Reflections on No Jokes Barred

One year of No Jokes Barred. Time flies when you are creating the best Stand Up comedy show in Saint John. My apologies for dispensing with the false humility. “Best” is subjective, so this is only my opinion. There are other shows that other fans and performers may prefer (Shane Ogden Presents, Ep!c Comedy at the Pub Down Under, James Mullinger’s Work in Progress shows). I love doing those shows and even going to see them when I can. However, No Jokes Barred is my favourite show to do and it would likely be my favourite show to attend as a fan of comedy in Saint John.

When I started this show, I had no idea how successful it would become. It was started out of frustration with experiences I’ve had in comedy up to that point. When started doing stand-up, I had no idea there was any kind of comedy scene going on in NB. I thought that I was the only one around here foolish enough to try. At the time I was working a Friday-Monday shift, so my days off were during the week. Cougar’s had an acoustic open mic on Tuesday nights and I had a few friends who also had odd schedules and it became a weekly event. Over that year (and a half?) I only wrote 4 jokes. Of course, each of my 4 jokes were 10-15 minutes long. The other people at the bar never gave a shit, and after a while, even my friends grew tired of listening to my same old shit … there were girls to talk to now. Nobody was there for a show. This was the only place to go drink on a Tuesday night that had more than 5 people in attendance. Mumford and Sons cover songs? Awesome background music that doesn’t require anybody’s full attention. Guy talking into a microphone? Shut up and play a song! It was dreadful, but I powered through. I am thankful for the stage time and those 4 jokes are still among my best (after some pairing down and the addition of actual punchlines).

On Sundays, Cougars also had an electric open mic (Pearl Jam covers instead of Mumford and Sons). This is where the trouble started. Whenever there was a holiday on a Monday, I would go to this one too. It was pretty well attended since people didn’t have to work the next day. The audience still wasn’t really there for a show … just a place to drink with some other stuff going on in the background. I did pretty well the few times I went up. By “pretty well”, I mean that 20% of the people there were into it and everybody else was talking as loudly as possible. One week, I asked the drummer for the house band for a spot (I would call him out if I knew his name). He said that “there were complaints to the owner” about the  last time I did set. For the record, that set was my cheeseburger bit. It has some swears and some brief yelling, but nothing controversial. This is a bar, not a day care. He reluctantly told me that I could go up if I could “keep it clean”. My plan was to do my bit about Diamond the stripper. Not a clean set, so I declined.

The next day, I put on some nice clothes and went into talk to the owner. I wanted to give my side and to find out what the problem was. Turns out the guy running the show was just too much of a coward to tell me he didn’t like what I was doing, so he blamed it on the owner. The owner eventually called the guy for his side and was told that I was talking about porn (correct), pedophilia (no) and bestiality (no). Regardless, the owner sided with the guy running the show. If people aren’t into it, he has no obligation to give me stage time. Saint John’s reluctance to try anything new is why the scene was dying, but fair enough. He’s a business owner, not a curator of the arts. Nobody was leaving the bar because of me. Worst case, they went out to the deck for 10 minutes. I certainly wasn’t worse than just having somebody’s iPod on shuffle because nobody wanted to play. A few months later, they shut down that Open Mic altogether, so I wasn’t the problem. Anyway … I still kept going on Tuesdays and even went back to O’Leary’s a couple of times.

One day I was driving around the north end and saw a sign at the Somerset Pub advertising “Open Mic Comedy”. Oh shit! This is my big break. Turns out “open mic” doesn’t mean the same thing in comedy as it does with music. I showed up and asked to go on, but Lloyd Ravn told me the show was already full. He eventually took pity on me and gave me 5 minutes. I didn’t have anything that short because I was used to rambling for 15 minutes at Cougars, but I did a rushed version of my “Monday Night” story. There wasn’t many people there, but it was such a big difference performing for an audience that came to a comedy show on purpose. From there, I got added to the top secret FaceBook group for NB comedians. I went up a couple of times at Trevor Muxworthy’s monthly show at the Wilser’s Room in Fredericton. This was even better. After spending so long powering through my jokes, it was weird having to pause for a laugh. Wow, that line was funny … I forgot. All the other comedians were very nice to me (at least after they saw me perform and do well). I told Trevor that my goal was to eventually get onto one of Shane Ogden’s shows at the 3 Mile in Saint John. Trevor said that I was really funny and that he’d put in a good word for me.

