Witty: 'When the sky is falling, I'm pretty good at changing the subject.'
While other children hung onto idealistic dreams like being the next Michael Jordan, Minneapolis-based comedian Isaac Witty always knew he wanted to be a comedian. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Witty spent much of his early childhood traveling with minister parents who performed Christian sketch comedy at religious venues across the country. Witty saw the audiences' reaction and got the strong desire to perform. At 16, he took to the stage for his first time, at a church talent show. By 20 he was a regular act at comedy clubs in the Tulsa area.
Now 36, Witty has won competitions like Tulsa's "Comedy Central Laugh Off" and performed on Letterman and Comedy Central's Premium Blend! His success is impressive considering his act is clean. No foul language, just well-crafted ironies and offbeat punch lines.
Witty performs June 7-9 at the Comedy Club on State. I talked to him about the troubles of being a clean comic, the influence of his parents and the changes he has seen in the comedy world.
The Daily Page: You once said in an interview that walking into a club as a clean comic is like walking in with one arm tied behind your back. Do you feel contemporary standup relies a little too heavily to foul language?
Isaac Witty: Yeah, I do. The thing is, you can always take a really intelligent crowd and dumb them down. I know a lot of very smart people who say, "I think Larry the Cable Guy is really good." And there's nothing wrong with that. I think he does have funny stuff. But the point is you can always dumb a smart crowd down, you can't smart a dumb crowd up. It never works.
There are some clubs I do -- and Madison is certainly not one of them -- where I go in and immediately get the impression that they're looking at me like I'm an alien. I don't look down upon it at all, but my friends always joke, "If the crowd's dumb, you can always throw your dick jokes at them!" It's what you have to do a lot of times. I get in a really weird corner when I'm in dumb, rowdy rooms. I just don't have that in my arsenal.
How do you defend yourself against hecklers? It seems like cursing at someone is the primary artillery for such moments.
I'm not going to say that I've never lost my temper and sworn at someone in the crowd. I've done that. Crowds really do like it when you tell them to shut the fuck up. They really do. It's an easy thing to do, and I don't like to do it, but I have fallen into that before.
The thing is, you really don't have to deal with hecklers. Most of the time it's not hecklers you have to deal with but people who are so drunk they don't realize how loud they are being while talking to a friend. That's the most common thing that happens, compared to people yelling "You suck!" I guess I've encountered that kind of straight hatred once or twice, but that's such a bizarre emotion to feel.
You've also said that having two parents in the ministry is a reason behind the cleanliness of your act. Could you talk about their influence?
My parents are a big reason I do comedy. I watched them do sketch comedy all through my childhood, and I probably wouldn't have thought to do comedy without them.
I'm an adult that works in bars, and they go to church every Sunday. They're not in the ministry anymore, but they used to be, and I guess not swearing on stage is something I do to pay tribute to them. If they did their best to raise me and go to church three times a week, then I figured the least I could do is not swear on stage. My mom has told me on more than one occasion that she really appreciates it.
Despite your family's background, your comedy rarely touches on religious subjects. Is that a topic you purposely avoid?
It'd probably be wise for me to write more autobiographical stuff, but you know, the kid whose dad is a mortician doesn't think it's weird. Watching my parents make money from Love Offerings at churches wasn't ever weird to me. It was just normal. And I'm not a skeptical or political guy by any means; I don't have that anti-establishment attitude. Of course there is hypocrisy in religion and politics, but my mind doesn't go to topics like that. They just don't interest me. But I don't purposely avoid religious topics. If I could think of a funny joke on the subject, I'd probably do it. But nothing has ever occurred to me like that.
You seem strangely positive for a comedian. (Sample joke: "I like to say I'm 'balding' and not 'bald'. It sounds more productive, like I'm always up to something.") Although you self-deprecate, there's nothing self-loathing about it, and your humor rarely comes from a place of bitterness or angst.
I'm a master of optimism to a fault. Maybe it's not optimism. Maybe it's just me saying to myself, "I'm just going to ignore all the bad things going on." When the sky is falling, I'm pretty good at changing the subject. It's kind of weird because generally I think I'm kind of a depressed person. My comedy doesn't reflect that.
You've been doing standup for 16 years. What are some changes you've seen in the comedy world?
When I first started, I would work with all these grizzled veterans who'd worked through the '80s comedy boom. There's all this folklore about those guys in the '80s and early '90s where emcees were making $1,000 a week and headliners were being flown in and making lots of money. And then when I was all excited about comedy and starting out, I would talk to these veterans, and I'd ask things like, "Can you give me some advice?" And they'd say, "Don't do this! Comedy is over! It's over!" Then they'd tell me how they were making a fraction of what they made 10 years ago, and that it was only going to get worse.
Then NBC's Last Comic Standing came around, and people started coming out and watching comedy more. And all through that, there was also this alternative movement in comedy coming through, which was weird for me. I was living in New York at the time, and in New York I wasn't weird enough for the alternative rooms, but I was too weird for the regular rooms. I was there when Demetri Martin started getting really big and Todd Barry was getting national attention. And I'd go to all these alternative rooms, and I'd get the feeling from the crowds like, "Who is this jerk with these set-ups and punch lines?" So I was caught in the middle.
On an episode of Showtime's The Green Room, comedian Patrice O'Neal said something to the effect that when he was younger, he'd watch greats like George Carlin or Richard Pryor, and know that he could never do what they did. Nowadays, he said people look at contemporary comedians and think to themselves, "I could do that." Do you agree with that?
I do. I think we're still living through the effects of Last Comic Standing. Sure, the crowds have gotten a little bigger, and that show sort of put standup to the forefront for awhile. But I think what it really did was make more people want to be comedians instead of watching comedy.
It's a big argument amongst Minneapolis comedians right now. There will be those who say things like, they believe 40% of the people in the world who are at least a little bit funny could have some success in comedy. I've always thought that I would put that number closer to 2%. I think only 2% of the population are genuinely funny in the way that they can stand in front of a crowd and be intriguing enough to capture their attention.
What are a few things every comedian should keep in mind while starting out?
No matter how long you think it's going to take you to get to the next level, triple that time. That's realistically how long it'll take. Also, don't get into the business because you want to be famous. Do it because you love it. Or more than loving it, do it because you don't know what else you'd do. Because it's not fun a lot of the time.
It's summertime right now, and I'm honestly broke. The winter is great for shows, but during the summer I'm broke. It's not fun, and part of me wishes I had jobs like my friends. But I honestly have no interest in anything else. Beyond that, get to the punch line as soon as you can, and after you're introduced, start talking before the applause dies down.
Issac Witty is headlining five shows at the Comedy Club on State this week, performing at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 7, as well as 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday, June 8-9.