Standup comedy is both a relatively young art form and one that takes a surprising amount of craft and effort to perfect. Having performed standup myself for coming up on two years now (albeit less often than I’d like in year two, due to my change in employment and responsibilities in that time), I’ve learned a lot about just what is required for a good standup set, both from my own successes and failures, my own study of and with other comedians, both what the really great ones do and what the newcomers to open mics don’t do. And once in a while, I learn something from a comedian who’s been at it for years but remains simply hopeless.
That’s where Tom Myers comes in.
Tom Myers is a Baltimore-based comedian who, according to his bio, is 35 years old and has been performing standup since 2001. From all discernible evidence, Tom Myers has not in seventeen years gotten one iota better at standup comedy, and indeed seems to be a sort of hollow man, filling himself with the mannerisms of other comedians and with generic perspectives on trite material. Myers is a graduate of Goucher College, which is most known to me as the most likely inspiration for Kirk Van Houten’s alma mater, Gudger College. Another thing Myers and Van Houten have in common is that they both have artistic ambitions they should have abandoned long ago.
I first learned about Myers through the Cum Town podcast, a conversational, improvised comedy podcast probably known more by its reputation for offense and making people mad online than anything else. The podcast combines conversation about the hosts’ personal lives and recent news events with in-character riffs and bits that tend toward the absurd, juvenile, and/or darkly ironic. Lead host Nick Mullen usually comes up with the ideas for riffs and is also a gifted enough voice actor to pull off a variety of impressions. He’s almost always joined by co-hosts Stavros Halkias and Adam Friedland, the id and superego of the podcast, respectively. (Halkias is a cartoon character of a man whose primary concerns seem to be food, sex, and excretion, and who spends large portions of the podcast laughing at the conversation; Friedland tends to be more milquetoast, more informed, and generally serves as the target of the other two’s derision.) It’s often very stupid in its humor, with the hosts’ ignorance occasionally being the joke itself, considers no target out of bounds for parody, and has roughly the sensibility of three eighth-grade boys who are extremely open about their personal lives (I mean, it’s called Cum Town). But it can also be screamingly funny; each episode has some improvised bits and riffs that are generally of the fairly silly mashup variety but can be hilarious in their absurdity, and the recurring characters (both fictional and real ones in the hosts’ lives) help give what might be charitably described as a deliberately lazy show a legitimate sense of world-building and inside jokes. Tom Myers is one of these characters.
Mullen and Halkias are from Baltimore, which is how they know Myers; the two of them and Friedland met doing comedy in the D.C. area before moving to Brooklyn. Myers was a frequent subject of early Cum Town episodes and still recurs periodically. Perhaps the most famous Tom Myers standup set for Cum Town fans is his appearance on The Ed Schrader Show, which as far as I can tell is a public-access Baltimore-area show with intentionally poor production values, in the vein of The Eric Andre Show or something by Tim and Eric. Myers’ bland, pointless comedy is a horrible fit for this, and in particular, his “bong hit transplant” line has become a punchline among a certain set. It might not even be the highlight of his appearance, though. See for yourself– you only need to watch to about the 5-minute mark:
Most notable from this set, “bong hit transplant” aside, is that apparently Tom is interested in the opportunity to perform oral sex on a then-60-year-old Hillary Clinton, and also doesn’t know what a pun is. I also don’t believe he’s tried pot; I think his relationship to drugs is roughly that of how Ryan Howard describes Michael Scott’s: “I don’t think Michael has ever done drugs. … I don’t think anyone has ever offered him any.”
Myers’ standup can be astoundingly hilarious, albeit for all the wrong reasons– it’s really illustrative of everything not to do as a comic, and his sets occasionally reach transcendent levels of ineptitude, the kind that would be impossible to achieve on purpose. In that sense, he’s more or less the Tommy Wiseau of standup.
After watching too many of Myers’ performances for my own mental health, and considering what does and doesn’t work in them– or, more accurately, what doesn’t work and why– I’ve come up with a formula that I think describes the important elements of standup reasonably enough for our purposes. To my mind, there are five major elements to constructing a good standup performance, to taking an idea and making it into a joke that works when performed on stage for a crowd of people:
- Initial idea. At its core, you have to have a funny idea or observation.
