Studying the Booms and Bombs of Standup Comedy History with Kliph Nesteroff

Decades before writing The Comedians, a deep dive into the history of American comedy, Kliph Nesteroff was a young standup working out his set in small town Canada. Nesteroff revisits the plight of current amateur comedians as the host of Funny How?, a new Viceland series premiering this week. Nesteroff shadows rookie comics from all walks of life and chats with veterans like Dave Attell, Mike Birbiglia, Rhea Butcher, Cameron Esposito, and Pete Holmes about bombing, killing, and making it in comedy. I talked to Nesteroff about his first standup experience, queer comedians, Christian comedians, and everything in between.

What initially got you interested in trying standup comedy?

I think I knew I was funny when I was a teenager. I think every person who does standup does it because they have a suspicion that they can do it and that’s why they try to do it. I grew up in a really isolated rural area in British Columbia without really any access to show business. The closest thing would be a school play. So I moved to Toronto when I was 18 to write sitcoms. But when I was writing for a sitcom class, there was a guy in the class who was a professional standup comic and he suggested that I try it. But I had this preconception – this was 1988 – that it was corny and cheesy and that sort of 1980s cliché. I thought I would go down to the Yuk Yuk club and it would be just a bunch of middle-aged guys in ball caps complaining about their wives. He said, “Well, I can get you a spot if you want to try it?” And I said “Nah, I’ll come down and just watch the show first.” So I watched the show and sure enough, it was all middle-aged guys in ball caps complaining about their wives. But this guy got up and he destroyed, he brought down the house. That kind of intrigued me – I thought that guy had a superpower. I was so, so impressed. So I did my first gig at a comedy club in Ajax, a suburb of Ontario. I went out with four jokes I had written. Most amateur comedians have no sense of timing and they go way too long and people are trying to get them off the stage. I did the opposite. I wrote four jokes, it was exactly one minute long, and then I got off the stage. The first joke got a laugh, the second joke got half a laugh, the third joke got nothing, the fourth joke got nothing, and then after one minute I left the stage to silence. I left the stage blank because the MC was in the bathroom, so there was nobody on the stage. But that first joke got a laugh and that was enough for me to say, “Oh, I can do this.”

The first episode is about bombing on stage. What do you think drives people to get back up there after failing continuously?

If you get a laugh you know you can do it, even after you bomb. It would be different if the first time, second time, never got a laugh, many times, no laugh – then you should quit. But if you’re bombing, killing, bombing, killing, half bombing, half killing – then you keep doing it. It’s like job training. Let’s say you’re an 18-year-old barista and you’re getting everybody’s order wrong and you can’t figure out the machine and you’re like “Fuck man, I don’t think I can ever do this shitty job.” But after you’ve been doing the job for a year, suddenly you’re the manager and teaching other people how to do it. That’s what standup is like. You learn through trial and error. But really what keeps you doing it I think is your fellow comedians. Because people who are funny can identify other people who are funny even if they aren’t good at standup yet. There’s a hierarchy in standup. When you start you don’t hang out with the guys that have been doing it for years, you hang out with people who are also new and then you come up together. So there’s a camaraderie. You bomb together, you kill together, you can get good together. And that’s what I think gets somebody who falls flat on their face from time to time to keep going.

After shooting Funny How, what do you make of the contemporary comedy scene? Has it evolved significantly from the guys in ball caps complaining about their wives?

Sort of. I mean when I started, I had a big, crazy beard and nobody looked like me. And then when I quit around 2006, suddenly everybody looked like me. Everyone looked like a sort of indie band person. Comedy didn’t look like that when I started, everybody kind of looked like a jock. Not that it’s about aesthetics or anything, but there was a stylistic change when comedy became cool and suddenly it was a hipster thing as opposed to an eighties idea of comedy. But ultimately the journey of standup has remained the same. The big difference now is that there is more comedy. Not necessarily more good comedy. You’ve got the podcast boom, the Netflix boom. There’s just a lot more things called comedy. I don’t know that that will last. There’s been a lot of comedy booms, as I write in my book. There was the comedy record boom of the 1960s, there was even a silent comedy boom of 1924, and when Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle got big, all these film companies cashed in and tried to make their own versions of Chaplin and Arbuckle that weren’t good. Whenever there is a comedy boom like that, there’s more bad comedy being produced. Sometimes you watch the Netflix specials and you think, “This person probably wasn’t in a position yet to be doing an hour. They should have waited ten years and it would have been much better.” But there’s a pressure on comedians to cash in when they can.

