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Brooklyn-based storyteller and comic Jeff Simmermon spun a stage show—now in a monthly residency at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village—out of his blog, And I Am Not Lying, which he started while living in DC in the early aughts. I wrote about him, and about our boyhood buddyship, in late 2011, the first time he brought his variety show to the Black Cat; you can see a 20-minute edit of his summer 2013 show there right here. He’ll return to the club’s main stage on Saturday to host a bill for which he’s recruited comics Tyler Fischer and Natalie McGill, burlesque artists Matt Knife and Vada James, and musicians/improvisers the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.
What follows is a barely edited transcript of an instant message conversation we had last Saturday that eventually gets around to telling potential attendees what’s all-(somewhat) new, all-(reasonably) different, and all-(potentially) spectacular about the 2014 edition of And I Am Not Lying.
Hey, Pal. Ready to go?
ready to do it
OK. I was just setting up a LinkedIn profile and contemplating suicide (related).
you are teasing about the second half I hope
I am, but I still find that task just onerous and gross and horrible. “Let’s prioritize your friends and acquaintances on the basis of what they can maybe do for you.”
it’s kind of the digital version of “New York”
Anyway, we’re ON the record here. And I am just going to post a transcript, possibly edited for clarity and hilarity.
ok – thanks for that headsup
And thanks for agreeing to do this!
You have reached out in the hope of securing some advance publicity for the latest iteration of your storytelling & miscellany show, AND I AM NOT LYING, at the Black Cat. And I have responded with my usual shoulder shrug that I already wrote this piece, albeit 2.5 years ago, and how can I write it again? Especially since we were boyhood pals who were in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown together. In like 1952.
Yeah, fair enough
however, I am confident in your abilities as a writer to find new depth, new light, and new magic
in material that others overlook
and also, when I have my PT Barnum hat on to get people to a show, I will totally draw down credit on pretty much any relationship
so it’s a rich tapestry
(Flattery filter: ON)
Plus, the Internet is a flat circle, man – people miss stuff the first time and it comes back around
Since we refuse to do the honorable thing and stop reproducing, yes.
And we lack the constitution for suicide. Except after maybe eight minutes on LinkedIn.
I think that the military of the future will construct a death ray
that is just the phrase “leverage the power of your mutual connections” repeated in all languages and broadcast at subsonic tones
It’s two octaves lower than the ‘brown note’
You know, I left my job in November to pursue this show full time
Same month I left my day job. We remain curiously in sync.
and it requires to you kind of set your cap and say “NO, WORLD. This is who I am and what I do.”
and I’ve started putting all this stuff about it on my LinkedIn profile
and you know, strangely
not a single fricking person cares
how’s it been?
for me, I don’t feel like I have any less anxiety, but I prefer this flavor
when you wrote about this show in what was it, 2011? It was a new thing, new to town
I think that time, as well as that degree of dayjob quitting commitment
has really solidified what the show is, what the experience is for the audience
do you feel like you’ve made any breakthroughs creatively?
Well, no. I mean, I got into a few publications I’ve had my eye on, and I finally did a couple of very simple stories for radio, which I’ve been wanting to do for years. But those just feel like things I finally checked off my to-do list more than they feel like me getting better at anything.
Our cases are different, though, since you draw on your life for your material almost entirely—stop me if that’s an unfair statement—whereas there is some of that in what I do but not that much.
there are loose parallels
when you find that you do what it is that you’ve always wanted to do
then it kind of gets that out of the way so you can grow more
ever since I was in middle school, I dreamed of doing the big room at the Black Cat
and something like SXSW
now that I know what that’s like, it’s kind of awesome because it makes room to dream and grow into something else
You did SXSW in… 2012? Did you go last year / are you going this year?
2012 and 2013
not going this year
I have a Moth GrandSlam this Wednesday (kind of a sweatervest ThunderDome for storytellers who have won previous Moth slams)
then ‘And I Am Not Lying’ in NYC Friday, DC Saturday
taking the show to Nashville in April, the day after an NYC show
anything else would make my brains seep out my tear ducts
How often are you performing now? What’s the radio of appearing in others’ shows to cultivating your own? And how long were you in R & D to come up with “Sweatervest Thunderdome?”
that one was off the head
I am trying to get up on stage an average of 1-3 times per night
to pick up your earlier thread: I am reaching a point where I am running out of past to stripmine for stories
Ah. Are you too old to do self-destructive things just so you can write about them? There’s a cap on that, right?
I am not going to say “too old”
It’s hard for me to believe a guy likes you takes a job as a kangaroo spotter for some reason other than to gather stories.
oh no, I totally did that for a story
and I would again
but I’m not going to have stories about my dating life as much
Well, that’s my favorite of yours. Or at least the one I remember most clearly, perhaps because I know I’ve heard you tell that one more than once.
I love that one
and I kind of miss the experience
not the smells though
I’ve been trending towards standup more lately
because I just want to get *unstoppable* onstage
Are you backing off of dating stories because you’re married now, or just because you think you’ve exhausted that subject?
well, I actually never liked them that much in the first place
Sorry, I shouldn’t be doing multiple choice questions. That’s dumb.
nah, that’s fine
I think that that stories—or anecdotes—or jokes—about learning how to love somebody and be loved by them are so much more interesting than “ugh, I go out on the WEIRDEST dates”
I really hate stories and comedy that is gussied-up locker room talk
So you’re moving towards stories that ask more patience & investment of the audience, but also focusing more on standup. Which I interpret as punchline, punchline, punchline, which asks LESS of the audience.
