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Finish the Joke Contest

Last week Acme celebrated it’s 20th Year Anniversary Celebration with shows Tuesday through Saturday. Thirty-six comedians in all. Twenty of them headliners. The week was capped off by a party Sunday night. Although I would’ve loved being part of one of those shows, it was cool to hang out for some of them and an honor to attend the party on Sunday night. Louis Lee, the owner of Acme, believes in doing things right. That’s how he’s built such a great comedy club. The party was a fancy catered affair held next door at Guthrie Lab Theater. Great party. Amazing space. Super group of people.

After the dinner party, I was invited to an after-party back at the club. Because I had a long drive home, I planned to stop in for one cup of coffee and hit the road. I did manage to stay sober, but I ended up staying until 3 AM. There were lots of old friends to catch up with like Costaki Economopolous, Tim Bedore, Pete Lee, Dwight Slade, Ryan Hamilton, Jackie Kashian, David Crowe, Tracy Ashley, John DeBoer, Kermit Apio, Tim Slagle, David Fulton, Chad Daniels… to drop a few names.

Besides being great to see everybody, I remained at the late-night party until the end because somehow I got talked into telling a few jokes to the crowd assembled at the bar. A comic is not going to leave the party when asked to do that. Although my audience was small and I was initially reluctant (especially being sober), I’m sure it’s one of those comedy stories I’ll cherish forever.

The story goes something like this. The hour was late and I was about to leave when a little drinking game broke out. It started with Chad Daniels doing an impression of me. Somehow that evolved into a game of Finish the Dwight York Joke. I’d deliver one of my set-ups; a point was scored by the comic who provided the punchline. David Huntsberger assumed the role of game show host. The rules were ambiguous and made up as we went along. Shots were involved. John DeBoer and David Crowe took their turn in the “set-up the joke hot-seat.” I came back in at the end for the tie-breaker. I don’t remember if anybody won.

I doubt the inebriated contestants playing this game have the same fond memories as me, but I shall not forget the experience. I’d been watching comics tear it up on stage all week. As the big celebration reached it’s last dying breathe, I finally had my shot to add some comedy to the big event. Whether someone else finished the joke or whether I delivered the punchline myself, most times my old bits got laughs. My jokes getting laughs from that group of great comics made me feel better than killing on stage on a Saturday night. Thanks Acme. You were great!

Dwight Slade, Tracey Ashley, Ryan Hamilton, Ryan Stout, me (incognito), Pete Lee

Henry Phillips is His Brilliant Self in Punching the Clown

One of the cool things about being a comic is sometimes I get to hang out with cool people. Last week Henry Phillips was in town (Acme Comedy Club, Minneapolis). I caught his set on Thursday night and got to chat with him before and after the show. I met Henry ten years ago at the Improv in L.A. Since then, every so often, our paths have crossed. I’m always glad when that happens. He’s not just a cool guy to hang out with, I’m a big fan of his work.

I’d list Henry Phillips as one of my favorite comics except I’m not so sure the term “comic” precisely applies. Henry’s a talented musician who plays guitar and writes and sings original funny songs. I believe he started out performing serious folk music. The kind of stuff you hear in coffee shops. Somewhere along the line he put a satirical spin on that genre and created his own brand of musical comedy. But it can’t be described completely as musical comedy either. A lot of laughs come from the things he says while setting up each song. It’s a cool kind of funny and he’s a funny fucking guy.

I’ve always felt an affinity for comedians who do their own thing. Although mine and Henry’s acts are very different, I’d like to think there are similarities. Like for instance, we’re both very different. Plus we both write punchlines of the make-you-think, read-between-the-lines, fill-in-the-blanks variety. And for sure we’ve both been in front of crowds that didn’t appreciate different or want to fill in the blanks. Henry politely puts it this way, “Sometimes you don’t connect with the audience.” Though he seems better at handling those situations (though I’m sure I’ve had more practice), I know he shares my angst. In his movie  Punching the Clown (mostly autobiographical) there’s a pivotal scene in the beginning depicting one such painful show. He told me the real-life story it was based on last Thursday night.

