For character comedians, playing a role beats doing stand-up
Barry Tattle was born to a bossa nova beat. A smooth, jazzy guy, he rides a chardonnay-fueled moped across the waters from his native Bermuda in snazzy shades and velvet jacket, then steps onstage to entertain Boston comedy audiences.
He does not, strictly speaking, exist, however. He emerged fully formed from character comedian Chris Coxen’s imagination one day when Coxen was stretching after a brisk run.
“Muscles really respond well to bossa nova. I don’t know why,” says Coxen, who recalls playing “Desafinado” by Stan Getz, “and Barry Tattle just walked out of the stereo. A lot of my characters are born to or with music, or from music. It gave this character a cadence. I could see this character walking around. The song just sort of created it.”
Thus is the strange world of character comedy. These comedians don’t just slip into a funny voice here and there; they become someone else, like an actor inhabiting a role. For some, like Coxen, the characters come in a bolt. For others, like Coxen’s former comedy team partner Nate Johnson, they can come from watching people in everyday life and taking those observations to an extreme. Johnson can look at a guy walking funny at a party and create a whole new reality — imagining, say, that the funny walk is because the guy has a parrot on his shoulder.
“And why does he have a parrot?” Johnson asks. “Clearly this has become part of his personality; he has to have that parrot with him. So you answer those questions: Why is that happening? And then you can build something from there and add back story.”
Both Coxen and Johnson have a stable of characters, from Coxen’s muscle-headed, 2-by-4-toting Ripps McCoxen to Johnson’s Mel, the Sultan of Swing, a dancer who only performs to the Dire Straits hit “Sultans of Swing.” The more offbeat the inspiration, the better for this group, oddballs even in a profession that favors the odd.
Two upcoming shows at Grandma’s Basement will highlight character comedy, starting Saturday with “The Unfriending,” a mix of straight stand-up and “weirdo characters” performed by show creator Johnson, as well as Harry Gordon, Kristina Smarz, Raj Sivaraman, and Ken Reid. On June 15, Coxen will present “Barry Tattle’s Song Libs,” a musical version of Mad Libs where the audience gets to insert words into popular songs for Tattle to croon with jazz band the David Ehle Trio.
It’s no coincidence that these shows are happening in a nontraditional venue like the 45-seat, comedian-run Grandma’s Basement, tucked inside the Fenway Howard Johnson Hotel. It’s a tough road for a character comedian seeking to make it into a traditional club. Characters may be a huge commodity on TV in shows like “Saturday Night Live,” but star-making spots in clubs, where stand-up dominates, are few and hard to get. “I always tell people, I’m either going to make millions of dollars or be doing puppet shows in church basements for free,” Coxen says.
The club format limits character comics’ ability to work. In Boston, their main option is the Comedy Studio, whose showcases feature several comedians getting roughly equal time, no longer than 10 minues apiece. Or they can create their own shows elsewhere. “It’s such a specialty thing,” says Johnson. “You can do maybe five- to seven-minute spots in character and kind of hit some notes and have some really clever lines, but it’s tough to get a weekend audience to commit to a 20- or 30-minute character routine. Not in a traditional comedy club, at least, because there’s such a theatrical element to it that most comedy club audiences are not willing to commit to.”
Comedy Studio owner Rick Jenkins sees the difficulties character comedians face just to survive. He’s all for the do-it-yourself spirit of comics creating their own shows. “Most clubs are worried about selling drinks, about keeping to time, about all these things that really run counter to the creativity that the character has,” he says.
Character comics are at a disadvantage if they don’t get top billing, a slot that sets audience expectations about what the show will be, and one that is usually earned after years of stage time. “You almost have to begin as a headliner,” says Jenkins. “So making that leap from open-mike to longer shows is the challenge of a character comedian.”
“You’ll get some good exposure going on good stand-up shows, but if you really want it on your terms, you’ve got to build it yourself,” says Coxen. “You do have to create your destiny for character comedy.”
And character comedians have to establish a credibility with the audience from the instant they step onstage. “I think one thing that I’ve found very helpful, right when they see you, you have to disarm them, you know?” says Coxen. “Barry Tattle has got the mustache and the black velvet suit. They’re already intrigued and they kind of want to know a little more.” But if the audience doesn’t buy in, it can get lonely up there very quickly. Johnson explains, “If you commit to a character and, off the bat, if they’re either lukewarm or not interested, you’ve still got six, seven, eight, nine minutes to kill, to hope that they’ll respond to something that you’re doing.”
Johnson sometimes works as a stand-up comedian, even though he admits he is stronger as a character act. “I’ve been doing a lot more straight stand-up in the past few years, partly because I want to work at it more,” he says. “The other reason is, that’s just what’s out there.”
The path to success, Coxen says, is simply harder for character comedians than it is for stand-ups, who have a better chance of making a little bit of money, and maybe getting lucky with work in TV commercials.
Coxen sees his characters as his life’s calling, but at this point in his career, he says he’s doing it for the enjoyment and to keep his comic edge. He spent most of 2011 in London, where the scene is friendlier to character acts. He came back in January 2012 with some memorable experiences but no big break. There might still be a chance to make it if he moved to New York or Los Angeles, but he doesn’t see that happening.
“I’m almost 40 and I’ve kind of had it,” he says. “You take a vow of poverty when you pursue comedy, and then when you pursue character comedy — I don’t know what’s lower than poverty. That’s what you do.”
For more information:
Barry Tattle’s Song Libs
June 15, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $8 at the door
At: Grandma’s Basement, Howard Johnson Hotel,
1271 Boylston St., Boston