by Dan Fields
Outrageous Live Comedy, Deadly Sharp
“Roughly 24 to 92 hours ago*, STAB!’s team of comedy scientists commissioned 4 specific humorists** to give various potentially comedic takes on several random topics, which they’ll now perform for the first and likely last time, in front of a live studio audience, in a show called…
With these words of introduction, welcome to a world of high-spirited, fiercely funny, savagely dark entertainment. Stab! is a live comedy show featuring a rotating lineup of the freshest young comics you ought to be hearing. Lucky for those outside the show’s home territory, the performances are available as a weekly podcast. Created by Sacramento comedians John Ross and Jesse Jones, Stab! began as a friendly teamup of like minds looking for a new kind of comedy project.
The format of Stab! is simple, but open to endless possibilities. Each night’s panel of humorists take turns presenting sketches, poems and monologues based on a series of prompts they have received only a short time in advance. The format incorporates the wild variety of a standup open mic, the careful composition of a sketch show, and the madcap spontaneity of improv. There are few if any limits on the material, and the results while often inspired tend to be mighty edgy. People wishing to know more of Stab! should take a clue from the show’s title. It is not safe or comfortable comedy. Let those with delicate sensibilities be warned.
*Despite what the introductory voiceover cites, panelists routinely berate John Ross, the show’s MC, for sending them prompts less than a day in advance, much to general amusement.
**Stab! has since cut the original 4-performer lineup down to 3 (and occasionally 2), but rather than waste the signature voiceover track by John Alston, show audiences have made a game of yelling out these inaccuracies as the intro plays. Tradition is important. And do you think these folks are made of authoritative voiceover? They are not.
Earlier this year, the Stab! crew performed at the 4th Annual Los Angeles Scripted Comedy Festival, held at the prestigious iO West Theater. Some will know iO West, or its mothership theater in Chicago, under the former title of ImprovOlympic. By a happy chance, the timing worked out for Stab! to record its 100th show at the festival. Fresh from triumphant conquest in LA, show host and co-creator John Ross shares his perspective on the history of Stab! as it (sort of) turns a century old.
FPR: First of all, how was the Comedy Festival?
John Ross: Overall, it was great. We had a good time, and it was fun to be able to perform at iO, which is kind of a bigger theater. Danielle [Mandella, one of the show’s producers] and Jesse [Jones, a regular featured panelist] are both iO alums, so that was kind of a homecoming for them too.
Is this the first time Stab! has gone “on the road?”
JR: Predominantly we’ve kept it in Sacramento, and that was the first time we’ve gotten to LA.
Most people’s access to the show is limited to what they can find on iTunes, maybe 70 or 75 episodes. How old is Stab! really?
JR: I think we just put our 71st episode on. It’s funny how it landed when we did the Comedy Festival at iO. That was actually our hundredth show! When we first started, it was about three years ago. Jesse and I were producing different shows, like the 48-Hour Comedy Festival. That was an all-night marathon. I had done a show prior to that called Comedy From The Couch. I would host it. Three comedians would be on a couch, and then I would write a couple of bits that we would play with. Most of it was to bring the green room to the stage, where they’d have a comedian on stage and we’d interrupt each other, just talk trash about each other on stage.
So the seeds of Stab! were there.
JR: Yeah. We did that for a few years, and eventually for the 48-Hour Comedy Festival, I’d bump a format to Jesse like “Hey, here’s something I think you’d be good at,” because he’s an excellent writer. We were both working at the Sacramento Comedy Spot, which is sort of a UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade)/iO of Sacramento. It’s more improv and sketch based. I was teaching a standup program there and he was running the sketch program. We had never done anything creatively together. We were at a bar after some shows, and were like “Why are we not working together? We need to work together on something.” And we came up with the idea of Stab!
Had you known Jesse for a while before this?
JR: Jesse I had known for about a decade. I met him when I started doing standup comedy, at an open mic. I had seen him around, and then he went to LA for six years of those ten.
You’re both originally Sacramento guys?
In the original plan for the show, were you ever tagged as a performer or were you always the designated MC?
JR: For Stab! I’ve always been the MC. Even in earlier stages of the show, and with things like Comedy From The Couch, I always emceed it. Sometimes – I don’t like doing it anymore – I was given some sort of monologue. But for the most part, I just emceed it. I’ve always said that Stab! is the kind of show I couldn’t do as a performer, just because some of the people we book are so damned good, I couldn’t hold a candle to their writing.
It would be great to see, if you were on a panel, what kind of sadistic prompts they would give you.
