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Gavin's Underground

Spence Roper

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2013-08-02 - The stand-up comedy scene continues to grow, but, of course, you already knew that from the amount of comedians I've featured here. Both the rise of younger talent and established names making headway is phenomenal, and anyone tuned into the scene can find a damned-fine lineup once a week somewhere between Provo and Ogden. Today, I chat with another established name on the rise, Spence Roper, about his career and thoughts on local comedy. (All pictures courtesy of Roper.)

Spence Roper
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Gavin: Hey, Spence. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Spence: I was born in Logan, I lived there for the first year of my life, then moved to Wellsville, a town located a few miles south of Logan. At the age of 5, I decided I didn't like the smell of cow manure so I moved 25 miles north to Smithfield because I realized I actually didn't mind the smell of cow manure after all. I tried to involve my parents in these decisions as much as possible, of course, because I couldn't move a lot of the heavier things due to the fact I was a small child. I grew up in Smithfield, which is a great little town as long as you aren't the type who gets hung up on smells. I pretty much followed the Utah cultural timeline from there: graduate from high school, go to year of college, get terrible grades, tell church leaders I was sorry for touching girls' boobs, go on mission, come home, get married, be sad. I did eventually mix it up a little by moving to Farmington, New Mexico, where I worked as a firefighter/EMT for the city of Farmington. Like any good public servant, I got divorced shortly afterward. I eventually got remarried because I was feeling guilty about all the freedom I was enjoying and just how good life seemed to be; also, because of love, but I'm not super-comfortable talking about emotions or real things because the degree of honesty I'm forced to have with myself in order to deal with emotions makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that's a serious issue I should consider dealing with; I don't know, I'm not a psychologist. Thanks to my hobby of getting married, I've managed to amass a collection of children -- three -- who I find completely overwhelming pretty most all the time. They're all fairly cute, which is good because I would never keep an ugly kid. That's gross. One of them is exactly like me, so he's screwed, but I have been trying to prepare him for that so he'll be able to accept it as he gets older. In my free time, I enjoy reading, hiking, camping, and the outdoors. I don't like talking on the phone, talking on the phone and looking things up on Google, aka, talking to old people on the phone, talking to old people, and long walks on the beach because I don't really like the ocean or walking. My favorite animal: bears. I don't have a bear, though.
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Gavin: What first got you interested in stand-up comedy, and who were some of your favorite comedians growing up?

Spence: I can't think of anything specifically, but I remember my brother and I had pooled our paper-route money and bought a "boom box" that had a radio and cassette deck that could record at a garage sale. Every Sunday nigh,t we would hunker down in our room, listening to and recording the Dr. Demento radio show with our boom box. We would then listen to those recordings over and over and over. We loved it. I can still remember the lyrics to a song called "Let's Blow Up The Tow Truck" because we listened to it so many times. When I was around 12 years old, I started regularly watching a show called Comic Strip Live, recorded at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, that was on the Fox channel. It was an hour-long show that was just a bunch of feature stand-up sets and I loved it. I doubt I understood even half of the jokes being told, but it didn't matter to me. I loved watching it. Also, it was the best thing on before Saturday Night Live, which would come on at 10:30 pm. which meant I also always watched the last half hour of Remington Steele as well because that show was on from 9:30 to 10:30 on NBC and I had to fill the 10-10:30 slot with something. Pierce Brosnan is a handsome fella with a sweet accent so it was fine. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that I've been a fan of comedy -- also Pierce Brosnan -- for as long as I can remember, and have always enjoyed laughing and being -- or trying to be -- the funny guy. I'd always thought I'd like to do stand-up, but never really had an opportunity until a couple of years ago when my friend Trent got me to come out to an open mic that had recently started up in Logan. From there, the rest is history. I loved it. I loved how I felt onstage. I loved hearing the audience, and I loved that feeling you get when you can make a roomful of people laugh. It's kind of a drug for me almost. The comedians I liked growing up were guys like Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, Kevin Nealon, Adam Sadler, Phil Hartman, Chris Rock, Al Franken -- The SNL crew of that era. The only actual stand-up comedian who was performing when I was a kid who I knew by name was a guy named Andy Andrews. My parents had gone off to some convention ,and when they came back they had his cassette. I listened to it a lot. I really liked it, but I realize now that he was probably a working comic who was squeaky clean and did corporate gigs. That's the only way my parents ever would have bought something like that.

Gavin: What officially brought on the decision for you to attempt it as a career?

