by Brandon Ryan
“Imagine every comic in Philadelphia is a marble, and all of us together make up a bag of marbles. My mentality is, if all the marbles in the bag are black, what can I do to be the white marble? I don’t want to just be up on stage telling jokes, I don’t want to just be up there in a sketch. What I want to do is mess with, tinker with, the format of stand-up.” —Gregg Gethard
On Sunday evening Philadelphia’s Italian Market is a beast laid to rest. The produce stands that dot the length of Ninth Street are silent and still, bound over with tarpaulin and tattered sheets of plastic. Bags of garbage line the alleys tucked between shuttered storefronts. They rustle in the night’s gusts. The gutters blossom odors rich and reeking: spoiling flowers and meats, industrial grade sanitizers a macabre imitation of lemon, the unmistakable fetor of urine. Neon light puddles on the sidewalk in front of what few restaurants and bars, most advertising deeply discounted cervezas and food, remain open. It is here, to the sidewalk, to the street, that Gregg Gethard, or, perhaps, more accurately, his alter-ego, Jaykob Strange, has led the whole of Connie’s Ric-Rac.
“Do you like magic?!”
Gregg/Jaykob’s voice is tremulous. On a night where the air’s chill hovered just below menacing, he stands in nothing more than boxer shorts and a kimono, a golden sash loosely knotted at his waist.
“I was once the official street magician of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels!”
Gregg/Jaykob raises his staff skyward. Had I not mentioned his staff? The one topped with a skull and whose length is meant to resemble a human spinal column. The staff is plastic, be assured, the kind sold by the dozens in Halloween costume outlets. He alternates between waving it at the crowd and the traffic passing just inches behind him. At one point he stops his act entirely to kindly direct traffic down a one-way street.
“Tonight I am here to declare my revenge on Auntie Anne’s!”
Revenge is the theme of tonight’s Bedtime Stories, a monthly show that Gethard originally started in 2007 and is, after a nine-month hiatus, now relaunching. He and I, along with his wife, Ilana, at the show’s close walked to Underdogs to talk about Bedtimes Stories’ development and evolution, why it disappeared, and why he’s ready to bring it back.
Brandon Ryan: How did Bedtime Stories come about?
Gregg Gethard: When I originally started Bedtime Stories there was this explosion of… There were always a lot of people doing stand-up, there weren’t really a lot of people in sketch, but even that was starting to pick up, and a lot of people started improv, but what happened more than anything were those worlds, those disciplines started combining.
BR: Is that why the show has such an eclectic feel to it?
GG: That is exactly why the show has such an eclectic feel to it. I initially wanted it to be just comedy storytelling, but there weren’t enough performers to support that or who could do it, and so I opened it up which worked out in a major way because then a lot of interesting, cool, smart, and funny people all started doing the show.
BR: What made you decide to end Bedtime Stories when you did in 2011?
GG: It went away for a few reasons. The main reason was that at the time I was commuting to New York for work, and there was the stress not only of organizing a show, but then also of writing my own material to perform. But another reason, and maybe the more important one to me was that the show got stale. I mean, a lot of people took the show seriously and did really well, but then there were also people who just kind of like, like it was just there for them and they took it for granted. See, the show was a lot of fun and a lot of magic when we were getting to know one another, but more importantly when everyone was working to discover their voice, and how they were going to perform.
BR: So you liked, when the show first started, how vibrant and different and kind of disparate the acts were?
GG: Exactly. And so a couple of month’s ago I performed in the Philly Improv Theater’s PRO-MANIA 2K12 at the Adrienne, and I had such a blast working on this show, and it was great and it was so much fun, I met so many new people. And then I also started working in Philadelphia again and started going to open mics, meeting all these new comics and they were trying to find… They were in that phase, trying to find their voice.
BR: And you felt like you wanted to give these new voices a chance to develop?
GG: Well since there’s this new crop of kids coming up, they are having a lot of fun with it, I feel like since I’ve organized and held shows before that I can help them, can kind of give them a structure to work within. I want to help people who don’t have a chance to perform their stuff elsewhere, to have a spot for them. And even tonight, my friend Kevin, that was the first time he ever performed comedy. He lives up in the Lehigh Valley, there’s not a ton of places to perform comedy up there… So I thought he was a funny dude, I wanted him to do it. And there’s this other thing that I used to do with Bedtime Stories and then I stopped doing and I’m going to hold myself to it this time, is I want to get as many new people to do it as possible. I want people to see how great comedy can be in Philadelphia, I don’t want people to get tied into this whole contest that it can a lot of times be. I want people to see that you know, “I can do comedy. It can be as weird as I want it to be. And I don’t have to worry about impressing So&So to try to get X-stage time at Y-venue.”
BR: Was there something that kind of spurred this sentiment? That you wanted to help new comics?
GG: Well, I was at this open mic. And it was this kid’s first night. And it was big for him. And so he performed, did his stuff, he started to stumble and stammer, he took out his phone to see his notes. He’s, for all intents and purposes, having your average first performance. This is nothing new. We’ve all been there. But then the kid leaves the stage, and one of the guys who was hosting the open mic just starts ripping on him. And I thought, like, how would this help this kid at all? So I want to do the opposite of that. I want new comics to feel safe, and like they’re supported. And I mean, there’s this thing that the veteran comics do, and I’m guilty of it to, where they kind of exclude the newcomers, but I feel like it’s our job, kind of, to help these new kids, to help them step up to the table and talk with them and help them figure things out and give pointers and advice. And that’s one of the reasons I want to do Bedtime Stories. To give them that.
BR: What do you have slated for Bedtime Stories?
GG: There’s one Bedtime Stories I’m really excited for. It’s going to be in February and it’s going to be called “The Feral Millionaire.” And so what it is is I came up with this idea of…
Ilana Gethard: Um, No.
IG: You had been researching feral pets!
GG: I’m really into feral animals and feral pets.
IG: And then I would come home and he would explain to me what you would have to do to have a pet raccoon.
GG: Or like a pet ocelot. Like the licenses you need.
BR: And this brought you to “The Feral Millionaire.”
GG: Yes! So what it is is from there I came up with this idea… I’m kind of obsessed with rich people, rich people come up in my comedy a lot. I kind of own a monopoly on faberge egg-related comedy. So we came up with this story of this boy who was abandoned by his mom, who had a dream of becoming an Assistant Human Relations Manager for a regional supermarket chain. And he was adopted by owls. He receives this kind of genteel, owl upbringing. And so one day his owl brother goes to retrieve an egg, which turns out to be a faberge egg, and so the family goes to find this faberge egg and finds this Owl-Boy. And so now he’s torn between two worlds. But what really excites me is that what I’m going to do is outline the plot and every Bedtime Story or sketch or video will be a plot point. And I’m pairing with a group in town called Mighty Writers, and we’re going to raise money for them, but we were also talking about having come of the kids write some of the stories and performing. I think it’ll be great for the kids and I’m excited to see what the other comedians and writers bring to the show.
The next ‘Bedtime Stories’ (“A Christmas Eve at a Delco WaWa”) will be on December 16th at 7pm at Connie’s Ric-Rac (1132 S. Ninth Street, Philadelphia). Admission is $5.