It's a tall order, trying to find the funniest story that Philadelphia, the District or New York has to tell.
But D.C. storytelling series Story League has laid down the challenge: This weekend at the Black Cat, it will pit winners of New York's revered Moth, against winners of Philadelphia's First Person Arts against Story League stars and generally funny guys from the District, to name one, at the close of the night, the creator of the funniest story on the East Coast. (Nevermind that Boston, Providence and Pittsburgh have clearly been cut out of this deal.)
Story League, whose public competitions take place at the Black Cat, Busboys & Poets and other venues, is testing the conditions for someday taking its popular competitions on the road. This year, it began focusing on presenting only funny stories to crowds. People "don't want to sit in on someone's therapy session. They want to laugh," explains Scott Shrake, the executive producer of Story League. To host this weekend's competition, Shrake tapped David Crabb, a New York-based actor and storyteller who has won his share of Moth titles and even teaches the art of telling a good story.
Crabb performed his solo show, "Bad Kid," about growing up a goth kid in Texas, last fall at Artisphere, and has hosted Story League's competitions twice before. "He's the closest thing to a rock star that the story world has," says Shrake. "He's just an exceptional host. He keeps the energy high, and he's so quick, and so witty." And Crabb's specialty is telling a funny story.
Before Saturday's competition The Post talked with Crabb about what he thinks makes a story click with crowds. The interview has been condensed for length.
Is there a good formula for telling a story?
Crabb: It just comes down to making sure you have a beginning, middle and end. The craft of storytelling is all about structure. There are a lot of great people that you probably know who tell wonderful anecdotes. If you take this person to a bar, or to meet your friends or family, they might be really, really entertaining. You know those people, that you're like, 'Oh, my god, you have to tell my mom about that time you made out with Bono or you were in the car crash,' or whatever.
The thing about storytelling, when you go onstage and you have five, six, 10 minutes, it's all about you. How do you replicate that way you're a great conversationalist socially when you have the stage, when you have the floor, just talking to people directly? For me, it's the structure. And, what is your conflict?
How does comedic storytelling differ from stand-up? Do you still have to read your crowd?
Definitely. I really admire stand-ups because it's a hard job. You're up on stage in front of people and can literally gauge your performance every 15 seconds. Like: 'They didn't laugh. I'm not doing good. Or, they're laughing so much, I'm doing great.'
The job of a storyteller isn't to make people laugh. Some of the funniest stories I've ever heard sound, for two or three minutes, like pedestrian narratives. But it's about the reveal, and what we're building to that sometimes gets the biggest laugh.
In your own stories, what makes it work?
I like to think about storytelling the way I think about music. There are storytellers that tell stories in ways that remind me of different bands. I think my favorites, and the way I like to tell stories, is a very Pixies or Smashing Pumpkins approach -- a very loud/quiet, hard/soft approach. I feel like there needs to be dark and shade there. Basically, tension and relief. My favorite stories I enjoy telling is a story where I want to deliver a story that has weight or meaning, but I use comedy and laughter to get you there.
'Bad Kid' came out of all these separate [stories]. Some of those are about my crazy goth friend Sylvia who wore a lot of black and wore face foundation that was way too pale for her face. And this skinhead I knew and our unlikely friendship because I was a little guy in a dog collar with black fingernails.
What do people respond to in these stories? I imagine a lot of people in your audience weren't necessarily goths who grew up in Texas.
Right. It's about how you can present something that may be out of someone's experience that you can still make them understand. I did 'Bad Kid' in Arlington, and there's lots of drugs, there's lots of sex, there's lots of music from the '90s, and there's three dance numbers at, like, a discotheque. And in the front row were basically like four senior citizens -- two very old women, and two very old men. At the end of the show, one of the women came up and shook my hand and was like, 'It's so great that you made a show about how hard it is to be a parent.' I play both of my parents, but it's never been a focal point to me that this is a show about them. It's about making your story universal. Some people might not understand the place, or the music or the fashion, but if you make them understand how all the characters feel, that goes a really long way. This great-grandmother did not know who Joy Division was, but she had a good time.
Who's going to win this thing? Does D.C. tell stories differently versus Philly versus New York?
I don't really think it has as much to do with region as much as it has to do with shows. You hear a different story at the Moth than you hear at Speakeasy than you're going to hear at a community center. You're finding more and more niche storytelling groups, like, 'We do storytelling and it's about laughs. We do storytelling and it's about community issues.' In New York, there's a science storytelling show, a music storytelling show, there's a burlesque storytelling show.
What would make a story the funniest story on the East Coast?
The trick of a good storyteller is they walk off stage and you feel like you just had a conversation. I mean, there's no illusion that it's not a performance, right? They practice. But you feel like something really organic has happened. That's a principle when I'm teaching storytelling and that I really enjoy: Seeing someone at their truest self. The way Bobcat Goldthwait is funny, and Rita Rudner is funny, and Robin Williams was funny -- all those people are successful because they found the way that they're funny. Who knows what's going to happen this weekend, whether someone is going to be funny because they're super-super physical, and they make crazy faces, or are someone else who might not even gesticulate with their hands, but their writing is so clever, you laugh your a-- off.
The Story League Masters Championship is Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. Tickets are $15-$20.