7 Questions

7 Questions with Keith Bergman

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by Ryan Meehan

Keith Bergman has spent four decades of life wanting to do ridiculous things. He’s been an actor, a music critic, an author, a reviewer of dirty movies for an adult film industry trade magazine, a drummer in rock and roll bands, and somewhere in there, a would-be comedian. Several years ago, his realization that carrying drums around sucked led him to pursue standup above all else. His material is R-rated but smart, clever and absurd, or as he likes to call it, “highbrow stupid.” He has shared the stage with The Amazing Johnathan, April Macie, Dean Edwards, Dave Landau, Vince Morris, BT, Brooks Wheelan, and many others, and has performed from the upper peninsula of Michigan all the way down to the deep South. He has just released his debut CD, “Disheveled,” 55 minutes of material recorded at The Blarney in downtown Toledo, Ohio, in March 2014 and we are delighted to have him as our guest today in 7 questions.

RM:  What was the first comedic performance you saw that moved you to the point where you thought you’d be able to convey laughter to other people in the same manner?

KB: Probably “Kids In the Hall” on television, honestly.  I was always into standup, but much more into sketch comedy.  Between Kids In the Hall, Monty Python and Mr. Show, I spent the 80s and 90s convinced I wanted to be in a sketch troupe.  Coming from playing in bands, I had the same dumb naive blueprint in my head, that a group of like-minded people would come together, write a show, hit the road and find an audience.  I didn’t know how to find those people, though, and I had no idea about improv or community theater at the time.  I started going to comedy clubs thinking that was a point of entry I could accomplish on my own, and very quickly realized I’d rather write and perform solo than try to hold a group together.   (All that happened a long time ago, it took many more years until I was getting on stage on a regular basis.)

RM:  Do you find that most of your jokes come to you in succession; or that you are able to write jokes in your head based on individual events or observations that you experience one at a time on a day to day basis?

KB: Almost all of my new, raw joke ideas come to me spur-of-the-moment, either from an observation made in daily life or as some weird non-sequitur while I’m reading a book or thinking about something unrelated.  Those ideas are almost never fully formed, or even very good, so my ‘sit down and write’ time is spent refining them and editing them down.  I can’t just sit and come up with new concepts in a vacuum, though.  When I try that I end up writing stuff that sounds forced, and isn’t really personal.

RM:  Aside from transforming the things you see in your everyday life into humorous material that will translate to something that audiences will find funny, do you set aside a certain time of the day or week to write new material?

KB: I don’t have a specific time blocked out, although I’ve tried to impose a more regimented schedule on my life in recent years (with varying degrees of success).  Once I have those nebulous flashes of ideas, I tend to work on them in chunks of time when I can think out loud — when I’m driving, or when everyone else at home is in bed, almost always late at night.  I will talk out new bits dozens of times, changing words around and trying to be quicker and more economical.  In a way, having enough stuff to do any show I’m asked to do takes some of the pressure off.  I do want new material in my act all the time and I want to ‘age out’ some of my oldest bits, but I don’t have to force it to fill time.

RM:  Your new album is called “Disheveled”…When most people hear that term they probably think of a guy who is drunk and stumbling to get to the next bus stop before throwing up on their next victim.  But you have a wife and kids, and the album cover is a drawing of you with a cup of coffee in hand looking like you just got out of bed…What does the term “Disheveled” mean to you within the context of your standup comedy?

KB: It’s the best-sounding word I know to convey that I’m approaching middle age and I go out in public in torn jeans and a worn-out Napalm Death shirt, not out of some desire to make a statement, but because I don’t own anything else and I’ve never made an effort to look any other way.  I spill coffee on everything and everyone I love, I can’t keep my desk clean, and I look like I just got out of bed for pretty much the entire day.

Calling the album “Disheveled” is sorta just letting people know that I’m aware of the situation.  It’s not a character or a shtick, it’s just me giving a shit about many other things in life besides what my outer shell looks like when it shambles out the door.  I know of at least once instance where my appearance has cost me work, but I also get people at every show who think I’m 29, so I guess it all evens out at some point.  It ties into a larger realization that I’m uncovering as I write more material — the idea of never feeling like I actually grew up, or that I’m a legit adult, and how to reconcile that with the grownup shit I actually do every day, like raising kids or paying bills.

RM:  Why do people who have never done comedy in their entire life think that it’s so easy?  Why is the actual grind of the gigs so much more difficult than what the casual fan’s perception is; and how are you able to deal with the constant travel schedule?