- Relevance. Why are you talking about this topic at all, right now?
- Point of view. Why is it important that we hear your thoughts on the subject?
- Craft. If you have these other elements, then you have to write it into a joke. And then you have to rewrite it again, and again, and again, and again, until it’s as funny as possible, until no word is wasted.
- Stage Performance. This is where getting relentless open-mic experience helps. Even a good joke can fall flat if it’s not delivered correctly, with the right cadences and pauses, with the ability both to connect with your audience and to adjust your performance to the audience and to how they’re reacting to your joke.
Tom Myers has ideas. That’s it. They have no relevance– his subject matter is consistently outdated and frivolous, like it came straight from a hack’s guide to The Hot Comedy Topics of 1998. They have no point of view– his jokes are utterly generic and obvious and could only come from a perspective of someone with no perspective of their own. He puts no craft into the jokes– almost every joke implies the idea behind it with the very setup, then Tom simply repeats the idea as the punchline. Myers writes like his goal is to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno circa the late 1990s, with his combination of stale ideas, middle-of-the-road takes, and his apparent desire to write the most bland, crowd-pleasing jokes possible. And his performance is a combination of tics and mannerisms clearly copied from other comics (most often Bill Hicks; among other things, his outfit on The Ed Schrader Show is pure Hicks) and an absolute inability to recognize how the audience is responding to him.
The Ed Schrader set was a decade ago; I decided to see if Myers had improved in the interim by analyzing a more recent set, from the 2017 Charm City Comedy Festival. Much of the material on here also appears on Myers’ latest album, Make America Innate Again. (That very title suggests so much about Myers, as its meaning is as inexplicable as his continued standup career.)
I must also credit Babalugats here for engaging me when I first posted on Myers in the comments, as our further conversations led me to break down this set initially (and with assistance from him); I do now in detail, so we can understand why this utterly fails to work as comedy.
- Myers introduces himself: “It’s great to be here tonight in front of a group of people who failed to get Metallica tickets.”
- A fine enough idea to warm up the crowd, if a bit pedestrian, and a bit too wordy. (I looked it up: Metallica did indeed play a show in Baltimore that night, something I wasn’t entirely convinced of.) His laugh afterwards is unnerving, forced– the showman who’s practiced a laugh but doesn’t know when to use it or how to put any warmth behind it.
- I’ll tell you a little about me. I’m 34 years old, and my girlfriend looks at my penis the same way a kid looks at snow waiting to hear if school’s gonna be closed: Anything less than six inches, and there’s bitter disappointment…
- Okay, Tom’s comparison between penis size and snow depth is decent enough (if a frivolous topic for a joke), but his craft completely ruins the joke. “My girlfriend looks at my penis” makes the joke so specific it makes no sense. Is Tom’s girlfriend expecting his penis to change sizes each time she sees it? This is a joke where– in a strange reversal of most of Tom’s material– he goes specific when he should go general. Also, too wordy. “Women look at penises like kids look at snow on a school day: Anything less than six inches is just disappointing.” Better. Still not a good joke, but better.
- I learned something interesting about West Virginia, that is, West Virginia broke away from Virginia during the Civil War. See, Virginia was in the Confederacy, and there was some people in Virginia who wanted to break away from the Confederacy and go back to the Union, so they formed West Virginia. So, the good people of West Virginia didn’t want to be known as a bunch of backwoods, redneck, inbred racists. … Oh, the fucking irony!
- Being as generous as possible, the concept here isn’t bad: there’s probably good material to be mined out of the irony of how West Virginia is perceived now vs. its noble intentions in the Civil War. Tom Myers is not the man to mine, smelt, forge, or wield that material. Rather than explore the idea, he simply lets the idea serve as the punchline itself, thus completely causing it to fail in terms of relevance and point of view.
- And then there’s craft. Tom takes far too long to get to the thrust of the joke, delivering setup information carelessly and redundantly. And not only that, when he’s made the point enough for the audience to get it– note the audience member laughing after “racists”– he keeps going, but just to continue through to the same point he doesn’t realize the audience has already gotten, killing his momentum (and revealing just how unresponsive Tom is to his audience). Tom’s mugging afterward hurts as well, further emphasizing that the joke, in his view, is not about the inaccurate perceptions of West Virginians, but the accurate perceptions of West Virginians.
