I met Jeff Simmermon in 1986. We went to different schools in the Northern Virginia suburbs but attended the same theater camp the summer between fourth and fifth grade, where we appeared together in a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. My recollection is that Jeff was one of a few kids who got to share the coveted role of Snoopy. I languished as Schroeder, the purple-shirted piano player.
When Jeff and I got in touch last week for the first time in four years to discuss the storytelling-and-burlesque lineup he’s bringing to the Black Cat Wednesday night, he reminded me that I’d introduced him to the Batman comic book The Dark Knight Returns and the movie Aliens, two cultural documents from 1986 that were and remain totally awesome. They “informed the SHIT out of my whole aesthetic,” he wrote me in an e-mail. Good times! I didn’t ask him if he remembered breaking one of the legs off of the best Transformer in my collection —-Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots—-because I forgave him for that months ago.
Anyway, Jeff’s family moved away from Reston, Va., to Norfolk, and we didn’t run into each other again for another eight or nine years, when we were both enrolled at James Madison University. I learned only recently that Jeff was bullied horribly for part of that interval, via a video of him telling a story about it at Union Hall in Brooklyn. (It’s the one at the top of this post.) The tale is well-told in just under 20 minutes.
Two weeks ago, he tried out a severely abridged version of it a Moth GrandSlam, the elite, curated round of the popular New York-based storytelling series The Moth.
“I bombed so hard I still have the stink on me,” he says. The story didn’t compress elegantly to the shorter format. His jokes weren’t going over. Then he blacked out momentarily on stage. “Not like I was drunk or something, but I totally forgot what I was going to say. My vision cut out for a second.” He came to in front of 450 people who’d each paid $25 plus fees to be there. He recovered, and few in the audience were even aware he’d gotten scrambled. But to Simmermon, the performance was a debacle.
“You’re never more than one show away from that,” he says.
It’s a humbling lesson, that four years into your career as a raconteur, with a performance tally in the triple digits, you can still fail.
Simmermon likens his style to that of comic storyteller Mike Birbiglia. He’s a regular at The Moth, having advanced to the GrandSlam round and onto the show’s podcast several times. When This American Life aired one of his stories in 2009, host Ira Glass followed up the segment by interviewing Jeff about it on the air. Before he traded D.C. for New York in 2007, he started his blog, And I Am Not Lying, where he chronicles his adventures, like the week he spent working for a kangaroo hunter in the Australian outback, collecting and gutting the ‘roo corpses.
That to my mind—-and to Jeff’s, too, I think I can say—-was a more interesting story than the one that got him a giant traffic spike three years ago, when he wrote an indignant riposte to a barista at an Arlington coffee shop who’d refused to serve him an espresso over ice because the store’s curious we’ll-tell-you-how-to-drink-our-coffee policy forbade it. A Washington Post editor—my editor, when I write for that paper—wrote a piece about it.
Jeff is returning to, or at least near, the scene of that episode this week, playing the Black Cat Backstage Wednesday night on a bill with two of his storytelling mentors, Brad Lawrence and Cyndi Freeman. (They have their own storytelling podcast, which is called The Standard Issues.) Burlesque artist Runaround Sue is also part of the lineup, and Freeman will perform her own burlesque act, too. There’s no specific theme; Jeff hasn’t even decided which story he’ll tell yet. But he’s excited at the prospect of playing the Cat. “I read that book Our Band Could Be Your Life,” he says. “I moved to D.C. because of Fugazi.”
It’s the DIY ethos of the D.C. punk scene that’s inspired him to take his And I Am Not Lying show out of New York for what he hopes will be successful enough to warrant a regular engagement at the Cat. “None of those bands ever waited for permission to tour,” he says. “They just did it.”
“And I Am Not Lying Live” is at the Black Cat Backstage Wednesday night at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12.