Hopefully you’ve seen Ray Porter perform comedy. If not, you’ve undoubtedly heard stories, or re-tellings at bars and house parties.
Ray is one of a growing number of stand-up comedians who have been performing at open mic nights, and now at UARK Bowl, which has become the place to see live comedy in Fayetteville.
Porter will perform at this year’s Block Street Block Party on Sunday, May 20 at 8 p.m. on the
Lightbulb Club/Sound Warehouse stage. This is an easy way to get a sneak peek into the burgeoning world of local stand-up comedy.
I asked Ray some questions and he was awesome enough to answer…
Roger Barrett: When did you realize you wanted be be a stand-up comedian? When did you realize you could be a stand-up comedian?
Ray Porter: When I was a kid, teachers used to tell me that I would grow up to be one of three things: 1) A comedian, 2) A great philosopher, or 3) in prison. I ended up going to graduate school for philosophy, and fortunately, I have managed to stay out of the pen. I’ve always known that I was good at making people laugh, but I never really took it seriously until about three years ago. That was when I graduated college and started a job as a high school substitute teacher. It was a situation where I had to get up in front of a bunch of apathetic teenagers and keep them from setting fires, or more importantly, annoying the shit out of me (which doesn’t take much). I hated high school when I was a kid, and I wasn’t too thrilled about having to go back after graduating college; so, I spent most of my time trying to entertain these kids so I didn’t really have to do anything. I made them like me enough to leave me alone for the most part. It wasn’t stand-up, but it was good practice for getting in front of a bunch of people who initially hate you, which is all too common in the world of stand-up comedy.
In response to the second part of the question: The first time that I realized I could do stand-up was when I went to West End bar on a whim one night and did the open mic. I heard about it when I met Troy Gittings (another friend and NWA comic) through a mutual friend. I had considered trying it for a few years at this point, but I figured that I wouldn’t be good at it. I had material already prepared, so I said “fuck it,” and went through with it. I killed that night, and I’ve been doing comedy ever since. That was in August. So, I haven’t quite been doing it for a year.
RB: What are your earliest memories of comedy?
RP: My family used to watch SNL every week from the time I was old enough to remember. I was really into that until I was in high school. I used to howl at Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” and “Delirious” performances when I was in middle school. I also remember watching A&E’s “An Evening at the Improv” semi-regularly as a kid. Mostly, though, I remember kids who would just recite lines to movies or TV shows at school and get a bunch of laughs from other kids. I always thought this way of making people laugh was really cheap, and I couldn’t understand why other kids were stupid enough to actually encourage some dumbass who was just rattling off lines from movies. I grew up in Mountain Home, Arkansas though; and I thought pretty much everybody and everything around me was incredibly irritating and ultimately a waste of time and effort.
RB: How much writing is involved in a typical set, and how much is improvised?
RP: I think that if you don’t write, then you can’t be successful at stand-up. Many people can get up and ad-lib a killer set or two, or even three or four; but at some point, everybody has to write material. This is not to say that everything has to be physically written down. Rather, it is imperative that a comic construct a set at some point. The main thing is that a one has to spend some time arranging the syntax of the jokes, practicing delivery, and making the bits flow into one another. I do a lot of this in my head, but there is always quite a bit of time spent constructing my sets. I don’t ever just sit down and do it all at once. It’s a process; and it’s different for everybody. That said, I think improvisational skills are crucial in order to keep a performance fresh and to roll with the punches that come with each performance. There are always hecklers, equipment problems, time issues, etc., so the comic always has to be prepared to deviate from the original plan if need be.
RB: Do you test your material before a show? If so, where, and to whom?
RP: I almost always test my material at open mic. Usually I do it several times in order to see some different possible crowd responses to the same bit. I also like to run stuff by certain friends of mine, because I trust their judgment concerning comedy for some reason or another. Every now and then, depending upon the show, I will do a bit that I’ve never tested; but that is extremely rare.
RB: Does the audience influence you?
RP: The audience has a huge impact on what I do and how I do it. I’m not lecturing, I’m performing an act. The point isn’t always just to make people laugh. In fact, sometimes I don’t care if they laugh at all. I think that one of the reasons that we find anything to be funny is that it is relatable. It’s important to guide the audience through a performance, and in order to do so, I have to establish and maintain a connection with said audience. It’s up to the comedian to always be clear about what he or she is saying, and why it is supposed to be funny. I’m not going to perform the same jokes for both an auditorium full of college students and for an event honoring war veterans. Even if the material does overlap, a performer has to be sensitive to the way that it relates to a specific audience; and no two audiences are exactly the same. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of tone or something subtle, but one has to perform for the people in front of him.
RB: Any heckling stories? Or stories of ruthlessly heckling a heckler?
RP: I once made three guys actually get up and leave the bar at a West End open mic in a matter of about three minutes. I don’t remember what I said to them, but one dude started to approach the stage in order to physically fight me. It’s funny how hecklers expect that they can say anything to a comic with total immunity, but when it turns around on them things start to get really personal. Most of the time people who heckle are morons, so they do a lot of the work for you.
RB: Where’s the best spot to perform in Fayetteville? Any upcoming shows?
RP: Right now, the only place to perform an actual comedy show (other than private events like the Block Party) is at the UARK Bowl on Dickson Street. It’s right between Mickey Finn’s and Wings. I have a show there at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 13. I am also booked for 10 p.m. June 23 at the Dickson Street Theater.
RB: What can people expect at your Block Street Block Party appearance?
RP: I don’t know what to tell them to expect, because I never know exactly what I’m going to do. It all depends upon things such as crowd dynamic and how I feel. I didn’t know about the Block Party until this year; but, I’m really looking forward to being there, as I hear that it has been totally wick-ryche in the past.