Chris Fairbanks on Sexpot Comedy, suicidal civil engineers and the Tosh controversy
Chris Fairbanks is a standup comedian, illustrator, and skateboarder who has appeared on Conan, Comedy Central's Premium Blend, and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Fairbanks is making the most out of his trip to Denver this week, with performances scheduled every night starting with 8 p.m. Thursday, March 20 at Deer Pile, where he'll share a story for the Narrators podcast. At 8 p.m. Friday, March 21, he'll be at the Oriental Theater, co-headlining Sexpot Comedy's Vernal Equinox showcase with Rory Scovel and a load of local chucklers. Fans can also catch Fairbanks with the Fine Gentleman's Club at 10 p.m. Saturday, March 22, at the Meadowlark and performing with Andrew Orvedahl at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 23 Comedy Works South. Westword caught up with Fairbanks in advance of his packed visit to talk about Sexpot comedy, the Texas highway system and the Tosh rape-joke controversy.
Westword: Hey Chris, thanks for calling me back. The number I had for you wasn't right.
Chris Fairbanks: So were you just interviewing some random guy?
I ended up talking to a terribly confused Latina woman.
I wish that my character work was that good. How long did you interview her before you realized in wasn't me?
A couple of minutes. I did think that it was a high-concept joke you were doing, so I persisted longer than I would have otherwise.
That's great. I can never convincingly do characters like that. I can't ever prank anyone, even lightheartedly.
Well, you came up in improv, right? I was just trying to "yes, and" with your befuddled Latina character. On a separate note entirely: A lot of L.A. comics have flown out to do the Sexpot shows at the Oriental. Have you heard anything about their experiences?
I haven't, but I trust all the guys out there I've been talking to. The last time I was in Denver, I was at...do you have a theater called the Gothic?
Yeah, I did a show there, and that was amazing. I think this time will be even better. Rory Scovel is getting pretty well-known now, so I hope that doubles people's interest in coming out.
Everyone can smoke weed now, too.
Which is fine. As long as I'm not high, I don't mind what the audience does. I love it when audiences are high. I've tried to do standup high and it didn't work. Everything makes sense in two-minute increments and then I lose control. I tell my brain that it's high and I lose control. That's how I am at parties, too. I'm a bad weed-smoker. I've never been a regular weed-smoker, but I also don't think I've ever turned it down.
There's that improvisation spirit again. When you were starting out in Austin, did you do improv before standup?
I did. When I moved there, in the late '90s, there used to be an improv festival. It was called something like "The big, stinkin' improv festival."
Is it still going on?
No, it ended in like '99, I think. My improv group from Montana went there, and then my girlfriend was going to UT for film school. I knew that I wanted to get into standup, so I called a few of the comics I knew out there and started going to the two open mics they had.
Was it just Velveeta Room and Cap City back then?
Yeah, that's where I started out.
I can't really confirm or deny this, but from my experience it seems like because everything is so far apart in Austin, people are just cool with risking DUIs. There's a big drunk-driving culture out there. People park on the wrong side of the street often, like front to front.
You're right! Yeah, cars will get into collisions, then the drivers just shake hands and drive away. There's a lot of head scratchers when it comes to how people in Texas use their vehicles. The freeways there are so dangerous. The on-ramps make you cross two lanes of oncoming traffic on a frontage road and then have to merge from a dead stop onto the freeway. People drive so fast, too, no matter what the weather conditions. It's do-or-die there for drivers.
I don't know if this is an apocryphal story or not, but I've heard that the civil engineer who designed the Texas interstate system committed suicide in shame.
Yeah, he killed himself. That was actually one of my first jokes when I moved to Austin. That the engineer killed himself because he designed 1-35 with his left hand and a crayon. That was my genius line. All my material was freeway-based.
How has your standup evolved since those early Austin years? Presumably, you've moved on from freeway humor?
I wish that it had changed more, honestly. I look back at some of the first jokes I wrote, and a lot of them are more creative than what I come up with now. I really committed to this stuff was just so bizarre, and got really deep into acting out these weird characters that I'd be more hesitant to do now.
Why do you think that is? Have you drifted a bit from the improv ethos you had back then?
Yeah, I also wanted the comics to like me, so I'd always try to make the back of the room laugh. I'm trying to move away from that now, actually. It's always been kind of a challenge for me to relate to entire audiences. You know what I mean?
You mean like, going broad with your performance?