Punching the Clown is an independent film directed by Gregori Viens. Henry co-wrote the screenplay and plays himself. It’s about a tortured artist musician comedian who quits the road and tries to make it in L.A. The movie was released a couple years ago. It has won film festival awards and received lots of great reviews. I feel stupid for not being aware of it’s existence. Maybe I vaguely remember something…. The first I remember for sure hearing about it was when Henry mentioned it on stage last week. That says a lot about the kind of guy he is. It didn’t come up in conversation before the show. I hope he wasn’t offended that I didn’t ask about it. I really need to crawl out of from underneath….  But anyway… After the show Henry gave me a copy. I watched it a few days later. The very next day I watched it again. I only do that when I really love a film. Plus I wanted to make sure it was really as good as I thought it was. That I wasn’t just sleep deprived, imagining things or high. Or just laughing because I knew the guy. But in fact I laughed even harder the second time. That’s why instead of renting it, I recommend you buy the DVD. That way, in addition to watching it over and over again, you can share it with your friends. It’s one of those movies you and your friends will want to quote from. “I smell pizza,” is my favorite line. That wasn’t Henry’s. He has an amazing supporting cast. Henry’s brother Matt (Matt Walker) was especially hilarious. “I got a slogo and a logan,” was my favorite line of his. Although the cast was outstanding, Henry wasn’t out-shined. My favorite line of his was, “That was mostly my fault I think.” If you’ve seen the movie you’re laughing again.

Because he’s as funny on screen as he is on stage, I’d list Henry Phillips as one of my favorite new actors except I’m not sure the term “actor” precisely applies. I don’t know if you call what he does “acting” because he’s really just being himself. But whatever you call it, watch it and I am pretty sure you’ll agree — certainly if you know him — he does a really good him. Or as Dane Cook would say, totally captures his own essence. That’s a lucky thing for those of us watching. In Punching the Clown, Henry Phillips is his brilliant self.

Dwight York Does Sturgis 2011

Nine daily dispatches in this made-for-YouTube documentary. In other words, if you’ve been following my adventure, you’ve seen them already, but not like this. Instead of nine short video dispatches, the reports are woven together to make this one short film.

Testing. Testing. One Two Three. This is Only a Test!

Because of the age of my laptop and the crazy weather the Black Hills is famous for, today’s blog post, my very first video report  — a test drive  — is a hap hazard collection of shit I shot and frantically and hap hazardously put together. I had a deadline last night. There was an important party to attend. It was for early arrivals and employees. There were old friends to reconnect with plus it’s the last chance for those of us working the rally to whoop it up. But before I could go to the party, I needed to know if I could accomplish creating videos with my equipment and if I could upload the large files via the Internet connection  here at the campground.

Before actually using the brand new Flip Cam the Buffalo Chip gave me on Wednesday, I had expected creating video reports would be simple. I didn’t realize the Flip Cam records in high definition and that those files do not play seamlessly on my older model PC. I spent two days figuring out ways to speed up my laptop, while at the same time, waging a war against the weather.

So finally I get my laptop running better BUT STILL importing those hi-def files takes forever. Then it takes even longer to convert those files to a type that Windows Movie Maker understands…..then I have to upload those files on a public WiFi connection that is overloaded and intermittent….

There is also the problem of logistics. I’m my own camera man. That’s not so much of a problem with my Sony camcorder because it’s LED screen twists around so I can see my mug while filming. Did I mention I also plan to use my Sony Flash Cam? It’s not hi-def but it has a 60x zoom. The Flip Cam does not have a screen that the person being filmed can see. I have to guess. Last night I guessed wrong. I’m sideways for awhile. That was not intended to be a cool effect.

The video below is meant to be funny only in the context that I was totally freaking out yesterday. But there must be something funny in it. It’s painful for me to watch.

