Release Date: July 12, 2016
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Like any stand-up comic, Andrew McConnell Stott knows a good punchline.
When asked about his just-debuted raw — and poignant and funny and insightful and multi-dimensional — documentary on Buffalo’s growing stand-up comedy scene, Stott deadpans one reason why he decided to take it on: making a film seemed easier than writing a paper.
Easier or more problematic, Stott, a professor of English at the University at Buffalo who also serves as vice provost and dean of undergraduate education and director of UB’s Honors College, comes through with another example of how UB faculty members are often much more than meets the eye. Four years after earning his doctorate in English from Cardiff University in Wales, Stott performed nights in London pubs and clubs as a stand-up comedian.
“It was something I’d always wanted to do, and also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Stott says. “It was good training, though. Tough crowds don’t scare me now.”
Since joining the UB faculty in 2002, Stott has merged his lifelong love and intellectual fascination with comedy with his academic life, teaching upper-level courses on comedy in the Renaissance and Shakespeare, as well as writing books and articles, including an award-winning biography of Joseph Grimaldi, considered one of Britain’s greatest comedians.
Stott’s latest study into what he calls “harnessing the unpredictable” is a 45-minute documentary showing struggling, stand-up comics in Buffalo battling the elements — Buffalo’s bleak, harsh winters; small audiences; the inevitable pressures to give in to a more conventional life; and the desperate need to be “funny.”
Working with local filmmaker Austin McLoughlin, the two filmed, directed, produced and edited “Cold Snow Losers: Open Mic at the Edge of America.” The documentary made its debut in late June at the International Society for Humor Studies Conference in Dublin, giving a strong, sometimes raw voice to the struggling, flawed and lovable stand-up comics crafting a hometown comic sub-culture. “Cold Snow Losers” also offers insight into the spirit of local comics and how that spirit so perfectly reflects their hometown.
For Stott and McLoughlin, the harsh Buffalo winter and the hostile path of following your dream as a stand-up comic seemed to go hand in hand. “Buffalo winters are a definitive element of life here, and we wanted to juxtapose them with the stamina and hardiness necessary for a life in stand-up comedy,” Stott says. “It can be really tough and really lonely on stage.
“And when you’re doing that and there are Arctic conditions outside, you must be really committed to it.”
Diane Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of English, calls Stott’s documentary “terrific — a fascinating look at the stand-up comic culture in our area.”
“It’s talking heads, which is often treated with condescension, but when good it is powerful. These are funny talking heads, really interested in talking,” Christian says. “The liveliness of the cutting and the real humanity of the comics make it compelling. A good film.
“Andy is himself a stand-up comic artist as well as a serious scholar of comedy, so he has the heart and bones for this subject.”
“Cold Stone Losers,” (a G-rated trailer can be seen at https://vimeo.com/173808224) is not for the faint of heart. The dogged search for honesty and a patient camera turns up some poignant, painful — and often funny — moments for the young comics taking part in Stott’s documentary. The language, as Stott explains in the following interview, is “ripe” and could “curdle milk.” But it reveals a vulnerability and honesty that gives the comedy routines extra depth and meaning. The comedy is a window to something close to Buffalo’s roots.
Stott, scheduled to oversee the launch this fall of the UB Curriculum, UB’s new general education program, took some time to talk about his latest case study of how comedy’s true virtue brings readers and audiences nearer to the truth or hidden insight than they would have if they never heard the joke.
Your background as a former stand-up comedian is well-established. Can you tell us how your interest in that field led to this documentary?
AS: Last fall, I was asked if I would like to present a paper at the International Society of Humor Studies in Dublin that was scheduled to take place in July 2016. I felt I was too busy and politely declined. By coincidence, I was speaking with my friend, the local filmmaker Austin McLoughlin, who was telling me about all the open mic comedy he’d been going to in Buffalo. New clubs were springing up, and a real scene was starting to emerge. It sounded fascinating. I stopped performing stand-up 16 years ago, and had never really explored either what made me take it up or why I had stopped. So Austin and I thought, why not make a film about Buffalo’s open mic and show it in Dublin? It seemed easier than writing a paper.