Spence: I love to do it, people get paid to do it, so it seemed like an obvious decision. The more people I've met who do it professionally, the more I feel like it's a realistic profession to pursue. I would love to be a big deal and famous and selling out shows every weekend, but I would also love to do something I really enjoy and pay the rent and feed the family. I've tempered my expectations. I don't really need much to be happy most the time, and since you have to work, might as well work at something you love doing, especially if it is something that is making other people laugh and feel happy. I'm not paying a lot of bills with comedy yet. Right now, I'm happy if a gig covers my travel expenses.
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Gavin: How was it for you breaking into the local lineups and getting gigs?

Spence: It wasn't easy; at least not for me it hasn't been. A lot of it depends on getting good enough that people notice you and that the people who notice you are the people who can get you more stage time. Being consistent is essential. It helps to be consistently good, but everyone is going to have a bad set or a series of bad sets, so when that happens, remaining a consistent presence at the venues is critical. When you're always there, people will see that and see that you are serious about performing and getting better. That's been my experience. It's different for everyone, though. The reality for me is, had it not been for Marcus, I wouldn't have started getting the weekend time spots that I did at Wiseguys, which was a big deal because that is the only place putting on weekly shows so it meant a lot more stage time for me. He saw me and liked me at a Wiseguys open mic and then saw that I was there every week and was doing well. My act is kind of unique, a little more subtle, but Marcus liked it, stuck his neck out for me and put me on a few of his shows. That helped me get my foot in the door. From that point, I've been very fortunate as far as getting stage time and getting paid goes. There is still a long ways to go and a lot of improvements for me to make, but I'll always be grateful to Marcus for the active interest he took in me and for taking a chance and letting me be on his shows. I know Spencer King and Jay Whittaker put in a good word to the powers that be, as well, after a showcase that had gone well for me. That definitely helped since they are a couple of the top comics here in the SLC/Utah comedy scene.

Gavin: When you first started out, what were some of the lessons you learned about performing?

Spence: I feel like I am still in the just-starting-out phase; I've only been doing it for a couple of years. I have figured a few things out, though. For me, it has been a process where I thought I was funny, but kind of wasn't, realized I kind of wasn't funny, decided, despite that realization, that I still thought I could be funny, then I started kind of being funny, but for real this time. Without stage time, I doubt I could have ever figured even that much out, so getting up onstage is really huge for me. For me, the mantra, "If you do it lots, you'll do it better," applies, (hopefully. It's not bad to do bad. Bombing hard in front of people forces you to examine things and be very honest with yourself if you're going to get better. I think I've probably figured more things out after doing poorly than I have after doing well. If I love a joke and keep telling it but people never laugh, it's probably not funny. Might be a good idea to take a good, close look at it and examine what I think is funny and get real honest with myself about it. All stage time is good stage time; however, not all stage time is created equal. There is some stage time that is definitely better/more beneficial than others. You have to keep some perspective about it. There might be a venue where if you get a response at all, you should keep that joke, and others where just an okay response might be an indicator you should reevaluate it a bit. It can be different each night at the same place so I never base anything off of one good or one bad response. If I have several bad responses to a bit, like after three or four times of a joke bombing, then, yeah, maybe time to check under the hood of that particular joke. No two crowds are the same. If you seem bored, they'll get bored, unless you're Steven Wright. You're probably not him, though. If you are him, I would just like to say I'm a big fan of your work. Thanks.
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I think the audience wants to see that you want to be there. I don't mean that you need to jump up and down onstage and be a spaz, but if they think you don't care about what you are doing, they won't care, either; at least, that has been the case for me. Being consistent is the biggest thing -- always showing up to shows, always being funny, and when you're not funny, still always showing up and being there. Lately, consistency has been my biggest struggle. I used to work in SLC all the time -- day job -- so I was able to hit all the open mics during the week and be at the shows on weekends. Now, I spend a lot more time in Logan, so I'm not able to hit as many, which I don't like; it bothers me -- I really start to miss people. For example, I used to hit up the open mic at the Complex on Tuesdays all the time, but lately, I've not been able to. It's kind of a bummer not being able to watch and listen to more experienced comics. Guys based out of Salt Lake City and local working comics -- guys like Marcus, Key Lewis, Jay Whittaker, Keith Stubbs and Guy Seidel -- have all been really good to pull me aside and give me pointers or point out something that doesn't seem to be working and suggesting something else. Their advice has been invaluable because it's hard to step outside yourself and be objective, so it's always nice when someone else is willing to help me out. Plus, it feels good to know there are people out there who would like me to suck less since I'm not going to stop performing.

Gavin: What's it like for you personally coming up with material and deciding what works and doesn't?

