Once upon a time, there was a storytelling craze in America.
Based on the premise that there’s a great story in all of us, storytelling venues like Story League, The Moth and First Person Arts emerged, putting brave souls in the spotlight. Their true-life tales are sometimes sad, sometimes frightening and often hilarious, with storytellers ranging from first-time nervous wrecks to seasoned raconteurs. But one reality of these events: Sometimes it’s a little awkward. Especially when no one laughs. That might be on the verge of changing, as funny starts to take center stage.
The Moth listeners have been treated to everything from laughs over colon-surgery mishaps and the resulting “sh*t bags” to the real story behind Milli Vanilli’s lip-syncing debacle. At First Person Arts, a teacher shared his once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet the president at the White House with his students — only to have one troublesome pupil steal the moment by pooing his pants. Another drew laughs when he complained about not wanting to grow old alone, followed by tears when he described the final and solitary days of his apartment manager, whose body wasn’t found until days after he’d expired. At Story League, a young gay man recounted the woes of wooing with a bit of flatulence.
This is entertainment, not narcissistic prattling.
As in real life, true stories can move us, amuse us and bore us … to tears. But laughs are rarely a guarantee at storytelling contests, or slams, and the varied results prove that some of us are better at spinning tales than others.
Slam organizers have different opinions on whether laughter is an essential element of a great tale. For Catherine Burns, head of the artistic team at The Moth, for example, it’s less about laughs and more about meaning. “Ideally there needs to be some change in the storyteller as a result of what happened,” she says.
Story League’s founder, SM Shrake, agrees that audiences should be rewarded with meaning, but he insists that “this is entertainment, not narcissistic prattling.” For him, the best story “grabs your attention with the first line, keeps you listening … and then pays off with a big, funny ending.” And to that end, Shrake is determined to revolutionize storytelling with more laughs.
Since March 2011, Story League in Washington, D.C., has been showcasing amateur storytellers in the country’s first cash-prize contest. It has grown quickly, from basement bar shows with 80 people to sold-out nightclubs. Now, in a bid to change the playing field, Story League delivers a simple new promise: only the funny. From here on out, Story League’s spotlights will shine only on those with seven-minute stories to share that are true — and funny.
That’s a huge change for a form of entertainment that depends on accessibility as its main draw. Throwing open the doors is what makes storytelling venues inviting for audience members and performers alike — because anyone is welcome to stand up and tell his or her tale.
Meanwhile, over at The Moth, which has been in business since 2000 and runs slams in 16 locations nationwide, stories have to be true and meaningful, but not necessarily comical.
Shrake jokingly directs anyone who refuses to add humor toward the exit.
”They do not have to be funny,” says Burns, who notes the difference between their shows and stand-up comedy. “Most great storytellers are willing to show their vulnerability to the crowd, which isn’t necessary in stand-up.”
Shrake disagrees and sees a gap between the two — a gap he intends to fill with laughs. “[Storytellers] don’t have to know the science of stand-up comedy,” he says, adding that they ”just have to tell a funny story the way you would at a dinner party.”
Shrake doesn’t want anyone to feel excluded by the “funny” rule, and he jokingly directs anyone who refuses to add humor toward the exit.
“You can still tell your story about someone you love dying of cancer, but it has to be funny,” he says. ”If you can’t make it funny, we encourage you to go for it anyway: Take it to The Moth!”
And The Moth will be happy to have you. While Story League is focused on upping the laugh quotient and expanding domestically, The Moth is planning to expand internationally.
Whether you’re looking for that meaningful moment of connection — with a side of tears — or a chance to laugh at stories about band camp, both types of venues seek to entertain. So that means, laugh or cry, there’s a venue out there for you and an audience ready to listen, no matter what story you’ve got on the tip of your tongue.
And that, folks, makes for one happy beginning.
Why you should care
Because substance without laughter is a lecture, but laughter without substance is happy hour. But a balance between the two? Heavenly.