As the final High Plains Comedy Festival draws near and the final lineups are announced, Sexpot Comedy returns to Denver after an exploratory sojourn to Los Angeles, boasting another fine show packed with local talent and a nationally celebrated headliner in Sean White. White, a Chicago based comedian whose album Dead & Gone has won widespread critical acclaim for its hilarious and heartbreaking account of White's personal tragedies. Join White, along with Denver comics Ben Bryant, Carey Denise and James Draper on Saturday, July 18 at 3 Kings Tavern. Westword caught up with White, who has a whole series of shows scheduled while he's in town to discuss how he builds his shows like business franchises, how his sad story influenced his comedy as well as his roots in Hong Kong comedy.
Westword: Did you get to Denver already?
Sean White: Yeah, I’m in Denver. I’m just outside Denver Relief. I was meeting with Andy earlier and after this interview I’m going to go in and enjoy some local flavor.
You’re based in Chicago, but originally from you're from Alabama?
Did you do any standup there before you moved away?
No, not in Alabama. I went to college in Georgia and I started doing it there, just outside of Savannah in a place called Statesboro, where there was no standup comedy. So one day, my then girlfriend, now ex-wife just came up and said “hey, I invited 45 friends over, you’re doing standup tonight. I did an hour long set my first time ever for a bunch of friends in an apartment.
How’d it go?
It went well because it was my friends. That’s a captive audience, and they were being very kind because it was my first time ever doing it. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen someone go up for their first time in a room packed with their friends, but it tends to work well for them.
That’s a long time though.
Yeah, I didn’t know that was a problem. I didn’t know that’s not how things started. Now I know “look buddy, you get four minutes if you’re lucky.” And you’ll wait a few hours for that. At the time, I didn’t know that. I wanted to do it so much after doing it that one time that I arranged a deal at a local bar where I did two half hour sets every Wednesday. That meant that I did a half hour set, and then I took a break and did another one. I put an intermission in a set that I shouldn’t have had in the first place. There were just no other comics in that town. I was so bad that even though I had a mic and everything, the bartender would say “Oh, I can’t even hear it over here, man,” when I asked him how I did. That’s bullshit. Now I know he’s just the nicest bartender I’ve ever heard of. To have heard that same hour over and over again — I tried to do crowd work and I was just awful. And nobody could tell me that I was awful. My friends would try to support me by getting shows where they worked. I remember one time I did a show at another bar and it was on a trivia night, and they hadn’t told anybody in the crowd that it was no longer trivia night.
So I went up to a shit ton of teens and maybe ten of my friends, in a bar that holds maybe 100-plus. I did my entire set, but it was through them yelling “get off the fucking stage” at me the whole time. At the very beginning, I didn’t know what too long was and I didn’t mind people yelling at me to get off stage. That's not the normal start that most people have in comedy. So I did that for a while, than I did a little bit in Atlanta, and then I moved to Hong Kong, and I was the house comic at Take Out Comedy Club, which is the only full-time comedy club in Asia. I hosted English-speaking shows there for tourists for two years before moving to Chicago.
So, you didn't generally get much of a local audience there?
Yeah, it was an English-speaking show and it was advertised as such. But there were more than enough expats living in that area that most of the shows were sold out. You'd come in one night and it'd be an all American audience, the next night it would be all British, and then the night after that you'd have New Zealanders, Australians, Swedish and English-speaking Chinese, so it was a good mix of people. But that meant —like I couldn't go up to a crowd like that and even say that I'm Southern because they don't know what that means. So while I didn't become a very good writer while I was living there, because I was only exposed to a few other comics and I didn't really have the opportunity for growth, I did learn how not to alienate people from other countries, or how to make your jokes more universal. That, and crowd work were really the two things I got out of that experience. Comedically, Chicago has been where I've grown the most.
Is that when you were a finalist at the Hong Kong international Comedy Competition?
Do you see yourself staying in Chicago for the foreseeable future?
Uh, yeah. I don’t really have any reason to leave right now. I can live off of comedy there. I don’t have a writing packet ready to go up and write for some network show like I would need to do if I were in New York or L.A. And if I can’t take advantage of the opportunities there, then what the hell’s the point of going? I go to both cities every six month and get to be on all the best shows that they have, so I don’t see the advantage of staying there and then having to fight for those spots. As long as I can live comfortably, you know? I get so much stage time in Chicago that I can work out new material extremely fast. That’s just something I wouldn’t be able to do, in L.A. especially.
Are you still producing a lot of shows in Chicago?
