What to do Tonight: Skinner takes his comedy routine to The Improv
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The funny thing about interviewing a comedian is that the reporter ends up being the straight man and the result ends up sounding like a string of bits.
What the heck. Let's just go with it.
Kevin Skinner -- who goes by the stage name Skinner -- is headlining tonight's show at The Improv comedy club in Homestead.
Mr. Skinner, who is from the Hill District, has been doing comedy for about 12 years.
"You always start a joke out with family and friends to see if it works," he said. "And it's always good, because they're going to be supportive and they're going to know what you're talking about. But once you get up and do it before an audience that doesn't know who you're talking about, you've got a problem. So you've got to paint a picture."
Hence, a lot of Mr. Skinner's comedy is based in stories that he tells -- and the way he tells them. He cites Richard Pryor and George Carlin among his inspirations. His routine is "urban" with a "mainstream" connection.
"Billy Elmer gave me some sound advice when we were on the road once," he said. "I was a black comic and I was doing urban comedy. But he said I had to do more mainstream shows. 'You never do magic tricks in front of blind people. They're just not going to get it.' I have to tell jokes that people can relate to.
"For more than 20 years, I've been working in physical therapy for UPMC and people ask me if I do jokes about the hospital. I'm like, 'No, I don't, because not everybody works in a hospital.' You try to make things universal."
So the day job at the hospital. Any thoughts of giving that up and focusing just on the comedy?
"Working at the hospital ... it's a hard job. But these jokes don't come with no benefit package. So when that happens ... we'll see."
Do the people at the hospital see him as a comedian?
"They know about it. I just got transferred to a new position at the hospital. And so there's all these people I'm meeting and they tell me, 'I'm coming to see your act tonight. You better be funny.' So I gotta face those people the next day and hear about whether I was funny or not.
"On the road, I don't have to face those people again. 'Hey, I'm on to the next city.' "
How is touring different?
"I've done the Eastern thing. I haven't been out West yet. But I'm headed that way," he said. "The big difference is that there aren't that many local comedy clubs. So you have to keep coming up with new material. And that's a good thing, because it's a challenge.
"Telling a joke is the element of surprise. It's not like being a singer, where you can do the same song 50 million times and everything's fine. I can go to Cincinnati and tell a joke that I've told for the 50 millionth time and it's fresh for them."
How does the Pittsburgh comedy scene compare to those in other places?
"It's not so competitive here. It's more supportive," Mr. Skinner said. "It matters what part of the country you're in. New York is competitive, L.A. is competitive. Here in Pittsburgh, this is a small pond and you can be a big fish trying to help each other out. You hope that somebody you know makes it and can hold the door open so you can come in, too."
What about the pressure? Standing up alone on a stage, no props, just a microphone and a spotlight. Is that terrifying?
"Not if you think you've got a solid act. You've really just got to jump into it. Get a hard, solid three minutes that you know is funny, then you can bridge off of that.
"If you're bombing, it can be an eternity. But if you're doing good and you're rolling, that time can go so fast.
"Comedians have a two-minute light that lets them know when their time is almost up. And sometimes you get that light and you're like, 'Oooh, but I got more stuff to do.' But sometimes, I've got to admit, you're thinking, 'Where is that light at, PLEASE!' "
What's the difference between a "mainstream" show and an "urban" show?
"The mainstream show, the people come in to laugh. 'Oh, I get to see other comedians? I get to see him, too? Why, this is a great night!' But with the urban show, it's like, 'Tell me again why I paid $20 and now I have to buy the two-drink minimum with the 18 percent gratuity. You better make me laugh. Tell me what's so funny.'
"Oooh, and when it's just not working? I'd rather get booed or heckled than just hear crickets. That's like, 'Awww, man.' After that, I'm thinking to myself, 'Well, it was funny when I thought it up in the car. Thanks for giving me a quiet place to practice.' "
"Sometimes you hope for it. Remember, when you're up on the stage and you take on a heckler, you got the microphone. So you can always get louder than that heckler.
"Sometimes a heckler can help out your show. I'm like, 'Oooh, I didn't have that five minutes. Thanks for that five minutes you gave me.' "
"Just making people laugh. I can't take away no one's problems, but if I can get you to laugh for two or three minutes, maybe I'll make you forget about them."
First Published June 13, 2012 4:04 pm