Yeah, there's something to be said for that. It's a skill to make a subject matter relatable to everyone. If I come up with a relatable joke, I assume that someone else already came up with it. My jokes used to be all over the place and hard to put together. I did my hackiest jokes on Conan -- like I'm certain I could find someone else with a "shits and giggles" joke -- but I only got about half of the crowd. What I want people to laugh at and what they actually laugh at isn't the same thing. When it is, it feels pretty good.
Keep reading for more from Chris Fairbanks.
So, standup eventually eclipsed improv for you?
Yeah. I'm glad that I started in Austin because a lot of comics there would go up with just an idea and have the freedom to work it out onstage. That's usually where I would do my "writing." I remember, I had an improv show at eight at the Velveeta room, and then I'd be back at ten doing standup, which was weird because they're such different muscles to work out. There also used to be sort of a weird animosity between improvisers and standups there. There wasn't a big crossover like there would be now. Now that everyone's doing long-form stuff where you can actually create, everyone seems cooler with it. The scene is a lot different now that it was at, you know, the turn of the century when I started.
You still have that reserve of skills, though?
That's definitely the case with me. It's also just the kind of comedy I wanted to do. I remember that when I first started, it was hard for me to grasp the concept of doing material every night. I'd see these old guys repeating the same jokes verbatim for years, and that was their act. I didn't know that, of course; you end up having to do that. At first, I was trying to avoid it, but I learned that repetition is the only way to find out that 50 percent of your act isn't working because it's total drivel. You have to have an act. I still lie, and act like I just made up what I'm saying.
You can add and subtract tags to keep jokes fresh.
Yeah, or just tell them a little differently each time. But then, you can get too far away from what worked about it and start wondering why this joke isn't getting laughs any more until you realize that you're telling differently. That's why I started recording my sets. It's pretty handy to have a recording device in your pocket at all times. I go up there and meander and then find out what people laugh at.
So, that last special you did was called Fairly Uncertain? Are you working on a new hour?
Yeah, I had a full-time job when the guy who runs Fuel TV -- or who was running it, since it no longer exists-- asked me to do a late-night standup special. They only gave me about two weeks to brush up before recording, and I still had to work every day. That was the only complaint I have about that special. I hadn't been able to do as much standup for like a year, so I was kind of out of practice. It's kind of hard for me to watch. They made it look great, and I had a good time, but it's not something I show to people.
Did you drop that material afterwards?
No, not really. A lot of that's on my CD. I did some of those jokes on Conan. I wish I was one of those Louis CK guys who can just start from scratch every year.
That prolificacy seems inhuman to me at this point.
Yeah, or just a lot of work. It's hard work just being human, which to me is inhuman.
You've opened up for Daniel Tosh quite a bit. Did you have a strong opinion one way or the other about when that controversy sprang up?
The rape joke? Well, I knew that he wasn't afraid to upset people, even before he was famous and I was just opening up for him in clubs ten years ago. I wasn't surprised by it. I knew it was the result of how he dealt with it when an audience turned on him: by turning back on them. I think it had everything to do with how he reacted rather than the subject matter, which became politicized. It could have just have easily been him calling the lady the c-word. He still tells the joke that woman was reacting to, and no one else has complained. I think it matters how you say something.
It also matters who you're saying it to. I think that a lot of people took issue with Tosh singling out that one woman in the audience, and that the joke was at the victim's expense. I understand what you're saying about Tosh having an antagonistic relationship with the audience, but I understand why people had a problem with this particular reaction.
If someone wrote down some of the things that came out of Louis CK's mouth, they'd say, "There's no way a middle-aged, red-headed white guy could get away with saying this." It matters how you present it. Tosh is famous for being a button-pusher. I like working with him. I wasn't there when this Tosh thing happened, so I'm only assuming this -- but when you target someone for not having fun, it kind of alienates everyone. Anytime I've gotten upset at someone, I've ignored everyone else who was having a good time. That's a mistake I've made a bunch. Still do it all the time.
People can get mired into it. Going off on someone is always a gamble, because if it works, then the crowd loves you, but if you're too mean, they'll turn on you, too. High-risk, high-reward.
Yeah, if someone in the crowd is vocal and open about what an asshole they are, it can really help a show, but if you retaliate against someone just for not liking a joke, the audience will be like, "What the hell's this about?"
So, do you have any projects on the horizon?
I've always been an illustrator, and I'm trying to learn animation. I want to make short cartoons. I'm not someone who's going to be blogging or putting up YouTube videos. I like the idea of writing, voicing and animating these myself. Even though that sounds like a lot of work, it's something I've always wanted to do.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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