- I drove through Alabama not too long ago, I passed this sign: “Welcome to The Birthplace of Helen Keller”, Wouldn’t you know it, there was nothing to see down there.
- This is a decent joke for someone attempting their first open mic. They get no points for relevance or point of view, and the punchline is unnecessarily wordy, but the basic foundation of the joke as a joke is solid enough for a first-timer that I’d encourage them to continue at standup. Tom Myers has been doing comedy for over 15 years, and this is also a good joke by Tom Myers standards.
- I did a show in Kansas recently… I went into this venue in Kansas, right over the bar, it had this bumper sticker: “Ted Kennedy’s car has killed more people than my gun.” Whoa. Very intense. I want to come up with a bumper sticker in response to that that says “More young women have been shot in the face by guns than by Bill Clinton.” … And I’m a Democrat, and I’m making that joke, all right?
- The idea of the joke here kind of works on its own terms (again, a huge win for Myers); the only problem is, it’s no longer 1998 or 1980. I’ll turn it over to a Babalugats comment for a moment: “Is there a worse opening to a joke than, ‘I wanna come up with a bumper sticker…’ Like you’re not even doing bumper sticker humor, you aspire to be the sort of comic capable of doing bumper sticker humor.”
- That kind of blandness about outdated topics gets to what I mean when I say he’s trying to get on The Tonight Show of twenty years ago, right down to his “And I’m a Democrat and I’m making that joke!” It’s all seemingly prepared to be as palatable and crowd-pleasing as possible to Middle America. (Also, as far as craft goes, the joke is both funnier and makes more sense with that appended line if the punchline is “Bill Clinton has shot more women in the face than my gun.”)
- Then Myers does this head-toss and cackle that’s clearly imitated from Bill Hicks, except Hicks wouldn’t have done it after a hacky wannabe-Tonight Show with Jay Leno-level blowjob joke, he would have done it after saying Clinton sucked Satan’s cock to get the presidency and paid him back by bombing the Middle East like all the other presidents. And also after doing a routine about Jay Leno selling out where he mimes machine-gunning himself in the face for thirty seconds straight (also featuring satanic sodomy). “More young women have been shot in the face by guns than by Bill Clinton” is Myers’ idea of having similar edge in his humor. In 2017.
- I read an inteview with the billionaire financier Warren Buffett. In this interview, he admits that he drinks five cans of Coca-Cola a day. Five cans of Coca-Cola a day! If he ever eats an entire packet of Mentos his head’s going to skyrocket higher than his fucking net worth!
- This is another sterling example of Myers’ material having zero reason to exist. I mean, who cares about any of this? Did he just want to make the “skyrocket higher than his net worth” pun? More to the point, you’re going to call your comedy album Make America Innate Again, yet you won’t make this joke about Donald Trump’s Diet Coke habit? (Ah, so it is about the pun– after all, Myers is a Democrat, as we just learned, and wouldn’t possibly be caught implying that Donald Trump has a genuinely high net worth. It’s also about the excuse to say “fucking.” Edgy!)
- “Donald Trump drinks five Diet Cokes a day. This means that offering him a Mentos is technically an assassination attempt.” Boom, already better.
- Admittedly, I thought the first time I heard this that Myers was confusing Mentos for Pop Rocks, but I have since learned that Mentos / Coke volcanoes are a real thing. With that said… again, who cares about any of this?
- Did you read about the time Kanye West broke up a fight between two photographers? The two photographers stopped beating up each other, and promptly proceeded to kick the shit out of Kanye West.
- Absolutely no point of view (“Don’t we all find Kanye West lame?”), to the point where the subject matter of the joke could be “any celebrity you think your audience finds sufficiently irritating.” (With Tom, it’s never what he finds irritating, because he is nothing but an amalgamation of exterior traits.) The joke is so bad and obvious that the audience doesn’t realize the punchline is supposed to be the punchline.
- Kanye West stopped one of his concerts right in the middle– did you see this? He stopped one of his concerts because his wife, Kim Kardashian, was robbed at gunpoint… and who says violence is never the answer to the world’s problems?
- His second riff on the idea is equally useless and unoriginal– with the bonus that the punchline contains needless words after the idea has already been delivered (this should end at “answer”).
