August 13, 2008

The architecture of the joke

Comedian David VanAvermaete

By Mark Langton

Article Launched: 08/14/2008 01:34:21 PM, Marin Independent Journal

Standup comic David VanAvermaete, 55, who will probably live to 110, is having a mid-life crisis.

Looking like a cross between Jiminy Cricket and a short-cropped Benjamin Franklin, dressed in all "neo-boho-preppie" black, VanAvermaete is not only an award-winning comedian, he is the former CEO of a $1 billion Fortune 500 company.

Not your run-of-the-mill millionaire, VanAvermaete found he was unsatisfied with early retirement. Smart, edgy, restless and quick, he turned his lively, analytical mind from corporate re-structuring to the architecture of the perfect joke.

When VanAvermaete joined LifeScan, a medical device company in Milpitas in 1990, he took it from being a $90 million business to a multibillion-dollar division of Johnson & Johnson. When he retired five years ago, he enrolled in the San Francisco Comedy College (SFCC) and became a member in good standing, so to speak, of the Stand-up Project, the SFCC's premier performance troupe.

In recent years, he has earned first place in the 2006 Rooster T. Feathers Comedy Competition in Sunnyvale and the 2007 Tommy T's Comedy Competition in San Jose. He was runner-up at the 2007 San Francisco International Comedy Competition, the contest that launched the careers of Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, Ellen Degeneres and Kevin Pollak (all of whom finished second, too).

VanAvermaete -also a former PGA golf professional -is set to headline a new comedy series that kicks off Aug. 14 at the Seafood Peddler restaurant, an oasis of classy dining situated in a kind of no-man’s land in the middle of San Rafael’s canal district, surrounded by an abandoned Chrysler car dealership to the left and a houseboat shanty-town to the right. Hoping to lure new patrons to navigate the seaweed and tumbleweeds, the upscale eatery has booked VanAvermaete, Johnny Steele, Larry “Bubbles” Brown and Richard Stockton, for the first of what will hopefully be a regular offering of comedy muckey-mucks (yuckey-mucks?).

Reached during his lunch at the American Ale House in Reston, Va., VanAvermaete shared his thoughts on his unique, analytical approach to comedy as he carefully dissected a filet of haddock.

Q: Let's start with the most obvious question: How did you go from a CEO of a $1 billion Fortune 500 company to stand-up comedy?

A: Well, I've been a fan of comedy longer than I can remember. As I was moving through my corporate career, I used to go watch standup a lot and made a habit of stealing the best jokes and incorporating them into my presentations at business meetings. I found it to be an effective communication tool. When I retired, a friend of mine said, why not go to the standup comedy college - yes, there really is such a thing - and do it for real? I found the idea fascinating.

Q: Can that be taught? Can someone learn how to be funny?

A: I think so. It helps to be naturally funny. What they teach you there is there's a whole language of comedy - premises, punchlines, setups, callbacks, tags É it's a writing medium that has its own vernacular, its own structure. When you watch a comedian work, you might think it's just flowing out of his head extemporaneously, but usually it's not. There's a precise structure there, where the words are extraordinarily important. Just where you put the word is in the sentence is so important. If you watch a comedian do the same set night after night, as I have at comedy competitions, you find he becomes redundant. But when it's done well, it sounds like it's coming out of his mouth for the first time.

A good routine is one word or one punchline from being a great routine. I analyzed routines into PLPM's - that's punch lines per minute - shooting for six to seven. For competitions, I used to record bits and weigh laughs on a 1 to 4 scale, 4 equaling an applause break, and score routines 15 laugh points per minute. For a six-minute set, you want 30 to 40 punch lines and 90 laugh points. You have to treat every second like it's gold. You want to avoid riffing, orchestrate controllable interaction. You want your first sentence to be funny - not "Welcome, Sunnyvale! How's everyone doing?" That's just BS. Every word is important. Wasted words equal wasted time.

Q: How do you know what's unnecessary?

A: By constant trial and error. By weeding out words that aren't funny and putting in words that are. For example, for some reason, words with a lot of consonants are funny. I'm not sure why that is. But even then, it has to be the right word. The word "fish?" Not so funny. But the word "haddock" - now THAT'S funny É

It can also be a visual thing, too. You can have the funniest joke in the world, but if you don't have the right body language, they look at you like you just did a card trick for a dog.

Q: Now that's a funny line.

A: Ah, but it's funnier when you cock your head to the side when you say it. (Laughter) See what I mean?


