I had never been to a stand up comedy show prior to this evening. I’ve been in attendance for a few spoken word tours, of which musician/author/actor Henry Rollins comes to mind immediately, though the whole of his performance is geared toward a central story and not throwaway jokes. I have never really considered shelling out a few bucks to crawl into some mildew-laden brick dive bar that hosts a weekly comedy night. This is mostly because I fear on most any given night the line up will be populated with many awkward silence inducing amateurs. I enjoy stand up, I watch the occasional television special on Comedy Central, and if I time my channel surfing right, I may even catch a public access comedy show every now and then. I suppose to someone heavily involved in comedy, that comparison would be about as entertaining as watching a DVD performance of a band you like instead of being there, in person.
All of that said, I don’t know if my introduction to stand up was best held at The Midland Theater. The theater is located in the meathead friendly and absurdly gentrified entertainment mecca of the Kansas City Power & Light district, the area that as far as I’m concerned needlessly razed and demolished many examples of classic Pendergast-era Kansas City architecture, all for an eyesore that has trouble getting out of the financial red. The Midland’s cavernous art and chandelier adorned main hall is a stark contradiction to the foul jokes that would be making their way through the building shortly, and the flashlight wielding staff were very insistent on taking you directly to your seat. On this night, I was quickly given a lesson of the amateur-level professional when I tempered the fifteen excruciating minutes of opener Randy Kagan.
Kagan has been a long time warm-up to main act and Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, and in all the brevity of his set managed to cover an innumerous amount of topics that anyone with a funny bone should find to be comedic shortcomings (anatomy spoiler: that which is commonly referred to as a “funny bone” is actually the ulnar nerve, thank you Wikipedia). Topics covered: KC loves barbecue. A racial joke, followed by “it’s okay, I’m Jewish!” A joke about how grandmothers are great, though I must give him credit for using that as a segue to talk about pierced vaginas. Various color-by-number “hey everybody, a homosexual couple/a man doing sign language/a black guy” jokes, repeated throughout the set. A “black people are like this, white people are like this” joke (no, he really used one), and he wrapped up his set with a few jokes about terrorists (how shocking in 2010) and how great America is.
Kagan’s cringe worthy performance was mercifully forgettable once Ferguson’s walk on music began playing overhead, accompanied on stage by a man in white leather bondage gear playing a flute, and a large man in a white suit playing saxophone, leading up to an energized Ferguson running onto the stage to a flood of applause. Crowd at a low rumble, awaiting the first joke, Ferguson leads into his set with a spiel about how if you have come out tonight expecting the cleaned up language of the popular talk show host, you may be upset to find out he freely and often uses language not fit for cable television. He followed this by shouting the ‘F’ word repeatedly, in a display of temporary liberation from the network executives he must work under nightly. Ferguson could have made his point well and good with this, I am as much of a supporter of a colorfully expletive vocabulary as the next person, but he continued to talk about how much he enjoys cursing for nearly the first ten minutes of his set, occasionally sidetracking himself with a tangent on another subject, before coming back to his main point and moving on.
Ferguson’s live personality is not unlike that of the time he is allotted at the beginning of his show, freely discussing topics in current news, society, or pop culture in general, though his live performance is focused more on his life from the time he was a kid to the present than what is happening to whatever current celebrity is in rehab. He often gets distracted with a small detail within a story, sometimes leading into a five minute side story, which then can branch off into a completely separate anecdote altogether, before eventually circling back from point D, to C, to B, then finally to point A to conclude his story before getting to his next talking point. You could say his joke-within-a-joke style is like the Inception of stand up comedy, and the man does it well.
The entirety of Craig Ferguson’s set lasted a little over an hour, but in that time he made light of his alcoholism and former drug habit, his previous marriages, family, youth, Scotland, people he has met since being in show business, and a host of other topics, all intertwined into his final, set ending joke. Joke delivered, he received an auditorium-wide standing ovation and was joined on stage by Randy Kagan and the two men who played him on for a rather curious dance number to Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again,” complete with choreography and lip-syncing. Ferguson exits stage left, house lights rise, and people begin to shuffle out of the theater, an overall look of satisfaction on their faces as they empty out on to Main Street to see where the night takes them. For a select few, that destination may be a mildew-laden brick dive bar that hosts a weekly comedy night.
by Greg Stitt