Don't Be Afraid of Hecklers: Another side of Memphis Comedy

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Don't be afraid of Josh McLane. Or do. Your call.
  • Don't be afraid of Josh McLane. Or do. Your call.

Consider this as an addendum to this week's cover story about the Memphis Comedy Festival, and the indie comedy scene that birthed it. It's hard to address everything in 3000 words, and I thought it might be fun to include a few sentences about Memphis audiences. I also wanted to share an annotated version of Mitchell Dunnam's fantastic cover for this week's Memphis Flyer. Mitchell plugged a lot of local comedians into a parody of the movie poster for National Lampoon's Animal House, and this is the key to figuring out who they all are.  

Comedian Tommy Oler had barely started his set at RockHouse Live when the heckler started yelling at him. An older gentleman, later identified as one of Elvis' former attorneys, yelled, "You suck!" He wasn't a very good heckler. That and, "You still suck!" was pretty much all the material he had. Oler took it all in stride, suggesting that his comedy might improve while his critic wasn't getting any younger. 

RockHouse Live is cave-like, and committed to darkness. The Wednesday night open mic, hosted by Amanda Walker can sometimes leave audiences wondering if they should laugh or call 9-1-1. "Even the bartenders heckle you," MaryBeth Poppins says. "Like, if you tell a joke about daiting and you aren’t telling it bad enough, they'll correct you. Or jump in with their stories. It can be obnoxious." But, if you're a comedian born, insults can also be inspiring.

Poppins is a very serious (and seriously funny) stand-up hobbyist literally created by the Memphis Comedy Festival. A comedian insulted her, as comedians will, and she thought, "I can be funnier than that guy." Bada-bing, bada-boom. And open mic nights — an important part of the comedy ecosystem — are like a box of chocolates in the wild west. You never know what you're going to get. And what you get can be rowdy. Open mics are places where you can see experienced comics like Rob Love or Harold King working out the kinks in their freshest material back-to-back with newbies, schmucks, and punchbowl turds. It's like Blacksmith Comedy's Benny Elbows says, "At open mics you really start to see how much craft goes into this. When you see somebody out there being funny it's easy to assume they've always been funny. But most of the time that's just not the case." 

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Even at open mics, where anything can go down (and often does), heckling's not the worst thing that can happen. Neither is soul-crushing silence, which means people are listening, at least. Memphis audiences seem to enjoy one another's company, and if they think you're no good they'll just talk to the person next to them. Loudly. Unless, that is, Josh McLane's performing.

McLane's a badass drummer who's played in too many bands to mention. He's a part time wrestling announcer who got his loudmouth start as a strip club DJ. He says he doesn't really think of himself as a comedian, but it's not hard to draw straight lines between McLane, Mouth-of-the-South wrestling luminary Jimmy Hart, and the angry, screamier side of Bill Hicks. So punchlines do find their way into his firey political rants. He's also the host of Don't Be Afraid of... Memphis' longest continuously-running stand-up comedy showcase. If there's a ground zero for Memphis comedy's increasingly unified hype strategies, it's probably Don't Be Afraid...".
Paying your dues: Aspiring comic MaryBeth Poppins takes door for the You Look Like a Comedy Show show.
  • Paying your dues: Aspiring comic MaryBeth Poppins takes door for the You Look Like a Comedy Show show.

Like many local comics McLane got his start doing open mic, and has been regular at the P&H since the days when he worked at the bar doing whatever needed to be done. He knows what it's like to come off stage, change out of his comedy suit, and empty ashtrays for customers who were very recently threatening to kick his ass. "That's humbling," he says. But wrestling's in McLane's blood. He knows how to generate heat, and when audiences turn, he's been known to make some risky choices.

One night McLane was performing on stage at the P&H and two women sitting front and center wouldn't stop talking. So he flicked a switchblade: "I haven't been to prison in a long time," he said, brandishing his weapon at a safe distance. "And right now I'm really missing the taste of a dick." The talkers were shocked into silence.

"But they came back every week for a long time and became big friends of Memphis comedy," McLane says. Don't be afraid indeed.

This month's installment of "Don't Be Afraid"  is produced at the Hi-Tone Cafe in conjunction with the Memphis Comedy Festival. 

And now for something completely different...

While working on this package I was smitten by Mitchell Dunnam's comedy posters for showcases like Tuesday Show Comedy and the Black Nerd Power Comedy Hour. They were pop culture parodies with the faces of local, and visiting comics plugged in. So I asked him if he'd create a parody of the Animal House movie poster for this week's cover, and he really outdid himself. Here it is again with a guide to all the comics represented on the cover. 
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