- I read that the adult video site YouPorn is going to start making adult movies for the visually impaired. Sounds kinda self-defeating, doesn’t it? Seeing as how watching adult movies made you visually impaired in the first place?
- This joke contains two more standout Myers traits: a)The awful writing that butchers any half-interesting idea he has (he can’t land the joke because his writing doesn’t let the audience make the “masturbating will make you go blind” connection until well after the joke is finished), and b)Mistaking a half-interesting idea for a joke.
- You ever watch those adult movies? At the bottom, they always have this option: “Share this to Facebook.” Who does that? Who watches one of those videos of people doing the most dehumanizing things to one another, and then thinks, “This’ll top those photos of my niece’s last birthday party?”
- His follow up doesn’t add anything to the initial premise, either– another example of having an idea (Why does porn have a “share to Facebook” option?) and doing nothing with it. Even just doing the “This’ll top my niece’s last birthday party” bit in character as someone who would think that, rather than as a “Who does that?” bit, would add so much.
- More Babalugats thoughts from our conversation: He points out how strange and off-putting it is to call them “adult videos” instead of porn. (Similar to how Myers uses “Democrat” instead of “liberal,” which would hit better now– “That subtle out of touchness” as Babalugats puts it.) Additionally, Myers again fails to go specific when he needs to; “the worst, dehumanizing stuff” doesn’t land at all– it’s exactly a place he needs to describe a specific act for the joke to work.
- We have a lot of funny people with a sense of humor in my family… My uncle is one of those guys. He can make you laugh by reading a carry-out menu. Of course, he has Tourette’s…
- “We have a lot of funny people with a sense of humor in my family.” Then could you please get one of them onto the stage? Someone who doesn’t still think a Tourette’s joke is funny in 2017?
- Anybody have any relatives who always have to unplug every single electric appliance before they leave the house? My aunt does that! She does that not only at home, but at her place of work. And they fired her for doing that– unplugging all the electrical appliances. To be fair, though, she does work at a hospice.
- Tom’s weird family quirk does not extend toward me and I’ve never heard of it. Tough to make the joke universal in that case. And even if it is more universal and I’m the weird one, this is still a long walk for a weak punchline.
- You’ve hung in there for this long…
- The way Tom laughs at his own jokes and cackles after his “You’ve hung in there for this long…” makes me think he might be an actual sociopath, albeit far too ineffective of one to ever be of any harm.
- Babalugats: “You’ve hung in there for this long” is another thing that he’s seen comedians do, but doesn’t understand how or why they do it. … It’s a way of building a connection and a closeness with the audience, and makes his stuff feel more free-form as he’s reacting to something that just happened in the room. But with Myers, his audience has not stuck with him, and are politely waiting for him to finish.
- My mother’s not a stage mother by any definition of the term… I told my mother about the first time I was doing Las Vegas, and no bullshit, my mother said this: “Now, Tom, while you’re in Las Vegas, I don’t want you to go into any place that has gambling.” Mom, it’s Las Vegas. They have slot machines at Golden Corral, all right? You gamble enough when you go in there to eat.
- I can’t bring myself to get into a detailed critique of this long, dull, dragging joke– is the punchline that there’s gambling in Las Vegas, or that Golden Corral sucks?– although with the mention of Golden Corral I’m now wondering just how many brand names Myers has dropped during this set.
- I tell you what, Mom, we were raised Catholic, go ahead and book me in a Catholic seminary for the duration of my stay there, all right? Besides, if I tell them I used to be an altar boy, it’s the only place in Las Vegas I can get a handjob for free. That’s a joke, obviously… there’s no such thing as a free handjob in Las Vegas… Every time I masturbated, I had to tip myself.
- There’s an actual kernel of a decent joke in there– the “free handjob” punchline, and the “no such thing” twist– except the material overall is so trite, and then on top of that he keeps the joke going after the funniest part has passed, with a weird, unfunny tag.
- People ask me where I get my sense of humor, I tell them my father. My father was always big on telling jokes growing up. The joke my dad used to tell us kids a lot growing up was “Kids, I love you.”
- This makes me feel bad for Tom’s father, both in how Tom paints him as an unloving father, and that Tom credits him for his sense of humor.
