John Todd Ramsey: Clean comedy in a dirty world

Before he won the Funniest Person in Austin Competition in Spring 2005, John Todd Ramsey had done stand-up comedy only one time in his life. How then, you might ask, did a third-year law student with little stand-up experience go on to not only win the Funniest Person in Austin competition but also go on to perform on season two of Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham and at HBO’s US Comedy Arts Festival? The answer lies in what his MySpace page describes as his “clean and quasi-intellectual comedy that has made him a favorite with high school, college, church, corporate, and club audiences.”

Headlining at The Velveeta Room November 16 and 17, John Todd Ramsey sat down with budding comedian and That Other Paper writer Bradley Jackson to talk about his thoughts on the Austin comedy scene, Dane Cook, and why he doesn’t tell dirty jokes.

That Other Paper You came onto the Austin comedy scene quickly, right?

John Todd Ramsey Yeah, that’s right. I got here in August of 2002 to start law school, and I didn’t do anything with comedy at all until the Funniest Person in Austin Competition in 2005.

TOP Was competing in that contest just for fun, or was it a dare?

JTR I guess a few things. One, I did improv and sketch comedy in college and I really missed performing. And then on a whim the year before, my girlfriend, now my wife, went to the competition and I thought it would be fun to at least try this. Also a friend of mine in law school who is very funny and who I respect basically told me I should do it and got me some paperwork for me, so I signed up for it.

TOP Was that your first time to do standup?

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photo / Kristin Hillery John Todd Ramsey 

JTR I had done it one time for fun in college. A friend of mine who I’d done sketch and improv with and I thought we’d try standup, so we did it one time just to do it.

TOP How’d you do?

JTR I did well, but there were about 50 people in the crowd and we brought about 35 or 40 of them. So I don’t know how well I did, but I actually did about five minutes that night and I still tell about three minutes of those jokes.

TOP When you win the Funniest Person in Austin Award, does your phone start ringing the next day? What did it do for you?

JTR Well, it was different for me than it would be for most people, because for most people it’s kind of a notch in your belt to propel you into the next stage. For me, it was the first thing I ever did, so it kind of just propelled me. In my first year of comedy I squeezed in about three years’ worth of comedy with the gigs I got just around town. I didn’t do anything special except that I got to headline at The Velveeta Room, which normally takes about a year and a half, if you’re lucky. Instead I got to do that like three times my first year and I got to host at Cap City maybe five or six times my first year. And normally that would take some time, but it was good for me because that first year I got to progress a lot faster than I might have otherwise.

TOP Were you able to do anything else, like TV?

JTR I have now and I do think the things I’ve done now are still the result of having won the competition. Within a year, maybe 18 months, I had booked my first TV gig, and also the United States Comedy Arts Festival. The competition definitely got me where I needed to be to get those things as well as got me the credibility I needed to get them. Because I think everyone who’s won the competition since 1998 has been on Comedy Central within a year or two.

TOP Did you get an agent or a manager based on that?

JTR No.

TOP Do you think a comedian needs the representation of an agent or a manager?

JTR I don’t know a whole lot about it, but I think that there’s a certain level that you need to achieve before a manager can do you any good. And you have to have certain goals. If you want to be a road comic, you have to be good enough to be a road comic before you get a manager. I think you could be a pretty successful road comic without a manager at all. You get at the local club, your local club likes you and gets you regional clubs, and slowly you can go on. For someone who wants to be a writer or a TV comic, you might need a manager a little earlier. I don’t need a manager to do what I do, especially since I have another job and I don’t travel.

TOP When did you first realize you were funny?

JTR [laughs] You always have to tell yourself you’re funny. I mean, I just did a show this weekend at a private party, and those are the ones where you really have to convince yourself you’re funny before you go up there. I always enjoyed trying to be funny and all my friends in high school and my family are very funny. I guess I don’t think about being funny; I just think that everyone I’m around is funny. So I never thought of myself as an individual who was funny, but it was something I thought I could succeed at.

TOP Who are your comedic influences?

JTR My favorite comic is Brian Regan. But I’m not sure how much he influences me because I’ve tried to do his style of comedy and I just fail at it. So it’s something I’d like to be able to do the way he does it. I’ve written several jokes that I think would be funny if he told them, but I can’t pull it off. But he does encourage me with the idea that you can be funny and go very far being a clean comic. You know, I’d like to have shows like he has one day where there are eight-year-olds in the crowd. And then Mitch Hedberg was probably the first comedian that I thought was a genius. And Jerry Seinfeld.

TOP Seinfeld is another pretty clean comic.

JTR Right. Actually, Mitch Hedberg is a pretty clean comic if you don’t count language. But the subject matter… I mean, he does some stuff about drugs, but it’s not vulgar. With those two, I started thinking of good comedians as geniuses and not someone who’s just funny. They’re guys who could have succeeded as CEOs or whatever else, but they happened to have channeled their talents into comedy.