After getting a couple of my Wilser’s room sets on tape, I contacted Shane Ogden about getting on the show. He was not impressed. He gave me some kind of condescending “advice” that I did not agree with. He seemed to be under the impression that I was some kind of hurricane of anger and swearing (that damn cheeseburger bit screwed me again). He said no, for now. Instead of listening to anything he had to say, I just decided that he was full of shit and didn’t know what he was talking about. I had seen some of his shows and thought that I was at least as good as some of the other comedians he booked. The next time I was on a show at the Somerset with Shane, he even sent out a FaceBook message outlining what kinds of things we should avoid doing or saying because we “want these people to come back again”. The message was sent to everybody on the show, but I suspected it was directed at me. What a bastard. I was especially annoyed because I was planning on doing a relatively clean crowd work / 10000 Jokes set.

At this point, I decided I wanted to start my own show. I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do, but I had some ideas about what I didn’t want to do. First off, I didn’t want to tell the comedians what they could and could not say. It is better when they don’t have to second guess themselves. It would also be better for the audience to be able to go to a show that doesn’t pull any punches. I wanted the show to be uptown because that’s where the cool kids go. The Somerset is a nice place, but many of the people I know don’t want to go all the way across town to see people they’ve never heard of talking about their dicks. Also, to go along with the low barrier of entry, I didn’t want to have tickets or a cover charge. Comedy was a fairly new thing and people are cheap. I would rather have people at the show than a big pile of money that wouldn’t happen anyway. It had to be “Pay What You Can”. Nobody is allowed to be upset if they don’t have to pay. Finding a good venue was the next thing that needed to be done.

One Saturday night, I was at the R Bar with some friends. There were five people there watching a cover band. The R Bar is in a rough part of town with a bad reputation. There are a couple of bars around the corner that are particularly rough. It is a nice place though. It had been renovated since the last time I was there. It was a nice little bar that was masquerading as a dive bar. I figured that if I could bring in 6 people on a Saturday night, I’d be doing them a favour. They aren’t going to have a problem with the content of the show as long as the bar was making money. Bonus: I’ve known the owner’s son for most of my life. I set up a meeting with Glen, the owner. I had some notes and was fully prepared to argue my case. I didn’t have to argue too much. He was on board almost immediately. Apparently he is a fan of comedy and has been involved in putting on comedy shows in the past. June 26th, 2014 was the first show and it was great.

I made myself the host even though this was outside my comfort zone. At the time, I didn’t have any short jokes and I only had a handful of longer sets that I had been working on. The format I decided on was for me to introduce the show and do a bit of unprepared, looser material. I usually have a topic in mind, but rarely anything written down or worked out. I usually aim for 4 other comedians in the first half. For my in-between segments, my plan was to rely on my dumb 10000 Jokes joke book. I attempted to do some crowd work to go with this like I did at the Somerset, but I am terrible at it. Eventually, I mostly abandoned the crowd work and just found a chapter semi related to something in the previous comic’s set. After an intermission I would bring the crowd back with one of my prepared bits before continuing on with the other 3 or 4 comedians.

I have been told several times that the intermission is a bad idea, but I don’t listen. I used to be a teacher, so I know how hard it is for people to shut up and listen for extended periods of time. People need a break. It also gives me a good time to go around collecting donations. This is a pay what you can show and I have been happy with the amount of money being put in the bucket. Some people are cheap and some people are very generous. It all works out in the end. Maybe we’d get more if I charged $10-15, but I think that might cost us some audience members. Laughter is a valid form of currency at a comedy show and I don’t want to trade one for the other. Every month, we pull in enough money to pay each of the comedians more than they usually get for these kinds of shows ($0 on average). I also get to keep some for myself.