JR: We actually talked about doing that for the hundredth show, that I could be a panelist. We talked about reaching out to everyone I’ve screwed over on stage with a weird prompt [laughs], having them task me with it. I think that would be really funny.
There’s a fraternal, collegial vibe that comes across just listening to the show. Is there a regular core of people who show up even when they are not performing?
JR: Yes, there are a couple of regulars that really support the show. Mostly I think we get bored as standup comedians seeing each other perform the same shit all the time.
Stab! operates largely on the element of surprise. Ross composes the prompts, but each comedian has total freedom to interpret his or her own assignments. In contrast to the experience of hosting a traditional scripted show, Ross gets the chance to be as shocked as the audience by what comes out of this process. The program is divided into recurring segments, such as
- This Was Today Once – panelists invent absurd or dubious holiday traditions to commemorate historical events from a date in history. In one show-stopping bit, comedian Edgar Granados envisioned Jose Canseco’s birthday party as an apocalyptic Gonzo orgy worthy of Hunter Thompson at the Kentucky Derby. Meanwhile, Jesse Jones celebrated an historic Supreme Court decision on sexual harassment by ruthlessly ogling and propositioning John Ross with unsettling innuendos about candy (it was also the date of comedian John Candy’s death).
- Location, Location, Location – panelists advertise a business they have set up in an ill-advised location. Picture a fashion boutique in the ruins of Chernobyl with garments tailored to complement horrific body mutations. Or bring your bright-eyed Western brood to the premier bounce-house amusement park in North Korea.
- Top 5 Google Searches Of… – panelists imagine the deepest darkest internet queries conducted by a person, character or abstract concept. Learn the insecurities of Count Chocula, Leonard Nimoy’s ailing heart, the last of an endangered African rhino species, and even HIV/AIDS, which asked Google the desperate question “Is there a cure for Charlie Sheen?”
- Topical Haiku Challenge – in a glib perversion of Japanese lyric tradition, panelists compose 17-syllable commentaries on world events. Prepared to examine, with Zen delight, the lighter side of weather disasters, global pandemics, high-profile criminal cases and more.
This is just a sample of the tone and content to be expected from Stab! It will not be for everyone, but the bracing jokes can be truly cathartic. It works as an outlet for the mischievous little rants and asides most people keep bottled up in the name of good taste. Taken in the proper spirit, Stab! can flush a listener’s emotional toxins. Whether you rationalize it as an emetic for the soul or just plain smart comedy, it is likely to tease out a smile on the worst day of your week.
It’s not easy to find fresh comedy in the podcast world. Too many programs are about comedy, or people reviewing comedy, very little actual comedy. You might hear shows like Stab! live, but never on a podcast.
JR: That was one of things I always thought. It’s kind of like “Why do we give a shit about what you think? Entertain me!” You know what I mean?
How wide a net do you cast for performers? If you are drawing from mostly local talent, you must have a pretty robust comedy scene in Sacramento.
JR: It actually surprised me, to be honest. But we do mostly pull from Sacramento, and when we go to the Bay we bring our heavy hitters with us. There’s a great scene of comedians in Sacramento. And there’s still a lot of people we haven’t tried, or given their second show yet. A lot of times I’m booking it two days before the show will be, so you’ll notice we have a lot of go-to guys, like Ben Rice, Joe Joe Louis, Jaclyn Weiand, Johnny Taylor…
You’ve got lo-fi sound cues. Audience members cackle, heckle and howl. It feels very extemporaneous. You could always produce the show more slickly, make it smooth, but it feels more like being there when it’s not.
Stab!‘s regular venue is Luna’s Cafe and Juice Bar, a local spot for bites and beverages with a rich running calendar of arts and entertainment. For anyone hoping to catch the raucous program in person, Stab! customarily takes the place over on Wednesday nights.
Tell me about Luna’s.
JR: Luna’s is kind of a Sacramento comedy staple. But it’s also a poetry staple, a Sacramento jazz band staple… there’s always something going on. It’s the place I got to do my first fifteen minutes of standup. Shows have come and gone over the years there, and the Wednesday Comedy Night used to be huge. It kind of died off and they started a Tuesday open mic. I noticed there was an opening on the Wednesday night calendar, and I was like “We can’t let comedy die on Wednesdays at Luna’s! It’s been here for fifteen years. Stab! was a kind of answer to that. The guy that used to run it on Wednesday, had a show called Funny Peculiar, which was an offbeat show, so I wanted to keep an offbeat show there on Wednesdays. At least it will have that vibe of an alternative comedy show that’s not just standup.
How soon did you get the idea of making a podcast?