Spence: Most of my ideas for material are things that come to me throughout the day while I am doing something other than writing. I'm constantly stopping in the middle of something and writing things down as they occur to me. I've found that sitting down and writing jokes isn't as productive for me as always writing things down as I think of them. Once I have an idea, then I can sit down at the computer and write more of it out, but I have found I'm not able to just sit down and start thinking of things. As far as deciding what works, I'd like to think I've become a better judge of what actually is and isn't funny, but at the end of the day, the audience is the final judge. Getting stage time is definitely a key element for me to be able to continually create new, good material.
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Gavin: How is it for you interacting with other local comedians, both as friends and competitors?

Spence: I don't really think of them as competitors. I love hanging out with the other comics. Like any group of people, there are some I enjoy being around more than others, but overall, I really do like pretty much everyone. Every now and then someone will do something that bothers me and I may think I don't like them for a while, but even then I usually find myself talking with them and realizing, "Hey, I like this person. I need to be nicer to others, probably." One thing I was surprised to learn when I first started hanging out with a lot of other comedians is that comedians are really sensitive. They get upset and offended surprisingly easy. Even in this interview, I'm sure I've worded something poorly or not mentioned somebody I should've mentioned and word will get word back to me at some point that someone is pissed because I did or didn't say the right thing.Unfortunately, one of my special talents seems to be being maybe not so nice. Audiences EAT IT UP which is good and most of the time it gets directed at someone being noisy in the audience or heckling or whatever, but every now and then, a comic will do something that's just, well, too much for me and I end up saying something about it to them or talk about it onstage or both. I have found myself feeling bad about it afterward when I've maybe been a little too mean because these are all guys I like and hang out with. I don't ever do it just to be mean. I'm trying to help -- kind of -- because it always originates from seeing something I think is stupid and thinking, "What are they doing? Are they for real?" then I will decide to "help" them by illustrating what they are doing so, hopefully, they will stop doing it. I won the Salt Lake Comedy Festival's One Mic Stand in large part because a comic had gone up before me and ...wow, I'm still not sure what the hell he was doing or even saying up there, but I felt I needed to briefly address it since I was following him and the crowd was pretty weirded out by him. I talked about it briefly and the audience REALLY liked it, so I decided to address it a little further and they liked it more and the next thing I knew my time was up and I had won. I'm not super-proud of it, winning by pointing out someone else's shortcomings, but that's what happened and winning feels pretty good so I probably wouldn't change anything. But, I realize stuff like that isn’t the best way to get everyone else to like you; it's something I am working on. I know there are more than one or two comics who think I'm a dick because of it but I'm really just too lazy to be hyper-considerate all the time, which I feel is different. Like I said, it's something I'm working on.
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More recently in the Rocky Mountain Laugh Off, a seven-show competition, I'd find myself hanging out with the comedians I was competing against every single night, but even in a "competitive" setting it still never felt like we were competitors and they were the enemy who was out to get me. For the most part, it felt like hanging out with other comics who were all on the same show. Everyone would go up and try to have the best set they possibly could, but when someone went out and had an amazing set, I never felt upset about it. It's kind of the opposite, actually. I like watching people do well and being funny. I am able to feed off that energy and it puts me in a mindset where I'm kind of "in the zone" and I am able to think funny onstage and tend to do better. In fact, watching one person bomb or watching several people bomb can kind of suck the life out of me. I really would prefer to see people do well. The Rocky Mountain Laugh Off was a really great experience because everyone was so funny. Like I just mentioned, it never really felt like we were competing but more like we were all on the same show together. I didn't win the competition, though, so maybe I should have approached it differently. I still wouldn't have won, but at least then I would be able to say that I think of the other comedians as competitors and now I want to kick all of their asses. The reality is that I love hanging out with other comics even when we're in a competition setting; that really would be the only scenario I would ever think of them as maybe my competitors.
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Gavin: You're one of the few local comedians keeping a blog going with material. What kind of a challenge is it for you to write material for that and keep it separate from your live act?

Spence: I'm not a person who posts twice a week on their blog. I post when I have something that I think is post-worty, so it's not really cutting into time that I would have otherwise been using to write more stand-up material. Keeping the blog and my stand-up separate has never been a real problem because I like humor in many different formats. Initially, I thought everything would translate to stand-up, but it doesn't, so the blog is a good way for me to put stuff out there that I think is funny but that may not translate to the stage. It often hasn't translated to humor, either, but in my head it did, and that's usually enough for me to stick it on the blog. I really like the blog; it is quite the beast. It ranges from silly stories I made up for/with my kids to satirical diatribes on current issues, local news items, or whatever it is that is making people cry when they talk in church. I've never really defined the blog except to say that it is mostly typed by a bear that can type, aka, The Incredible Typing Bear. I don't know why I decided to start blogging around that premise, but I did. It seemed like a good idea at the time. A typing bear is who is writing the blog posts is something I haven't pushed on my blog readers quite as much lately, but I do still have fun with that premise from time to time. I enjoy my blog, but I'll be the first to admit not everything on it is comedy gold. My blog is like a super-wealthy hoarder's house. It's full of a lot of shit that has no value, but there are also some real treasures in there and, like any hoarder worth his weight in partially used ketchup packets and cat carcasses, I am unwilling to get rid of any of it.

