There are various levels of commitment for comedians in Utah, depending on who you talk to where they like to perform. --- There are the open-mic guys, the main-room players, the bar-crowd pleasers, the concert openers, the underground comics ... and then you've got the hard workers who perform on a near-weekly basis. Spencer King has been doing just that, becoming regarded by his peers as the hardest-working stand-up comic in the state by performing constantly around the country and here in Utah. I got a chance to chat with King about getting into stand-up, working the rooms in Utah, thoughts on local comics and a few other topics -- all with pictures of him and his cat.
Gavin: Hey, Spencer. First thing, tell us a bit about yourself.
Spencer: I grew up outside of Austin, Texas. I moved to Utah about eight years ago. I started doing stand-up a few months after moving here. I'm married, I have a cat named Milo and I call people "whores" when I get road rage.
Gavin: What first got you interested in stand-up comedy, and who were some of your favorite comedians growing up?
Spencer: I've always been a "performer" -- school plays in elementary school, followed by being a drummer, and high school theatre. I even did a wicked-good Woody Woodpecker impression. Growing up, I was always a fan of Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld. Later, in high school, I found out about people like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. I also watched a lot of The Late Show With David Letterman. I was introduced to live stand-up when I was 17. My friends and I would go down to Austin's famous 6th Street to a small place called The Velveeta Room and watch the local comics. It's also where I discovered that stand-up comedy is far superior to improv comedy. That's right, improvers -- I just went there!
Gavin: What officially brought on the decision for you to attempt it as a career?
Spencer: I've always wanted to be a comedy writer, and I was reading a book that said all comedy writers should know how to do stand-up. Since that's something I always wanted to do anyway, I put together three minutes of material and went to a local open mic. I got enough laughs to keep me coming back and I ruined my life by deciding to be a stand-up. Seriously, I should have been an accountant or something super boring like that. It's more stable and your in-laws don't sigh every time you tell them about how you only made $200 last month.
Gavin: How was it for you breaking into the local lineups and getting gigs?
Spencer: I was a star immediately! No, that's not true at all. I kept doing open mics week after week until I got good enough that someone decided I wouldn't ruin a whole show if I did a guest spot or two. I ruined about five shows. Eventually, I was able to get weekend spots every week, and little by little I got better and better. Seriously, I'm wicked awesome now. My therapist is from New England and always tells me to describe my self as wicked.
Gavin: What were some of the lessons you learned about performing when you first started?
Spencer: The number-one thing I learned was this: You're never as funny as you think you are. It's the most important lesson to remember for any comic. It keeps you from being complacent as a performer. Always striving to be better and raising the bar is what makes a good comic into a great comic. Another lesson I learned: This business is all about connections, networking, and who you know. Comics always ask me how I get work outside of the state and I always tell them that you have to be around the clubs meeting the touring headliners from out of town. Eventually, they will get to know you, like your material, and recommend you somewhere that you want to work. The other two options is to hope someone "discovers" you in a bar, or you get a million views on a YouTube video.
Gavin: What's it like for you personally coming up with material and deciding what works and doesn't?
Spencer: I'm notorious for not really caring about what the audience thinks about my jokes. Sounds like that wouldn't be a very good thing since my goal is to make people laugh, but it keeps me honest with myself. I only write stuff that I think is funny. Usually, it'll come from a situation I'm in or a unique observation about something. I mill through ideas in my head and write them down in my Moleskine notebook. Hey, Moleskine, how about some free stuff?. Then I take the ideas in their rawest form and try them out at the Wednesday open mic. If any of them get a good response, I try them out on the weekend, and if people think it's funny, I work on the joke week after week until it's exactly where I want it. Even though I think something is hilarious, the audience doesn't always agree. I'm a stubborn guy and sometimes I'll do a joke for weeks just to make me laugh before I give up on it. I even have one or two jokes I still do and they haven't gotten a laugh in years except from about 5 people a show.
Gavin: How is it for you interacting with other local comedians, both as friends and competitors?
Spencer: I like watching new guys learn things. Most of them still have a little self delusion about how good they are, which is fun to see because it reminds me of how I was in the beginning, before I got my ass handed to me a few times. I love helping new guys out, but I only give my critique if they ask me. I don't like to BS other comics, so if somebody asks me for notes, I'm very honest with them. Not Simon Cowell honest, but it's close. It's given me a reputation for being a dick sometimes, but it's only because some people ask what I think to hear me say that I love everything they do, and that's not going to happen. I don't really look at other local comics as competitors because each comedian's road is so different. Plus, if you spend your time worried about other people you end up driving yourself crazy. Also, there's not too many people left out of the guys I started with so I don't really have a bunch of comics with the same experience level that I have. Wow, that last sentence sounded very egotistical but my therapist says that showing a little self confidence is healthy.
Gavin: In our comedy scene, you've become regarded as one of the hardest-working stand-ups around, touring around the U.S. and frequently hitting shows here in Utah. What influenced you to get out so frequently and promote heavily, and what's it like for you to keep going at that pace?
