At first glance, stand-up comedy and poker don’t appear to have much in common.
Comedy is a shared experience between the performer and audience, a laughter-fueled release and escape from the everyday. The average poker game, meanwhile, doesn’t exactly run on smiles, and the players are so reluctant to share their chips with one another that they have to rely on a deck of cards to tell them when to do it.
Obvious differences aside, though, the comedian and the poker player actually have a lot in common. Each operates outside the norms of polite society, plying their chosen trade at odd hours in specialized rooms, relying on an ability to read people and to live by their wits. The best of each spend many hours away from the table or stage in preparation, the poker player studying and the comedian writing material. The more time they spend working on their game, the better they get. And in both pursuits, those who become proficient enough will eventually begin traveling to make the most of new opportunities.
The comedy night at the PokerStars Players Championship (PSPC) in the Bahamas in January was a perfect display of just how well the two disciplines can mix. All four performers on the bill that night — Ben Ludlow, Clayton Fletcher, Joe Stapleton, and Norm Macdonald — play poker when they aren’t on stage slinging jokes.
The show featured more than a few parallels to the poker tournament going on down the hall from the Atlantis Theater. Each performer read the room and delivered material that fit the audience. (Finally, a chance to tell some poker jokes!) Adaptation was in order for both Stapleton and Fletcher, who both were forced to take on a heckler partway through their sets. And just as the lower-level players did when they were seated beside pros making world-class poker look effortless, everyone in the theater sat in awe as Macdonald made being hilarious look like the easiest, most natural thing in the world.
Though the venue couldn’t have been more different, the show itself reminded me of another performance I attended in April 2018: the Broken Record Show in Nashville, Tennessee. Referred to by its co-founder as a “summer camp for comedians,” much like the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure was a winter camp for poker players, the show has been running for four years with the same goal every time: break the world record for the longest continuous stand-up comedy show.
The Broken Record Show has developed a reputation as a great place for comics to work on their craft. They come from all over North America for a chance to get months’ worth of stage time in a single week. The show is crazy and wonderful all at the same time. And this is what it looked like to me last year.
It’s a spring Sunday afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Third Coast Comedy Club has hit a lull. A lone bartender cleans glasses in the bar that makes up the front of the house at Third Coast. Where normally a comic would collect cash and/or prepaid tickets, there are just a chair and an open door. Inside is the sort of venue where in years past smoke would have hung thick in the air: a bare floor, a dozen rows of folding chairs, a slightly raised stage. On the stage, in case you missed the name of the venue on your way in, are three universal signs letting you know that this is a place where people do comedy: a red curtain, a stool, and a microphone on a stand.
The Fourth Annual Broken Record Show started here at 5 a.m. local time last Sunday and has been running ever since, one stand-up comedian after another taking the stage. It’s been going for eight days straight. The chairs are bare save your reporter, but 30 minutes ago the rows up front were full as Chad Riden, long-time local comic and current Tennessee gubernatorial candidate, stood on stage hosting a special edition of Comedy Cataclysm, where comedians eat Deezie’s Hot Chicken and tell jokes. If you aren’t familiar with how they serve their fiery chicken in Music City, Anthony Bourdain ate some once and said: “I eat many strange and spicy things around the world, but never in my life have I experienced something like this…Is it food? Or an initiation ritual for Yankees?”
This current show is a lot like the time Riden won a hot-chicken-eating contest that was filmed for CBS This Morning, though the variety for that contest was made with peppers so dangerous the cooks had to wear gas masks just to prepare the paste. This is a less hazardous variety and still Riden is pouring in sweat, telling a joke and then passing the microphone to another comic so he can spend some time getting to know a giant cup of ice water while the next poor sap sets his own tongue on fire.
Anyone who’s ready to do the same — eat hot chicken, tell jokes, pass the mic — is part of Comedy Cataclysm. It feels like sitting around a kitchen with a group of funny old friends who like free food so much that they don’t mind sweating through the whole meal.
“Fourth Annual” implies that there have been three Broken Record Shows in the past. That kind of logic isn’t always operative in comedy, but in this case, at least, it holds true. The first show was held in 2015, the brainchild of Nashville comic D.J. Buckley. He and Riden kicked off the Broken Record Show at the East Room in East Nashville on April 12, attempting to set the Guinness World Record for “Longest Stand-up Comedy Show — Multiple Comedians.”