TOP So you think Mitch Hedberg could have been a CEO?

JTR [laughs] Well, he would have to have had a completely different lifestyle, but I mean that he’s just very brilliant, not just a guy who happens to be funny.

TOP So if you had to do a concise summary of your comedic styling, what would say?

JTR When I write jokes, I purposely try to make them smarter than they need to be. I have it on my MySpace page as “Quasi-intellectual,” and I feel like that’s pretty good. And I purposefully try to tell jokes where people will think, “Oh, that’s a smart joke, and I’m a smart person, so I like that joke.”

TOP You have a Russian poop joke, right?

JTR Yeah, it’s nothing more than a pun, but I decided that it’s not going to be funny unless it’s all the way. I don’t like to talk about my jokes like they’re important, but the Russian poop joke is just a dumb pun and a poop joke, but done really all the way, as far as it will go. Each joke individually is dumb, but there are 12 or 13 of them, so people like to see how far I go.

TOP How do you prepare?

JTR It depends on the show. I used to have exactly what I was going to do on paper and I would practice those jokes in that order, but now if it’s a show like at The Velveeta Room, which is a more relaxed environment, I try not to have my jokes in order. Because you don’t like to be rehearsed; they sense it. But if it’s a private show, I still will type out an exact list of jokes and if it’s an order I’ve never done before, I’ll type out a segue and read over it until the time I go onstage just to help me calm my nerves. Because those shows where you’re being paid to entertain like 45 people at a business luncheon are really intimidating.

TOP Do you still practice your delivery?

JTR I’ve told my jokes so many times now that I don’t really practice them anymore. But that’s lazy because I feel like a joke’s never really as funny as it could be. You can always find better delivery.

TOP Or a new detail.

JTR Yeah, like switching a word around. It sounds dumb but it’s true.

TOP Do you have a time of day when you like to write?

JTR Well, I just started writing again. I don’t think I’ve written a joke I would use in a set in like a year. Because my job as an attorney was just demanding enough that when I got home I didn’t want to do anything. So I recently moved to part time, and now I like to write when I’m driving, or anytime, really.

TOP Do you use Google Documents?

JTR No. Sadly enough I just use my phone.

TOP Do you call yourself and leave messages?

JTR [laughs] No, I just type it in.

TOP Has your law career helped your comedy career?

JTR I do feel like going to law school helped me with my comedy career in that I had a different sense of humor coming out of law school than I did going in. And I don’t mean bitter or anything. I learned a lot about learning in law school, and I do think the way my mind works is a little keener than it was before I want to law school, as much as I hated it. And so I feel like that informs the way I write my jokes, just in that there are funny things to be found in detail and logic. And that’s helped me because sometimes I think if I had started comedy just out of college then I’d be four years along, but I might have a different sense of humor. And the other way it’s helped in kind of a practical matter that it’s somewhat of a gimmick. People are interested in the fact that I’m an attorney and a comedian. And for corporate gigs they assume I’m professional and that I’ll show up on time. But I don’t have any jokes about being an attorney, so for the most part it’s been kind of a nice gimmick.

TOP Have you ever been heckled?

JTR Oh yeah. When you first start off, heckling is pretty devastating. And the worst kind of heckle is kind of the non-intelligible or when someone’s just drunk and they yell something, and there’s really nothing to respond to. I remember I did a guest spot at a show in San Antonio for Latino Comedy Night and I didn’t realize it was Latino Comedy night until I got there. And I got up on stage, and someone shouted out, “You’re white.” And I didn’t realize someone yelled, but everyone else heard it. I heard something, but I didn’t know what. And that kind of set the tone, because I didn’t address it at all; I just went through my set. And I was white.

TOP At the end of the day you are white.

JTR Yeah. There are some people who can really play with a heckler, and I have yet to master that. When I deal with a heckler it becomes very shrewd, and it’s a turn-off. It becomes a matter of tension. A good comic can take whatever is said and play with it and maybe work it back into their act. But I still generally just straight attack them.

TOP Do you still get nervous before shows?

JTR It’s much more rare now, but yeah. Especially if it’s a new environment. I get nervous when I have to do 40 minutes at a private show, because there’s a whole list of jokes I can’t tell at a private show. Even though I’m a clean comic, you don’t want to talk about racism or anything slightly offensive.

TOP What’s your opinion of the Austin comedy scene? Do you think it could compete with LA or New York?

JTR That’s a hard question. I don’t think it’s as good as New York or LA. I mean, they’ve got some of the best former Austin comics in LA. And it’s the same in New York, because people move there once they get good. But I would say there’s no better place than Austin to start. There are places that are as good like Boston, Seattle, and Minneapolis. But Austin is definitely one of the best places to start out because you can get plenty of stage time, you can get noticed, and then Comedy Central, HBO, and Montreal Festival all come through Austin specifically. And if I were in LA, I wouldn’t even get on the showcases.