Before we go any further, what is it like to appear in front of people and try to make them laugh?
AS: Terrifying and exhilarating. It’s lonely and exposed, and you never really know what will happen.
What does the sub-culture of these aspiring stand-up comedians reveal about people from Western New York? What about human nature in general?
AS: The distinctiveness of Buffalo — the pride, toughness and defiance of the city — comes through in these comedians. They are proud of their blue-collar roots and of Buffalo’s reputation for doggedness. We heard a lot about the everyday struggles of life here through the topics we would hear on stage, topics such as racism and segregation, underemployment and lack of opportunities, and substance abuse and addiction. The honesty and willingness to openly discuss painful realities was striking, as was an almost universal commitment to telling the truth as they saw it. We repeatedly heard this formulated in terms of freedom of speech. It was as if stand-up was the last bastion of unfiltered speech, and that open-mic comedy, because it is so pure and un-beholden to TV or corporate sponsorship, was the last true preserve of First Amendment rights. One comedian we interviewed even told us that he didn’t want to be successful because it would mean having to “please the audience,” which meant sweetening his act, which was anathema to him.
Who is the funniest person in the video, and what about that person makes him or her funny to you? If you don’t want to name the funniest, how about someone who impresses you as a talented comic?
AS: There were a few I liked. A young guy called Bruce Wilson was thoughtful and inventive, and while his jokes were sometimes close to the bone, their logic always surprised me. That’s a good sign, as after 20 years of writing about comedy, I see many punchlines lumbering over the horizon several hours before they touch down. There’s a lot of other people out there, though, who could be really good.
Do you think the subjects in the video have the necessary elements to be successful, to graduate to an audience beyond Wester New York?
AS: Yes, although I wouldn’t say I’m a great judge of these things. The Buffalo comedy scene has graduated a few comedians who have gone to New York or LA to pursue a career. Austin went down to New York to interview a few of them. It’s a hard slog. It was basically like starting over for them, but so much of success in comedy is simple persistence. It takes years and years. There’s no such thing as overnight success.
Can you explain the title, “Cold Snow Losers?”
AS: “Cold Snow Losers” is the answer to the off-screen question, “What do people who are not from Buffalo think about Buffalo?” I liked the cadence of it, but it’s not meant to be pejorative at all. It helps to set the scene of Buffalo as an underdog city that produces a defiant, unpretentious kind of comedy. Plus, it uses the Rule of Three, which is a magic number in comedy, and it has the word “snow” in it.
There are groundbreaking and raw-like artistic shots of Buffalo’s cold weather. Why concentrate so much on this aspect of living here?
AS: Buffalo is known for its winter, so I wanted to make a feature of that. But we really chose to film in January and February because we wanted to contrast the harshness of the weather with the tenacity of comedians who trudge through bitter cold to do 10 minutes to a half-empty room for no money. That’s the motivation that we really wanted to understand. What would possess someone at 10 p.m. on a Monday in January to make a spectacle of themselves before a room sparely populated with indifferent strangers? The weather mirrors the chilly reception that is the fate of so many of these fledgling comics, and for an audience unfamiliar with Buffalo, it was important to show an element of industrial ruination as a means of understanding its history. Personally, I am drawn to that aspect of Buffalo and find that barren emptiness also possesses a bleak beauty.
And then there is the R-rated language of some of the comics. Can you share some thoughts about why to include the speech uncut, rather than edit some of the more salty talk?
AS: Some of the language could curdle milk. Subtlety is often the first thing to go in an open-mic setting. It’s as if you need to be outrageous and combative to get attention. Often it will fade, as the more skillful a comedian is, the less he or she relies on outrageous themes and on bad language. One of the comedians we interviewed, Kristen Becker, has an interesting theory about this. She says that most people get their first big laugh between the ages of 6 and 13, so when they start out in comedy, that’s the place they immediately fall back to. How clean were the jokes you and your friends laughed at between the ages of 6 and 13?
What was the response in Dublin, when all was said and done?
AS: Good, I think. Spontaneous applause!