Dispatches from Sturgis for Laughspin

To clear my head and strengthen my body, I’ve taken a little vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My days have been spent learning video editing, writing and hiking. It’s my way of gearing up for the start of  the 71st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. I have shows this weekend in Spearfish and Whitewood. Sunday I check into the Legendary Buffalo Chip Campground. The “best party anywhere” starts Friday, August 5.

 

So It Begins Again

Today my summer’s grand adventure begins. As soon as I publish this post, I hit the road. I have a fifteen hour drive ahead of me. I’m on my way to Hardin, MT where I’ll be attending a wedding. Sunday I set up camp in the Black Hills, south of Deadwood, to relax and work on my video editing skills. Next weekend (thanks to my friend Steve Heinbaugh, Black Hills Comedy), I have shows in nearby Spearfish and Whitewood. August 1st I check into the Legendary Buffalo Chip Campground. The “best party anywhere” starts August 5.

I’ve put a lot of effort into making this year’s Buffalo Chip Comedy Club a success. My goal is to prove that stand-up comedy can be a cool addition to that big biker party mix. I also plan on producing some kick-ass funny video reports and blog posts. The Buffalo Chip has provided me with all I asked for — joke contest to get guests and swimsuit models involved and a sexy talented comedy club hostess to help promote and emcee the show. Plus we’ve added a few guest comics to the line-up.

I leave today full of hope and optimism. That’s a good but rare thing for this old road comic. Keeping a positive attitude is the single greatest obstacle I face in my effort to stay alive in this brutal business. It’s hard not to get discouraged; easy to get consumed with bitterness. I’ve battled through the ups and downs in my career. The triumphs have been sweet; the set-backs many.

Dogged determination and a refusal to give up is what’s kept me going all these years and is the theme of today’s blog post. I’m publishing another excerpt of my mini-memoir: The Big Risk. It was about my 2009 adventure at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally; Buffalo Chip Campground. That was the year Steven Tyler of Aerosmith fell off the mainstage. “Dream On” had been my theme song since I booked myself at the Buffalo Chip months before. The next day it seemed that my dream had died.

From The Big Risk. Copyright 2009 by Dwight York. All rights reserved.

The hours after watching Stephen Tyler fall off the stage were miserable for me. I stumbled around the mud soaked field and stared at the spot where the rock icon hit the ground. I didn’t feel like drinking. It didn’t seem appropriate to party or to try and elevate my mood. In my crazy disappointed paranoid self-defeatist state of mind, I blamed myself for the accident and narcissistically thought others would too. “You brought bad luck upon the campground,” the voices in my head screamed. I felt like the guy at the bar who’s blamed for their football team’s loss because until he walked in, they were winning.

Self-pity is never pretty and it’s especially ugly on me. The next day I had my first ugly set; the pickle licking judges giving me the thumbs down. Though I had reason to blame the audience; it didn’t make me feel any better to have an excuse. I felt like my big break was slipping away and that I had just one more chance to turn my luck around. I pinned that hope on getting one more shot on the main-stage. This time for one of the week’s biggest concerts – Tesla and Hinder. According to the campground’s web site, I was scheduled to do a fifteen minute set that night; though that was no guarantee. At lunch that afternoon, Matt (the concert promoter’s assistant) explained that the line-up hadn’t been decided yet. But that he’d call and let me know.

After the pickle-licking drubbing, I went back to my tent to wait for my phone to ring. It was early in the evening but I laid my slogged-out, dead-tired body down. I kept my boots on just in case; but hope was fading as the hour was getting late. I placed my phone next to my pillow, closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. Half-dreaming, I heard Tesla begin to play. That gave finality to what I’d been dreading all day. The online schedule had me opening for them. Depression added to exhaustion and I fell fast asleep. About twenty minutes into Tesla’s set my phone woke me up. It was the campground’s media director, Michael Sanborn, “Did you know you’re scheduled on the main stage?” As it turned out, Matt had been calling, but had a wrong number. Startled awake, I asked Sanborn how soon I was needed backstage and he said, “right now.” What he meant was that I had time, but that I had better hurry. What I heard in my panicked head was that I had only minutes. Though I’d saved one clean pair of jeans and a brand new T-shirt for this occasion, I left on my mud splattered clothes and I raced out of my tent. The infield was packed and I had to push and shove and cajole my way across the amphitheater. I was soaked in sweat and looking a mess when I spotted Matt who was waiting for me at the backstage door. He told me to relax. I had thirty minutes before taking the stage. I could’ve died of relief. He had somebody get me a towel.

