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(Nearly) 1,000 Miles With Comedian Jay Black

Because sometimes comedy happens far away from where you live.

Jay Black

In the world of comedy, between struggling open-mikers and sitcom-having headliners, there are guys like Jay Black. His isn’t necessarily a name you know, but you should. I spent a (very long) day with him recently as he traveled to perform at Edinboro University, and we talked about comedy for almost 1,000 miles.

Full disclosure, I’ve known Jay for about four years, and we’ve done a number of shows together in that time.

Early in our trip, Jay asked why I was interested in profiling him. There are a few reasons. The first is that he’s an example of a type of comedian I don’t think a lot of people realize exists. Jay isn’t exactly famous, but he’s a full-time working comedian. He travels all over the country to perform. The week before our trip, he was doing shows with Kevin Nealon in Orlando, Florida. As I write this, he’s working in Las Vegas. He’s kind of comedy’s middle class—successful but not famous.

I drove down to Jay’s home in New Jersey the morning of the show to meet his family before we left. Jay introduced me to his wife Kristina, his son Keane who he calls “Keaner Beaner”, and his young daughter Annabelle (or “Annabelly she so smelly” according to her father.)

Annabelle was shy and didn’t pay me much attention, but when Jay asked her to tell me who she thought was funnier, “Daddy or Keane?” she quietly said Keane and laughed. To prove her point, Keane told me a joke he wrote and had been practicing.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” Keane said.

“I don’t know. Why?” I answered, because that’s how chicken-crossed-the-road jokes work.

“To get away from daddy’s smelly farts.”

Perfect joke. Maybe Annabelle was right.

What’s particularly interesting about that joke is that Keane has a condition known as Apraxia. It affects speech and can make expressing oneself difficult. In extreme cases, it can make speech impossible, but Keane works with a therapist regularly to build his speech skills. That means the therapist had to spend a lot of time teaching Keane to properly say the word “farts.” It was well worth it.

Kristina is a special education teacher, and like many comedians’ wives, she comes up quite a bit in Jay’s act — not always in ways she’s altogether happy about. That’s one of the hazards of being with a comic. The other is that while Jay is out on the road performing, Kristina is back home with the kids. It’s not easy taking care of two kids while your husband is off in Vegas, Orlando, or who knows where. It’s a challenge that’s built into the nature of being a comedian with a family.

To mitigate that challenge, Jay goes to what many people would consider great lengths to spend the most amount of time possible with his family. That’s the other reason I wanted to write about him. The show we were about to drive six and a half hours to was just a one night event, but after the show, instead of spending the night near the college, we would be driving back–another six and a half hours, overnight. I don’t think most comics (or people) would do that, but if you follow Jay’s twitter account (@jayblackcomedy), you see that he does this sort of thing regularly.

Most of the comics I know are young guys without many attachments, and that’s an appealing thing for club owners and bookers. I met with Al Martin, the owner of the Broadway Comedy Club in New York, who told me that when you’re a young comedian starting out it’s best to have as little “baggage” as possible. Things like a family can make it difficult for a comic to take road gigs, or do late spots at clubs. It can make it difficult, but Jay proves it’s not impossible.

Having a demanding job can also be a hinderance to comedians according to Martin. Jay used to be a high school English teacher but quit to pursue comedy a few years ago. It’s working out, but he hasn’t really shaken the teacher’s need for everyone in the room to be paying attention to him. It’s a trait that’s useful in both comedy and teaching, and Jay clearly has it in a big way.

Stand up comedy, as an art, is built around a room full of people paying attention to the one person on stage, but Jay puts effort into keeping everyone’s attention for every second he’s on stage. He speaks quickly, varies his tone of voice, occasionally pulls the microphone away from his face and yells loudly enough for everyone to hear him.

There’s a typical pattern to a stand up set. You give a setup, tell the punch line, and the audience laughs. The comedian will usually wait for the laughter to hit an apex, and as it recedes they start speaking again, but Jay doesn’t wait. He performs at the pace of a Marx brothers movie, where you’re sometimes laughing too hard at the last joke to hear the next one. I’ve seen Jay do this at comedy clubs, colleges, and bars and the audiences are always on board.

As well as performing, Jay is also a writer. He and his writing partner Brian Herzlinger co-wrote last year’s movie How Sweet It Is starring Joe Piscopo, and are currently shopping a finished television pilot. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say about the pilot, but I watched the episode on Jay’s tablet on the ride home, and it was great and definitely something I would watch more episodes of.