JR: The first shows we did, we podcasted maybe five or six of them, and then there was a little bump in the road for about six months whether it was something we wanted to do on a regular basis. We didn’t really have a home for it, and we couldn’t get a draw at the venue where we were, which led to Luna’s. But yes, we always had the intention to. There’s so much writing that goes into that show, and we only do it once, so we need to preserve it because we’re not repeating it.
There’s comedy dynamite going off in every show. What a shame it would be if only the people in that room could hear it.
JR: We have lost episodes where the sound equipment screwed up. We’ve tried to rewrite some of those bits into a different show so it’s not completely lost.
Are there any episodes where someone overshot decency too much to make the airwaves?
It’s hard to imagine what that would be like.
JR: Well… yeah! [Laughs] Here is our philosophy. Me and Jesse back each other up on this. If at any point during writing the show we think to ourselves, “We shouldn’t put this in the show…” we put it in the show. It’s always like, “Is this too dark?” God, no. We’re never going to ask that question.
It does make it difficult to recommend the show to just anyone.
JR: We try not to be gratuitous for the sake of it, but it gets pretty blue. I’ve sat there cringing before. Even if it’s something that’s going to make me uncomfortable, sorry! It’s better for the show.
As host, Ross keeps the program running in some coherent form, even when wheezing with appalled laughter. The show’s second pillar is Jesse Jones, the one permanent panelist. He is Stab!‘s cleanup batter, his powerful imagination a built-in safety valve for nights when the show’s energy strains under a struggling performer or a segment prompt that did not quite pan out. Jones approaches even the most bewildering, arid-sounding idea from unexpected angles. More often than not he brings the house down, and to do so in ways not even a room full of comedians can predict shows how much work he must devote to the process. Not for nothing has Ross made a catchphrase of the words, “Jesse Jones, bring it home.”
JR: Jesse I’ve always known as the “bring it home” guy. He’s always been the save. I get worried if Jesse can’t make a show, and he’s only missed a couple. I actually have a couple of other ringers, but there have been nights when I’m writing the show last-minute and he happens to be there. He won’t let me show him the prompts. I think of a prompt that will be funny and I want to share it with him, and he’s like, “Don’t show it to me. I don’t want to see it before everyone else.” Also, we do two shows a night, so if you think about it, Jesse’s actually writing twice as much as anyone else. Everyone in our scene respects him as a monster.
He’s a craftsman. It might take the audience fifteen seconds to get a punchline sometimes, but when they figure it out… holy shit.
JR: Yes. He’s probably the main reason I don’t want to do the show.
It’s always got an element of chaos, but you’ve honed it.
JR: [Sounds of modest demurral].
A healthy cadre of regulars come to the Stab! performances on nights they have not been asked to perform. Local comedians evidently love to watch their colleagues in the hot seat. The room crackles with a social club vibe. Ross admits that the energy can vary wildly with the number of civilians in attendance, but even when numbers are low, the faithful maintain a constant buzz of appreciative mirth. Stab! is as much for its own community of comics as for the public, like a songwriter circle or a poetry slam.
Everybody brings their own flavor to the table. Some people thrive on certain prompts or certain shows, and some people struggle. If they bomb, they kind of make that the joke. Now and then there are episodes where everyone hits a special pitch of jagged, aggressive, perfectly dark comedy. It’s hard to describe, but that’s what I think of as the essence of Stab! What do you make of that?
JR: Dark comedy can sometimes be contrived. Even personally with my own standup, I never want it to seem like I’m trying too hard to be edgy. That being said, it was the intention of Stab! Art is meant to make you uncomfortable, I think.
It’s rarely if ever mean-spirited, no matter how dark it gets. It’s still fun.
JR: Sometimes I’ll write a prompt that could very easily go too far. Racist, sexist… I get nervous. I know which prompts to give which people, knowing the route it might take. In context it will make sense, but I’ve said probably ten times during the show, “I’m so glad nobody walked in in the middle of that.” Jesse and I have had a hard time selling the show, as far as “how would you describe the show?” I don’t want to give a disclaimer, but it’s definitely a practice in context. You’re going to have to stay in context with what the show is so you’re not horribly offended.
Stab! is a comedy experience that welcomes all fans but stands resolutely on its own terms. In choosing to broadcast its performances, Ross and Jones offer listeners a free chance to enjoy custom-crafted, one-time-only material from a host of original comic minds. It may fly in the face of what many consider polite entertainment, but anyone interested in the intellectual boundaries of comedy should try it once. Even those who walk away from Stab! feeling maimed or nauseous are bound to recognize the ferocious level of creativity it promotes.