Over the past year, I have seen the audience grow more than I could have imagined. We regularly pack the R Bar. My shows are their biggest nights. I have also grown as a performer. Hosting duties have given me a chance to get better at improvising and trying new things that I wouldn’t have had a chance to do otherwise. When I started this thing, I did one of my 10000 Jokes from the book almost every time I hit the stage between sets. Now, I hardly ever go to it. For those who miss the 10000 Jokes segment, tune in to the Jon Floorward Show on Youtube. Also, that bastard Shane eventually did put me on a show at the 3 Mile (3 times since November, actually). I’m not sure how much of that was due to me getting better and how much is Shane just becoming more open-minded with his bookings. Either way, I’m almost ready to stop being mad about that first “No”.

It has also been good for the other comedians. Although the out of towners are usually afraid that they are going to be shot or stabbed, they almost always have a good time. They don’t have to worry about what they can and can’t do at my show. Creativity grows when people don’t need to worry about being “allowed” to do something. It has also allowed the Saint John comedy scene to grow. I’m not working in a vacuum, so it is hard to quantify my contribution to the growth of comedy in Saint John compared to what other people are doing, but I know I have had some impact. Comedy isn’t nearly as unusual of a thing as it was when I started. As “dangerous” as a comedy show at the R Bar may seem, it is still a walk in the park compared to the open mic trenches I suffered through. I have been very impressed with all of the new people I have given stage time to. Lots of new comedians are coming up and I’m going to go ahead and take credit for all of the ones who got their starts at No Jokes Barred.

This Saturday, June 27th, we are celebrating the 1 year Anniversary of NJB. Along with a group of hand-picked comedians, I have promoted myself to headliner for this one. I am equally terrified and excited about that. I’m also letting my friends in Hoveland host the show. I’m not sure what they have planned, but I’m sure it will be hilarious. My original plan was to start at a bar like this so that I could build an audience before moving on to a better place. The R Bar has grown on me and is part of the No Jokes Barred identity. Since we have been filling the place lately, it would be nice to move somewhere with some more room, but a too-packed house isn’t a bad problem to have. I don’t want to lose that special R Bar charm.

Just in case this hasn’t been long enough, here are some scattered memories from the past year of No Jokes Barred … some good, some bad:

-          Deciding to only perform sober after watching myself on video getting progressively drunker each time I go on stage at that first show

-          “Shut up and talk!”

-          A stray cat walking into the bar mid show

-          The first time I booked a show on a long weekend the day after the welfare cheques came out

-          The terror I felt leading up to the first time I told my “Moby Dick” story to a hometown audience

-          Phil Smith’s Spiderman costume

-          Melissa the bartender always does a great job despite working alone with a room full of people.

-          Having to shut down a drunk veteran who was being an asshole. “I don’t care what you did 50 years ago. You are being an asshole right now. Stop it or go somewhere else. Nobody came here for you.”

-          Catching certain people on tape trash talking the show. Did they not think about the very obvious microphone sitting on their table?

-          Some of the old-guard “comedy rule book” people still talking down to me regardless of the success

-          One group of people walking out on the show due to “transphobic, sexist and racist material”. I don’t agree, but at least they were respectful and left quietly when they realized they were having a bad time.

-          Hoveland’s first time on the show (characters, comedy, magic)

-          Bringing Stacey up on stage with me

I’ve probably forgotten a bunch of stuff. The main point is that this show has been an awesome experience and I can’t wait to see what happens going forward. Thanks to everybody who has ever attended the show and to those who have performed. I’ll even thank the person who wrote about the show in the paper without ever showing up to one. Also thanks to everybody at the R Bar for letting this happen (you are welcome for all the extra booze money I’ve helped you earn).

50 more years!