In recent years, Madison has established itself as an essential stop for top-tier touring comedians. But beyond the glow of the bright theater lights, the local stand-up scene is also teeming with talented comics.
Massachusetts native Sarah Connor, for one, is certain nobody would have described her as the class clown growing up.
“Class snark, maybe,” said the local stand-up, who will participate in Madison’s Funniest Comedian competition, an annual event that kicks off at the Comedy Club on State, 202 State St., on Wednesday, Feb. 6 (visit madisoncomedy.com for more information). “I was too shy. I still am shy. I don’t steal the spotlight when I’m out with people.”
Fortunately this is not the case when she’s onstage.
Connor, 33, brings a sense of physicality to her stand-up routine (in one bit she refers to herself as “horribly gangly” and talks about how each Halloween her mother would dress her as a praying mantis) developed over the course of a decade working as an improv and sketch comedian. When it comes to more traditional stand-up, however, the comic considers herself a novice.
Even so, she’s caught the attention of many in the local scene (in an email comedian Alan Talaga, who will also be taking part in the competition, said Connor “has been developing quickly”). She’s looking forward to a shot at redemption after failing to advance beyond the preliminaries of last year’s contest.
“I’d only been doing comedy like two months when I entered,” she said. “I was very inexperienced and nervous and awkward (the first time around). The chances of winning and the circumstances change each year you do it.”
Connor, who moved to Madison in 2008 to attend graduate school, talked to The Capital Times about the difficulty of being a female comic, the thriving local stand-up scene and why she was perplexed the first time an audience responded to one of her jokes with silence.
If you were the gambling type what odds would you give yourself in the Madison’s Funniest Comic competition this year?
I don’t know. Someone asked me, “Who do you think is going to win?” and I couldn’t tell them. There are too many factors involved. So I tried to come up with my top five, and I couldn’t even come up with that because it was like, “Holy (bleep), there are so many people who are really good.”
Are you surprised how fertile the local comedy scene is in Madison?
I’m not surprised, because I know there are a lot of dedicated comics in town. We’ve been trying to push Madison as a growing scene and a great place to come do comedy. The fact we have four to five open mikes a week is great, and it’s far more than most cities our size. There are almost 80 comics competing (in the Madison’s Funniest Comic contest), which is crazy. In past years it was 60, I swear. So the contest is growing in size, which means we have new talent coming in all the time.
Stand-up comedy tends to be a male-dominated field. Has being a female comic made the pursuit more of an uphill battle for you?
It’s a struggle in that when an audience sees a female stand-up they expect you to not be that good. They won’t overtly say it, but it’s kind of expected. There’s an inherent judging that’s going on. They want to see you fail.
Are there any female comics who really served as a source of inspiration to you coming up?
I didn’t watch a lot of stand-up when I started doing comedy because I’m such a sponge that I absorb people, and I didn’t want to sound like anyone else. Then over time I realized, “Well, you’re not going to get better unless you study what people do right.” So recently I started watching Kathleen Madigan a lot. She has a great presence. It’s a very strict set up/punchline format, but she does it so effortlessly it’s hard to see where a joke begins and where it ends. I bought two specials — I was like, “Here, Kathleen, you deserve this money!” — and I had to watch them like eight times each to dissect exactly what she was doing.
You’re also performing at an all-female Valentine’s Day comedy revue at Club Inferno on Thursday, Feb. 7. Do you have a strong opinion of the holiday?
(Laughs) No, I don’t have a strong opinion of the holiday. I’ve been single on Valentine’s Day and Christmas for like the last seven years. It’s just an excuse to buy cheap chocolates the week after Valentine’s.
What first sparked your interest in stand-up?
I had been doing improv and sketch comedy for 10 years before I started doing stand-up. I met one of the local comics in town, and he was like, “Hey, come hang out at the bar at the Comedy Club!” I was in graduate school and I didn’t even know the Comedy Club on State existed. After that, I hung out there all the time and the guys were like, “You’re funny. You should do this.” So after three months of positive encouragement I finally got up there.
Did you find any of the skills you learned doing improv translated to stand-up? Or was it an entirely different beast?
It’s a different beast, but your training in generating material and the “yes, and?” philosophy can help you write jokes. I think it’s a different way of writing, and I still struggle with it. I still tend to think in sketches when I’m writing jokes. I have to translate what I see in my mind into the stand-up form, which is why a lot of my comedy is very physical.
I’m guessing you already had a comfort level with bombing coming in.
(Laughs) Yeah, I guess. The biggest difference between improv and stand-up is that with stand-up it’s just you on stage. With improv usually there’s another person in the scene, and it’s their job to catch you and give you something else to go off of. With stand-up you’re relying completely on your own ability to move forward and make people laugh.
How did you handle it the first time you said something onstage and it didn’t get the response you expected?
I’m very particular. I don’t say things onstage if I don’t think they’re really funny. I won’t even try out things I think are marginal. So I think I was just perplexed, like, “I must have done something wrong there.”
“Maybe they just didn’t hear me?”
(Laughs) Oh no, they definitely heard me.