“High”-brow comedy

By Mike McGurran

Editors note: This story includes some foul language and drug use. While it has been edited through Assosiated Press Guidelines, some readers may find this offensive. This story was submitted to The Advocate through Chris Walker’s Photo Story clasEditors Note: This story includes discussions of drug use and may contain foul language. While it has been edited through Associated Press Guidelines, some readers may find this offensive. This story was submitted to The Advocate through Chris Walker’s Digital Storytelling class, it is part of a ten-part series of stories examining Minnesota’s legalization of Marijuana. Each story investigates the background and implications that come with the legalization. The series, which began on April 28th, will run until May 5th. The final three stories will be released July 15th through the 18th.

Photo by Abby Makay

Open mic nights are uncomfortable experiences, for audiences and aspiring comedians alike. An audience member deals with vicarious anxiety on behalf of the performers, many of whom are first-time comedians, still navigating the complexities of how to structure a joke, let alone a multi-minute set. There’s nothing quite as painful as watching a person bomb, cross the ever shifting line of political correctness, or turn on their own audience when received poorly. It’s even worse for the comedians. They’re the ones who put themselves out there. They’re the ones who have to go home and ruminate on their failures.

          Nevertheless, the basement of Front Street Taproom in downtown Fargo is an almost ideal place for a novice to hone their craft. Open mics are Monday night traditions here, and North Dakotans exist in a sweet spot for comedians; they’re too polite to boo, and not hyper-sensitive to edgy material. 

Ian Flynn’s set comes about halfway through the show. He moved here from Moscow, Idaho in early November. He got a job as a custodian at a local college in town, and continues to do the occasional open mic night, something he used to do back in Idaho. The initial plan was for him to move in with his father, Chris, and his brother, Trevor. Chris has needed a kidney for years, and his health issues have left him unable to work or take care of himself. He’s too young to qualify for social security, so Trevor spends most of his days taking care of his father. 

Ian was supposed to provide relief to Trevor, but longstanding tensions between Ian and Chris cut that plan short comically quickly. Ian’s the type of guy who mines tragedy for humor, so some of his pain made its way on the stage tonight. 

“Anyone here sick of diabetic?” he asked the crowd, referencing another one of Chris’s health issues. “Honestly, if we just quit giving them insulin, we could probably solve America’s diabetes problem in like a year.”

Trevor puts his face in his hands. 

Despite Trevor’s discomfort, some of the material resonates with the polite crowd. Observations made about North Dakotans’ tendency to put photos of themselves hunting or fishing in their online dating profiles earn hearty chuckles. A joke about Al Green flies over the heads of most of the audience members, although an older couple in the back seems to enjoy it. 

At the end of his set, he joins Trevor and I. We watch a few more acts, before escaping to the parking lot so Ian can have a cigarette. 

“Waited way too long for one of these,” he says between puffs. “Having one right before might have centered myself a bit. Made the set a bit more relaxed.”

I inquire if he usually prefers being sober when he performs. He’s had about six beers tonight, not all that much for a seasoned drinker. 

“Being a little drunk helps,” he says matter-of-factly. 

I ask him if he’s ever performed high.

“I haven’t,” he says, seemingly caught off guard. He thinks for a moment. “I don’t really do that stuff anymore, I just drink. Maybe I should try getting high.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Trevor tells Ian, always the realist. 

“Well that settles it,” Ian grins. “What you guys doing next week?”

One Hour Before the Show

          Huddled in a studio apartment on NP Avenue, Ian inhales a loosely packed blunt deeply. He has to take breaks twice to spit fragments of weed and tobacco out of his mouth.

“Haven’t rolled one of these in years,” he explains between hacking coughs. “It ain’t like riding a bike.” 

He smokes the entire blunt as a solo operator, quite the task for an ex-stoner. I ask him how he feels after he finishes. 

“S—  man,” he said. “High. Do I look high?”

I make eye contact, looking for the surest physical indicator of being high. I inform him he has the reddest eyes I’ve ever seen on a person. He looks really, really high. 

“Hell yeah,” he said. 

The Show Begins

It’s a packed night, especially for a Monday. A crowd of twenty and thirty somethings talk amongst themselves before the show begins. Everyone in the room has a drink in their hand. Laughter is given freely prior to the start of the show, a good sign of things to come. 

Ian, baked as a cake, informs us he’s going third tonight. A very poor position to be in according to him, especially since the two comics before him are experienced and well known amongst the crowd of regulars. 

