Web only: It's intelligent cynicism



Jeremy Essig

Opening for: Pat Godwin

Where: Crackers Comedy Club, 6281 N. College Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Dec. 3-4; 8 and 10:30 p.m. Dec. 5-6; 8 p.m. Dec. 7

Tickets: $8-$18

Information: 317-255-4211

Chances are, you’ve never heard of comedian Jeremy Essig. So allow me to introduce him with a few jokes from his new CD, “Monque.”

• The drug problem in America “is not that we have too many drugs; it’s that the right towns aren’t paired with the right drugs. Small towns shouldn’t be having meth. They should have mushrooms or acid or something, so you can see shit that’s not actually there — like money and hope and opportunity.”

• “I listen to sports radio when I drive. This dude calls in and he goes, ‘You can’t blame Michael Vick for the whole dog-fighting thing. Dog fighting is just part of his culture.’ When did we make that rule? You can just do something because it’s part of your culture? I mean, I’m German ...”

• “All my friends like Obama. I don’t know. He doesn’t say anything. He just goes up there and he goes, ‘This is about hope. I believe in hope. I will change things with hope.’ And as an adult, I’m standing there going, ‘And …?’ You’re just throwing out an abstract concept. Why not go up there and say, ‘I’ve got fairy dust. Little gnomes will crawl out of my pockets and solve all your problems.’”

The St. Louis-based comic grew up in Zanesville, Ohio (“A good place if you’re looking for meth,” he jokes). As you’ll learn from his standup act, he earned a degree in psychology (from Wake Forest) and worked in a hospital psych ward briefly before abandoning the field in favor of comedy.

There’s more to the story. Essig played in bands beginning at 15 and expected music to be his career. In college, he started a group with a guy who claimed to be a songwriter. They began working together and did some recording. On a trip home, Essig played the demos for a friend, who began singing along.

Essig recalled what happened next. “I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘This is Radiohead.’ I’ve never been a big Radiohead fan. I go, ‘No, maybe it sounds like it.’”

It turned out all the songs his bandmate claimed to have written were obscure B-sides by Radiohead and Oasis. “I couldn’t do music for a while,” he said. “I was still writing, but I can’t sing. I can hit a note, but you don’t want me to do a whole verse.”

After earning his bachelor’s, Essig was preparing to go to grad school at Miami University in Ohio when he got a call from a girl he knew. She said she’d signed him up for an open mike night at a comedy club in Dayton. He told her he didn’t like comedy — “I think it’s kind of a low art form,” he remembers saying — but she convinced him to try it.

He did, and he liked it. Four days before he was supposed to start grad school, he withdrew.

Eight years later, he’s still a comedian.

In a phone interview, Essig talked about his approach to comedy.

NUVO: When I think of your comedy, I think of intelligent cynicism. Is that an accurate description?

Essig: Yeah. That’s such a great phrase. I would hate to say that about myself, but that’s what I’m going for. I don’t know if I necessarily achieve it, but that’s what I’m striving for.

NUVO: Did you have any misgivings about putting your material on CD? There are comics who think that if they release their material on disc, they can never use it again.

ESSIG: I look at it the opposite way: I use it as a tool to try to write more. Now that it’s out there, I really shouldn’t rest.

NUVO: Your Obama joke is really funny. You found a way to make fun of him — and everybody says there’s no way to make fun of him. What kind of reaction do you get as you tell that joke around the country?

Essig: The reaction to that is very good. All I was trying to do is find a way to attack him. It seems to resonate very well.

The thing with political comedy is, people almost take it like religion. They’re such fervent supporters of one person or another. I think a joke like that is innocuous enough that even an Obama supporter can at least go, “That’s funny. He’s not attacking the guy personally.” That’s one thing I try to avoid doing. I’m a huge liberal. I worked for Bill Bradley, I worked for Al Gore, I worked for Howard Dean, I worked for John Kerry; I donate money to the party. But I don’t necessarily need that to come across in an act.

The point of social commentary/standup is to question those in power, whether they’re your guy or not your guy. And I think more of the trouble people have overcoming it is: Are they going to be able to make commentary when it’s their guy? If you’re commenting on those in charge, it’s your job to ... “attack” is too strong a word, but at least give a cautious eye to what that person is doing as opposed to saying, “That’s my guy and everything he touches turns to unicorns.”

NUVO: Did you end up voting for him?

Essig: Oh, yeah. I’m overly liberal, but I don’t think that’s the point of the medium.

When I was working for John Kerry, I got a call from someone who was putting on a show for Democrats in Dayton, Ohio. So I went and I opened. It was such a great forum to do political jokes. I did a couple of Bush jokes, and the crowd was applauding and laughing at the setup, which I found abhorrent. That’s not the point of doing comedy. I’m not a cheerleader. So I turned it — much to the chagrin of the person who put on the show — and did all jokes where I made fun of John Kerry. Which was not the purpose of the show, but I’m enough of a prick that I don’t want people applauding setups. If I’m feeding you candy that much, I’ll just flip it and see if I can get you to laugh at what you believe in — which I think is the point of a satirist.