No Joke, Thomas Ward Writes of Stand-Up Comedy Years in International Falls at Out of the Loop Fest
Among the promising slate of new works by local playwrights debuting at this year's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, March 1-10 at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, is the dark comedy International Falls by Waco writer, actor and former stand-up comic Thomas Ward. It's a 90-minute one-act, premiering on WaterTower's main stage, about a burned out comedian (Ward) and a hotel desk clerk (played by Ward's real-life wife Sherry Jo) waking up together after a one-night stand in a no-tell motel. They discuss comedy theory, fart jokes, religion and other topics before getting to the question "Now what?"
For the play, Ward, 35, says he drew on his experiences over two years spent as a stand-up middle act on the road from 2002 to 2004. Just out of grad school with an MFA in Shakespearean acting, Ward was living in Manhattan and doing open mike nights at Times Square comedy clubs. He was 80 pounds heavier then and only occasionally funny enough onstage to make other comics in the room look up from their notebooks.
Ward has some good, cringe-inducing stories about those years and how they inspired his new play, but we'll let him do the talking after the jump.
Stand-up is a brutal business. With an MFA and a desire for a career as a classical actor, why'd you start doing comedy?
Thomas and Sherry Jo Ward
Thomas Ward: Because in college, my roommate was doing it. I bought a book on how to write jokes and started writing them. My very first experience was actually a dream. I went up at a scholarship benefit at my school and I had five minutes of jokes and I killed. I thought I was God. I thought I had found my Ark of the Covenant. And then I went to New York, where we thought we'd end up living. I went to my first open mic and saw what the reality was: a roomful of comedians looking at their notebooks. If I could get them to look up during my set, that joke was worth trying.
There was a comedy club in Times Square called Ha! -- exclamation point included. You had to get your own audience by being a barker standing in Times Square with tickets. You earned your stage time by getting people into the show. We had to put our initials on the back of the tickets so the club could track how many people we were bringing in. It was just miserable.
How'd you get on the road doing stand-up?
My parents back in Nashville, ever supportive and wanting to help me, suggested I perform at a worship conference at their big mega-church. The gig was 700 bucks. At the time, I couldn't imagine making that much money doing comedy. But I was supposed to do 45 minutes. I had five minutes of material.
So I had to come with 45 minutes of squeaky-clean stuff. I wrote churchy jokes and I videotaped my performance then edited it down to a 15-minute chunk of me making 700 people laugh. I sent it to some bookers and they started sending me out to middle in clubs in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas.
I did two years on the road, which is, like, nothing in the world of stand-up.
What was your act like?
I was 80 pounds heavier then so I mostly told fat jokes. Like, can you imagine me on a bicycle? I had a huge rant about McDonald's. My problem as a stand-up was, I'm an actor and I treated it like a monologue. When the crowd would throw me off, I was a dead man. I don't like working the crowd.
Give us your best joke, just for old time's sake.
My favorite joke that I actually wrote and performed and it's in the play -- spoiler alert! -- is "I don't think I'm a Republican. Because I don't hate all government programs. I like some government programs. Like Head Start. Because it's for poor kids. But that's not fair. It shouldn't be called Head Start. It should be called Wait Up. Come back! We haven't started yet! We're poor!" That's my favorite joke I've ever written. It's in the neighborhood of smart and political.
So let's pause to play catch-up on Thomas Ward's career. He's now a college professor and a busy professional playwright and actor. Also a father of two. Ward just ended a run in the play God of Carnage at Austin's Zach Theatre, playing one of the leads, and he's written two short films, In the Middle and Sironia, both screening at small festivals right now around the country. Out of the Loop audiences previously saw his play Binge, produced by the Rite of Passage theater company, and watched him act in the intense political drama The Unseen. Now, back to the chat with Ward.
Stand-up comedy has changed a lot since you were doing it. Do you go to clubs anymore just to see comics work?
Ward: No, I don't. But I've become a comedian podcast junky. This play was inspired by Marc Maron [a comic who hosts the popular WTF podcast, available on iTunes]. One time Maron said to a heckler, "Sometimes it's not about the funny. Sometimes it's about the sad." I loved that. So much of comedy comes from pain.
What are the best comedy podcasts?
Scott Aukerman's Comedy Bang Bang is great. I like most of the ones out of L.A. Jimmy Pardo's [Never Not Funny] is good. Maron's is especially good because in an hour he can be so funny, so touching and so sad and infuriating all in one conversation.
That's how I want my play to come across. It's very funny but it's also about two people kind of at the end of their ropes. But they're still finding the jokes. Tragedy is full of jokes.
What's next for you?
I've got three other plays that haunt me every day. I'm fascinated with cults and with Columbine. I'm writing a play about the Friday after Columbine. It's about something that really happened to me as a substitute teacher in Abilene at the time when copycat threats were being made.
And I want to do my Slingblade. I want to write, direct and star in a movie.
Last question, why and how did you lose 80 pounds?
I did Falstaff at Shakespeare in the Park in Tennessee. It was miserably hot and one day the director came and said, "Thomas, you don't need to wear the fat suit." When I got back to Texas, I went on Nutrisystem and turned over a new leaf.
International Falls by Thomas Ward will play at WaterTower's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, co-sponsored by Dallas Observer, at 5 p.m., March 4, and 8 p.m., March 10. For tickets or more information, call 972-450-6232 or visit www.watertowertheatre.org. Tickets are $10 for International Falls, or festival passes are available for $65. Individual tickets go on sale at noon, February 14.