COLUMBIA — A young man sits in his busted-up 1988 Buick LaSabre in a mall parking lot in Independence, after getting off work. He is eating an Auntie Anne’s pretzel when he spots two children nearing his car. The young man calls from his window and offers to share his pretzel with the kids.
It is meant to be an offer of kindness, but that’s not how mall security sees it. The young man is approached by a mall cop, who tells him, “You can’t hand kids food out of your car.”
This summer, Kyle Ayers will perform his comedy at 9:30 p.m. most Tuesdays at Eastside Tavern, 1016 E. Broadway. No cover.
Kyle Ayers keeps the pretzel incident in the back of his mind and eventually decides to record it. He finds a scrap of paper and writes, “Me in my car outside the mall offering an Auntie Anne’s pretzel to two kids.” He doesn’t know whether it will turn into something he can use in his stand-up routine, but he tucks it inside his wallet just in case.
Ayers, 20, keeps piles of crumpled-up pieces of paper everywhere, each one noting a funny observation or experience. He writes down everything, not knowing what will become a joke. Each piece of paper holds a premise, and recording such starting points is essential to his writing process.
Ayers, who has just finished his junior year at MU, has been doing stand-up for about two years and plans to make comedy his career after graduating in 2010. He’ll spend two weeks this summer in Chicago taking immersion classes at The Second City, the improv theater once home to John Belushi and Tina Fey.
Ayers has explored almost every aspect of comedy, including stand-up, writing, improvisation and acting. He thrives on original premises and increasing his knowledge of the craft. Mid-Missouri might not be known for fostering stand-up comedians — an exception is former MU All-American wrestler Greg Warren — but those around Ayers think he has the ability to make it professionally as a stand-up or a comic actor.
Opening his career with open mikes
Growing up in Blue Springs, he was able to see stand-ups when they performed in nearby Kansas City. Ayers cites Dave Chappell, George Carlin and Woody Allen as some of his favorite comedians, but Mitch Hedberg significantly influenced him.
"I went and saw Lewis Black and Dave Attell my freshman year of high school,” Ayers says. “Mitch Hedberg opened for them, and his opening act is kind of what got me interested in watching stand-up all together.”
Ayers says Hedberg, known for his short jokes and non sequiturs, was the first comic he encountered who just told jokes and didn’t weave together entire stories. It’s something he tried in his own comedy when he first started doing stand-up.
However, his first open mike night at a bar in Kansas City wasn’t star-making.
“I had a bunch of stuff written down that I thought might be funny,” Ayers says, “and I called around and did this open mike for about 12 people, and it went horribly wrong. It was so bad that I got made fun of by the other comedians.”
Nevertheless, the people in charge of the open mike encouraged him, and Ayers knew he wasn’t going to quit stand-up after one failure. “I knew why it went bad,” he says. “It was pretty easy to pinpoint why things didn’t work.”
Ayers' comedy was rough at first, but he got better over time. If a joke bombed, it gave him a chance to learn what he was doing wrong — and what he was doing right. He doesn't scrap a joke after one failure, but he also knows when to give up on it.
“It’s pretty easy to lose a love affair with a joke if it doesn’t go over well,” Ayers says.
He gets chances to try his material each week at the As Yet Unnamed Comedy Show at Eastside Tavern and sometimes even at his emceeing gig at Deja Vu. Ayers’ boss at Deja Vu, managing partner Matt Istwan, met the comic when Ayers competed in a “Last Comic Standing” type of competition at the comedy club. Ayers has never won, but he has been a finalist two years in a row. Istwan was looking for someone to emcee and work reservations, and he wanted Ayers.
“I definitely feel one of the reasons why we wanted to have Kyle on staff is that Kyle has a special talent that I recognize, probably more than any other open miker I’ve seen in my time here,” Istwan says.
Istwan has worked at Deja Vu since 1992. He has seen 17 years' worth of open mikers and professional comedians and thinks Ayers’ use of creative premises and his writing skills make him a strong comedian. Istwan thinks Ayers has the ability to make comedy his career — something he says he has never told another open miker in all his time at Deja Vu.