What: Marin Comedy Show series at the Seafood Peddler

Who: David VanAvermaete, Johnny Steele, Larry "Bubbles" Brown, Richard Stockton

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 14

Where: Palm Ballroom, Seafood Peddler restaurant, 100 Yacht Club Drive, San Rafael

Tickets: First row with table $25; second/third row with table $20; general admission $15 (two-drink minimum)

Information: 460-6669 (dinner reservations),

Mark Langton can be reached at

August 07, 2008

Marin Shakes' "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)"

Jarion Monroe, Darren Bridgett and Ryan Schmidt (from left)
infuse some popular culture into Marin Shakespeare 's
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) in which
they storm through all 37 of the Bard s plays in less than two hours.
(Provided by Marin Shakespeare Company)

Article Launched: 07/11/2007 11:10:03 PM, Marin Independant Journal

The Works

By Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

There is a great moment in Marin Shakespeare Company's new revival of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" that strikes a note with anyone who has ever struggled with the Bard's text. Actor Ryan Schmidt addresses fellow actor Darren Bridgett with a typically florid and complex passage of Elizabethan verse, causing Bridgett to take pause. "What did you just say?" replies Bridgett, cracking both of them up.

You don't have to be a scholar or even a fan of Shakespeare to appreciate this bawdy, silly and thoroughly enjoyable romp through the Bard's canon, which had its opening last Friday and continues through Aug. 12 at Dominican University's Forest Meadows Amphitheatre.

Vigorously performed by actors Darren Bridgett, Jarion Monroe and Ryan Schmidt, the premise is that three actors have taken on the daunting task of presenting all 37 of Shakespeare's plays in under two hours, playing 75 different roles.

Not familiar with Shakespeare? These guys fill in the gaps. Know your Bard? All the funnier for you.

What makes it all come together and work so smoothly and so well are three things: A literate, wide-open script by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, whose Reduced Shakespeare Co. used to perform it at the original Renaissance Faire in Novato; the able direction of MSC co-founder Robert Currier, who is firmly in his element here; and the talents of three local actors - most notably Bridgett, who unavoidably steals the show.

While the format and order of scenes remain mostly unchanged, a lot of the pop culture references have been updated. There's a timely send-up of "The Sopranos," a racy reference to "Brokeback Shakespeare," the occasional George Bush snicker ("Mission accomplished! Heh, heh, heh"), as well as references to Paris Hilton, Stephen Colbert, Lindsay Lohan - even iPhones.

The evening starts off with a parody of "Romeo and Juliet" that plays like a French farce, featuring Schmidt as Romeo and Bridgett as Juliet, followed by a send-up of "Titus Andronicus," done as a gore-filled cooking show led by a French-accented Monroe. The histories are played as a football game, using a crown for the ball, and all 16 comedies are performed as one - the point, of course, is they pretty much all have the same plot anyway, so what the heck.

"Othello" is still done as a one-minute rap song ("Let me tell you people all about/a man named Othello/he liked white women/and he liked green Jell-O...!") with Bridgett doing the Moor of Venice dressed like a pirate (picture Darren Bridgett doing Johnny Depp doing Keith Richards doing Othello). Also quite funny is an abbreviated "Macbeth" done in an incomprehensible Scottish burr. The sonnets are dispensed with by combining them all on a 3X5 card to be passed throughout the audience, and the second act is given over completely to "Hamlet."

There is plenty of bawdy innuendo, but parents needn't worry, as it passes right over kids' heads - almost. During a quick skip through "Anthony and Cleopatra" last Friday, the children in the audience laughed knowingly when the punning bordered on the obscene, causing Bridgett to look out at his director in the audience and ad lib, "Oh, Bobbbbb....I think we need to do more preeeviews...."

During a sock-puppet Punch and Judy show for the play-within-a-play from "Hamlet," a simulated sex act (between puppets) caused Bridgett to run upstage, holding out his hands to block the children's view. "Think of something else!" he shouted, then started singing, "Oh, the wheels of the bus go round and round...."

Monroe, the most classically trained of the three, provides many stylized touches throughout the evening and quietly classes up the joint. Newcomer Schmidt is extremely likable, and holds his own admirably with these two older pros. However, there is no escaping it: Bridgett's immense talent almost swallows the other two.

There comes a moment in this play when one of the actors gets to do a straight reading of one of Hamlet's great soliloquies, "What a piece of work is man...." Most productions will slowly dim the lights for this scene, or otherwise darken the theater to signal a shift or create a reverent air. Not so here.

When the task fell to Bridgett Friday night, he started the speech so casually he almost threw the thing away. But as he began to slow it down, and met the gaze of his audience, it was the sheer beauty of the words and the quiet honesty of their delivery that snuck up on this audience and brought it to silence, the way great poetry can sneak up on you, grab your heart and stop you in your tracks. The scene was everything it should have been, and more, placing things in their proper perspective, and back in their proper place.

