I'ts not just manic-depressives, class clowns and the extremely observant who are taking the stand-up stages in town; a good portion of those performing are local writers. --- The ability to come up with something from nothing is a fine asset to have, but more people with a gift for penning their comedic gold before it hits a microphone are taking local clubs by storm. One of the more prominent names in that movement is Christian Pieper, who has been earning his cred and reputation both on the underground circuit and the main stages over the past few years. I chat with Pieper today about his career and thoughts on the local stand-up scene.
Gavin: Hey, Christian. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Christian: I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, but when I turned 18, my parents taught me how to wear shoes and sent me here to Utah for college. I met my super-hot and super-smart wife the first day of college, but it took me several years of begging to convince her to marry me last November. I love dogs and I’m scared of bows and arrows.
Gavin: What first got you interested in stand-up comedy, and who were some of your favorite comedians growing up?
Christian: I’ve been into stand-up for as long as I can remember. My mom has a super-embarrassing family video of a 7-year-old me doing a stand-up routine. I memorized a bunch of jokes out of a Steve Urkel joke book I had and told them to my family, mispronouncing all the words. As a kid in the South, I loved Jeff Foxworthy and Ray Stevens. In high school, I got into Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, and then later on, Louis CK, Marc Maron, Maria Bamford, Chris Rock, and lots more.
Gavin: What officially brought on the decision for you to attempt it as a career?
Christian: I was working a pretty boring job and looking for any way to distract myself. I started listening to WTF with Marc Maron’s podcast every day. He would talk to these really big and talented comedians about how they got their starts, and I started to realize that the vast majority of them just gave it a try and found out they had an aptitude for it. Maron came to Wiseguys in West Valley that year to do a show, and as I was buying tickets off the website, I saw that they had an open-mic night on Wednesdays. I went one week and just watched nervously from the back of the room. The next week, I signed up, and after my first time on stage, I just had to keep doing it. Basically, I’m a damaged person with an unyielding appetite for attention, and talking to a captive audience with a microphone is the only thing I’ve found that satisfies that for me.
Gavin: How was it for you breaking into the local lineups and getting gigs?
Christian: After a few months of hitting open-mics every week, three people helped me get stage time, maybe even before I should have. Keith Stubbs put me onstage at his Wiseguys clubs, in front of real audiences for the first time, and those clubs are still my absolute favorites to perform in. Ben Fuller hosted an open-mic at the Complex called Comedy Roadkill that was really instrumental in helping me build my act and letting me figure out how to put together longer sets. And Keith Barany, a traveling headliner who recently moved to Salt Lake, took me on the road and gave me my first feature gigs outside of the Salt Lake area. I’d say about 80-90% of the minutes I’ve spent onstage I’ve gotten through those three gentlemen, to whom I owe a real debt of gratitude.
Gavin: When you first started out, what were some of the lessons you learned about performing?
Christian: The host at my first open-mic, Timm Thorn, told me to take the mic out of the stand, set the stand to the side, and start in with my first joke without wasting time to greet the crowd. I still think that’s pretty much the best advice for someone trying it out for the first time. In a comedy class I took early on, Spencer King, one of the funniest comics in town, taught me how to structure a joke to make sure it makes sense spoken to an audience and not just written down. After one of my first sets at Wiseguys in West Valley, Keith Stubbs took me aside and taught me not to physically bail on my jokes with my body language after my punchlines. The performing side of things didn’t really come naturally to me, so I’ve had to learn it slowly, bit by bit. I think the trick is just getting on stage three, four, or even five nights a week, until it starts to become second nature being up there.
Gavin: What's it like for you personally coming up with material and deciding what works and doesn't?
Christian: I’m almost always surprised at which bits end up working the best. Most of my jokes start out as tweets and undergo a pretty big transformation before they ever reach the stage. My biggest weakness is probably writing jokes that work on paper but contain too much information or too many subtle elements to work on stage. You have to keep rhythm onstage, and you can’t juke too much or you end up leaving the audience behind.
Gavin: How is it for you interacting with other local comedians, both as friends and competitors?
Christian: Honestly, it’s pretty hard, because most of them are crappy friends but really good competitors. In all seriousness, I was a comedy fan before I was a comedian, so I can still nerd out as a fan and appreciate all the real top-notch talent we have here in town. One of the best things about doing comedy is hanging out after shows with other local comics and the guys passing through town. We annoy the hell out of waitresses, but we have a pretty good time.
Gavin: How has it been for you to see where you and the comedy scene were just a short time ago to where its boomed in SLC and Ogden?