- I got them back, though. Last month was their wedding anniversary, and I called my parents and woke them up at 3 in the morning to wish them happy wedding anniversary… and it was fitting, because I wished them a happy wedding anniversary in the same manner that they reacted when I told them I wanted to study theater in college… I ended their dreams.
- Tom, you’re 35; you’re well past the age it’s acceptable to carry around this kind of bitterness toward your parents. (At last word, Tom still lives with them; I wonder how they feel about this joke.) Reading it again now, I realize that he’s not just carrying around bitterness, but that the very premise of his joke requires him to act on that bitterness in a spiteful manner. And why not? The rest of his material is stuck in the culture of his teenage years; why shouldn’t his personal material and emotional state be as well?
- Babalugats has the apt summary I’m sure all the readership will appreciate: “His stuff on his family is 100% Rupert Pupkin material.”
- Again, craft: He says “anniversary” three times and always precedes it with “wedding,” as though we’d forget which kind of anniversary it was. His inability to trim his jokes and word them for maximum effect is almost profound.
- But doing shows like this is fun, but once I get done doing these shows, I get to go home to my cat. I love my cat. I really do. He’s, uh– my cat’s my best buddy, he really is. You know why? Because a cat acts just like a man. Oh, yeah. Listen: I know as soon as I get home, my cat, just like a man, is gonna be sacked out on my couch in front of my television going “Hey, what’s up. You know my food dish is empty? My goddamn food dish is empty? And have you seen the state of my litter box? I know you don’t clean your bathroom, I know, because I tried to use that as an alternative, but seriously. Refill my food dish, clean up my litter box, and I’m gonna sit here and watch television. And no, I’m not changing the channel, either. Well, I don’t have thumbs, I can’t, so. No, I’m not watching Animal Planet, dork. I’m watching my favorite movie of all time, Old Yeller.”
- Is Tom gay? I don’t think so– or I don’t think he’s aware of it, because he’s not aware of anything– but describing his cat as “just like a man” and being happy to come home to his cat at least raises the question in someone so self-unaware. (In another version of the bit, he actually imitates his cat calling him not a “dork” but a “homo,” which really raises some questions.) He is, possibly, just attempting some crude version of masculinity: After all, the comparison of his cat to a man only works if you buy into the light-beer-commercial version of a man, and Babalugats also notes elsewhere the strange undercurrent of misogyny to much of Tom’s material.
- The big idea behind his closer, of course? Cats hate dogs. An observation as original, timely, and relevant as every other in a Tom Myers set. I’d feel sad for the profound loneliness of a 35-year-old man having nothing to look forward to except the company of his cat, except that he’s a well-documented asshole to other comics, especially anyone critical of his work, even if they’re well-meaning.
Myers fascinates me in the way Tommy Wiseau fascinates me, as someone steadfastly devoted to an artistic goal while having no capacity for the craft, self-awareness, or insight into the human condition necessary to achieve said artistic goal. However, Myers doesn’t have a masterwork like The Room to point to, something that sums up all his psychology, complete lack of technical prowess, and outlook on human nature. He just has a long, unending string of standup performance that is absolutely devoid of substance, viewpoint, or relevance, the only recognizable elements slavish imitations of other, better standups’ mannerisms. His subject matter was trite when people were making similar jokes around the office water cooler in the 1990s. I chose the title for this article because, like Tom Ripley, this Tom has nothing at his core, is a mere imitator of others, and has even less talent for understanding the hows and whys of human behavior that at least let Mr. Ripley get away with it for as long as he does.
While I almost never tire of discussing The Room, I can only take so much Tom Myers at a time. The highs are high, but the valleys are dire indeed. Tommy Wiseau revealed fascinating, misguided depths to himself through The Room. Through his standup, Tom Myers reveals that, save perhaps a strange, unexplained (but not inexplicable) anger and resentment, there’s not much of a person there at all.
You can follow Tom Myers on Twitter or subscribe to his YouTube channel if you feel the need to plunge further into the abyss. (If you’d like to read more discussion, Babalugats and I have a running conversation about Myers that inspired this article; it starts here.) If that’s too much, just enjoy what I am certain is an unauthorized commercial for Make America Innate Again. (And please let me know if you ever figure out what that title is supposed to mean.)