- Mark Lee
- Oskay with his son Elijah
It seems like almost every interview I do is my favorite one, until the next. Sure it's an arts cliche, but I think for journalists who get to write with the creative freedom that NUVO offers, it's probably just as true as it is for any songwriter or painter.
I met Jeff Oskay at the Mass Ave Pub for last week's feature ("Jeff Oskay: Full Time Comic"), and it was more relaxed and conversational than any major interview I've ever done. I accredit that to a combination of a few things— I've met him briefly a couple times before, he's very humble, very friendly and approachable, and perhaps most of all— he is extremely honest and comfortable with himself. I usually spend the first thirty minutes of an interview trying to break through the image the subject wants to portray for him or her self, but with Oskay there was no pretense or cat-and-mouse line of questioning. That's not to say that any of the other profile pieces I've done didn't get there eventually— just that it usually takes a little more creative questioning on my part to get the details I want out of the more image-oriented subjects I've written on, and I found Oskay's confident honesty refreshing.
It's also an interview I wish I would have done years ago, when I first started reviewing comedy. I've interviewed comedians before, but I've never just sat down and had an honest conversation about comedy as a craft— and Oskay's straightforward insight into the business side of the local comedy clubs was fascinating.
Unfortunately I had to cram two hours worth of conversation into about twelve hundred words for last Wednesday's article, so I wasn't able to get into great detail on Oskay's rise from open-mic dud to headlining ace. It's a progression that every comic has to make if their career is going to have the one element they are all fighting for—- sustainability.
It's no secret that the emcee— or opener— usually sucks. If an emcee is good it's a pleasant bonus— but as Oskay said of his time as an emcee:
"I thought it was a compliment to work with such a huge headliner, but as it turns out, they put the worst person with the best person because no one came to see your ass. No one gives a shit if you suck because they all came to see Ron White. There’s nothing worse than getting started your first week and emceeing for 14 people trying to get that party started. You’re going to suck for a while, but that’s what makes it fun—figuring out how not to suck then you move on to the next level. You suck at open-mics, then you move up to emceeing and suck at that, then you move up to featuring, and you suck at that, then you featuring and you do all right, but you have those nights where you go up and people just absolutely hate you and you have to stand there for thirty minutes. Then you get to move up and suck again as a headliner. Even once you’re headlining, you can move on to theaters— - so there’s always room to grow."
However, in addition to being young and unproven, the opener has several other uncontrollable elements working against him or her.
First of all, unlike the headliner, an emcee is subject to the club's censorship. The management doesn't like them to curse, and the crowd doesn't like them to be edgy or controversial. "You can't open for Ray Romano and go do 9/11 material," Oskay said. There's something about an opener, no matter how good he is, that the crowd just doesn't give him any credibility— there's no trust, and therefore, a joke that might make Zach Galifinakis look like an idiot savant would make an emcee look like just an idiot.
Oskay sums it up best himself:
"You can’t be the comic you really want to be until you get to start headlining. And you have to earn that trust from the crowd—if the first comic going up is talking about some horrible topic, the crowd will just say “who the fuck are you to talk about this?”
(Perhaps that should be the name of my blog, wokka wokka).
In addition to the psychological adversity, there are also obstacles in the physical environment at the start of a show. People are ordering drinks, idiots are coming in late and tripping over people, more idiots are talking at their tables, and the biggest idiots are just being generally disrespectful and trying to be a part of the show. And again— because of the lack of an established relationship with the audience and the demands from club management— the emcees are in a horrifically vulnerable position. They can't retaliate viciously against paying customers like a headliner
So, in a very roundabout way, the moral of this story is to be nice to your emcees. If you focus, and try to tune out all those natural prejudices, you'll find that some of them are a lot better than you think.
Another interesting insight I took away from the Oskay interview was the relationships among local comics. His summary, again, requires no paraphrasing:
"When you start off with these people—I’ve been doing it for like six years—we all do shit-hole bars where people yell at you and make fun of you. And they’ve all seen it happen to you, and you’ve seen it happen to them—you see those people at the lowest point of their life. So it’s almost impossible not to have a bond with those people. There’s a ton of comics in Indianapolis and I don’t like all of them and I’m sure they don’t all like me—but they’re still on my team; we’re still against everybody we’re performing for. Even if it’s someone you can’t stand, you don’t want to see them do badly. If you see someone being a dick in the crowd, you want to go punch that guy in the face for them. "
And strangely, it's often harder to perform in your hometown— there is no such thing as a home field advantage in stand-up comedy.
"We all get branded as 'local comics,' and people automatically assume we’re not going to be as funny," Oskay said. A while ago Nick Thune was supposed to headline at Cracker’s and just didn’t show up; so Wednesday night at 7:30 pm I get a call to headline. It went amazing the whole week, and not one person complained; even though they had pre-sales of hundreds of people, until the second show Saturday night somebody pulls [the Crackers manager] out into the hallway and says, “Who the fuck is this? He’s a fucking local comedian—he drinks at the bar I go to, I’m not going to pay to watch him fucking talk," Oskay said, laughing aloud, admitting to the validity of her point.
"Hundreds of people didn’t complain, but there’s still that astigmatism. Even if you’re living here performing on the Tonight Show you’re still a 'local comic' who just happens to be performing on the Tonight Show."
There are a handful of Indianapolis comics doing well for themselves nationally— but none have broken through to the elite status that will give all the other great comics in this town the credibility they deserve.
Hopefully, with Blake Boatwright featuring for Nikki Glaser at Cracker's downtown on Saturday, and Oskay headlining at Cracker's Broad Ripple at the same time, the scene is gaining traction and that astigmatism will be less and less imposing in the coming years.