KB: It looks easy.  It just does, and it’s supposed to.  When the world’s greatest harpist plays the harp, or when a sculptor is going to town on a block of stone with a chisel, there’s an undeniable prowess on display.  When Brian Regan does an hour, to the civilian eye, it’s just a guy talking.  No one watches a house being built and says “everyone at work tells me I’m really handy with a stapler, lemme give that a try.”  It’s insanely hard to stand on a stage and make the guy in row Q think you’re telling him personal anecdotes over drinks for an hour, but part of that hard work is making it look effortless.  That skews the average person’s perception of the craft (and makes them want to hit you when you refer to it as “the craft”).  Much like I wish every restaurant customer had to wait tables on Mother’s Day once in their life, I wish every heckler and “I got a joke for ya!” chucklehead after a gig had to get up in front of a Friday late show crowd and not eat their own balls for 35 or 65 minutes.

The grind of travel is undeniable.  I actually like driving and sleeping in hotels.  But I also like being home and participating in my children’s lives, so it’s a constant inner re-evaluation.  Am I doing the right thing?  Is this worth it?  Will I regret this later?  But given the way my head is wired, I’d be doing just as much of that if I was away from home 60 hours a week working in an office.  I have a very supportive family structure.  We’ve all treated comedy seriously as a factor in our lives since I started going out of town for open mics and showcases.  We synchronize calendars, print out itineraries for me and for the kids, and we handle each week as it comes.  The trick so far has been to balance a work ethic with zero expectations.  We’re working toward something, and we just hope we know what it is when we get there.

RM:  If you had to describe the Midwest comedy scene in one paragraph, what would that paragraph look like?

KB: There’s lots of enthusiasm and so much love.  There’s a little bit of snark and naiveté, and there are a few tragic assholes, but by and large it’s a group of people I’m proud to know, and most of them are funny, hard-working and decent.  It’s amazing to go to a no-name bar on a weeknight and see so many genuinely cool people laying a solid foundation for what will be amazing shit if they stick with it.   There seems to be a sense of realism as well, overall.  We’re not all gonna make it to the mountaintop.  Statistically, that’s just a grim fact.  But there’s a sense of enjoying the ride for what it is, and of creativity and camaraderie and experience for its own sake, that keeps a lot of joy in it, in the face of travel and money and other negative crap.

RM:  Much to the dismay of Stu McCallister, you’re a huge fan of heavy metal…What has the world of heavy metal taught you about performing standup comedy?  Was there any particular live show you saw where you drew a parallel between that and what you wanted to do on stage as a comic?

KB: I think it made me a little bit theatrical and bombastic as a public speaker, which isn’t always a good thing, but serves me well at a packed show, or in a loud bar situation.  And I think it informed that “us against the world” underdog vibe that I mentioned above.  From the big arena bands like Iron Maiden, I saw the expertise in making 50,000 people all feel like the band’s playing directly to them, which is more relatable than a lot of comedians can pull off.  From the underground bands, I admire the intensity and work ethic.  It’s impressive to me, to see bands that are two or three decades in, slogging it out on tour, playing from their heart and creating art that has zero chance at mainstream acceptance.  They find a way to make it work and they don’t compromise what they create.  I respect and admire that, and I hope I am emulating it.

RM:  What will the industry of comedy look like fifty years from now?  Do you ever look at your own body of work from a long-term angle, or are you focused on how your bits will work in the moment?

KB: I have no idea at all.  Look at 1964 compared to now.  The idea of a “comedy album” was brand new (thanks, Bob Newhart!).  The delivery systems, the public’s expectation of a comedic entertainer, the assorted business bullshit that comes along with it – none of that will be recognizable in 2064.  I am confident that, should Bill Cosby or Don Rickles be kept alive that long, they’ll still be killing crowds, though.  The only constants are the need to be center stage, the ability to hold strangers’ attention, and the knack for making someone laugh and feel like you related to them and took them out of their ordinary day for a bit.

I try not to think too long-term in my own work, although now that I’ve recorded some of it and it’s got a life of its own as “part of my first hour,” I do find myself arranging and sorting new material as it enters the set.  I am conscious that I’m writing my next hour and I want it to all work together.  Beyond that, and a few small and specific career goals, I try to stay as short-term as possible in my thinking.  As long as I have forward momentum and I enjoy the hell out of comedy, I am not going to stress about where I’m not.  I’m more interested in leading an eventful and ridiculous life, because that’s where the fun is, but it’s also where material comes from.

RM:  What’s up next for Team Bergman in the remainder of 2014 and into 2015?  Anything big in the works that we should know about?

KB: Just more stage time, more road work, and more sights seen.  I have some ideas for how to put new material out there in 2015 — I’m giving serious thought to making a series of cassette singles, instead of dumping a whole hour out at once, just to name one idea.  But my main objectives are just to meet more people, do more shows, eat more diner food, work my ass off and have more adventures than I deserve.

Official Website:  http://www.keithbergman.com/

Keith on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/keith.bergman.3

Keith on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/KeithBBergman

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