I’m not suggesting that’s a contradiction. Just want to make sure I understand.
I actually am working to try and write/perform material that belongs on a comedy stage in a comedy setting
and hits every 30 seconds at least
so I do probably 7-10 open mics a week here
running jokes/bits through the rock tumbler
So 7-10 open mics per week, and you’re going up multiple times at each one, or trying to?
but am mostly doing mics in the Lower East Side/East Village, and at the Creek and the Cave in Long Island City
no, more like this:
1-3 mics per night
if it works out, I get picked to do between 1-3 sets of 2-6 minutes in length
so you go, put you name in a hat
hope you get drawn
wait 1-2 hours to do 2 minutes
get on the train, repeat
Okay, well that compression is a problem I can relate to. One version of the Kangaroo story was like 20 minutes, right?
when I have my own stage I can run it out like that
And now you have to get what you’re after in 10 to 30 percent of that.
I’ve been sitting down and transcribing stories by comics I really love
Gary Gulman, Louis CK, Cosby, Pryor
Woody Allen’s “The Moose”
and you start to notice a few things
Did someone suggest that to you as a useful exercise, or did you come up with that on your own?
I came up with it
Transcribing takes me a fucking eternity.
that’s the point
it really makes you listen to each line
you count how many laughs per minute
and you start to see the structure
I am referring specifically to comic storytellers here
where the bit has all the hallmarks of a story: arc, conflict, stakes
and you discover that the writer/performer
uses a joke to define each thing and move us over the arc
so the first joke/punchline establishes the main character—something maybe self-deprecating about the comic
the second describes the other character
the third—the conflict/motivation
in a skilled hand—with Patton Oswalt at his best, for example,
that’s at least four my-face-hurts laughs
in a minute
I am referring specifically to comics who tell stories here
Oswalt is my favorite, bar none. But I probably would not have been able to explain why, as you have here.
It’s tough for me to break stories into their beats. Ira Glass, who has interviewed you on This American Life in addition to featuring your stage stories on the show, talks all the time about how he needs to hear a revelation every 45-60 seconds. I’ve listened to every single episode of his show at least once, many of them multiple times, and I still can’t always hear those beats ticking by.
Maria Bamford and Wanda Sykes are two of my favorite famous standups in the world right now but they use anecdotes about their lives, peppered with observations and asides
Oswalt’s best stuff follows the classic three-act, Joseph Conrad storytelling structure
I know he works a script doctor, too, so that makes sense.
and the thing is, you never know he’s doing it
Kyle Kinane is another awesome standup who uses observations, anecdotes, etc
but is not really using the arc
I’m trying to learn from Bamford, Burr, Kinane, etc
how to mine little stuff for HUGE laughs
and then ultimately use those laughs to build a bigger story
You’re the Komedy Koach.
that’s the big dream
I got to do an hour in Richmond last winter and it was like surfing a wave of liquid gold
it is really fun to open with a few bits that are just jab, cross, hook, dance, a flurry combo
a mimetic polyalloy you can hang ten on.
then slide into the ten-minute jam
We’ll fix that in post.
(I need to look up mimetic)
I am told I have a waffle cooling rapidly in the kitchen. So let’s bring this home. Besides a focus on standup versus long-form storytelling, what’s different about this latest iteration of your show? Sell me.
we’re working in a live band
and making them integrate
the entire mix has cooled and congealed so that it goes together a lot better
the terrine can tower higher
my former partners aren’t working with me anymore – so the lineup is going to feature a lot more new faces
this show is featuring a band of 4-5 people who play the typewriter
Boston Typewriter Orchestra
Husband-wife storyteller/dancer/storyteller duo Brad and Cindy OUT, Boston Typewriter Orchestra IN
and they are going to customize an act with Matt Knife, a boylesque (male burlesque) performer
Customize? Not improvise, right?
also in: boylesque Matt Knife, Arrested Development act by Vada James
bit of both
this will require a degree of improv, but they’ve got the cops for it
I’ll be doing more standup bits folded in
the music is a really huge thread to run through the show
I’m also working on a partnership with the band
to fold into a story
the whole thing is more finely chopped, blended
after a few years of this, I feel like I’ve finally figured out a way to make the room hang together, maaaan
Okay! Jeff Simmermon & Finely-Chopped Friends (And Typewriters) in SWEATERVEST THUNDERDOME, March 15 at the Black Cat.
I hate competing onstage
this show isn’t for everybody, but has something for everybody else
Another good tagline. You’re getting sharp, Old Chum.
I’m hoping to congeal this enough to be able to sell it/partner with a tour company
to tour it like a rock band
I want every show to *feel* like a rock show
where you’re like “I don’t know what the hell I just saw, but I want to see it again”
(this working for you?)
(taps mic) “How is everybody out there? Where are you from, ma’am?”
It is. But waffle.
And I Am Not Lying returns to the Black Cat Mainstage Saturday, March 15. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets are available here.
Jeff Simmermon photo by Ryan Collerd.