“The problem with North Dakotans is they’re too polite,” Ian explained. “They find stuff funny, but they’re afraid to laugh if other people aren’t laughing.”

He’s making excuses before the show has even begun. Not a good sign. 

The first comedian, a heavy-set redneck with a long, reddish beard, absolutely crushes it. His appearance is quintessentially North Dakotan, and his material is deeply self-aware of the fact. He’s clearly been at this for a while. He doesn’t stumble once, tells well-structured jokes, and gets massive laughs. A flawless set for a place like this.

The second comedian is a little rough around the edges. Her set isn’t so much a series of jokes, as one long monologue. It feels less like stand-up comedy, more like a one-woman show. She salvages it at the end, with some expertly placed self-deprecating humor. 

“You know what would have made this set better?” she asked the crowd. One beat. Two beats. Three beats. “Jokes. You’ve been a very generous crowd, goodnight.” Big laughs follow, and she gets good-natured applause as she exits the stage.

It’s Ian’s turn. The usual pre-performance jitters have clearly been amplified by his inebriation. He looks positively terrified when his name is called up. Upon walking on the stage, he clearly tries his hardest to look as normal as possible. To me, it appears to have the opposite effect. This is clearly an alien trying to approximate normal human behavior. 

“Well,” he says after a long pause, far too long. “Uh…so, diabetes, right?”

“Jesus Christ,” Trevor whispers to me. 

The material is roughly the same as before, but the delivery is completely mangled. He stumbles over his words constantly, his transitions from one joke to the next are completely incoherent, and there are multiple times where he simply just stands there, waiting desperately for something, anything to come out of his mouth. 

“So, you guys like pit bulls?” he begins after one such agonizing pause. 

Trevor and I exchange a look. This is new, fresh stuff from Ian. We haven’t heard this before. He appears to be ad-libbing. Could this be a moment of drug induced inspiration? Could the weed actually be working in his favor?

“Pit bull owners are nuts,” he says, to nervous laughs from an anxious crowd. “You ever notice how whenever a kid gets his legs bitten off by a dog, it’s always a pit bull? Like, we always blame the owner, but no one ever notices that it’s literally always a pit bull?”

Deafening silence. Trevor stares at the ground intensely. I’d rather be anywhere on the planet. War-torn Ukraine, the Mar-a-lago hotel, outdoors in North Dakota. Anywhere else. 

“We just gotta get rid of them man, they’re the worst dogs.”

A bell, indicating his five minutes is up, goes off. He gracelessly exits the stage, his pitbull rant unfinished. A handful of people applaud. Most sit in stony silence. 

“Let’s get out of here,” Ian whispers to Trevor and I. We make a speedy escape. I can feel the glares as we hightail out the back entrance. 

Lessons Learned

“That was the worst set of my life,” Ian said, in between hysterical explosions of laughter. 

Trevor and I join in with the laughter, a welcome relief after exiting the tense basement. 

“I couldn’t remember most of the jokes,” Ian explained. “I feel like I forgot what I was doing every thirty seconds or so, and had to remember that I was onstage, doing jokes I’ve done before.”

“Where did that pitbull come from?” Trevor asked. 

Ian explains the pitbull riff is a joke he’s been working on in his head for sometime. It’s a relatable observation, the type of thing a lot of people think but are likely too afraid to say. A truly skilled comedian might be able to take that riff and turn it into an excellent joke.

“Trying to do that on-the-spot, high out of my mind was probably not the best way to go about it,” Ian admits. “I still think there’s something there though.” 

On our chilly walk back to Ian’s apartment, I ask him why he thinks weed doesn’t work well with his brand of comedy. After all, many of the world’s most famous comedians famously use cannabis before, and sometimes during their acts. 

“Part of it is lack of experience,” Ian said. “I haven’t smoked weed for at least a year, and haven’t done it regularly since I was like 20. Weed makes things funnier when you’re high, and you find certain things funnier when you’re high. But I wasn’t performing for a bunch of stoners, so we weren’t even close to the same level.” 

He says he’s gonna keep the weed out of his artistic process in the future, but he’s in high spirits, all things considered. Bombing is essential to comedians, he explained. It’s a rite of passage, something all successful comedians agree is an essential part on the road to success. Despite tonight’s miserable failure, he thinks in the long run, it will play a small role in making him a better comedian. 

“No more pit bull jokes,” Trevor quips. 

Ian protests, a true-believer in his material. I stay out of it…but Trevor’s probably right. 

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