From standup to Scrabble and back (sort of) 

click to enlarge headshot.jpeg

For a guy putting on a one-man show called This Too Shall Suck, Matt Graham has a surprisingly optimistic take on the power of theater to reach people, change lives or at least make things that already suck a little more tolerable. The 48-year-old Indiana native, now living in Queens, took a roundabout path to get to the IndyFringe Basile Theatre this weekend: years working as a standup and comedy writer, then a mid-career stint at a professional Scrabble player (one of the best in the world in his prime), struggles with stage fright and alcoholism along the way.

Graham says he started out writing a monologue about his life "just to be entertaining," but not "to be meaningful in any way." But by the time he finished This Too Shall Suck, and started talking about it with people like Marc Maron on his often tell-all interview podcast WTF, he found that "people reached out to say how much it meant to them that I had been honest about how difficult my life had been. And that's when I started to see the potential to have an impact." And now that connection with the audience is central to his mission: "I'm going to Indy on a little tour — and hopefully I can sell a couple tickets and make some money because I'm always broke — but what I find I get out of it in the end is the satisfaction of affecting people in a positive way."

Not that he started out optimistic. As a young standup that readers of a certain age may still remember from local clubs, he says he just liked "to be clever. If I could make them laugh doing what I wanted, then great. If they didn't like what I did, then screw them; I got half of my fun pissing them off." He earned the dubious title of comic's comic: "The local comics thought I was funny, but I was never the favorite among the crowd. They had contests there and I would always finish ninth."

Graham doesn't know if he'll do his one Indiana joke in the show, which goes something like: "I could never understand how 30 guys would drive 500 miles in an afternoon and not one would choose to leave Indiana. I probably won't do that joke there, but I might. Most of the people who know me would understand what that was about. It's not really dissing the place, just saying that it wasn't a cultural match for me."

So he decamped for the East coast, though he still spent long stints back in Indy when resources dictated. "Now Boston ended up being no better," he says. "It's really a matter of finding your people within any area — as well as all kinds of other flaws I had to work on. I went to Boston and they sent me out to do one-nighters in economically dying mill towns. I got bottles thrown at me!"

That description may be a bit modest; Graham eventually held down high-profile jobs in the comedy world, writing for Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, performing four times as a standup on Conan, working the late '80s and '90s comedy scene alongside guys like Louis C.K., David Cross and Maron, three guys with whom he also shared a Boston apartment for a spell.

click to enlarge Graham plays Scrabble in Washington Square Park in 2007.
  • Graham plays Scrabble in Washington Square Park in 2007.

When he eventually took a break from comedy, he became something of a professional Scrabble phenom, placing second in the 1997 World Scrabble Championships, and playing a prominent role in a popular book (Word Freak) and movie (Word Wars) about the Scrabble world.

Scrabble tournaments still remains a source of income, but he's not quite as involved on an emotional level: "I used to do Scrabble because I loved the competition. But now that I'm mellower, the beauty in Scrabble is in the concentration. There's so much to think about when you're doing top-level Scrabble, and I love having my mind that wrapped up and that immersed in something."

He got back on the stage in his current incarnation as a monologuist for two reasons: "to make money and to meet girls." Graham continues: "I had a little bit of a nest egg for a while, and the first cat that I loved, Ruth, had a lot of health problems, so I wanted to make money. And I wanted to meet women, and I'm a total disaster at meeting women online. I have stories about it in my show; it's incomprehensible how poorly I've done."

And beyond connecting with audiences on an I'm-going-through-the-same-thing level, Graham's monologues have earned good critical notices. The New York Times called This Too Shall Suck a "funny, oddball, occasionally awkward autobiographical show," describing Graham's material as "dark, but always eccentric enough to find new spins on old jokes." And he's also performing a second monologue, The Great III Am, about Scrabble and spirituality; it's booked at this year's IndyFringe Festival.

And how about one other measure of success for his return to the stage? He recently signed a contract to publish with Dallas boutique BenBella to publish his memoir. BenBella Books, an independent distributed through Perseus, is responsible for a ton of New York Times bestsellers, and Graham hopes his will be the next. He'll be gathering notes for the book while in town; it's his first time back in Indy in a decade.

Graham says he's working daily on the book, but there's a learning curve: "I was always a joke writer, so I'm learning how to flesh things out. I was a good school yearbook writer, but that was about the longest I ever wrote. When I worked on Conan or SNL, I just wrote one or two sentences, and they didn't have to be capitalized or have good grammar, they just had to be funny."

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