Doubting Thomases, doubt no more.


What: "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" by Jess Borgeson, Adam Long and Daniel Singer

Who: Marin Shakespeare Company

When: Through Aug. 12; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays

Where: Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 1475 Grand Ave., San Rafael, on the Dominican University campus

Tickets: $15 to $30

Information: 499-4488,

Rating: Five stars out of five

Mark Langton can be reached at

August 04, 2008

Last man standing

By Mark Langton

Article Launched: 07/24/2008 10:47:06 PM PDT, Marin Independent Journal

Stand-up comic Mark Pitta is a very funny guy. His impression of an apoplectic Al Pacino ordering coffee at Starbucks is to die laughing for. Ditto his tear-up of rock concert lineups (Talking Heads with Simple Minds, Meat Loaf and Bread, Climax with the Pretenders and so on). And he's been known to kill audiences with his routine about Celebrity Voice GPS Devices. With all the voices in his head, he'd probably make a great ventriloquist - if he ever stopped moving his lips.

Pitta is also a very busy guy. The unapologetically in-your-face, shoot-from-the-lip host of the popular comedy showcase "Mark Pitta and Friends," which is every Tuesday night at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, is about to undertake a three-day Comedy Marathon, Aug. 1-3, featuring 200 or so of his funniest friends.

Proceeds will benefit ailing comedian Max Alexander, a New York-bred, Los Angeles-based comedian who received a kidney from his brother earlier this month.

Q: Why a comedy marathon? Are you trying to break a world record?

A: Funny you should say that. That was the original idea. At least until we had to deal with the Guinness Book people. They are the most annoying people to deal with in the world. They have all these ridiculous rules - we would have had to pay two of their representatives to be there $2,000 apiece or something. We would have had to pay for a medical team - theirs - and account for this and that. É In effect, their attempts to dictate how to do it improbability of pulling it off, took all the fun out of it. By eliminating the Guinness aspect, it took our ego out of it and put the fun back into organizing it. I think there's a reason they're called Guinness, 'cause when you're negotiating with 'em they're on a two-beer buzz. They're a little foggy over there.

We were going to do this Guinness attempt and pick a charity, but when we got tired of dealing with them, we thought, why not make Max our charity?

Q: You've billed this event as you and ALL your funny friends. Are you inviting comedians from anywhere or just the Bay Area?

A: All over. We've got comedians flying in from L.A. who know Max, comedians who are coming in who happen to be in the city (San Francisco). Todd Glass is headlining the Punch Line, we're trying to get Kevin Nealon, who happens to be performing in town that weekend. Lots of local comics, of course.

Q: You've frequently had Tuesday night drop-ins by the likes of Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, Richard Lewis, Kevin Pollack É are you expecting them to show up?

A: Dana is in Tahoe and is coming back on the third, so depending on when he comes in he'll probably show up on Sunday. There are more who are only available on Sunday. There's nothing concrete. Robin was here a couple of Tuesdays ago and told me he's leaving the area for five weeks to make a movie, so he won't be showing up. I'm still billing it as Mark Pitta and Friends, and when you look at the list, these really are my friends, so it's kind of cool. I book people who I know are hilarious but they're not household names, so the audiences are discovering them at the Throckmorton when in reality they've been doing it 10-15 years.

Q: Is 142 Throckmorton a tough room?

A: It's a tough room for people who do not have their street cred. It's become an A room. There's a huge misconception that Tuesdays are an open mike. It's never been an open mike; it's a showcase room for working comics. These guys work for a living. You'd never call the MGM Grand and say, "Hey, I'm gonna try comedy É"

Q: Is anything off limits these days?

A: If you're smart, you won't do breast cancer jokes in the No. 1 county for breast cancer.

Off limits to me is being boring. I wouldn't recommend doing your act word for word the same way every time. But topics? I've never told anybody what to do or what not do. No subject is off limits. I'd say 'know your environment.' Child abduction jokes, pedophile jokes - probably not good. But people get hissed a lot around here. When Robin Williams was here last time, he got hissed for certain. Whenever that happens, Robin goes, "Uh oh É the p.c. snake is loose again."


- What: Mark Pitta and Friends' 3-Day Comedy Marathon, "How Long Can You Laugh?"

- When: 5 p.m. Aug. 1 to 2 a.m. Aug. 2, noon Aug. 2 to 2 a.m. Aug. 3, noon Aug. 3 to 10 p.m. (or longer). There will be two breaks from 2 a.m. to noon on Saturday morning and Sunday morning.

- Where: 142 Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley

- Tickets: $10 each visit

- Information: 383-9600, www. 142throckmorton