By Jason Tanamor
Every morning I tune into the syndicated radio program Bob & Tom. Check your local station index to see if you get it. If so, I highly recommend listening to them if you are a fan of stand-up comedy. Each Monday, comedian Scott Dunn gives a history lesson. Dunn recently took the time to educate us.
Q – Real quick, when and where did you start doing stand-up?
A - I took a stand-up course in Indianapolis the summer I graduated from college in 1993. I probably got on stage twice. Then I was moved to western New York for my job. I intentionally lived in a town between Buffalo and Rochester, so I could open mike in both towns. I would also drive two hours every Sunday night to Syracuse to do an open mike there.
Q – Was there a specific moment that made you decide, “I’m going to do stand-up comedy?”
A - Nothing specific. I can't remember not ever wanting to do it. When I was 7 or 8, I would listen to Steve Martin 8 tracks, over and over. I didn't get most of the jokes, but I loved hearing him talk and the audience laugh. By the time I was in high school I was keeping a notebook with stand-up jokes I was writing. I also juggled and did magic in high school where I made my act as funny as I could.
Q – Most people know you from the segment on Bob & Tom called “History Lesson.” How did you come up with this so called history lesson type bit?
A - I was a huge Bob & Tom fan starting in college. A friend of mine would get their CDs every year and we would listen to them over and over. So being when I finally got to be on the show it was a really big deal to me and I wanted to make one of their albums and have a reoccurring bit. I can't play an instrument or sing. But what I knew I was good at was writing roast jokes. So I started roasting historical figures and holidays. The first Thanksgiving for Thanksgiving. The Roast of Frankenstein for Halloween. For President's Day I had the roast of George Washington and also Abraham Lincoln's wake.
After I did an album of those, Tom asked me to start doing a weekly history segment. He said he didn't expect a roast every week. And the History Lesson and Quiz were born.
Q – The bits have extensive facts about various history events. Do you pick topics based on what you already know or what you want to learn about?
A - I don't have a history background. I was an Agriculture major at Purdue. The only history class I ever took was mandatory in high school. So I don't know anymore than anybody else when I start. My favorite method of picking a subject is to look at what's going on in the news and then find a relatively similar subject from history. Like when McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate, I did a piece on Geraldine Ferraro's vice presidential campaign. Recently North Korea has been testing missiles. So I did a piece on the Korean War.
Sometimes you just stumble into something interesting researching something else. I was doing a piece on Thomas Edison. Just in general, all the things he invented. While doing that, I stumbled across this really interesting piece on the "War of the Currents." Edison had patented direct current. George Westinghouse had bought the rights to Nikola Tesla's alternating current system. And the two waged about a ten year propaganda war on which current should power America. Edison would film animals being electrocuted with alternating current to prove it was unsafe. It's also how the electric chair came into being.
Q – How much time do you take to write and research a history lesson?
A - All week. It takes me probably two days to research and put it in a rough draft that tells the story of the subject in about five or six paragraphs. Then the rest of the week is spent writing jokes for those facts as well as writing the quiz. I usually write 15 to 20 quiz questions to come up with the four best jokes. Each week it is 10 - 15 jokes for the piece. But it's tricky because they have to be specific jokes to match historical facts. If I was doing a monologue per say, there would be a few news items you would have to cover. Like the South Carolina governor going to Argentina. But those would be easier because people would be excited about them for the moment. But beyond that, you could take the funniest jokes from whatever random news stories you found.
With what I do, I have to hit a specific point. In other words, I have to force a joke out of a specific fact. If I am doing the Korean War, I can't skip the fact that Truman fired MacArthur just because I couldn't think of a joke. That fact has to be in the piece. So that process takes longer.
Q – I haven’t actually had the chance to see you live. Describe your act for those who have yet to see you.
A - The first half I do jokes about my life and family. A lot of stuff on my wife because she is a unique person. She makes me go on parasite cleansing diets and she breast feeds are children way past two years of age.
The second half I do a history quiz and then I do a "History of America" power point. Essentially my best jokes from my Bob & Tom segment with photos.
Q – You published a couple novels and have written for various TV shows. Do you enjoy the writing part of jokes more so than the telling part of jokes?
A - I like writing the jokes best. I don't feel more pride for example, when I write a joke that's funny for my own act than when I write a joke for someone else on a television show and it gets a laugh. The joke I wrote getting the laugh is the joy for me. Not the attention I receive from telling it.
What I like about performing is being able to perform my vision. When you write for a television show, your job is to contribute to someone else's vision. So sometimes it ends up being what you think is the funniest, but sometimes it doesn't. As the performer you have the power to control what is presented.
Q – One of the novels is called, “The Big Cookie.” What’s it about and how did the idea to write it come about?
A - I wrote that in my early twenties. I basically came up with the idea to write it in a dream. I woke up in the middle of the night and just started typing. It tells the story of two friends from college. And it's essentially one short story from each year of their lives starting as freshman and going for seven years. The object was to make any one of the seven stories an entertaining read on their own. But to also work together as a novel. Kind of like a sitcom that has a story line throughout the entire season.
Q – How different is the process of writing a novel versus writing stand-up material? I mean, do you use a different approach for each venue?
A - It's a completely different thing. With a novel you want it to be more organically funny. Kind of like the movie "The Big Lewboski." That is the funniest movie in the world to me. But I can't necessarily point to any specific jokes. Its flawed characters getting into odd situations and funny things happening. That's the heart of a funny novel. The funny dialogue is only enjoyable when you have the characters and situations right. Otherwise to me, it's just an irritating person trying too hard to be witty.
With stand-up it's basically an irritating person trying too hard to be witty. Not exactly, but it's quicker. Feed them a premise and then drop a punch line on them. If you got three laughs in 15 minutes in stand-up you would suck. If someone laughed three times while reading 10 pages, the book would be funny.
Q – Can you give me a quick history lesson on bananas?
A - Not without doing the research. So if a huge banana scandal takes place tune into Bob & Tom and I will probably be doing a piece on the history of banana plantations or whatever. Until then, you'll just have to enjoy them for the potassium and wonder.
Jason Tanamor is the Editor of Zoiks! Online. He is also the author of the novels, "Hello Lesbian!" and "Anonymous."
By Jason Tanamor