This story starts with a cow in the middle of a Utah road, mooing, perhaps, but not moving. Joe Klocek, a self-described, fledgling, 27-year-old comedian at the time, who owned nothing but the car that hit this cow and the contents inside, suddenly found himself walking through the Utah desert with a backpack on and $60 in his pocket.
Fast-forward. One night, before Joe performed at Club Deluxe, his friend Dhaya Lakshminarayanan dared him to tell the story about the cow, which he had been telling friends for years, instead of doing his bit. "I gave the audience the entire emotional backstory it happened in as well as the completely vulnerable, complete honest truth," Klocek says. "When the laughter came it was richer, longer, deeper and coming from a place inside the audience that I rarely felt like I was connecting with. I was being a complete, real person so they laughed like real, complete people."
That was one year and four months ago. The show, Previously Secret Information, has sold out almost every single month since then, with two performances each night, at Stage Werks' underground theater. Featuring no more than four performers, PSI forces artists with stage experience to drop the act and, without notes, tell a true story. I recently spoke with Klocek about the differences between PSI and traditional comedy shows.
(How) has this show changed your feelings about standup?
Storytelling is the next logical place for comics who are evolving and want to share themselves with an audience in a more complete way. When you think about it, a comic's job is very limited. We have to make you laugh every thirty seconds. Eliciting the same emotion over and over from a crowd limits how much of myself I can express. After 20 years of learning how to make audiences laugh, I realized that there was a huge part to being human I was editing out of my "act." ... I love stand-up, always will. [But] As I have gotten older it has felt more restraining.
Do you think that PSI gives audience members a look at the creative process of comedians?
It's less about the creative process and more about presenting what really happened. As a comic, if something extraordinary happens to me, I have to edit it down to what is funny. As a result, the entire story can be melted down to one or two pithy jokes that might not even retain any connection to the actual event once they are told on stage. Instead of a joke, I want to tell the whole story.
Do you find that you have a different crowd than at previous, more traditional comedy shows?
My theory has been and so far has held up that if you have a funny person tell a serious story, he will find the humor. People go to a comedy club because they want to laugh with a big name comic, get drunk and forget about life for a night. People come to PSI because they want to hear an amazing story about life that will make them laugh. It's a big difference.
I read a review that speaks of "that delicious moment when we get to see a seasoned performer caught off-guard." Is the show's change in format very difficult for other performers?
Sometimes we have seen pros pushed outside their comfort zone. ...It is a very human moment to see a vet realize all his tricks and years of stagecraft have to be dropped in favor of being real. I remember the night this review was written about. You could see when the comic let go and stopped trying to make us laugh and turned on as a person and started killing by just being real. It was like the whole audience took a breath. Watching it from the side I thought this crowd was lucky because they got to share in the actual moment when the concept came alive. Everyone, the comic and the audience, all seemed to get it at once. You would think storytelling wouldn't have to be explained to performers or audience. It demonstrates just how far away from the simplest human tradition we have moved. No matter how many special effects or live performance tricks you have, you have to be able to tell a story.
With production, tech, and utility help from Bruce Pachtman and Ty Mckenzie, Klocek prepares each storyteller (and story) for the experience. This month's show features Lakshminarayanan, SF comedy icon Greg Proops (best known for his role in Whose Line is it Anyway?), and Klocek telling the cow story.
Previously Secret Information is Sunday, Aug 7, 2011, at 7pm and again at 9:30pm at Stage Werx, 446 Valencia Street in San Francisco. For more information visit previouslysecretinformation.com. The event is $25 or $35 for reserved seating; tickets can be purchased in advance for the early show or for the late show at brownpapertickets.com.