The Dark Side of Storytelling

Over the past few years, storytelling has become one of the fastest growing forms of comedy in the country in no small part because of the rise of shows on NPR like This American Life and the Moth. The Moth’s Storyslam has provided a unifying force for the storytelling scene, as well as a crude form of quality control by scoring stories and providing a credit to the top storytellers. But given the Moth’s leanings towards NPR-friendly crowds, a growing portion of the storytelling world, fueled by the standup scene, is emerging as something of a rebuttal. Slowly building is a remarkably passionate and engaged audience for storytelling that focuses on bad behavior, poor decisions, and grimy settings.

“With the Moth, there’s an expectation that you bring something uplifting, or redemptive. I don’t have any of those stories,” said Jake Hart, the host of The Dump storytelling mic and the Antagonist Storytelling Series (ASS) in New York City. “My stories are more like how I had to choke a dog, or how I helped my dad escape a DUI charge, so I thought I should create an environment specifically for that.”

I met Hart in New York, where the storytelling mic Oh Hey Guys, now in LA, helped form a storytelling scene outside of the Moth. The Dump has been a fixture at the Creek and the Cave, a predominantly standup-centric venue, for the past three years.

“With the Dump, you can get on stage and tell everyone in the room the worst thing in the world, and get off stage and nobody looks at you like you’re a bad person, because everyone else is waiting there turn to get on stage and tell the worst thing they’ve done.” says Mike Guild, another veteran of the Oh Hey Guys mic, and one of the co-producers of the Dump. “Jake and I realized that we tend to be the bad guys in our stories… it honestly became the only storytelling mic I can do anymore.”

Since I moved to Los Angeles two and a half years ago, I’ve started to see a similar scene emerging to the one I witnessed in New York. “If you watch me on the Moth, my scores tend to get booed for being too low, almost more than high scores get cheered” said Buck Ball, generally considered one of the best storytellers in Los Angeles, whose stories include being caught in the border of north Texas with a car full of drugs, slipping drugs into his friend’s drink in Vegas, spending a month in prison, and taking his ex to a Neutral Milk Hotel concert solely for the purposes of revenge. “No one wants to be seen cheering and laughing at a story of drugs and alcohol going successfully.”

Recently, Ball has started a storytelling show in Los Angeles called “Tales From The Gutter.” In the first show, three stories involved sexual encounters with the homeless, completely coincidentally (full disclosure: I told one of those stories.) “My life is something that has tried to kill me many times.” said Ball. “It’s just nice to have an outlet where I can control and express the who/what/where/why how.”

In Chicago, where I have also spent some time in the comedy scene, the premier show for this brand of storytelling is We Still Like You, which involves performers telling horrific stories, each of which ends with the audience screaming “We still like you!” at the end and taking a shot.

“The level of enthusiasm we see from our crowds is unlike anything else I’ve seen before.” says J. Michael Osborne, one of the show’s producers. “There really is a sense of unconditional love in the room every month. Whether people are so into the show because it helps them feel better about their own shitty moments, or if embarrassing stories are timelessly endearing, or if they just like free beer, I don’t know if I can say for sure.”

“I can’t even count the number of times that a performer has told me that they’d never told their story to anyone before and that they’re glad that they shared it” said We Still Like You founder Dan Sheehan, a sentiment that was echoed nearly word for word by Hart and Guild. “There’s a lot to be said for realizing that you don’t necessarily need to be redeemed. You’re fine how you are. Everyone does stupid stuff. Everyone fucks up. What’s important is that it’s universal. We can all pretend as much as we want that we don’t have any shame in our lives but I think that celebrating all the dark and misshapen little corners of our pasts brings everyone involved with our show a little closer together. The show is undeniably real.”

Photo by Alexei K.

The Dark Side of Storytelling