Kyle Gagnon is bombing. But it doesn't seem to bother him. For one thing, he's hardly the first comic to fall flat tonight. It's a Wednesday evening at Nectar's, a weekly slot occupied by the Vermont Comedy Club's open mic. That means the lineup mostly consists of newbie comedians still honing their chops and established vets workshopping new material. And it's a forgiving audience. Those who aren't comics themselves are friends or family of comics, so heckling is kept to a minimum. The real gauge for how well a joke works — or doesn't — is whether the crowd shuts up long enough to hear it. Judging by how often hosts Nathan Hartswick and Natalie Miller harangue overly chatty audience members between sets, the meter is reading low.
The other reason Gagnon is unruffled?
"I got booed off the stage for the first time last week," he tells me just before his five-minute open mic set. His Cheshire grin suggests he's both amused by and at least a little proud of this fact. Gagnon, 25, who will do his first hourlong set at Club Metronome on Thursday, May 21, as part of the Green Mountain Comedy Festival, explains that he was the final performer in a rough comedy showcase at another downtown club. The show was already running behind and, by the time he got up, the crowd mostly consisted of fans of the local bar band slated to take the stage once Gagnon finished.
"I had to climb over guitars just to get to the mic," he says. The band's fans had little interest in Gagnon's jokes. So he did the natural thing. He made fun of the band's name.
"That didn't go over so well," he says, sipping on a Miller Lite.
Gagnon is in no danger of being harassed off the stage tonight. But that's not a reflection of his material. Actually, he's not really even doing material. It's more of an unhinged rant.
"I think I'm just gonna talk about how stupid Patriots fans are," he tells me before his set. And he does. This is days after the National Football League suspended New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of the upcoming season for his (alleged) role in (allegedly) deflating footballs prior to a playoff game last season. The common cry from deflated Pats fans — including this one — is that Ray Rice was initially suspended half as many games, two, for knocking out his wife in a casino elevator. (Or, more cynically, for getting caught on camera doing it.) Based mostly on circumstantial evidence, Brady's suspension seems, well, inflated by comparison.
Gagnon's point is that comparing Brady and Rice, deflated footballs and hardened fists, makes light of domestic abuse.
"By saying Tom Brady got screwed because Ray Rice got two games, you're basically saying that you think deflated footballs and nearly killing a woman are the same thing," he tells the crowd. "If you think that, you're an idiot."
He's right. He's just not funny. An uncomfortable silence hangs in the room after Gagnon delivers that final blow.
Then comes the punch line.
"So I'm doing an hour upstairs next Thursday," he says, grinning again. "See you then!"
Don't let Gagnon's open mic misfire fool you. He is, by almost all accounts, among the funniest comics in Vermont. He's also one of the most decorated. He won the coveted Higher Ground Comedy Battle in 2012. And he's been a finalist in the Vermont's Funniest Comedian contest three years running, losing each time primarily because the winning comic uncorked a transcendent set. Last time around it was Grant Robin, who is seated with Gagnon when I arrive at the club.
"I was pretty sure I was gonna win last year," says Gagnon. "Then Grant did his set and I was like, 'Oh, shit.'"
Gagnon isn't a shock comic. But he isn't afraid to push buttons and make his audience squirm.
"My mom won't come see me," he tells me. "She's afraid I'll say something that will make her uncomfortable."
She's probably right. Later, Phil Davidson, a formerly local comic who won the VFC crown in 2013 and is in town from his home base in Milwaukee, asks Gagnon what jokes he'll do in his solo show — which, by the way, he's calling "Nothing Weird."
"Oh, a mix of some newer stuff and older stuff," Gagnon replies matter-of-factly. "I think I'll probably do that bit about the first time I saw my mom's boobs."
In Vermont comedy circles, doing an hour is something close to the Holy Grail. Most featured sets run about 15 to 20 minutes. Only a handful of locals have done an hour, and they are almost exclusively battle-tested veterans such as Josie Leavitt and Martha Tormey. Even Hartswick, coproducer of the GMCF and the cofounder/co-owner of the Vermont Comedy Club — which will open a brick-and-mortar venue downtown this fall — says the longest set he's done is 40 minutes. Why? Because it's really, really hard.
"It's all an illusion," says Hartswick later by phone. "A standup comedian is trying to create the illusion that everything that he or she is saying to you, they're saying specifically to you for the very first time.
"The most successful comics, you relate to everything they say, and everything they say is funny," he continues. "Which is impossible in real life."
So how do you create that illusion? One joke at a time.
"You workshop bits at an open mic, then you fold them into a show," Hartswick explains. "You're taking movable puzzle pieces to get to a longer chunk of material that is consistent and always feels spontaneous and always gets a laugh. Then you stitch them together in a way that feels intuitive and natural to the audience."
But can Gagnon do it?
"Kyle has a lot of material that's really solid," says Hartswick. "And he has a work ethic that, when he's focused on something, he really comes through."
Back at the club, Gagnon, whose previous long set is about 30 minutes, says he's not sweating doing an hour.
"I really haven't thought about it too much," he says.
He's full of shit.
Clad in a worn plaid shirt and sporting dark stubble and tousled black hair, Gagnon's slacker image might be well earned. Indeed, some of his best older bits concern drunken shenanigans with his buddies. In a Seven Days feature on local comics appearing at the 2013 GMCF, fellow comedian Carmen Lagala, who is now based in Brooklyn and will open Gagnon's show, referred to him as "a lovable asshat."
But if there is one thing Gagnon takes seriously, it's comedy. He tells me he obsesses over every missed punch line and mangled setup. They keep him awake at night and drive him to write more, to write better. And he seems to remember every time he's come in second.
"I'm gonna kick your ass tomorrow, Phil," Gagnon tells Davidson. The two comics will perform the following night at the weekly Half & Half Comedy showcase at the Halflounge Speakeasy. Like most friendly trash talk, Gagnon's barb is good-natured but also cut with seriousness. He has every intention of showing up his friend.
Davidson nods, grinning, and says, "You can try."
A peek at what was on my iPod, turntable, eight-track player, etc., this week.