Funny talk: DIY comic tells ‘three chord’ jokes

by Danny Bayer

‘“I had a rough childhood, kind of an experimental upbringing. I grew up in the science fair projects.’”

Comedian Chris Fox is working the room at Elliott’s Revue, a 24-hour coffee shop/bar located on the northern outskirts of Winston-Salem’s arts district. It’s not your typical comedy club, but then again Fox is not your typical comedian.

‘“There’s a movement in comedy right now among younger comedians of getting away from the traditional comedy clubs and the traditional way of doing standup,’” says Fox, who also plays guitar in the leftist agit-prop punk band Crimson Spectre. ‘“Coming from the background that I come from, which is DIY punk and that type of thing, going into a comedy club is the most archaic experience. It fucking sucks. But [I like] the idea of doing comedy as part of a house show, or doing it at a coffee shop, the same way you would do it if you were in a punk band.’”

‘“My jokes are kind of one-liners, but I like to describe them as ‘three-chord’ jokes,’” he says, a reference to punk’s enduring ‘“anyone can do it’” ethos.

‘“In comedy [professionalism] is still pretty much the rule,’” says Fox. ‘“There’s still the people who get dressed up before their act, have got it all memorized, the personae, this, that and the other, but there have been people ‘— Steven Wright was the first one ‘— who embraced one-liners, which were considered a bankrupt form of comedy. Any book you read will say ‘Don’t do one-liners, don’t tell jokes, tell stories.’ Then there’s people like Zach Galifianakis, who has his jokes on a sheet of paper and reads them off. You see that, and you see that that person is successful; it lets you know that you can do that stuff too.’”

Fox’s comedy doesn’t share the political content of his band’s music, but he says that comedians do play a part in shaping culture in a way that serves political interests.

‘“What seems to be the dominant trend among younger comedians is to find something that’s considered taboo in society and kind of build their act around that and just come up with the most fucked-up shit they can say about it,’” says Fox. ‘“The philosophy behind it is that people are so jaded that the only way they can get through to them is with the most extreme, twisted stuff they can do. The kind of laughs they get are the ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe he said that, that’s so fucked-up’ type-laughs, and at the same time everybody’s kind of uncomfortable. To me, it seems like it’s participating, probably unconsciously, in this right-wing climate of thought that’s going on right now. Without even their knowledge of it, the way the comedy works is to help dehumanize and knock down whatever little bits of politically correct culture is still left in this country, just to make it easier not to care what the hell happens to other people.’”

While he’s told jokes all his life, Fox didn’t begin performing in public until last October. Since then he’s hosted the DIY comedy nights at the Green Bean and came in third at a comedy contest in Richmond.

‘“I would never have thought that there was an audience for the type of humor that I like and can do, until I heard a Mitch Hedberg CD in 2003,’” Fox said. ‘“He was doing stuff that I really, really liked and people were telling me, ‘You really need to hear this because it reminds me of your stuff,’ and he had a huge audience. If I had never heard that CD, I never would have even thought about doing comedy, even though it happened years later.’”

‘“Hedberg’s stuff was the most benevolent, gentle humor that you’d ever heard,’” said Fox of the late comedian who was credited by many with reviving the one-liner tradition in the 1990s. ‘“In the space of his act he created a better world. It was the kind of world you’d want to live in after revolutionary shit happens. My comedy is aspiring to that, but it’s definitely not a substitute for any kind of real action. I would definitely not be comfortable saying that there’s any kind of political thrust to my act.’”

‘“In terms of influences’… I don’t know, it’s always been my own stupid sense of humor,’” he says.

Fox’s antsy stage presence and rapid-fire delivery are the polar opposite of Wright’s laconic, quasi-stoner style, but their jokes both share a penchant for puns and wordplay with delayed reaction punchlines.

‘“My friend Josh is a spoken-word artist. He’s missing every other tooth. When he speaks, it’s like listening to a crossword puzzle,’” Fox tells the crowd at Elliott’s.

‘“Cryptic,’” shouts a member of the audience, after a moment of silence.

‘“Craptic,’” replies Fox, laughing and not missing a beat.

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