Interview: Ken Reid
Ken Reid is poised to break out of the Boston comedy scene. He has an honest, quirky style of storytelling that has attracted scouts from Comedy Central and the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. National acts like Patton Oswalt and Todd Barry have requested him as an opening act. Ken took a few minutes over ice cream at Christina's in Inman Square to talk about his upcoming show at Mottley’s, The Adventures of Pete and Pete and why comedy is better when it's a little sad.
TOB: You have a show coming up, "Firsts of Fury." Other than a kick-ass name, what's the premise of the show?
Ken Reid: The premise of the show is it's a storytelling show. I feel like we don't really have any in Boston. There's one at ImprovBoston, but it's not themed. The theme of this show is "firsts," which is a pretty open topic.
When you conceived the show, what were some of the firsts you were hoping to hear about?
I like just probing people—anyone I meet or that I'm friends with. I like hearing about what formed them and how they became the person I'm talking to now, and many times it's first experiences that do that. Even stuff as stupid and inconsequential as the first movie they saw in the theater, or the first time they saw boobs in a movie or in real life or, you know, the first time they bought something with their own money, the first job they had. That stuff is really fascinating to me. And when I looked at the stories I had, a lot of it was about that kind of stuff. Like, finding my first dead body—but stuff that's less extreme than that, too. I just like hearing that kind of stuff.
Wait—the first of how many dead bodies that you've found so far?
First of two. That I've found. I've seen more than that, though.
What are some other formative firsts for you?
This particular show, the first stories I'm going to tell are about my first year of school when I was in the "poor kid program" in 1984.
How did you come to be a storyteller onstage?
It's the stuff I like hearing about. I would just as happily sit and talk to someone I don't know very well about their life for two hours as I would do that same thing on a stage. I also don't like acts that have too much of an affectation. I feel like you should be basically the same on and off stage. I feel like my act is the same as if you're just talking to me for the most part.
You've done one-man shows in the past. Did that just give you a long-form medium to tell your stories?
The thing about the one-man shows is that I can choose to do short sets, but I don't like to do that because people have different expectations. They want like every ten seconds for you to make them laugh, and I don't like doing that. The equivalent of that is like the movie Airplane!, which is fine, but I don't have an emotional investment in Airplane!. It's an entertaining movie because there's a gag every ten seconds, but I want something where I'm going to care about a character and there's a sad part, and there's a couple different threads running through, and there's a countermelody. You can do that in a longer show.
So you do comedy with a sad part?
Yes. Sort of. Yeah, I guess. Yeah! I want it to have a sad part. You put a sad part in there and the next funny part is a lot funnier.
Tonally, what movie would you say your act is most similar to?
Oh, dear. I'm trying to think of movies that were incredibly formative for me, the comedies. Which would be like Real Genius, and Repo Man and Revenge of the Nerds, although none of those really had any sad parts. I guess more in tone of a show like Freaks and Geeks where it has that bittersweetness to it. Or even The Adventures of Pete and Pete, which has a sadness to it, but it manages to amp up reality in a surreal enough way that somehow makes it seem more realistic than a show that’s "more realistic."
Yeah, yeah. Because they amp up the drama, but Pete and Pete heightens the fancy so it keeps the emotions centered.
Which actually makes it more accurately reflect what it feels like to be that age, because everything feels so important. Everything's a big deal, and there's a mythology to it. That's why I like stories. Because everyone has a personal mythology, and it's formed around these experiences you have, what weight you give to them.
You used to play in bands. How did you go from that to stand-up?
I have no musical talent, which is why I was in a punk rock band with people who were talented. I had actually wanted to do standup while I was in a band, when I was like sixteen or seventeen, but I had no idea how to do that. I hung around Harvard Square a lot, so I knew about "Catch a Rising Star" and stuff. That was the early ‘90s, so I guess most of the Cross Comedy [David Cross and his crew] guys had left, but there were still a lot of good people around.
Who were you seeing?
Nobody, because I couldn't get in! It was inaccessible to me, but I could go to punk rock shows. Those were all ages. That was a much more accessible way to do something creative. Then my band broke up, and I was like: "People seem to laugh when I talk in between songs. It'll be the same thing!" It was not the same thing at all.
People's expectations are much lower because they're not expecting you to make a joke, so if you do make a joke, they have a much more extreme reaction to it. And also they already like you. They've come to see you band. It's much easier.
What changed where you were like, "Now I can do this?"
I worked at a radio station, and I got to do a lot of on-air stuff. That was the first time I got to do stuff not for my friends that people thought was funny. Then I moved to England to finish school. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I started going to open mics. Part of it was more of a challenge because it's a completely different country with completely different cultural references. If I can get good enough at it that people like it, that's a more difficult task because I've won over people from a different cultural background. Then I moved back and started doing it here.
What was your first time onstage like? That's a first!
My first time ever onstage, I was three years old. I was going to preschool, and the woman who ran the preschool decided to stage a production of Grease. She dressed us up like the ‘50s and made us dance to "Greased Lightning." She put a ton of pomade in my hair and put me in a leather jacket with no shirt, which I have a picture of, and it's really weird. So midway through the performance I just said, "This is ridiculous. Get this crap out of my hair." Which is ironic because I spent my teenage years with a ridiculous greaser hairdo and leather jackets. I did wear a shirt, though.
What’s your comedy dream job?
I'd want to write movies. That's what you meant, right? You didn't mean like working on a farm with Elle McPherson and we're both made out of marshmallows? Movies or television because I think they're fairly interchangeable at this point. I just like to tell stories. I want to be able to tell stories that are artifacts. When I think back at having a relatively horrible, way too introverted, lonely childhood, I think back on stuff I saw that really I really connected with. I want to be able to make stuff that sticks with people.
Sticks with them in what way?
I just calculated, I average performing for about a hundred people a week, and I've been doing it for like eight years. So that's like 35,000 people that have at least heard stories about my dad and me growing up. My sister passed away this year, and I tell a lot of stories about her in my act. I'm not sentimental about this stuff, but it's cool that some ridiculous stuff that happened to her as a kid can potentially live on in a memory of strangers—30,000 strangers. That kind of thing. It's like a verbal virus of you that lives in their brain.