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Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020: Terry Geil’s hosting yet another successful evening of comedy at Lebanon’s Barsideous Brewing. He’s missed one monthly showcase since launching the series in late 2018. That date fell on one of the Guitar Under the Stars festival’s two nights at Cheadle Lake Park last July. Summers are fallow, anyway; the sun hangs late and everyone’s living elsewhere to the hilt.
But summer’s long over, and spring is on the way. It’s a packed house tonight, all 50 available audience spaces taken. The bill? Equally full, beginning with with local up-and-comer Catty McSkat. (“She just started coming to the open mics,” Geil recalls. “I told her she was funny and she should try it. So she did.”) Max Brockman, host of Eugene’s Laugh Track Town USA, comes up, as do fellow south zip-coder comics Angie Bloomfield and Chaz Logan Hyde. Austin Coburn makes the trip from Salem.
As emcee, Geil introduces the lineup and fills his own 10-minute slot. He lets fly with a crack about his Uncle Tank-Top who doesn’t actually wear a tank-top; he earned the nickname for more nefarious, criminal reasons. Geil remembers it well because it’s the last joke he told to a paying audience before the country slammed shut its doors.
Actually, that’s not entirely true: His final words were “Thanks for coming out; we’ll see you next month.” Of course, that didn’t happen. The following event was set for March 14, mere hours after the coronavirus began blitzing the mid-Willamette Valley, hitting the Edward C. Allworth Veterans’ Home especially hard (13 residents and one employee confirmed by March 16). Barsideous sits less than 2 miles north. The evening’s headliner, Sam Miller, canceled, so Geil pulled the plug. The venue closed too.
“Things were going so great,” Geil says. “During the winter months, we were packing the place. The owner ended up having to sell tickets because people would come and be upset when they couldn’t get in. People were disappointed when it stopped.”
Geil subsequently launched a Facebook page, the Covid Comedy Club. Comics were invited to upload videos or spritz live. But it wasn’t the same, lacking the immediacy of an audience and audible, real-time laughter. Minus the odd career-ending mistake, Zoom ain’t funny; basements with curious pets and naked walls make terrible backdrops. The page remains active after a half-year and Geil still fields member requests. But he misses those faces enveloped in darkness, reacting only feet away.
“I did a few sets, but it’s just weird telling jokes to your phone and watching little laughing emojis and hearts fly up the screen,” he says.
That all changes Saturday, Nov. 7, when he treks back to the mic for the first time since February. At 7 p.m. he joins Alex Elkin for an evening slaying the living at the Gridiron Sports Bar & Grill, 262 Smith St., Harrisburg. It may not sound like your typical giggle shack, but Geil describes the space as a large, open room conducive to verbal volleys with an appreciative crowd that doesn’t regard amplified ripostes as an intrusion on its night out. (He last graced the restaurant in January, with a subsequent March show that was — yup — killed by corona. There just ain’t no escape.)
“It’s not like a lot of places,” he says. “First of all, it’s not dark and there’s not really a stage. You’re just o the floor in the corner with a PA. It’s a great atmosphere because people come for a comedy show. They’re not watching sports on TV or drinking and talking with friends as they eat dinner.”
Not long ago, Geil was strictly one of those people. However, he’s no stranger to stages as a multi-instrumentalist — primarily guitar — for various mid-valley bands over the last 30 years, beginning with the legendarily righteous Victims of Internal Decay in the late 1980s. He's a funny guy. Hilarious, even. But professional comedy — the whole “you’re a beautiful audience” and “don’t forget to tip your waitress” zinger trip — was for dudes in New York or L.A., certainly not small-town Oregon. (EDITOR'S NOTE: This is true. I performed standup in the early ’90s at the old Toa Yuen and a long-gone coffeehouse, both in Corvallis. Ordinarily, local comedy was for distant pros landing intermittently in tavern backrooms.)
Then, in March 2011, he and his girlfriend (now wife) Danna walked past the Black Forest bar in Eugene and spotted a sign advertising an open mic. The wording seemed vaguely provocative, almost taunting: “Think you’re funny? Come on in and give it a try.” Geil might not have thought much of it, but Danna recognized opportunity. “You’re super-funny,” she told him. “Just go in there and tell some stories.” He didn’t go up that night; he just watched. But the following week he returned with five minutes of his very first set.
“It felt like 30 minutes,” he recalls. “But I didn’t bomb. I got a few laughs. The host told me I did well for my first time, so he gave me the inspiration to keep going.”
More than 100 performances later, he’s still at it — minus the pandemic sabbatical. The dates are landing again. Following Harrisburg, he’s landed a 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21 Laugh Track Town USA performance with Jaren George and Tory Ward at the First National Taphouse in Eugene. (He was booked for a previous engagement at Alton Baker Park in early September. That was canceled — not for COVID-19 but for wildfires then choking and decimating the state.)
“I’m looking forward to making people laugh and, I guess, acceptance,” he says. “I’ll be honest: All comedians are sort-of attention whores: ‘Look at me! I’m going to tell you some personal things about my life and make jokes about it!’ I just want to make people laugh and forget all the bullshit that’s going on right now. There’ll be a few quarantine jokes, but I want people to forget. Just laugh and have a good time.”
How has the pandemic affected you creatively?
You can’t go do what you love to do. I write some stuff, but it’s hard to know if it’s going to work, because I can’t go try it out on a mic. It kinda made me stop even trying to write. I have a friend — the guy who canceled for the last show. He had about 100 joke in one week. He did that for three weeks in a row. He would go on his 100 jokes. There were a lot of short ones, one-liners, and he used to say, “Some of these aren’t funny, and some of them aren’t even jokes.” So I tried to write like 40 jokes and I just didn’t have the inspiration. A lot of them were COVID jokes, quarantine jokes, and material that was topical then, which wouldn’t play that well now. Stuff about Tiger King and everything that was going on when we were locked up in our houses.
I might add, though, that not going onstage and being kept away from it for so long has inspired me to sit down and write new material. The show I have coming up has about half new stuff, which I never got to try for an open mic. My wife is my open mic, and she’s a tough crowd.
How have you evolved as a comedian since 2011?
I recently watched an open mic set from 2011 at the Black Forest in Eugene, and yeah, it was pretty cringe-worthy. I think I got better. I had to take a break for a while because of health issues, as you probably identify with, where I had to stop doing stuff because I had to get my body and my mind in check. It’s like a muscle memory: If you don’t exercise it — it doesn’t go away, but it doesn’t get any better. I feel like I took a couple steps back. I’ve come quite a way.
It makes me second-guess myself because I feel like I’m starting over, almost. Over the time this has been happening, things have been changing so much in the culture with the “woke” movement. I don’t know what’s OK to say. It still makes me rework my jokes. It sucks because I’m doing stuff this coming weekend and I just don’t know how it’s going to work. I’m taking jokes out because I’m second-guessing myself. Am I going to offend somebody? I really wish I didn’t care if you’re offended. You don’t know me. If you want to think I’m a bad person, go ahead.
What are you up to musically?
I’ve still been playing in my two-piece band, Bikini, with Jake Quinnett. We’ve been rehearsing—what you would call “woodshedding” — writing material. Since there’s only two of us, it’s easy to be six feet apart.
How easy is it to be funny in 2020, when society and politics especially have surpassed absurdity?
I’ve never been into politics. I personally don’t do political material, not because I’m afraid of dividing myself from the
crowd but because it’s not my thing. I don’t really have anything to say about it. You could get an hour’s worth of material just by quoting Donald Trump. I just want to concentrate on comedy.