Yeah, I run two shows. I’m one producer of many on a show called Standup Standup that’s every thursday at a place called the Crocodile. It’s about to have its third anniversary coming up soon. I also produce the insult show Beef, which just got picked up by the Laugh Factory in Chicago. We’re going to start being the first midnight, pro-drinking show. It is similar to Jeff Ross’ show, only less racist. And it’s going to be pro-heckling. It’s just comics insulting in each other, and the crowd is allowed to jump in, but if you do we’re allowed to make fun of you back. It’s a lot of fun. We don’t just do straight roasts of each other, we throw games in the way to mess it all up. Say for example, you might have to make fun of your friends, but I may give you a sword and shield and then give your opponent an axe and then say “defend yourself from the next minute while you’re trying to insult him.” You have the superior technology with the sword and shield, you can strike and block, but you also have the mic and you have to be able to do all three at the same time. We just try to mess people up as much as possible, then at the end, there’s the “wheel of punishment,” where you spin a wheel and you have to do challenges, like “Frat Party” where the winner gets to draw on your face for 30 seconds. There are simpler ones, like a pie in the face, then there are ones like “Wall of Shame” or “Dress Up” where the winner gets to pick costumes out of a big bucket for the loser to wear for the rest of the show. Dresses, hats, wigs, a shirt that says “I Love Carlos Mencia.” Just the meanest stuff I could think of.
Do you just produce, or are you ever up for those challenges??
I do participate in the Beefs, as well as participate in hosting. I have a cast of people who are co-producers under me, and they fill the roles that I can’t fill. To be able to host the show, you have to be in the cast. I’d love to host it every time myself, but I can’t. I’m just too busy to reliably be anywhere on a monthly basis, so I have people that I trust to run it.
That’s a good way to maintain quality control.
Well, I try to set up my shows like a business plan. The whole point of a good franchise is that it doesn’t need the owner. That’s the biggest problem with locally-owned businesses, is that owners build a structure which requires them, and they take on too much responsibility. When if you set it up without taking on that responsibility, the product can flourish without you and innovation can happen that you didn’t think of. It’s very important to be able to have this set up so that I can franchise it later. So I can do it in other cities, so if one of my co-producers move and want to set up a Beef show in another city, or if I want take the show to festivals, I have them trained up to do it right so that they can hit the ground running. That way I’m not barking orders at a bunch of people. Also, it means more shows waiting for me when I arrive on both coasts. So there's a selfish motive, but then again, most kindness is done out of selfishness.
A boy scout doesn't help an old lady across the street then wait for her to come back the other, he gets his badge and gets out of there. Fuck the old lady once she's on the other side of the street. Nobody gives a care about how that old lady is getting home. Is she stranded? Nobody cares. He just needed a badge. It's like that whole thing of "if you build it, they will come." Why the hell didn't anyone help you build it? No one wants to get in on the ground level, they just rush in at the end.
Your album Dead & Gone is the culmination of two personally heartbreaking years. Can you describe what happened? When were you ready to start telling jokes about this series of tragedies?
Yeah. You know that Tig Notaro special, where she talks about getting breast cancer?
You know how she keeps referencing this jokes she has about a bee on the 405 that she just can’t bring herself to do anymore? That’s how I felt. I’d been doing comedy for five years when my sister died. Then a few months later, my mom died, and then a few months later, my brother died. Then a few months after that, my other sister died. In the middle of that was when I got divorced.
So right after the divorce, right when my brother passed away was when I started doing the material on purpose. Because what had been happening before that was that I’d be at a mic or a show and I’d get too drunk or too upset, and I’d be trying to do some stupid joke about being a nerd or something like that, and I’d just break. Like, who wants to hear a Star Wars joke, and that’s what it was, a fucking Star Wars joke. And I’m trying to do that while I’ve got all this other shit in my head, and I would just break down and talk about how I hated God and all that jazz. Real happy stuff, you know? Then one day, I was doing that at a mic and it worked. Somebody laughed at some of it. I realized what a great release it was for me to be able to get it out and have people laugh, so I started doing it on purpose. I ran an open mic at the time, and it came to be known as a mic to avoid because I’d try out up to 30 minutes of that material before the mic. One week, I just went up with a sheet of paper that had the pros and cons of my family being dead. And I read them all. I’d make people listen to that if they wanted to do their open mic time. That’s rude.
I’m sure you’d be forgiven for some bad emcee etiquette, considering.
Eventually I got on a showcase where I had ten minutes, and I did five minutes of older stuff and five minutes of this material, and when I got done the host said I quote, “hey, that last five was actually funny!” I was surprised that the dead family jokes made him laugh. He doesn’t know that this comes after months of bombing with that material. So there was a lot of work going into finding out which audiences to do this material for, how to deliver this kind of depressing material while keeping people uplifted. Where do I lose people? Where do I get them back, if in fact, I can get them back?” What are the quirks, can you tell other kinds of jokes before or afterwards? How do you keep them all on board? It was like learning to walk on water; i.e. mostly sinking. Eventually you might skip a bit across the surface, but you could fall in at any time.