“Obviously, he’s got good stage presence, he’s got good timing, he’s got a good persona,” Istwan says. “But I think what really makes him stand out is the fact that he’s a great writer. His material is written very well for someone so new at what he’s doing, and his premises are always very original.”
A weekly writing challenge
Ayers’ writing process is systematic, beginning with whatever's written on those crumpled pieces of paper. Some of those ideas turn into jokes that he puts down in a notebook. After being tested four or five times, a joke might receive its own page in the notebook, making it more official.
Ayers next works on compiling a set list, which contains more jokes than he’ll need. He tries to divide them into categories to weave his set together. Some jokes are labeled “Mizzou joke,” which means it will only get laughs in Columbia, or “young crowd,” which means he once tried the joke in front of an older crowd, and they didn’t bite. After each performance, he rates how effective his jokes were on a scale of one to five. However, just because a joke doesn't do well in front of one crowd doesn’t mean it won’t do well in front of a different crowd.
He sticks to tested material when Istwan lets him perform stand-up while emceeing at Deja Vu, but he tries out his new material at the weekly comedy shows at Eastside Tavern.
“We try to do all new stuff every week because there’s a lot of people who come every time,” Ayers says. Coming up with 10 minutes of new material a week is a challenge, but it forces him to practice writing.
Dan Friesen started the As Yet Unnamed Comedy Show in November after Eastside Tavern discontinued its Tuesday trivia night. Friesen met Ayers while doing stand-up at Deja Vu.
A longtime comedy fan who took the plunge into stand-up just six months ago, Friesen, 25, thinks that Ayers can make a career in “almost any facet of comedy.” He calls Ayers’ comedy both thoughtful and accessible.
“Everyone gets him, and that’s not a knock on him at all,” Friesen says. “He has a wide-open audience of people who like him. That’s something I don’t see a whole lot. Most of the people that endear themselves to a wide audience sacrifice a certain amount of creativity and humor, but Kyle doesn’t fall into that trap.”
Friesen also credits Ayers for his versatility. “He has all his bases covered,” Friesen says. “He’s a good performer, he’s comfortable on stage, and he’s a good writer and good improviser.”
Making a career out of comedy
Istwan says he tells every aspiring comic who comes to him for advice to get a college degree first. Ayers’ family agrees. His older sister, Vanessa, says their parents have told Ayers to finish his English degree, but after that, he should follow his dreams.
Istwan has set up Ayers with open mikes and paid gigs in Kansas City, St. Louis and the Lake of the Ozarks. Before Ayers graduates, Istwan will give him the opportunity to perform and record a 20- to 30-minute set to put online and promote himself.
Istwan recognizes that mid-Missouri isn’t as ideal a place to develop a comedy career as a larger city is, but he advises Ayers and other comedians to not necessarily move to New York and L.A. right away. Midwestern cities, he says, have recently become hotbeds of talent because it is easier to travel between gigs.
Ayers has time to think about where he wants to go. Right now, he’s a full-time student working three jobs in addition to his work in comedy, but he still thinks about the future.
“I don’t know if I want to move to New York,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to start going on the road. I’ve never really been anywhere. I’ve never seen the ocean. I’ve never been that far. That’s kind of the allure of the business.”
Ayers recognizes that the market for comedians is saturated, something that Istwan attributes to the popularity of Comedy Central and “Last Comic Standing,” an NBC reality show. Istwan says more people are trying comedy, especially in Columbia, where he says the open mikers are better than ever.
Finding gigs will certainly be a challenge, but Istwan doesn’t see Ayers doing anything but comedy.
Ayers’ sister agrees.
“He changes his major a lot,” Vanessa Ayers says. “He kind of goes from one thing to the next, but comedy was always the thing he was the most passionate about. It’s always been in the back of his mind. He seems to shine the most when he’s on stage and doing comedy.”
Ayers didn’t know he could be a stand-up when he watched comics such as Mitch Hedberg and Lewis Black perform in Kansas City. But by the time he offered a pretzel to those children in a mall parking lot, he knew comedy could be his career.
“I think this is kind of it,” he says.