The staple of Jay’s career is performing at colleges, and he’s great at it. That’s not me talking (all right, it is, but I have evidence to back me up.) In 2013 he won both “College Comedian of the Year” and “College Performer of the Year” from the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities (APCA) a group that handles a lot of entertainment bookings at colleges around the country. To date, Jay’s performed at nearly 500 schools.

The challenge in performing for college audiences, Jay said, is that you have to please both the audience, and the people who booked the show. That’s true of practically any comedy show, but the difference is that a crowd of college students and their campus activities director often have very different expectations from a comedian — even though the people who booked the show are often students themselves.

A good example of that is when a comedian is told to “work clean,” meaning they shouldn’t swear or talk about certain topics like sex. It’s a real concern for the person setting up the show, but college students, regardless of the school, rarely care about whether or not someone swears during a comedy show. It can be a challenge too, Jay says, because “work clean” doesn’t always mean the same thing.

To give you an example, here’s a clip of Jay performing a clean set.

The week before the Edinboro show, I saw Jay at the Orlando Improv where he did a set not unlike ones I’ve seen him do elsewhere. Not that Jay is a particularly dirty comedian by any stretch of the term, but that set isn’t what would leap to mind after hearing the words “work clean.” I asked Jay if he had a different set for colleges than clubs, but he told me that they were largely similar.

The students who arranged the show at Edinboro weren’t concerned with the content of the show, so Jay didn’t have any restrictions. I sat backstage while Jay performed to a packed theater at the college.

Jay was free to say whatever he wanted, but he does tailor his set for college audiences–more so than maybe he realizes. He recognizes that the students are in a unique place in their lives. He doesn’t disparage anyone in his act except for himself. (He opens by apologizing to the audience for not being better looking.) While sex was brought up as a topic, it wasn’t done in a way that would make someone around the ages of 18-22 uncomfortable.

One thing that was very clear while Jay was on stage is that he is great at what he does. The crowded theater was focused on him the whole time. Their professors wish they could get that level of focus out of their students. It made me believe he was probably very good at teaching high school English—something I know from experience can be an uphill battle. After the show, Jay reaffirmed this suspicion by launching into a ten minute rant about how readers were meant to dislike Romeo in Romeo & Juliet when he saw that one of the students had a copy of the play with them. (That rant was the inspiration for this post about the same idea.)

After the show, students filled out comment cards. In order to enter a raffle, they had to rate the event (not Jay specifically, but that’s essentially what they were doing) from one to five, and they had space to leave additional comments. While Jay stood outside the theater meeting students, I went through the comments cards. I did this because I wanted to see how the great crowd reaction I saw while the show was going on translated to paper. Also, I did this because Jay asked me to.

I didn’t count the papers, but there were at least 100. All but five of the cards were rated five stars and all had great things to say about Jay. The rest were four stars, and there were only two written complaints. One was to drop the opening act (me), and the other was a request that future events have cotton candy.

Part of the job of the college comedian is to hang out with the students who booked the show for a little bit. The students at Edinboro bought us dinner at their cafeteria and Jay asked everyone about their majors, and ever the English teacher, got into a discussion about Of Mice and Men with one of the students.

At that point in the night, Jay wasn’t feeling well. He had been sick the week before, and had recently driven almost seven hours. To commemorate the moment, he asked me to take a photo:

Remember, Jay, you asked me to take this picture for the article.

Remember, Jay, you asked me to take this picture for the article.

Jay explained his logic behind the decision to drive home right after a show rather than waiting until morning. There’s a high involved with performing. If you’re doing a show and you get off stage at 10:30, it’s not like you can just go back to your hotel room and be asleep by 11. Instead of being up late tweeting or watching Netflix, he could use that energy to get home.

Anyone who does any kind of performance knows that’s true, but that high doesn’t last for six and a half hours. At some point, it wears off, and then you’re on the PA Turnpike at two in the morning looking for rest stop coffee with four hours left on the ride home. Most comedians are willing to drive just about anywhere to do a show, regardless of the distance or venue. It wasn’t the six-and-a-half hour drive to the show that caught my attention about Jay, it’s the six-and-a-half hour drive home, overnight, while sick, because he wants to see his family.

If you’d like to see Jay Black perform some time (and you should, really. He’s great), you can find his calendar at his website JayBlack.tv.

(via Jay Black)

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