With the cooperation of an all-important 10-person cohort of audience members serving as witnesses to the feat, per Guinness’s regulations, the previous record fell in the middle of Day 3. More than 100 comics took part, including familiar names like Hannibal Buress, Eric Andre, Rory Scovel, Nate Bargatze, Luis J. Gomez, Keith Alberstadt, Jon Reep, Ahmed Ahmed and Killer Beaz. Because everyone was having such a good time, they decided to keep the show running as long as they could: 184 hours and 16 minutes.
In 2016, Buckley, Riden, and crew did it again. Even more big names from comedy turned up this time around including Jay Larson, Nick Thune, Geoff Tate, Ben Kronberg, Sara Tiana, Joe DeRosa, Josh Wolf, Tom Simmons, Stewart Huff, Megan Gailey, Dave Ross, and Myq Kaplan. They replaced the old record with a new one five minutes longer — an achievement Buckley and Riden have described as: “The only thing more pointless and silly than doubling a world record.” It might have been longer, but a comic well-known from TV appearances sang part of a song on stage after about 40 hours, which the Guinness representative determined was a breach of the rules because it constituted “musical comedy.” The clock had to be restarted, but the gang barreled past the record anyway.
“In a regular comedy show, everyone’s there to have fun,” says Buckley. “It’s a nice atmosphere where everyone is like, ‘Oh, they’re telling jokes.’ At Broken Record, there’s this air of desperation the whole time. The second that somebody messes up, it’s all over!”
In 2017 it was another year, another five minutes — though this time they broke the Guinness record for “Longest Comedy Variety Show,” which meant guitars and songs were fine. It was also the first show at Third Coast Comedy Club, Nashville’s newest all-comedy venue. (Smoke never did actually hang in the air here, but the venue, which opened March 2016, was meticulously modelled after the old-school clubs.)
Last year, the fourth renewal, they went pointless and silly yet again but didn’t spring the $10K it takes to fly a Guinness representative out. Nobody is getting rich off this enterprise and nobody else is crazy enough (yet) to provide any competition for the record. But otherwise they held themselves to all the same criteria that officialdom would require. Two unpaid volunteers (from a rotating crew) witnessed the show at all times. Everyone who took the stage had to do at least 15 minutes. And the show absolutely must go on.
I’m a generous laugher, but it’s probably better for the comedian who followed Comedy Cataclysm that a couple in their mid-30s settle into a row back stage right with drinks in hand. A dozen people settle in and another dozen pop in and out over the next few hours. This is pretty solid attendance for a Sunday afternoon in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
This is the part of the show that Buckley likens to marathon dancing. “You don’t go there to see skill, you go there to go, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of commitment!’ It’s still really entertaining, but sometimes not in the way it should be,” he says. “Sort of like, ‘That guy is doing the Running Man with his eyes closed, but it doesn’t count as sleeping because he’s still on his feet.’ It’s that but with somebody trying to tell jokes and an audience trying to stay awake for them.”
Nashville is not a walking city so the people who enter the room — that is, those who aren’t actually performing — can be quickly sorted into groups. Sometimes they have actively sought out the show. These are the people who look comfortable sitting in an unremarkable room with a drink in hand, the ones who know a laugh is right around the corner. Other people are sometimes just checking out the nearby historic car factory and stumble in when they see a dark room with an open door. Though their spirit of exploration is to be praised, more often than not these guys will bounce back out after a few minutes, chalking up the crazy festival as another quirky tourist attraction in America’s current It City.
Once in a while, the explorers connect with whomever is on stage and decide to stick around. “The longer you stick around, it becomes kind of addicting. People just kind of get sucked into it,” says Buckley. “It’s like when you’re at a party and a lady’s had too much to drink and she puts one leg up to stand on top of a table. You’re like, ‘Oh no, don’t do it! It’s not worth it, your life is worth so much more! Don’t stand on that table!’”
For many it’s enough just to see what stand-up comedy looks like when there are no cameras or TV networks involved. As they quickly learn, it’s personal, it’s out on the fringe, and it’s very open about modern life. It’s the gay divorcé whose new partner sends the most polite thank-you cards after orgies. It’s the cancer survivor from El Salvador who calls the girlfriend he made up for his jokes “the girlfriend I made up for these jokes.” It’s the itinerant Ukrainian-Canadian real estate marketing writer, living on friends’ couches and seeing North America one gig at a time. “Which parts of Memphis should I be careful in?” she asks.
