No Joke, Thomas Ward Writes of Stand-Up Comedy Years in International Falls at Out of the Loop Fest

Among the promising slate of new works by local playwrights debuting at this year's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, March 1-10 at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, is the dark comedy International Falls by Waco writer, actor and former stand-up comic Thomas Ward. It's a 90-minute one-act, premiering on WaterTower's main stage, about a burned out comedian (Ward) and a hotel desk clerk (played by Ward's real-life wife Sherry Jo) waking up together after a one-night stand in a no-tell motel. They discuss comedy theory, fart jokes, religion and other topics before getting to the question "Now what?"

For the play, Ward, 35, says he drew on his experiences over two years spent as a stand-up middle act on the road from 2002 to 2004. Just out of grad school with an MFA in Shakespearean acting, Ward was living in Manhattan and doing open mike nights at Times Square comedy clubs. He was 80 pounds heavier then and only occasionally funny enough onstage to make other comics in the room look up from their notebooks.

Ward has some good, cringe-inducing stories about those years and how they inspired his new play, but we'll let him do the talking after the jump.

Stand-up is a brutal business. With an MFA and a desire for a career as a classical actor, why'd you start doing comedy? Thomas Ward: Because in college, my roommate was doing it. I bought a book on how to write jokes and started writing them. My very first experience was actually a dream. I went up at a scholarship benefit at my school and I had five minutes of jokes and I killed. I thought I was God. I thought I had found my Ark of the Covenant. And then I went to New York, where we thought we'd end up living. I went to my first open mic and saw what the reality was: a roomful of comedians looking at their notebooks. If I could get them to look up during my set, that joke was worth trying.

There was a comedy club in Times Square called Ha! -- exclamation point included. You had to get your own audience by being a barker standing in Times Square with tickets. You earned your stage time by getting people into the show. We had to put our initials on the back of the tickets so the club could track how many people we were bringing in. It was just miserable.

How'd you get on the road doing stand-up? My parents back in Nashville, ever supportive and wanting to help me, suggested I perform at a worship conference at their big mega-church. The gig was 700 bucks. At the time, I couldn't imagine making that much money doing comedy. But I was supposed to do 45 minutes. I had five minutes of material.

So I had to come with 45 minutes of squeaky-clean stuff. I wrote churchy jokes and I videotaped my performance then edited it down to a 15-minute chunk of me making 700 people laugh. I sent it to some bookers and they started sending me out to middle in clubs in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas.

I did two years on the road, which is, like, nothing in the world of stand-up.

What was your act like? I was 80 pounds heavier then so I mostly told fat jokes. Like, can you imagine me on a bicycle? I had a huge rant about McDonald's. My problem as a stand-up was, I'm an actor and I treated it like a monologue. When the crowd would throw me off, I was a dead man. I don't like working the crowd.

Give us your best joke, just for old time's sake. My favorite joke that I actually wrote and performed and it's in the play -- spoiler alert! -- is "I don't think I'm a Republican. Because I don't hate all government programs. I like some government programs. Like Head Start. Because it's for poor kids. But that's not fair. It shouldn't be called Head Start. It should be called Wait Up. Come back! We haven't started yet! We're poor!" That's my favorite joke I've ever written. It's in the neighborhood of smart and political.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner