In the days following the passing of Robin Williams the internet was bursting with tributes and tweets. An outpouring of love by people around the world mourning the famous funny man. It was beautiful as it was heartbreaking.
What is it about comedy and funny people that we cherish so much? LondonReal decided to interview rising Portland-based comic Riley Fox for the insider's perspective on all things comedy. Riley was amazingly open and his answers reveal some fascinating insight into relationship between those on stage and those off, in all it's intimacy and brutality.
LondonReal: Hi Riley. Tell us a little about yourself and your career up until now.
RF: I did my first stand-up comedy open mic in Nashville, Tennessee, in November 2008, one week after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Much like the Obama presidency, it did not go quite as well as I'd hoped. Nevertheless, my blind optimism has kept me going. After toiling around the Nashville open mic scene for two years, I relocated to the college town of Knoxville, Tennessee, where I was a English major college student by day, and by night I played a part in the early development of what is now a great comedy scene there.
In terms of my progression as a comic, I'd say that Nashville was where I learned the ropes of being a comic - how to write a joke, how to handle a microphone, etc - while Knoxville was where I learned how to develop my voice as a comic (or at least what I considered my voice at the time). It's worth noting that I was one of the first two comics out of the scene in Knoxville to be accepted to a national comedy festival: the Cape Fear Comedy Festival in Wilmington, North Carolina. (The other comic was my girlfriend, Coor Cohen. We were accepted in 2012).
By the end of 2012, I had progressed my way up to being a local headliner, a regular opening act for bigger names who toured through the area, and had recorded and released my own self-produced comedy album, entitled Unamerican. At that time, I began questioning what the next step would be. I wasn't sure there was a whole lot else for me to accomplish where I was. It was the classic big fish in a little pond story. Not only that, my lease on the house where I had been living was ending in the summer of 2013. So, I took the opportunity life had presented to me, and once that lease ended, my girlfriend and I moved cross-country to Portland, Oregon, which is home to one of the biggest stand-up comedy scenes in America right now.
I've been in Portland for a little over a year now, and it's been amazing. I've never felt more challenged as a comic and I love it. Everyone here is ridiculously funny, and it's a very cool scene of which I get to be a part. So that's most of my career in a nutshell so far.
What was the first ever joke you wrote and did it make it to the stage?
I honestly don't remember the first joke I ever wrote, because I wrote jokes for years before I ever stepped onstage for the first time. However, I DO remember the first joke I ever told that got a laugh, because when I first started doing open mics, I bombed horrendously. Constantly. I would maybe get pity chuckles here and there, but never any truly big laughs.
About six months after I started doing stand-up, in the spring of 2009, there were news reports going around about the US government's use of torture on suspected terrorists. There was one incident in which the CIA had nabbed one of these guys and waterboarded him 183 times in a month. A debate then ensued over whether or not waterboarding was considered a form of torture. And I wrote a whole bit about that, because for some reason I thought that was HILARIOUS!
I don't remember the whole bit, but one of the main jokes went along the lines of, "They picked him up in the Middle East. You know how hot it is out there? Waterboarding was probably refreshing for the poor guy! He was laying there like, 'man, that totally cleared up my sinuses, thanks!'" Not my most culturally sensitive material, admittedly, but I was young and still learning. However, it was also the first time I had been able to write a joke about something that I felt was wrong in our society beyond just "isn't this commercial stupid?" and was then able to make people laugh by writing jokes about it. I actually had a handful of people come up to me after seeing me do that bit and tell me that their minds had been changed on the issue (keep in mind, this was in reliably red-state Tennessee). That planted a seed in me that didn't really take root until a couple years later, but from that moment forward, a lot of my material slowly gravitated in a more political, issue-driven direction, even if it was subconsciously.
Which comedians have had the biggest influence on your comedic development?
Lewis Black is the reason I was drawn to stand-up. I never had HBO as a kid, so my access to stand-up was limited to whoever was on Comedy Central. I'll never forget the summer before I started high school, when I saw one of Lewis Black's old Comedy Central Presents half-hour specials, and thought to myself, "I want to do that."
Other comedians who have had the biggest influence on me are George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Patton Oswalt, and, most recently, Ted Alexandro.
Why do you think you were drawn to their style?
I had been vaguely familiar with the concept of a stand-up comedian, but Lewis Black showed me what a stand-up comedian could be. He wasn't just a guy asking me if I'd ever noticed little things; he had a point-of-view. He had strong emotion. He had interesting opinions and thoughts about society that I had never really heard until then. He was witnessing what was happening in the world around him and commenting on it in a funny way. To me, Lewis Black wasn't telling jokes up there. He was REACTING.
It didn't matter to me that I was a few years removed from whatever he was yelling about (this was around 2003, a good three or four years after Monica Lewinsky), because it was still monstrously funny to me to watch a man driven to sheer comedic rage over what he was seeing in America.
My influences aren't only limited to those I named in the previous question. I love comedians who react to the world around them. They don't exist in a bubble of clever jokes about nothing substantial, though that is not to say that they just go up onstage without well-written jokes and rant aimlessly. They instead write brilliantly crafted jokes about the current state of affairs. That's why I think British comedian John Oliver's new HBO show (Last Week Tonight) is the best comedy program on television right now. It's genius.
Reflecting on the outpouring of love online and in the media toward Robin Williams, why do you think as a culture we cherish our funny people so much?
Because I have always believed that laughter is the purest sound of joy human beings can create. Even more so than orgasms. Our culture cherishes funny people because they are the most prominent providers of that level of joy. Especially given the direction our society seems to be heading at such a rapid pace, it seems we cherish our funny people even more now because without them, everything would be far too depressing to even think about without wanting to blast yourself into space with no intention of returning.
Look at The Onion after 9/11 happened in the US. They were the first national comedy entity to resume business following those events. Before Jon Stewart, before David Letterman, before ANYBODY. They released an issue less than a week after 9/11 that faced it head-on. Every article was about what happened, and the immediate aftermath of it, and it pulled zero punches. It's become legendary in its fearlessness, and it's that quality that has characterised its work ever since then.
But the reason I bring up that example is because if you read interviews with Onion writers who worked there during that time, they talk about how after that issue came out, their email inboxes just FLOODED with people thanking them for it. People said that that issue of the Onion was the first thing to make them laugh after September 11th. People were literally writing to them "God Bless You" and MEANING it.
It was a prime example of how comedy and satire healed people from a tremendous amount of pain sustained collectively by so many. Robin Williams embodied that.
What do you think it was about Robin Williams in particular that stirred the public, as an artist that was a serious stand up as much as the warm and loveable family movie star?
Robin Williams was a rare comedic talent with an ability to connect with virtually anyone. He could make an 80-year-old grandmother laugh as hard as her 8-year-old grandson, with the exact same joke. He transcended all of these lines between all these groups of demographics. He was just an incredibly endearing person. It's almost impossible to explain.
In the days and weeks since his passing, I've read story after story on Facebook, on Twitter, and elsewhere around the internet from comedians and actors--including friends of mine--who were lucky enough to meet him on multiple occasions. They wrote about how Robin was always quick to give words of support and encouragement, but how those words were never hollow. He meant it every single time. He was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but on a random night in Seattle, he was just another comic shooting the shit with the other comics.
I think it really speaks to the way Robin handled himself offstage and offset. I realise that that's a weird thing to say given the circumstances around his death, but he was by all accounts a very warm and kind presence in the world of comedy and film. That's not something you can fake. At least not for as long as he did. And that's why people loved him so much, I think.
You talk about yourself as an activist on your website. How important or capable is comedy as an agent of change?
Comedy has a tremendous potential to shift the tides of public opinion. Conversely, world events have the same potential to shift the tides within comedy. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 was a real benchmark in both of those things.
I mentioned earlier that my first joke that got a big laugh, which was written in 2009, planted a seed that didn't really take root until a couple years later. Occupy Wall Street was the water. When that happened, I felt a massive change happen inside me. After witnessing the events of that movement and reading about the principles it stood for, I realised that I had cared about these same issues all along, and it wasn't really until this grand collective of people showed it to me. There were local Occupy protests in my area, and I marched with them.
It began colouring my comedy: my material became much more explicitly political. I started talking about war, the homeless, drug legalisation, religion, abortion, among other hot-button issues. I watched my fellow comedians have similar experiences: Ted Alexandro, one of the comics I mentioned earlier as one of my influences, felt the same transformation. He lives in New York, so he got to go to the REAL Occupy camps. He stood next to Cornel West at one march. In December of that year, Ted was actually arrested by the NYPD during an Occupy demonstration. He has since gone on to co-found Occupy Astoria, which is the Occupy branch in his neighborhood of New York, and has used his free time to continue being involved in activism. (He's been working on building a community centre in his neighborhood under the Occupy label.) After that galvanising experience, his own comedy became much more political, much more socially conscious to the events happening around him. It was really inspiring to follow his transformation. In March, he did some shows in Portland, and afterwards he & I talked for about an hour about Occupy and the effect it had on us as comics and as citizens. (We ended up talking more about our activism than comedy!)
But it's not just Occupy. Comedy has such an enormous potential to change minds, and has for so long. I know people who talk about Chris Rock's Bigger & Blacker special from 1999, and how the material he did back then completely shaped their worldview about topics like race, police brutality, etc. They would just quote his opinion as their own. You could ask them, "how do you feel about gun control?" and they would literally respond, "I think we need BULLET control! I think all bullets should cost FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS!" Now that might sound like you're just letting someone else do all the thinking for you, but at the same time, it's impossible to argue against such an impenetrable nugget of truth like that.
For all the time that comedy has existed, particularly modern stand-up comedy as we know it, there have always been those who seek to challenge the status quo and to force people to confront their own thoughts and opinions. From the Smothers Brothers to George Carlin to Bill Hicks to Jon Stewart and whoever the next great social commentators are, there will always be those who use comedy as a vehicle for change. Anyone who disagrees with that notion should go back and watch Tina Fey's parodies of Sarah Palin.