TOP What’s your opinion on the current state of comedy?

JTR It’s really good. Because there’s something for everyone. And there are even good sitcoms now. I think live standup has never been better. If I got on the Internet right now, I could find someone who I’ve never seen before who could make me laugh really hard.

TOP So if a new comedian comes to Austin, what do you recommend he or she should do to get noticed?

JTR You go to open mics and you just bide your time and do well. And then you get to know the other comics, because sometimes it takes a comic to point out to other people that they like you. And then you get your best seven minutes together for the competition and you rework all your jokes and you do as well as you can possibly do. And even if you don’t win, people will notice if you do well.

TOP Do you like to do current events or politics?

JTR I don’t do those because I don’t want to write a joke that I won’t be able to tell in two years.

TOP So we’re not going to see any Monica Lewinsky jokes from you.

JTR [laughs] No.

TOP What do you think about the love-him-or-loathe-him opinion of Dane Cook?

JTR I think Dane Cook is very funny. He’s not my favorite comedian, but you can’t have that many fans and not be funny. And it may not be my standard of funny, but that’s someone who makes a ton of people laugh. Not to mention his Comedy Central Presents that he did several years ago – it was hilarious. And he’s somewhat a victim of his own success in that he’s got to put out a new hour every year. For instance, if I ever get a good hour of material, I will have spent my first five years of comedy getting that hour’s worth of material. And if I do an HBO special or do a tour or sell a DVD that 20 million people buy and I need to put out another one next year, then I’m going to have to take one year to do what took me a lifetime to do before. So I think he’s very funny and very talented.

TOP He’s easy to hate, but the people who hate him probably don’t take the time to see why he has so many fans.

JTR And it’s not the type of humor most comedians enjoy. But there’s no denying that he’s an extremely good performer and he’s funny.

TOP Why do you think so many comedians tend to be very self-deprecating when they’re first starting out?

JTR On one level, I think it’s arrogant to get on stage and assume you’re funny, and I think with the very idea that you’re in front of an audience to tell jokes that there’s an assumption that you think you’re funny. And I think sometimes you want to let them know that you don’t necessarily think you’re funny. You enjoy doing this and sometimes you make people laugh, but you don’t think just because you’re up there that you think you’re hilarious. Secondly, you are self-deprecating when things aren’t going well. You resort to something self-deprecating about yourself or your act even, and maybe the audience laughs, so you think, “I’ve got that, I can always use that.” And people joke about themselves all the time in real life as well.

TOP There are also a lot of comedians who really try to take advantage of being raunchy or using shock value. Some people think that’s kind of a cop-out, and you tend to stray from that kind of stuff. Is there such a thing as a cheap laugh, or is each laugh genuine in its own right, no matter where it comes from?

JTR That’s a good question because I wonder that sometimes myself. I think there are cheap laughs, but I don’t know when they come. Because it’s not the subject matter of the joke that determines whether it’s a cheap laugh. You could tell a really raunchy joke that’s very funny on its face and just happens to be raunchy. Just because of the way I am, I prefer to tell clean jokes, but I can appreciate the idea that some people are very funny and they use their humor to be raunchy. And that’s different from trying to be funny by being raunchy. I don’t think people who think they can get laughs simply by being shocking make it. People like Doug Stanhope, or to a lesser extent, Dave Attell – they’re very funny. They’re very smart and have well-crafted jokes that happen to be about very offensive subject matters.

TOP Why do you prefer to be clean?

JTR Practically speaking, I see no reason to isolate any portion of the audience, and in almost any crowd, no matter who’s there, 25 percent of them are not going to want to hear a joke about masturbation or some raunchy subject. Granted, maybe 75 percent have no problem, but the rest are going to think that it was over the line. And some comedians think “Good. That’s art and it’s edgy.” But I think that theoretically I can go and please 100 percent of the audience and offend nobody, and that, to me, is the best scenario. And I don’t feel like when I do my shows that people say, “Oh, that guy didn’t tell a single joke about sex or heroin.” If I feel like being clean, I can include 100 percent of the audience and isolate nobody.

TOP That makes sense.

JTR And there are certain things I kind of just grew up not talking about. And that’s because I was raised and am a Christian. And I don’t think there’s anything necessarily Christian about being a clean comic, but there’s a desire on my part to tell jokes that my mom or my little brothers could enjoy. And I wouldn’t have to worry about someone’s grandma showing up.

See John Ramsey John Todd Ramsey is performing on Friday and Saturday (Nov 16 and 17) night at the Velveeta Room. Shows are at 9:30pm and 11:30pm and tickets are $5 at the door.

More local comedy coverage from That Other Paper

Comments

Anonymous's picture

Good interview, but you should have asked him how he got so dang adorable.

Anonymous's picture

I heard it was because his mommy dumped him in sugar as a child.

CTowne's picture

@ Thursday Night Awesome this Thursday at 10:00p, ColdTowne Theater!