Spencer: My motivation for getting on the road is simple: You won't get anywhere in your career staying in one place. Salt Lake City isn't exactly a comedy mecca where industry professionals flock to discover new talent. You can be big here, but no one else in the industry cares. The two places you can do stand-up and never go out on the road and still move forward in your career are LA and NYC. Until you can afford to make that move, being out on the road is the next best thing. I'm not talking about doing one-night shows in crappy bars in Montana and Nevada, either. I'm talking about comedy clubs that have you there for 3-4 days. My pace on the road is not very heavy, actually. Because I'm a diva and only work clubs, I'm not out on the road as much as I could be. One reason is because I'm married and I like to see my wife occasionally. The other reason is I'm not a bar comic and I've rarely done well in that kind of venue. Why torture myself? My preference is to work clubs like Wiseguys here in Utah and places like Cap City in Austin and Helium in Portland. My therapist says to only list three clubs that I work at so it doesn't sound like I'm bragging.
Gavin: Are there any plans down the road for you to do a big tour, or will it be more of the quick regional tours for now?
Spencer: Big tours only happen for big names. I'm not there yet; in fact, I'm a long way off. I have considered the possibility of moving to either NYC or LA. Until then, I'll just stick to what I've been doing and keep trying to get into more clubs.
Gavin: Going local for a bit, what's your take on the stand-up scene, both good and bad?
Spencer: The best thing about SLC is the massive amount of stage time that comics can get when compared to other cities around the country. To be able to do 10-minute sets somewhere every weekend after only being a comic for a short time is one of the best reasons to be here. Plus, there a lot more venues available now when compared to the comedy scene eight years ago when I started. The downside to that is that newer comics get spoiled and then complain. Since they haven't been anywhere else, they don't know how lucky they are. If someone doesn't like the scene here, I invite them to move to another city and see how it compares. Austin is pretty cool. Move there.
Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make it more prominent?
Spencer: I think media outlets need to do more research about comedy. You guys are the only ones who even attempt to do your homework on the subject. The major TV outlets and radio stations, with the exception of The Eagle and KBER, are clueless when it comes to stand-up. The only people they care about are people who had a YouTube video that had a lot of hits. The most successful comedians from Utah are often overlooked, while other people that might have a flashy credit or YouTube hit with very little stand-up success get articles written about them ad nauseam along with spots on local TV and radio. I'm not saying that I deserve any of that, because I don't. I'm just saying, do some research people!! Can you tell that's a touchy subject for me? My therapist says that if I vent about it then I won't be so obsessed with it. I'm starting to think he might be full of crap.
Gavin: Aside from yourself, who are some of your favorite comedians you like to check out around town?
Spencer: Let's be clear on the fact that I'm not even my favorite local comedian. That's why I have a therapist. That's always a tough question because I know if I leave somebody out they'll get all pissy, but here it goes. Let's do this: I'll just tell you what aspect about them impresses me the most. I think the two guys who impress me the most with their stage presence are Marcus and Key Lewis. My favorite writers are Andy Gold and Cody Eden. Also, Keith Stubbs always makes me laugh, but he's on a totally different level than these other guys because of his experience, so it's not fair for me to compare them. There are a few other guys coming up that are pretty funny as well, but I won't mention them just to get them all riled up. Kiley Cook.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on the clubs and venues that provide stand-ups a forum to perform, and the work they do to help bring in audiences?
Spencer: I enjoy working clubs the most because you get the best cross section of people in an audience. It's the best way to gauge the more mainstream reaction. But, that being said, stage time is stage time, and I always encourage people to get onstage as much as they can. I think the broad variety of venues helps get stand-up in front of more people and that's the goal.
Gavin: Whats your opinion of national stand-ups coming through town and what that does for the local scene?
Spencer: Right now, the Salt Lake City area has THE best lineup of comedians in the country. What Wiseguys has done in bringing great comic after great comic has been amazing. Even the comics themselves agree that the lineup is the best. Also, they really enjoy the Utah crowds, which will keep them coming back. The fact that any local comedians get to headline those clubs is incredible. I think it just shows that local comedy has not been forgotten. We all start somewhere, and it's nice to see that it's taken into account. Plus the fact that we get to watch performers like Bill Burr, Christopher Titus, Norm MacDonald, Jim Norton and a whole bunch of others helps us as young comics to see what our potential could be. Hell, Louis CK did a show in Ogden a couple of years ago!
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year and going into next?
Spencer: I will be sleeping and eating a lot. Writing, and testing material. I'm working on a second album that I hope to record late this year or early next. I'm still refining the material to be were I want it. My first album is available on iTunes and Amazon. It's called Pleasantly Irreverent. Please buy it or I'll have to start using food stamps.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Spencer: See the previously mentioned album. Also, I'm writing a screenplay. It's about a Spanish conquistador on a conquest mission in the New World that goes on a two-week drug binge. It's called Don Peyote.
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