Gavin: You perform both in the big rooms as well as the underground circuit in Utah. How is it for you switching between both and how do the audiences differ?

Spence: The underground shows can be tougher to get laughs, but the small crowds often allow you to be more personal and give you the opportunity to really tailor a bit to a very specific nitch of people. That is fun to do and can result in some really big laughs, but a lot of times the tweaks that were there that were born onstage there won't work anywhere else so it is really a one-time deal. It can make for a really unique, memorable experience that you aren't going to see again, which is cool. I definitely prefer working the bigger rooms. With a bigger room, once you get them laughing, it's like electricity in water -- it spreads and gets everyone laughing and it's loud. When you have to stop to wait for people's laughter to quiet down before you continue, that's the greatest inconvenience to your set that could ever happen. Not being able to finish a set because you ran out of time due to the audience laughing too much is the complaint I definitely would like to have a lot more of. With a big crowd, if you lose them or get off to a rough start, it can be a little harder to get them back, though, because no one wants to be the only person laughing in a roomful of people. With the big rooms, I do tend to stick more with what I know works and not experiment quite as much as I'd would in smaller shows. Regardless of the room, my goal is to get people laughing and having a good time. I still have a lot to figure out about what works best in what room, but with the contrast in the scene here, and the time I've spent on both stages, I feel like I understand it a lot better now than I used to.
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Gavin: Going local for a bit, what's your take on the stand-up scene, both good and bad?

Spence: The stand-up scene is really good. There are so many local guys I think are really funny right now that I think we are seeing people being forced to get better because the competition for stage time is so fierce. I know I said I don't feel like I'm competing with my fellow comedians -- and I don't -- but I am aware of the fact that when I am asking for time, so are 30 other comics. So, I know if I let up, someone is always going to be right there to feed that spot. I know that part of it, not getting time outside of the open mics, can be frustrating and that sucks, but, overall, I think it makes things better, especially for the audiences because they are seeing better comics. So, I would say that overall the scene is very good right now, talent-wise.The summer is always a rough time to get people to come inside and go to a show, but my experience this last winter and spring during "comedy season" was that people are coming to shows and I'm filling up rooms, which is exciting when you are performing for them. It's definitely good.

Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make it more prominent?

Spence: I think the only thing that is really going to make it more prominent on a national level is to have more comics make it big and get their names recognized nationally. Right now, we have guys like Marcus and Ryan Hamilton and Bengt Washburn who are fairly well known and have their origins in this area, but for there to really be more attention here in Salt Lake City we need to produce a few more. I suspect there are at least two or three people right now who we will probably see on the national scene atsome point in time -- maybe five or 10 years down the road, maybe sooner; I don't know. I feel like I'm kind of making shit up to answer this question at this point. I don't know why I didn't say, "Huh, I don't know. I guess I hadn't really thought about it," but whatever the reason, short answers like that are not in my nature. I feel like the talent is already here. To become more prominent nationally, we need to be more prominent locally, and aside from "more traditional marketing" I don't really have an answer. It does seem that the social-media-marketing maybe isn't as effective as I would like it to be -- because it is easy. I've hung up a lot of posters and every time I do, the results have spoken for themselves. It sucks to have to do it, but if you want the people showing up I think that is still the most effective medium to get people at shows. Radio and newspaper still seem to be reaching a lot of people and I know, for me personally, I can't delete event invites on Facebook fast enough, so chalk one up for good-ol'-fashioned marketing.
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Gavin: Aside from yourself, who are some of your favorites you like to check out around town?