I imagine it’s hard for a lot of people to know how to react.
It’s such a depressing subject, you can’t show any fear on you. The normal hesitation that people have in jokes, where you go “hm, what should I say next?” is not something you can have with this kind of material. If you pause, the audience will think “oh, he’s realizing that they’re dead and he’s sad. We better feel bad now.” At my comedy album recording, I had five people walk out of both shows, and that album was the only comedy to make it on the AV Club’s list of the best albums of 2015 so far.
They walked out?
I don’t know why they were offended at my pain, but apparently it was too much for them to deal with. I’ve had some pretty bad experiences. I cut out jokes that have any personal information about my family or my ex-wife, because I have no animosity towards her. That’s part of the reason why the album is only 45 minutes and not a full hour. I have the other 15 minutes, but it’s not necessarily stuff that I’d want to put out on the internet where someone might look things up and try to connect the dots. That’s something I’ll say live, but it’s too bitter for me to have on the album.
How has humor influenced the grieving process?
It was my grieving process. That’s how it works. I’m paying you in laughs to listen to me commit a therapeutic act. I’ve spoken to a lot of grief counselors and one of the things they’ve recommended is to speak about your problems for x amount of minutes and I’ve far, far exceeded those minutes. Any grief counselor would probably tell me to do exactly what I did and am doing. Here’s how it works; you have all these awful thoughts in your head and you never take responsibility for them because they’re in your head and they’re not real. But then when you say them out loud, they are. When you say something to one person, you’re worried about their reaction, but when you say something to a whole crowd you can get an average reaction. You get an idea what society thinks about it, not just what that asshole Tom (whom you tried to confide in!) thinks about it.
Your friend’s not necessarily the best grief counselor, and a crowd is much more reliable in letting you know when you’ve gone too far. It’s pretty good to be able to get those words out, and then re-internalize people’s reactions, which allows you to form new thoughts and then maybe new words to say to different people for a different reaction to internalize. They’re all a progression moving you further and further down the line, and further from where you started, which is a person who hasn’t yet realized what sadness would do to you. I think Rilke said “sadness is something that can only be experienced in solitude.” It’s not a bad thing, you just don’t know yet what impact it will have on you, and measuring that takes a lot of time and solitude. It changed me so much as a human being. It’s so hard to get mad at traffic when your family’s gone, you know?
Eventually, I was able to be confident again, and be who I need to be. I don't take things for granted, I try to live life as much as I possibly can every day, and make every day as good as possible, so at the end of the year, all I have is a series of great days, which I'm pretty sure makes a great year and makes a great life in the end. As long as I'm willing to know that I tried my best every day to be happy, I know that I can die happy. That's not something my siblings got the chance to do really, because most of them died before 30.
Have you been approached by other people going through loss since you released your album? What have their reactions been like?
I actually have met a few other people who’ve lost their entire families as well, and they did say they appreciated it, and that they enjoyed the album. No one’s come back with anything negative. Anybody who’s lost someone usually has something to say, but I very rarely meet someone who’s had the same amount of pain.
Have you visited Denver before or met any of our comics? What are your impressions of the scene from afar?
I have met a ton of Denver comics all over the country, but this is actually my first time here. This is the last major comedy city that I needed to hit in America, so after this one I’ve got Toronto, and I’d like to try and get into the Edinburgh Fringe Fest. But I’ve hear nothing but great things about Denver. It’s the only scene that compares to Chicago in size and scope. I know a ton of comics here who’ve been nothing but super kind, and they’re taking care of me like a king while I’m here. I’m sure there some assholes, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve been well-buffered from them. I keep running into Denver comics at festivals; other than New York or L.A. Denver’s the city where I see the most good comics traveling from.
Besides the High Plains Premonition, what other shows do you have lined up while you’re in Denver?
Tonight I’ve got the Narrators at the Buntport Theater at 8 p.m. and Too Much Fun at the Deer Pile at 10 p.m. and then on Thursday night at 8 p.m. I’m doing a show called Cool Shit at 3 Kings, on Friday at 8 p.m. I’m doing Laugh OUT Loud at Charlie’s Denver and on Saturday I’m doing the Premonition show, and then on Sunday I fly back.
Is there anything else you wanted to mention before we wrap up?
Nope. You got the shows, you got the album, that’s pretty much all I can ask for. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
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Likewise. Enjoy your weed!
Sexpot Comedy presents The High Plains Premonition materializes at 3 Kings Tavern this Saturday. Arrive at 8 p.m. for the 9 p.m. showtime. Tickets cost $10 on 3 Kings' website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.