How is what you feel about the importance of comedy reflected in your material and subject matter?
It definitely influences the sorts of things I write about, though that is not to say that I consciously sit down and say, "What agenda can I push through my jokes today?" The agenda never comes first. Jokes are always the most important part for me, and I try to follow my influences' leads by instead letting the jokes form the agenda. When the agenda takes priority over the joke, it becomes less comedy and more like witty cheerleading.
I'm not interested in that. I want to be funny first. It's been said that the best comedians are essentially modern-day philosophers, and I agree with that notion 100%, but that's because they focused on being funny first, and then figuring out what they wanted to say from their heart.
That said, has there ever been an instance that stand out when certain material really connected with the audience?
Around the time of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, when it seemed like every single day a new detail would emerge that would make the overall story so much worse than it was the previous day, I began writing a bit about the situation. I was still living in Nashville at the time. I put together probably three minutes or so of jokes on it, and went to an open mic to test it. I noticed over the course of the night that NONE of the other comics that night did any jokes about the BP oil spill. Keep in mind that at many open mic comedy shows, the number of comics who perform in a night is drastically higher than your typical professional shows at a comedy club. So by the time I went onstage, I had already sat through roughly twenty or so comedians doing short five-minute sets. So I thought it was weird that none of these comedians wrote any jokes about what was arguably the biggest news story of that time.
Around this point in any open mic, the audiences are scant because they've already watched two hours of open mic comedy, which is an understandably tough thing to endure as an audience member because of the nature of the show. (These are workout rooms, so most of the comedians are newer comedians bringing new, unpolished material onstage with them. So it's very likely to see someone kill for five minutes and then watch the next person eat the biggest turd you've ever seen in your life.) I like going up later at open mics because there's an atmosphere present that isn't there in earlier points of the show, and because an audience that laughs at a joke after experiencing at least two hours of inconsistent comedy is an HONEST audience. If you can make them laugh at a quarter of midnight when the show started at 9:30, you've got something solid.
Anyway, I went onstage with these jokes about the BP oil spill, in front of maybe ten other comics and four regular audience members. As I did these jokes, I got respectable chuckles from the audience, but there was one guy on the far left side of the room who was laughing his ass off. He was losing his fucking shit. I would get to the next joke in the bit and he would laugh EVEN HARDER. It was kind of a surreal moment because he was laughing so much harder than everyone else in the room.
After the open mic wrapped, I was chatting with a couple other comedians when the guy approached me. He introduced himself - his name was Steven - and told me he loved my set because I was the only comedian who had performed any jokes about the BP oil spill. He explained how he had been glued to the news since it happened, was FURIOUS about the situation, and loved my take on it. He said he had gone to a couple of other open mics in the city in the previous week and was amazed and annoyed that none of the comedians were talking about the BP oil spill, so to hear someone else finally address it was like a revelation to this guy. And he thought it was fucking hysterical.
We ended up talking about comedy for over an hour, and before he left, he shook my hand and said, "Thank you." I asked what for.
"Thank you for being a hilarious badass, dude."
It was an eye-opening moment for me. I'd always heard about how really good comedy could make people feel less alone because of something they identified with; in this case, Steven felt less alone because he finally saw someone else voicing his own frustrations about something significant in his world, and it made him feel better. It's probably one of the proudest moments I've ever experienced as a stand-up comedian.
I know that you've released an EP and, more recently, an album. What does the rest of the year hold for you?
I'm a man of a million ideas, of which very few have actually progressed past that stage. That will change soon. The biggest project I have going right now is one that will take much longer than the rest of the year to complete: a comedy concept double-album. This is the first time that I've begun working on a recording with a specific concept in mind. My first album, Unamerican, was essentially the result of my first four years as a stand-up, and serves as a collection of the best hour of material I had written up to that point. My subsequent EP, Further Thoughts & Provocations, was done a little more hastily, having been recorded only a little over a year since Unamerican, but I wanted to have something to share with everyone who had supported me over the years in Tennessee before moving to Portland. So I just put together a little half-hour set and released it for free as a digital download on my website.
However, this new project is the first time I've conceived a specific concept for a comedy album. It's going to be called POINTLESS/POINTFUL: An Hour Of Deep, An Hour Of Derp. The first disc is going to be an hour of nonpolitical material. No politics, no social commentary. Just an hour of funny-for-the-sake-of-being-funny observational material with no point. It's Pointless. Then the second disc is going to be an hour of all politics, all social commentary. It's going to be full of political observations, thus the name Pointful. It's a concept that I'm super excited to put together, and thus far I've only scratched the surface. The main challenge with an undertaking like this is making sure that all the material used for this project (we're talking TWO hours here) remains relevant by the time it's actually recorded and released, especially with the Pointful hour. But the only way to become a better comic is to challenge yourself.
I have a couple of other projects that I'm working on outside of my stand-up, but those are still in stages far too early for any concrete details.
Awesome. We look forward to seeing that.
Show Riley some LondonReal love and allow him to entertain you with his tweets and updates by connecting with him on his Facebook, Twitter or on his website. You can also download the FREE EP he mentioned during the interview here.