Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Funny Business Part 2: An Interview with Jon Hancuff
Categories: Arts & Culture
The Comedy Attic and Limestone Comedy Festival have put Bloomington on the map in the world of comics and comedy fans. We heard from club owner Jared Thompson about how the Comedy Attic got started and how it's developed into one of the country's top clubs. Now it's time to hear from someone who actually gets up onstage. Jon Hancuff is a local comedian who performs regularly in Bloomington and around the Midwest. In this Q&A he tells us what it's like and why Bloomington is so darn funny.
Note: We don't want to filter any responses, so be advised that there is some profanity below.
Q: What made you want to be a comedian?
Comedy was definitely a priority in the house I grew up in. We watched all the sitcoms, my folks had Bill Cosby albums, which at the time wasn't a bad thing. It was just something that obviously my parents put a priority on.
Q: How long have you been doing standup?
Well I did it from 1992 to 1996 then quit for 13 years and then started again at the Attic probably 8 months after they opened.
Q: Is it just like riding a bike, you just get back into it?
I was lucky because the stuff I wrote in the 90s was not topical at all, it was just absurd so I was able to go up and do most of the same jokes. From that point of view, the jokes still worked, the timing was still there. I took a while to feel comfortable again but I could fake it.
Q: Have you always been funny, were you funny when you were younger?
I've always felt like I was funny, like I was the funny one in my group, but I wasn't like a class clown. I'm pretty shy for the most part but I'm the guy who would sit in the back of the room with my friends and make them laugh. But you know if I was trying to talk to a girl in high school, I could barely be verbal let alone funny.
Q: It seems like comedians have to be observant and have to be good writers.
Totally, especially in Bloomington. I'd say that's where most of the comics are coming from. They're all really good writers, the quality of the joke writing here is amazing. They're not jumping around on stage, you can really see the craft to it. And sometimes it's not so much a performance as a test of wills getting through some of our sets.
Q: What's your style?
Still absurd, but it's a lot more autobiographical now. Usually it's a situation with my daughter, step-kids or my wife, and I'll react to it in a certain way and then later I'll realize it wasn't maybe the most logical reaction so I'll kind of dissect that. That's where a lot of the bits come from, it's me just being stupid but it's still absurd.
When I was doing standup in the 90s and it was just purely absurd stuff, everything just had to be made up, it wasn't based on anything and that made it so hard to write new material. When I came back I just had so much life experience that is relatable and I'm able to just look at it in the most absurd light or angle.
Check out this video of Jon at the Comedy Attic last month.
Q: You've got a full-time job, and a family; you've got obligations. When do you write your jokes? Do they hit you at random times or do you sit down and write them out?
Yeah, I could never do that. It's got to be like a bolt of lightning. So I keep notes on my phone, or we'll be on a car ride somewhere and I'll ask my wife to write something on a napkin. A lot of it, especially working on new bits, I do in the car. I have a 15-minute drive to work so there and back I'll just be thinking through and working on stuff. It goes in waves, I never try to force it but when things are really clicking it just this huge rush for like a month and then maybe nothing for another month.
Q: How often do you perform?
We have an open mic rotation at Bear's Place and Uel Zing along with the Comedy Attic so I'm getting up six to ten times a month, they're all five-minute sets. It's been great because the scene is so small, you're forced to do new stuff because there are going to be some repeat audience members. But I think the biggest motivator is you just get tired of doing the same material and after a few months of doing something, it's not a joke you're excited about.
Q: Do you have a joke that is your old standby?
It doesn't happen in town so much but there are some clubs outside of town that I perform at regularly and I've had people tell me they are disappointed if I didn't do a certain bit, which actually feels really good. In town I'm probably known more for my style, because the way I'm talking now would be considered hyper on stage. (Note: Jon talks in a very slow and calming voice this entire time.) I'm pretty laid back.
Q: Do you have a persona on stage that's you but formatted a different way? How much is it acting vs you?
I think it's probably a little bit of an exaggeration of how I am in everyday life. I know that the people who just know me at work and see me are always amazed because I'm so quiet most of the time. It's not like I'm freaking out up there but I think it's what I'm saying that throws them more than anything. I wouldn't say I'm a clean comic but I've had bookers tell me that I can get away with saying stuff that is kind of risqué because of my presentation, it just feels clean and looks clean.
Q: Do you feed off the crowd's energy?