Spence: There are a lot of really funny local people. Right now, there are four fairly new guys who I think are really funny: Jackson Banks, Wallace Fetzer, Michael Schooley and Dylan O'Neill. I'm sure we will be seeing a lot more of them because they are getting more and more stage time and getting funnier and funnier. Steve Soelberg is definitely among my favorites. I always love to watch him onstage because he is one of those people who everything he says and does makes me laugh. He could go up on stage and just look and around and blink and I would probably be in the back, laughing too loud and saying something like, "He blinked again. Oh, man. This is so amazing." I like Keith Stubbs. I like how Keith interacts with the audience. He is funny and is fun to watch. Key Lewis, who just won the Rocky Mountain Laugh off, does really well at appealing to a broad cultural audience, which not a lot of people can do, especially here in Utah, so that is always cool to see. I like Levi Rounds. Levi has a stage presence and style that is impressively natural. A lot of his jokes just sneak up on you and I like that. Cody Eden, Ryan Schlegel, Natashia Mower, Jason Harvey, Andy Farnsworth, Mike Grover, Christian Pieper -- the list goes on. There are so many others who I like that I'm not even going to try and name them all. Those who I mentioned are definitely some of my favorites right now. Just to give you an idea, there were 21 comics in the Rocky Mountain Laugh Off  -- I took 13th; now you know. Sorry I wasn't funnier -- more than half of which were locals, and all of them are pretty good.

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?

Spence: I am extremely grateful to them. Anyone who provides a venue, puts on a show, and creates opportunities to get stage time in front of a crowd is making sacrifices of their time and putting in a lot of effort so that we are able to perform. I've made up fliers and then gone out and hung them up and it sucks so I appreciate the work that goes into putting a show together and then trying to get a crowd out to it. I realize there are times they may not even be making money and are doing it for the love and the hope that it can grow into something bigger, so I can't say thank you enough to those who are putting in the effort to put shows together. Little shows like the stand-up show Comedy Sportz does in Provo have turned out to be some of the funnest shows I have done. The first time I went out there, I was a little skeptical because Provo and BYU,and Mormon stuff, but those people are there to laugh and have a good time and they do. I love that show. I would do it every month if they would let me. I love Wiseguys. I know it's a sore spot for some people and that's too bad because it seems a little silly to me. I don't know the exact reason for the rift that exists there and I don't want to. I don't care; I'm not interested in that sort of thing. The bottom line is that Wiseguys is who is bringing in the big-name comics every week, and if you want to perform with those guys that is where you have to be. Some people don't like that, but I don't know what to tell them. I'm very fortunate because Wiseguys has been incredibly generous to me with stage time and in allowing me to perform in front of big audiences, opening for comedians like Dan Cummins and Cash Levy. The clubs are nice, they advertise and are well established so there is always a crowd. What's not to love about Wiseguys? Not getting to perform there? Okay. I get that. Fortunately, that hasn't been the case for me so far and Wiseguys has definitely been a huge factor in my development into a better comedian; it has been huge for me! I have fans now that I'm not even related to -- around six-eight ... if fluctuates. I really don't think there is anyway that can happen unless you are regularly able to perform in front of bigger crowds, and Wiseguys has made that possible.
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Gavin: Whats your opinion of national stand-up comedians coming through town and what that does for the local scene?

Spence: I like a lot of them. I think it is good for the local scene. It's good to see what the guys who have made it are doing. It's also nice to spend time around them and realize they are just people. It really helps make goals feel more achievable. The fact that big names are coming demonstrates that Utah has enough of an appetite for comedy that it's worth it to bring them here, which I feel eliminates the excuse "Utahns don't like comedy." They clearly do. Are there cultural nuances that we may tend to encounter from time to time? Sure, but I sat in a roomful of people laughing their heads off to Dan Cummins as he talked about having sex with a pony because he thinks they are the prettiest animal, so I think at the end of the day I have to be able to tell myself "I should probably be funnier" instead of trying to blame the Mormons if a show doesn't go great or if not a lot of people are coming out to a show I'm performing at. Although I don't blame the Mormons for the state of the comedy scene in Utah, I do blame them for pussing out BIG TIME on polygamy a hundred and whatever years ago. Every man in America would be a Mormon if they'd kept that. We're already a boys club so it makes sense. Old guys have pills for each day of the week. Why shouldn't they also have a wife for each day of the week to give them those pills? You wouldn't even need a pill container! Can you imagine a life full of sex and completely void of pill containers? That sounds so amazing. You blew it, Mormons. You blew it.

Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year?

Spence: More jokes. More blog posts. More of everything, especially quality -- fingers crossed -- so maybe a little less of Facebook. I just want to keep things rolling from here. I am not going away.
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Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Spence: I'm on Facebook. I'm on Twitter and I try to let people know when I will be performing on both of those without being overbearing. Also, please don't be shy about checking out my blog, and becoming a fan of its corresponding Facebook page, If Bears Could Type - The Blog. On any given day, I base my entire self worth on the number of views of my posts there, so ... ummm ...okay. Well, now it's awkward.


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