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You can follow this year’s adventure as it unfolds online. All the details about where to find my reports (besides right here) will be posted next week.

Sometimes I’m Funniest When I Don’t Try to Be

Recently I did a comedy show at a multi-plex movie theater, Grand Cinema Hinckley (July 1). Hinckley is a small town in Minnesota about an hour north of the Twin Cities. Once every month, for the late showing, instead of a movie, one of their theaters (they have eight) is home to a live comedy show. A microphone is set up in front of the big screen and the audience sits in comfort as they would when enjoying a film. They also set up a beverage cart so a beer or wine cooler can also be enjoyed.

On account of the weather, crowd size was less than expected. Severe thunderstorms had struck earlier that evening. Many in the surrounding areas lost power. Trees were down. Roads were closed. Structures were damaged. I had a perilous drive through torrential rain and extreme winds on my way up. Additional watches for another band of storms had been issued.

Although my white-knuckled drive took longer than expected, I made it to Hinckley safe and sound. We delayed the start-time thirty minutes to allow people who’d purchased tickets to arrive but eventually realized there were going to be no-shows. The opening act did his thirty minute set, there was an intermission, then I took the stage. Although it felt a bit odd to be doing stand-up comedy in a movie theater, I got laughs from the get-go and settled in to my joke slinging rhythm.

Then about thirty minutes into my set, there was a distraction. In the moments of silence between me talking and the audience laughing, I heard a soft continuous high-pitched whine which I could only assume was a tornado warning siren. I’ve been doing comedy for twenty-two years but have never before been faced with this situation. What do I do? Keep going until someone tells me to stop? I made a snap decision. I had the microphone. That made me the leader in charge. So I stopped joking, got serious and suggested we take cover.

Nobody from the crowd moved. Or said a word. I waited. I had done my part and assumed somebody from management would break in with an official announcement. Certainly they must have a microphone too. After a long moment of silence, I concluded that the crowd felt safe enough, management didn’t care and everybody wanted me to continue. So I explained that I was certainly willing to start telling jokes again, but that — at the very least — I had to address the situation. Right? Suddenly I felt defensive for being such a pussy.

Still nobody from the audience said anything. I could read their puzzled faces. Is this part of the show? What’s he talking about? Maybe, I thought, from were they were sitting, they couldn’t hear what I did. So I asked the crowd if they heard the siren? Finally, after an awkward pause, the young lady selling beverages said, in a voice just loud enough for everyone to hear, “It’s a vacuum cleaner.” After another awkward pause, I responded with my biggest laugh getting line of the night, “Oh.”

Sometimes I am funniest when I don’t try to be.

Cool Album Covers from Stand Up! Records

Nerd Alert (available on Amazon.com) is the new comedy release from Stand Up! Records. Although I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, I know the cover is awesome. Zander Cannon created the artwork; Stand Up! Records just posted it on Facebook. I added the comment, “Almost as cool as mine.” Not to brag (actually I do) but I’m also on the Stand Up! Records label and have an awesome album cover too. The artwork for my CD Quickies was created by world famous caricaturist and long-time illustrator for Mad Magazine, Mort Drucker.

The main reason I decided to sign with Stand Up! Records was because the owner/producer Dan Schlissel is a perfectionist and demands that all things bearing his good name be of the highest quality. Schlissel produced Lewis Black’s The Carnegie Hall Performance which won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album. From production value to artwork, nobody does a comedy album better than Stand Up! Records.

