way to compliment a performer's set? What's the best comment that you've heard of late, whether it be a compliment or a smart observation? How much do you wanna hear from patrons, as opposed to other performers?
Agnew: I love hearing from the audience; they are the ones I came to entertain. The best compliment I ever got was from a woman grieving the loss of her son. She gave me a rose, and told me that I helped her get through her pain by making her laugh. I still have that rose pressed in a book.
Parikh: I don’t know. Anything that’s not a backhanded compliment is probably fine. I’ve had someone come up to me and say, “Usually I don’t think girls are funny,” and I was like, “Thanks, I guess?” Audience members are important! Without them, there wouldn’t really be a show. I like getting positive feedback from audience members. They’re not obligated to say anything nice to you, so when they do, I feel like it’s genuine. Getting compliments from other comics is nice too, but they’re already your friends—you didn’t have to win them over. One compliment that sticks out to me was from a few months ago. I was in another city, and a comic that I look up to told me that I cracked him up, and it made me really happy.
Smith: I appreciate simple, genuine compliments. “Great job.” “I loved that bit about Beanie Babies.” “I noticed you said you like Matlock. I like Matlock, too.” It keeps me going. Hearing from other performers means a lot to me. I’m relatively new to the St. Louis standup scene, so feedback from veteran comics is something I value. I’d also like to say the best way to compliment anyone’s set is to be a good audience member. Be present. Put your phone away. Don’t heckle. If you think your jokes are funnier than mine, there’s an open mic nearly every night of the week for you to give it a go.
When are your next, planned public performances?
Agnew: February 3 at Foam with Kenny Wagner; February 9, Future of the Funny with Jason Nelson at the Key West Elks Lodge (8742 Jennings Station Road).
Parikh: Friday, January 13, Coffee Break with Ken Warner, 8 pm at Foam ($5); Wednesday, January 25, Comics Against Humanity, 8 pm at Helium Comedy Club ($12); Thursday, January 26th, HH Comedy, 8 pm at Night Owl/Treehouse (free).
Smith: I’ll be doing a set at Nasty Women: A Comedy Show on January 14 at The Monocle, and at The Catalogue Live! on January 20 at Heavy Anchor. You can also catch me doing some sort of character at Fatal Bus Accident on January 25 at Heavy Anchor. (We love Heavy Anchor. They’ve been really supportive of the STL independent comedy scene.) In February, date TBA, I’m hosting All the Feels at the Crack Fox. It’s a storytelling showcase dedicated to the earnestness of youth. I’ll be sharing every love letter I’ve ever received, because nothing is sacred.