Some of these people are the kind you’ve always known at school or work who can make any situation funny. Others have an inescapable need to talk to others and have to figure out how to make it work with an audience that’s expecting to laugh. The one thing they all have in common is that they’re willing to put in the work it takes to get good at this job. Without the work, everyone is just another person standing in front of a microphone.
As any comedian will tell you, the material you spend your time honing so finely might usually kill, but if the audience isn’t feeling it you’d better have a Plan B. Nashville local Aaron Weber knows this well. Halfway through a long bit that’s not getting any traction, he stops. “I’m bailing on this joke because that didn’t get a laugh,” Weber says. “See, if that didn’t get a laugh…I know this bit well enough to know the rest of it won’t either.”
On to Plan B.
Let’s say you’re the type who usually coasts through your time on stage, all charisma and feeding off the energy of the room. What happens when the room is three passed-out drunks, a guy in the darkest corner of the room whose phone lights up every 30 seconds, and the comic who’s waiting for you to finish bombing because he’s going up next?
On to Plan B.
Or, if you’re playing last day of the Fourth Annual Broken Record Show, the room might literally consist of you, the host who’s calling you up to the stage, the volunteer witnesses over in the corner, and a guy who’s going to be writing about this show in a few weeks for, of all things, a poker blog. A guy who won’t even get the local references you’ve been working on for the last week because he left town years ago, before traffic got so crazy and they started tearing down one postwar bungalow to throw up three townhouses in its place. Of the dozen sets you’ve done since this crazy festival started last week, none of them have started off with less promise. But you’ve got 15 minutes to fill. No time like the present to keep honing that material.
It’s a good thing the organizers of this show are comics because they have to be ready for anything, too. Riden has scheduled almost the entire eight-day show in advance, booking comics in blocks ranging from 15 minutes to an hour or more. But as anyone who’s ever worked on a large-scale undertaking knows, that kind of schedule is only a framework. People’s cars break down on the road to the show. They have to take their kids to the emergency room. Sometimes a bunch of slots open up after a comic badmouths the show on stage, repeatedly, despite being asked very nicely not to do so.
Sometimes the lady stands on the table. Things happen.
On to Plan B.
The day begins bleeding into night. A comic sits down outside the door and begins collecting cash from the new attendees. Patrons — you get to be called that when you actually pay for the show instead of wandering in during the quiet hours — begin to migrate back and forth from the bar. Afternoon lull long forgotten, the room fills up and begins resembling its usual self.
Canadian comic Jennifer McAuliffe (Just For Laughs, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Edinburgh Fringe, Sketchfest), who recorded her first album before a raucous crowd here last night, returns to do another 30 minutes. This is something like her 25th appearance during the week. If you want to know what a comic who’s in the zone sounds like, she’s it.
Touring comics Dave Ross (This is Not Happening, Drunk History, WTF with Marc Maron) and Chris Charpentier (Jimmy Kimmel Live) from Los Angeles drop in to do a half-hour apiece. Ross has done the show before; Charpentier hasn’t but was sold on the idea by Ross. They’re loose and limber on the stage the way you expect from people who do this every day.
Then there’s comedy nomad Narado Moore, who’s been on stage at all hours of the day and night, performing dozens of sets over the course of the festival. He’s filthy and unfiltered. He can work a crowd. He’s always ready to go. Late in the evening, early in the morning, anytime you need him, Moore is a gap-filler extraordinaire, the unofficial MVP of the Broken Record Show.
Moore does what feels like 30 minutes but turns out to be closer to an hour as the show’s final night ticks down. The audience is putty in his hands. They chant when he wants them to chant, they listen when he wants them to listen, and they positively howl when a googly-eyed Klan-robe puppet — ostensibly his improv sketch partner, Lil’ Wiz — complains about Moore’s hand being up his rear end.
The show will be over soon. All the people who have given the Fourth Annual Broken Record Show its vibrant character — the locals, the touring comics, the volunteers, the audience members — will head out into the rainy Tennessee evening. They’ll transition back to sleeping in their own beds, grinding away at day jobs, putting in the work, whatever the work is.
For more about stand-up comedy, read our report on the open-mic comedy night at Run It Up Reno IX.