When discussing what I wanted for my cover, I told Schlissel that I’d like caricature of me. He asked what I thought about Mort Drucker. I said there was no artist in the world I’d rather have create it. Schlissel contacted his people, terms were negotiated and Drucker agreed. I felt like I won the lottery.

I grew up reading Mad Magazine. Undoubtedly it was a big influence on my comedy. That’s why I am so especially honored and humbled that one of the greatest caricaturists of our time — one of my comedy heroes — created my album cover. Thanks to Mort Drucker for capturing my comedy persona so perfectly. And thanks to Dan Schlissel for believing enough in me to make the investment. It ranks as one of the proudest accomplishments of my career.

You can view more of Mort Drucker’s artwork at www.mortdrucker.com.

To view more cool album covers from Stand Up! Records (there are many) visit the Stand Up! Records Facebook page (and like it while you are there).

If you want to know what Dan Schissel looks like, it’s his head who breathes fire on the Nerd Alert cover.

Me and Woody: Bike Builders

My other favorite story about my 2010 adventure at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally didn’t involve any bad ass bikers or beautiful bikini models or famous bands in concert. It was about doing something kind for kids. The amusing part of the story is that I didn’t know I was volunteering to help anybody. I thought I was tagging along with the owner of the Buffalo Chip to cool off and be entertained.

It was a Sunday afternoon in August and it was a scorcher. Normally on a hot day during the rally I’d be dressed in a tank top, shorts and tennis shoes. But on this particular afternoon, Pee Wee Herman and the Funny or Die crew were filming at the campground. I thought it’d be best to be dressed how I think I look best on camera. Just in case. That meant I was wearing jeans, shirt with a collar, cowboy boots and plenty of perspiration. I was sitting in the shade when I saw Woody (Rod Woodruff) approach. I could tell he didn’t have time to stop. He motioned for me to follow. As I caught up he said, “Let’s build some bikes.” I thought, “Cool. We’re going to watch custom choppers being built.”

Woody made straight for the air conditioned Michael Lichter Building. I assumed that was our destination. It was an ideal place to build custom choppers. Not only was it cool inside, but  a celebrity fundraising event was taking place there that night. Famous people like Pee Wee Herman and Lorenzo Lomas and Rupert from Survivor were scheduled to attend. But we did not stop inside. We were merely taking a short-cut. I followed Woody in the front door and right out the back and then onto to a field where a handful of people were gathered under the hot sun. A truck had just been unloaded. At first I didn’t know what the large cardboard cartons contained. Turns out Schwinn had donated sixty bicycles to the Kids and Chrome Foundation to benefit the Black Hills Children Home Society. They were being given to residents at the foster home for battered and abused children. It was children’s bicycles that were being built. Woody and I were there to help.

An event had been scheduled for that afternoon called The Biker Buddy Build-Off. The purpose of this publicized event was to attract volunteers to donate a few hours of their time to assemble bikes. Each volunteer was to be rewarded with a T-shirt and an invitation to the celebrity fund-raiser. That should have drawn a crowd. But the event attracted only a handful of volunteers and by the time we arrived most of the bikes were still in their boxes and the hour was getting late. The organizers needed the bicycles assembled in time for the party that evening (great photo op). Woody went right to work. I watched him put together one bicycle to see how it was done (see photo below). Then I found a set of tools and got to work myself.

I put together a lot of bikes that afternoon. It was miserable working under the hot sun. There were times when I thought I might pass out from heat exhaustion. But I kept working and didn’t collapse and felt elated when that last bike was assembled. Nothing feels better than helping a child in need. Plus we finished by the deadline which was a triumph. Not only because of the charity event, but because I had a show to do too. Unfortunately I didn’t have time for a shower and a change of clothes. Good thing I was dressed cool for comedy.

Woody is taking out his first bicycle. I am regretting drinking too many beers the previous night.

