At age 30, it’s natural to look back on your life and think ‘how the f*** did I get here?’ If I was given only one word to describe myself in 2017, it would be husband. Or Christian. Or some other Twitter bio keyword. If given two words, I would probably go with comedy nerd. In this four-part series I take a look at my comedy influences to find out how this all happened. After looking at my nerdy childhood in part one, we dive into part two: the high school years.
A common question for successful comedians is “were you the class clown in high school?” I’ve read countless stories of my favorite stand ups convincing their teachers to let them recite Steve Martin or Robin Williams bits in front of the class. But I’ve also heard plenty of comedians who were the opposite, trying to hide their way through the ‘best years of their lives.’ I’m not a comedian, so perhaps the question is moot. As a comedy nerd, some level of clowning still poked its head out of my introverted, acne covered shell.
Apart from nearly failing Algebra II—which we can blame squarely on a case of mono, the kissing disease, I got at age 15 despite my first kiss coming at age 18—school came relatively easy to me. Or I should say, schoolwork came relatively easy to me. The ‘school’ dripping in awkwardness and social anxiety took a little more effort.
When classwork isn’t too difficult, you have a lot more time on your hands to have fun. But since I was a shy, rule-follower, I defined school day fun as doing all my work, as assigned, with only the slightest of twists. Exhibit A:
Assignment: Write a newspaper that reflects the news and culture of any US decade.
What others did: Cute newspapers on the 60’s and 70’s. Bellbottoms, Woodstock, and the like.
What I did: The 1600s. Jamestown, Peter Stuyvesant, and the like.
It was just absurdist enough to qualify as comedy, and well-researched enough to be decidedly nerdy. Small acts like this were the backbone of my high school comedy aesthetic. Cute, smart, and nothing that would get me in trouble. Comedy is often rebellious and counter-culture, and my rebellion took the form of reading quirky authors like Swift and O’Connor instead of boring ol’ Dickens and Austen.
Or I would do all my calculus homework on a 3x5 notecard instead of an adult-sized sheet of paper. I showed all my work, but it was tiny work. A true maverick!
The closest I got to risking consequences for the sake of doing a [relatively] funny bit came in French class my senior year. I was selected to present on the Indochina War. Between France and Vietnam. When I mentioned this assignment to my South Korean born friend Scott, a North American idea was born: Scott [Korean] would pretend to be Vietnamese to trick my teacher who we assumed [correctly] wouldn’t know the difference. In the clarity that comes with age, I am not super proud of making light of Vietnam and their bloody fight for independence. But it was also very funny to have a classroom full of teenagers know their teacher was clueless. It was a lesson in punching up in comedy. A lesson mixing low and high-brow. And a lesson in working harder to not be offensive—that maybe I’ve been learning [very] slowly my whole life.
Watching way too much TV
When I wasn’t getting wild handing in all my homework in on time, I was watching TV. All the time. One of the perks of being a good student who never gets in trouble is having a flexible bedtime, like an adult. Late night talk shows, comedy central stand up specials, and Adult Swim cartoons were there for me when sleep should have been instead. And, as a true mark of comedy nerd-ism, this wasn’t a casual encounter. I watched obsessively.
In the summer, I would stay over at my girlfriend’s house until way later than a young boy should stay at a young girl’s home. Every night we would watch the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, so we could watch Late Night with Conan O’Brien, which is really what we were staying awake for. And then Last Call with Carson Daly would come on, announcing to us—and the world—that it was time to go home. Identifying the differences in comedic value of the Tonight Show, Late Night, and Last Call was groundwork for the daily comedy nerd exercise of assigning value to subjective humor—with a confidence of objectivity.
When I wasn’t staying up late watching Conan (the rightful heir to the Tonight Show throne) with my girlfriend, I was staying up late watching alt-comedy cartoons on Adult Swim with my best friend. The best shows came on around 1am and lasted only 15 minutes each. Bite-sized fun to distract us in between talking about girls and baseball. We’re talking Sealab 2021, Home Movies, and Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law. Endlessly silly. Way beyond mainstream. It opened my comedy world to the idea that comedy can be ultra-specific. Speak your own voice and find your own audience. Even if that audience is two adolescent dudes stretching the idea of a bedtime.
Playing catch up
A comedy nerd prides her or himself on staying ahead of the curve. Rising stand ups, underground shows, and indie films. But in high school I was still way behind the curve. I didn’t know what the Onion was until I saw a collection of Onion articles on a bookshelf. I missed enough articles to necessitate an entire collection. But once I knew it was the finest news source, I was hooked.
High school is when I finally turned the corner from assuming that good comedy had to be popular comedy. I was still late to the party on a lot, but I was actively seeking out comedy that spoke to me as unique. I didn’t know who Mitch Hedberg was until his 30 minute Comedy Central presents special. But once I saw it I COULD NOT SHUT UP ABOUT IT. Trying to convince other people to care as much as you do is how a comedy nerd spends 45% of their time. I made one of my friends sit down and watch the full 30 minutes. I insisted there would be a donut joke that would change their life like it changed mine. I didn’t. When I saw Slovin and Allen’s “turkey slapper/ham slapper” bit, I kept it to myself. I knew I loved it. But I also knew it was insane.
I also learned that popular comedy can be just as funny as niche and alt comedy. I literally watched Wayne’s World every night as I went to bed during the school year. I watched SNL every chance I could get. And even though my friends went to go see Anchorman without me, I didn’t let that ruin the movie that is mathematically the center of all contemporary comedy films.
I consumed a lot of content in the early 2000s. A lot. I could write a whole 1500 word essay on what Reno 911 meant to my comedy personality. I was a weird kid, who used his formative years to watch movies and TV, and would, like Saved By The Bell before me, really come to my own in the college years.