In one episode, you follow several queer comedians. Do you think audiences are becoming more receptive to unconventional performers?

It’s interesting. We talk about this in the episode. The queer comedians still today are most accepted in front of a queer audience. Ash Fisher and Irene Tu, the two young girls we profile in the episode who do their own show in Oakland, mention that the reason they do their own show is because at the open mics they were going to, it was frequently hostile and homophobic. And they just started standup about three years ago. So even in our modern era of marriage equality, homophobia is still a major thing. Especially if you stay within your own circle – and we know this from politics today – you could have a completely insular experience. So you could have an entire life where all of your friends and family and whole community are all homophobes. And you could have an experience where all your friends and family and community are all accepting of queer comedians and queer people. It’s a strange thing. We still have a long way to go, but there’s definitely more open and out of the closet comedians than there ever has been in our history.

On the other end of the spectrum, you go explore the world of Christian comedy in an episode. What was that experience like?

That one was fascinating because no matter how open I think I am, I’m going to enter any situation with a prejudice, unfortunately. My prejudice might be great, doesn’t have to be negative, but I go in with a preconception. So when I told people that we were going to shadow Christian comedians who tour around America doing the church circuit, everyone asks the same thing: “Are they funny?” The assumption being that they aren’t going to be funny. And lots of them weren’t funny, and lots of them were. Which is exactly the same as secular comedians. Many funny, many aren’t. We toured around with them, we followed a woman named Chonda Pierce. She has a huge fan base, she has a bus, she’s got a couple of homes and a farm because she’s so successful. And the reason she’s so successful as a Christian comedian is because she’s abnormally honest. She’s a self-proclaimed born-again evangelical. But on stage she talks about how she suffers from depression, suicidal thoughts, and she’s on anti-depressants for that and how that’s controversial within her community. And she’s criticized because supposedly if you’re born-again, you wouldn’t be depressed. People say if you really believed in Jesus Christ, you wouldn’t need anti-depressants, you wouldn’t be suicidal. And so her act is all about that hypocrisy. It’s fascinating. All her fans come up to her in tears saying “Thank you so much, I can’t talk about these things out loud” – people who feel pigeonholed by their faith and they feel like something is wrong with them, like they are failing God. So that was kind of fascinating, and it was kind of telling that she’s that successful because of her level of honesty. Then we followed around younger Christian comedians in these 500-800 people population towns who perform at churches. They’d never know if they’d have an audience show up, they’d get heckled by the pastors. It was so interesting to me because again, it was just like secular standup. You start doing standup, you do these weird gigs in little towns, you show up, you don’t know if you’re going to get paid. But you show up and you keep doing your act, and hopefully you get better and better until someday you’re Chonda Pierce.

What was your favorite part of making Funny How?

Traveling. We went to Nashville, Ashland, Tennessee, Arizona, San Francisco, Toronto, Detroit, Orlando, Florida. So that was really fun. To basically have this paid vacation and host your own show. It was pretty nice. I’m very grateful.

Why do you think it’s important to record the history of comedy?

It’s not. It doesn’t really matter. It does and it doesn’t. Ignorance is bliss. But for me personally, if you study the past you can kind of foresee the future. Like studying the comedy boom that is happening right now, the comedy booms that have happened in the past, I can see how those booms busted, why they busted, how they busted – I can kind of see how the Netflix specials of today will collapse – sooner rather than later. I don’t mean “collapse” in the sense of a Wall Street crash but, in a few years, there’s going to be months between Netflix specials, who knows, Netflix might not even exist. So studying the history of comedy allows me to see what’s happening in the present and gives me context for it and helps me to understand it – and that’s true for all history. I think any human being who studies history and really gets into it and knows it, I think they have a better understanding of the present, the future, and of life in general.

Funny How? airs on VICELAND from on July 10th - July 14th​ at​ 11:30pm EST. Marathons of the series will run on​ July 16th and July 30th beginning at 8:00pm.

Sydney Parker is a writer living in Seattle. You can read more of her writing on Carnival of Souls or follow her on Twitter @Carnivalosouls.

Studying the Booms and Bombs of Standup Comedy History […]