With my style, and maybe this is just me rationalizing, I can get big laughs but I can also get a lot of smiles and nods and I can see that. And you can feel that they haven't turned on you, that they're there but just not loud. I mean they're matching my energy and I can't get mad over that.
Q: What do you do to prep for a show? What is it like before you go on stage - are you nervous, have a routine, hang out with the other comedians?
I like to get to the club early, at least an hour before the show. The green room is kind of a safe space mostly because Jared is there and people can't mess around especially before a show because he is probably more nervous than anyone and amped up. You can see the crowd coming in and get a feel of what's going on. And then I like to watch the clips with the crowd, to see how the crowd reacts to the clips beforehand. And I'll sit through the mc set to see what they are doing to make sure I won't do anything similar, see how the crowd reacts.
Q: Have you ever been heckled before? Or had disruption from someone being part of the show?
The biggest problem is the people who are enjoying the show but are maybe a little liquored up, so they laugh at your joke, and then repeat it. They just throw your rhythm off. That's bad. The vicious ones, I don't see those as much, just people who are rude, on their cell phones, talking to friends.
A lot of times I just push through, and you can usually talk over them or just mutter something. Usually they set themselves up to be singled out. At the Attic, people police their friends.
Q: What's cool about performing at the Comedy Attic compared to other clubs?
It starts with Jared. The comics talk about this a lot, there are clubs that are basically bars that have comedy in it, even big comedy clubs but their priority is to sell drinks and they don't treat the talent very well, they don't create an environment where it's fun to perform. They may pay well because they sell a lot of drinks but as a performer you just feel awful. That doesn't happen at the Attic. The environment is perfect, the stage is the right height, the lighting is perfect, the seating is great and Jared has cultivated an audience that they treat it like an art form, they treat it like they're going to the theater, where they will see a performance and that means you don't interject yourself into it. There are clubs that take pride in showing comics at their club dealing with hecklers which is always a red flag if you are trying book somewhere. The crowds that come are amazing. There is no other club that gets these crowds; I mean the worst thing a Comedy Attic crowd is going to do is feel bad for you if you are not having a good set. But you can take artistic risk that you couldn't other places.
Q: I'm glad to hear you say it's like a craft, it's like an art form.
It's weird, it's like a painter who has to design a logo for a hotdog. We get to work places like this but then we also have to do a bar that doesn't shut the TVs off during a set. I mean, unless you're like Jim Gaffigan or something, it's just something you have to deal with. But here, not only does the club owner encourage it and will take your side if you're taking risks, but the audience is on board as well.
That's the thing with the crowds here, they're the same crowds that go to Cardinal Stage and Bloomington Playwrights Project, and they're the ones who go see a noise band. They know that if they trust the person onstage it'll be good. They know if Jared lets you onstage, it's going to be good.
Jared has also help build a really amazing scene of comics here. They're all smart, they're amazing writers, so many have gone on to New York and Chicago. It's so supportive, it's almost like a sibling sort of thing. We know what buttons to push. But other comics go to your shows. We all hang out. If I go to an out-of-town show, I'm almost always with another Bloomington comic. Back in the ‘90s I was the only comic in town. The only open mic nights were in Indianapolis. But it's all here now. I love Bloomington - it's like one of the cool, safe neighborhoods in Chicago.
Q: Who is your favorite comedian?
My favorite comedian of all time, and I'm nothing like him, is Bill Hicks. He got bigger after he died, but I remember him when he was alive. He was a pretty political guy in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. He died at age 32 of pancreatic cancer, and was part of the reason I quit because he had a message and I didn't have that so I thought "What am I doing?" He is like my Kurt Cobain of comedy. But you know I still listen to They Might Be Giants, and they're nothing like Nirvana.
Growing up, my two biggest influences were Steve Martin, and Steven Wright who I have a similar style to. I had bookers in the ‘90s say "That Steven Wright sh*t is going to get you killed on the road," but they'd still book me.
After I took a break and came back, comedy became so conversational. Back in the ‘90s everything had a setup and punchline and everything was tight, no verbal pauses, you had to be on the audience constantly. But then I listened to David Cross and Patton Oswalt, and it was a completely different world. They were just talking to the audience like a normal person, no blazers with sleeves pushed up. It was so liberating. At first, I had to deliberately add verbal pauses to make it sound more conversational, because everything I had written in the ‘90s was just bare bones. It's been fun adjusting to that, and feeling like a human being on stage.