To say that comedian Mike Schmidt (no, not the former Phillies third-baseman) has some issues with anger would be an understatement. This is a man who has been in a fistfight with every one of his four brothers at some point. As adults. He once beat the shit out of a Nissan on an LA freeway. Not the occupants, mind you; the car. It’s not surprising that the working title for his one-man show was …And Then I Punched Him In The Face. What makes him different than your average knucklehead out to crack some skulls is that he realizes he has a problem and is trying to make some sense of it. Last Friday night, in the basement theater of the Westport Coffeehouse in Kansas City, he gave a few dozen fans a peek inside that process.
For those unfamiliar with his comedy, Mike Schmidt’s been a standup for over twenty years, in addition to being a writer on the Sklar Brothers’ pretty awesome TV show Cheap Seats and the video game Saints Row. I first heard of him as the original cohost of Jimmy Pardo’s Never Not Funny, one of the longest running, most successful podcasts ever to grace an mp3 player. He and Pardo had an easy familiarity borne of years spent together as road comics, and the first season of NNF is, quite simply, the best. Schmidt left after the first season, and even though I’ll still catch an episode every now and then, it just doesn’t have the same magic for me now that he’s not there. He resurfaced a year later with his own podcast, The 40 Year Old Boy, and it is truly a wonder to behold. Recorded in a stripper, er, burlesque dancer’s kitchen every week, it’s is a case study in letting your id run wild. He has no guests, no cohost, just one man telling stories with the occasional off-mic giggle from his producer. He’s described his approach to storytelling as “talking downhill,” and that’s about right. He’s a fast talker, and at times, I have to rewind a few seconds to catch something I missed while laughing. A particular tale might start two or three times and digressions are all given their fair share of attention. Asides are commonplace, and he even critiques his own jokes on the fly. I find it incredibly funny and often a bit dark. When he announced he had written a one-man show and was taking it on the road, I assumed it would be roughly akin to a live version of the podcast. I was was wrong, but also a little bit right.
Success Is Not An Option opens with about an hour’s worth of standup, mainly to do with the difficulties encountered traveling from his home in LA to wherever the show is. Kansas City was no different, though from listening to the podcast, it sounds like Mike might be getting the hang of flying in today’s overly security-concious atmosphere. That said, it’s never easy, and judging from stories I heard Friday night and previously on the podcast, I don’t know that I could ever bring myself to take a taxi or an airport shuttle in LA. I like curry as much as the next guy, but when every driver he encounters seems to bathe in and brush their teeth with the stuff… No thank you.
From there, we move into the meat of the show, told in three acts, each a story of anger or violence or both and how they relate to the concept of family. It should surprise no one that he grew up as a latchkey kid, with a mostly-absent, alcoholic father and a sometimes-present mom. In explaining what is was like living with her, any mention of her love is conspicuously absent, though he and his brothers rightly feared her. Is this the only way for a single-mother to control five boys? He would have us think so. For Mike’s mom, violence is a fact of life, a tool to be used whenever necessary, be it in disciplining her children or coming to the defense of a pregnant neighbor. One thing that struck me was the obvious admiration Mike has for this approach, though he often struggles against it. This is heavy stuff, and it’s a testament to his storytelling ability that such a situation could elicit not more than a few laughs. In the same way that Nirvana (and the Pixies before them) used quiet verses and loud choruses to amplify the power of both, Mike uses the humorous aspects of growing up in a horrible situation to help his audience empathize. By the time we get to the climax of the show, when Mike commits an act of violence that is, to be blunt, unforgivable, we are at least able to see his motivation. It’s that understanding that lets us share in the ultimate lesson here, that you don’t have to play the cards you’re dealt, that just because you are raised in a certain environment, doesn’t mean that you have to recreate that environment in your own life. We are not our parents. We can be different; we just have to try.
The difference between the podcast and the one-man is the level of introspection. I’m not used to hearing him talk about the more serious aspects of his life. Apart from his Fathers Day episode from last year (which kicked me in the emotional junk so hard I cried), it’s mostly all fun and games on the podcast. In the one-man, however, he seems to be digging at something a little deeper, and the experience is much better for it. And while the show spoke to me on a very deep and personal level, and I laughed most of the way through, it could, honestly, be shorter by about an hour. There’s one story here, involving a BB gun fight in his neighborhood that, while hilarious, doesn’t seem to fit with the others. I barely noticed, though. Mike is a very engaging storyteller, and I was never bored. Also, if you’ve never listened to anything of his before, the language is more than a little salty, but the profanity is never incongruous. This is how real people speak, and if you have a problem with it, get over it.
Will Success Is Not An Option be compelling enough for non-fans of The 40 Year Old Boy to enjoy? I think so. Like all good stories, it concerns itself with a relatable protagonist struggling with realistic obstacles, be they internal or external. Those with prior knowledge of Mike’s life will come away with a fuller understanding of what’s shaped and continues to motivate him. Those without will be treated to a glimpse inside the mind of a person doing battle with the demons of the past and trying to find some peace. Everyone will laugh more than they probably should at the carnage.
[Mike Schmidt’s The 40 Year Old Boy: Success Is Not An Option can be seen at various venues across the country, and his weekly podcast, The 40 Year Old Boy is available at http://mikeschmidtcomedy.com/podcast ]