That’s what John Garrett ’98 felt one October afternoon as he left work. Splat. A bird had pooped on his head.
“The next night I went to the open mike with it,” he says. “I just went on stage and talked about it. I didn’t even have a joke. I just wanted to say it out loud in front of a bunch of people.”
That’s how it is for a stand-up comedian—every moment, even an embarrassing one, is fodder for material.
“I taped it,” Garrett says of his use of the story at the open mike. “Then you listen to your tape and figure out what’s funny and what’s not funny, what you need to embellish or did wrong. That’s easily going to be a minute and a half or two minutes, and I haven’t even carved it out yet.”
Just three years into it, however, Garrett has started to carve out his career in stand-up comedy as an emcee at comedy clubs within a two- to three-hour drive from his home in Indianapolis, where he works as a senior financial analyst for Clarian Health Partners.
Last September, Garrett and Jim Brogan ‘70 and Owen Smith ’95 performed together at Washington Hall as the Laughing Irish. Each comic performed alone, and then the three of them answered questions from the audience of about 300 students and a few faculty and alumni. Garrett spearheaded the show and has created a website for them, www.laughingirish.com, with the hope that they’ll be able to book more shows together.
Garrett also kept track of the show’s length. “We have to get the show over before parietals,” Garrett told the audience. “We all know what happens at Notre Dame at 2 a.m. Spontaneous orgies. And we wouldn’t want that to happen in Washington Hall.”
Smith and Garrett “are right on schedule” with their development as comics and in their careers, Brogan says during a group interview at Washington Hall before the show. Brogan has been in stand-up since 1975 and was a writer and talent booker for nine years on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
“It’s really starting to click now,” Garrett says. “I can comfortably get up and do 20 minutes without thinking about it. . . . It’s knowing who I am and where I’m coming from, being the corporate, cubicle guy. The stand-up ‘Dilbert,’ if you will, is a niche that not many people do.”
Smith is just about ready to bust out as a star. In addition to the 250 dates he plays each year as a stand-up comedian, he’s been featured on Def Comedy Jam
, Comic View
and Star Search
. He’s also acted in episodes of the television shows Cupid
“As a performer, I can feel it shifting, like a lot of the anxieties I used to have are no longer there,” Smith says. “When I first started, I had attitude and energy and likeability but no substance. I took some years to find substance. I wanted to find topics that would inspire people. . . . Now, I think I’m at that point of adding the attitude I once had into the substance.”
“I was almost the opposite,” Garrett says. “My jokes were funny, but I was so dry they didn’t work onstage.”
“I think it’s just a matter of doing it long enough to get good at it in front of an audience,” Brogan says. “What takes a long time is finding what an audience would accept from you. . . . It takes at least three or four years to find yourself as a comic.”
The first time Brogan performed standup in New York, he opened with an impersonation of Father Robert F. Griffin, CSC
, the legendary, late University chaplain and one of his favorite people at Notre Dame. In New York, however, no one in the audience knew who Father Griff was or why Brogan’s impersonation of him should make them laugh. They didn’t.
That’s an important lesson that Smith and Garrett have already learned with their acts.
“When you stand on stage, no one in here knows me or shares a history with me,” Smith says, and Garrett backs him up on that point. “Your friends will humor you,” Garrett says. “In the comedy clubs, if they don’t think it’s funny, they’re not going to laugh. They’re not going to humor you.”
Gathering material is a matter of discipline. “I just sit down with a notebook and say I’m going to write for an hour,” Brogan says. Paying attention also counts. Professional comics, Smith says, are on the job 24 hours a day. “Your antenna is always up,” he notes. “You’re just listening to people all of the time.”
What reads funny on the page, however, needs to be performed first before Brogan, Garrett or Smith knows if a bit works for his act.“You have to write it and then present it to people who don’t really care about it,” Smith says. “It can take years to hone the perfect 45 minutes, or even seven minutes.”
As with any other piece of writing, and stand-up routines are written works for most comedians, the individual bits have to flow between one another to create a seamless set.
“In the past month or so, I’ve written another five minutes that I’m trying to fit in,” Garrett says. “It’s a funny bit in and of itself, but then you have to figure out how it fits into the bigger puzzle of your act. It’s more difficult than it sounds.”
One thing Brogan, Garrett and Smith have discovered is that audiences don’t accept obscenities from any of them. They don’t sound authentic coming from any of them, they say, so they’ve each made the decision to be “clean comics.”
“It never occurred to me to work any other way,” Brogan says. “I would hate to have my parents in the audience and embarrass them.”
Both Garrett and Smith say swear words feel as unnatural to them as they do to Brogan. “I wasn’t raised around harsh language,” Smith says. “It’s hard for me to sell it.”
Also, Garrett says, clean comics have an advantage over ones who use swear words when it comes to getting booked to work at corporate functions, churches, on television and even in comedy clubs. “The big acts usually aren’t dirty, and they don’t want someone to go in front of them who’s going to be dirty because then the crowd just expects the next guy to be that plus more,” he says. “It really sets the tone. If you have someone before you who has a brash attitude or a tone that’s totally different than you, it’s tough to get the crowd back right away.”
Instead, Brogan, Garrett and Smith share an affinity for deadpan wit, some storytelling, observations on everyday life and, in Brogan’s case, playful, impromptu interrogations of people in the audience. Brogan and Garrett exhibit a similar easygoing charm, while Smith is a bit more animated in tone and style.
“They say that when you find the right one, you’ll know,” Smith said about dating during his evening act. “What if you know, and she doesn’t? Now you’re stalking.”
These days, both Smith and Garrett are stalking the career success Brogan is enjoying. “The idea,” Brogan says, “is to just keep on creating and have a creative life.”
Andrew S. Hughes is a reporter in the features department at the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune. During academic breaks, he works as an announcer at Notre Dame’s public radio station, WSND-FM (88.9).