Christian: I can still see how things have changed since I started. It seems like there’s a thousand comedians in Salt Lake sometimes now, with new people showing up to open-mic every week. A lot of that is due to Wiseguys bringing in so many big headliners and drawing attention to the local comedy scene by putting local comics on virtually every show they do. A few really talented guys have moved from Salt Lake out to New York and L.A. in the last couple of years, and I think -- and hope -- that there will be a pretty solid group of Utah ex-pat comedians making a stir on the national stage throughout the next five-10 years. I think we have reason to be proud of our local comedy scene.
Gavin: Aside from being a comedian, you've earned a reputation as a great comedic writer. How is it for you balancing out performance from material, and having that kind of respect from the stand-up community for your written works?
Christian: Of course, that’s a great compliment to receive, especially from other performers. I’m especially proud of the City Weekly Arty award I got for my Twitter jokes. I was a writer before I was a comedian. I studied English in college, and by day, I write web copy for an excellent web design company in Pleasant Grove called 9thRoot. So, I think the writing comes much more simply to me, and I have to constantly fight to make sure I present my material in a way that a crowd can pick up on. It helps a lot that I’m also quite extremely good-looking. If I were ugly or fat or bald, people probably wouldn’t put up with my weak stage presence.
Gavin: Going local for a bit, what's your take on the stand-up scene, both good and bad?
Christian: On the good side, the local scene is really strong, with tons of tremendous performers. The scene is really supportive to newer comics, at least much more so than you’ll see in other cities. I honestly don’t really see anything bad in the local scene, other than some local comedians being total assholes like Spence Roper and Jared Shipley -- like, seriously, really genuinely bad people with dark hearts like Spence Roper and Jared Shipley.
Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make it more prominent?
Christian: The right things are happening, I think. Shows featuring local comics are popping up in Park City, Logan, Provo, and even Price. Wiseguys is still giving lots of quality stage time to local comics, and other local shows continue to grow in popularity. Excellent comedians like Ryan Hamilton, Andy Gold, Marty Archibald, Greg Orme, and Levi Rounds have made or are making the move to bigger cities, and I think they’ll help shine a light on the quality of talent we have here in Utah.
Gavin: Aside from yourself, who are some of your favorites you like to check out around town?
Christian: Well, everybody I’ve mentioned so far -- except Spence Roper and Jared Shipley, who are funny, but more evil and bad-souled than funny. I could add a couple of dozen names of people worth checking out, but I’ll keep my list short. Key Lewis is as consistently funny as anybody anywhere. Steve Soelberg is hilarious and the person my parents wish I was more like. Cody Eden and Arthur Carter are great comics and much better people than they appear to be on first sight. Guy Seidel and Jay Whittaker are both funny and have both said inappropriate things to my mom when they didn’t know she was my mom. Natashia Mower is funny AND a lady -- and I’ll never get sick of seeing emcees talk unnecessarily about her gender. Greg Kyte will yell at you about your taxes and make you like it, and Josh Fonokalafi will yell at you because that’s just his normal voice -- he’s huge. Mike Grover and Jason Harvey are amazing on Twitter and in real life. Finally, there are some newer comics who are destroying it, but I won’t say their names here because the sooner people know about them, the sooner they’ll realize how much funnier I ought to be.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on the clubs that provide comedians a forum to perform, and the work they do to help bring in audiences?
Christian: I love every single person who puts in the hard work to produce a show. Comedy isn’t the easiest sell in Utah, so when you see a good audience, like you see week after week at Wiseguys and to a lesser but still impressive degree at other shows around town, you can know for sure that someone has worked really hard to make that happen.
Gavin: What's your opinion of national stand-up comedians coming through town and what that does for the local scene?
Christian: The quality of comics coming through Salt Lake is astounding. Not a week goes by that I can’t pull up the Wiseguys calendar and get excited to see someone at one of their three clubs, whether it’s a huge name like Kevin Hart or Bill Burr or a rising genius like Kyle Kinane or Ron Funches. Other venues like The Complex have even managed to bring in great comics, like Doug Stanhope and Donald Glover. Other than L.A. or New York, I’m not sure there’s a better city in the country for comedy and for new comedians, who often get the chance to open for some of these great comedians really early in their careers.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year?
Christian: I’m going to keep developing my material, getting onstage as often as I can. I recently started a weekly webcam talk show called Sunday Night Comedy Friend Time that people can watch live or taped via YouTube. I’ll be working hard to develop that and make it a really funny and interesting show for people both locally and around the country. Hopefully, I’ll keep losing weight and making stupid jokes on Twitter.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Christian: People can watch Sunday Night Comedy Friend Time every Sunday night at 9. Go to my YouTube channel to watch and subscribe so you don’t miss an episode. Add me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter to find out about upcoming shows. Hopefully, Cody, Arthur, and I will be resurrecting the Grumble Mountain podcast in the next month or so. Stay tuned!
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