Tough Getting Laughs After Pickle Licking

I did a show for five people last night. Thankfully they were a good little group and everybody had fun. One of my biggest laughs came from a practiced ad lib. It’s a line I came up with on stage one night and I break it out whenever the situation merits. I was surprised when my prepared joke, “I saw this guy on the side of the road with a sign that said ‘will work for food’ so I gave him a coconut,” got such a good response. So I said, “Sometimes that one gets nothing. You people are good. Per capita, best audience ever.”

Inevitably after a show like last night somebody makes the observation that it must be tough doing comedy for such a small audience. I like to tell people that I like a challenge (another practiced ad lib). Although last night’s show was more of an exercise in being silly than anything else (five people and the show goes on…really?), I do love a challenge. There is a element of danger in doing stand-up that makes getting laughs such a thrill. Generally the more of a challenge, the bigger the thrill. The most thrilling challenge of my career came back in 2009 when I brought my show to the Legendary Buffalo Chip Campground for the 2009 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. There was plenty of people to witness my potential failure on stage at that world famous venue and there were many who expected I would.

Below is another excerpt from my mini-memoir  about doing comedy at the 2009 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. From The Big Risk by Dwight York. Copyright 2009 all rights reserved.

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Soon after that lonely set on the Sam Kinison Stage, I finally found an audience; though they hadn’t gathered to listen to me. I was scheduled to do a twenty minute set before the start of a bikini contest on the Bikini Beach Stage. The contest was being sponsored by the Hedonism all-inclusive (but clothing optional) resorts in Jamaica. Hosting it were the resort’s two entertainment directors and by the time I arrived, they had already taken the stage. Apparently these experienced showmen had their own idea of how to best ready the crowd for a bikini competition. With Reggae music blasting and several couples on stage competing in an audience participation contest (most sexual positions mimed in ten seconds), the charismatic hosts had the crowd whipped into a frenzy. As the game ended and the couples left the stage, one of the hosts asked the audience if they were ready to meet “the beautiful and sexy contestants of the bikini contest.” The crowd went wild. Then the stage manager walked up to the host and said something in his ear. “Our lovely ladies will be out soon,” he was forced to announced, “But first we have a comedian.” All together, the entire crowd groaned. The loudest gasp came from me.

Though the bikini contest interruption was the most awkward introduction of my career, the one I was given later that night for my big debut on the main-stage was arguably worse. At least the guy from Jamaica had made it clear that I was a comedian. I’m guessing that the main-stage emcee didn’t feel it necessary to hype me much. He probably figured he wouldn’t know me long. Hank Rotten Jr. had hosted the main-stage festivities at The Buffalo Chip for the last twenty-two years and though he’d seen a lot of entertainers come and go, he had yet to see a comedian return. His introduction for me was simple. In his Southern Missouri Hillbilly drawl he told the crowd, “We have a surprise. A comedian. Dwight York.” Hank ran these words together so quickly that I could barely make out what he said. And I was sober.

I had a few decent crowds in the days ahead, but mostly it was comedy hell. Though I was fully aware that trying to do comedy on the secondary stages would be challenging, I’d assumed there’d always be people partying and hanging around. That was another mis-assumption. In the late afternoons and early evenings; most folks were relaxing back at their campers or out motorcycling around. It wasn’t until the main-stage activities began that the crowds began to build. That limited my audience to those gathered to watch the daily contests; the bikini competition being the classier of the two. My new friend Hank Rotten Jr. had graciously invited me to go up after the contest he hosted every afternoon. It was called “Pickle Licking” and you can guess the rules. This didn’t attract the most sophisticated of crowds; nor the classiest of competitors. I watched in fascination – on two separate occasions – as one of the contestants made a great show of first removing her teeth. That’s a tough act to follow.

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This August 5-13, I will be returning to the Buffalo Chip where I will be headlining the Buffalo Chip Comedy Club (indoors and air conditioned). It’s the best comedy club anywhere because it’s at “the best party anywhere.”

Tour Dates
  • Events are coming soon, stay tuned!