The host of the My Spilt Milk Awards April 7 at the Howlin' Wolf is starting to recognize his own voice in his comedy.
[Updated] “I remember every second of my first time up there, with people staring at me with the Black Hole Sun face.”
Every comedian remembers the pain of the first time on stage, and Andrew Polk is no exception. He describes his first time performing comedy at Carrollton Station’s open mic as five minutes of “bone-crushing silence.” He had played in bands in Ruston, Louisiana, where he grew up and went to school, and he’d seen audiences return his energy like a cafeteria tray. He’d never been solely responsible for their indifference, though, and the silence left a mark.
“It shakes you to your core: It could happen again,” he says. “But you get used to it.”
Polk’s game has improved significantly since those days, and because of that he has earned opening spots for comedians Dave Attell, Hannibal Buress, and Louis CK among others. He works constantly, co-hosting a weekly Tuesday night stand-up showcase The Howlin’ Wolf’s Den as part of the sketch group Massive Fraud, and he co-hosts the NOLA Comedy Hour Sunday nights at the Hi-Ho Lounge. On Thursday, April 7, he’ll host the My Spilt Milk Awards at the Howlin’ Wolf.
Polk moved to New Orleans from Ruston, and until he arrived, his primary comedic outlet had been a tumblr that satirized local news modeled on The Onion. “Twitter wasn’t big yet,” Polk says, and Ruston didn’t have any comedy clubs. He didn’t know for sure that he wanted to be a comedian, or he hadn’t admitted it to himself anyway. He could get attention by playing in his band, but he admits that he was a bad musician. The main thing he wanted was a way to express himself creatively. Music partly scratched that itch, and so did the tumblr. When he got up the nerve to take a shot at stand-up, he drove an hour to an open mic in Shreveport only to find the club closed.
“I went to the Joe’s Crab Shack next door and thought, I’ve got to move.” When Polk lost his job soon after, he followed through on that claw-fueled epiphany and moved to New Orleans five years ago.
After living through his first few minutes onstage, he started to learn his craft like so many guys do—with dick jokes. It wasn’t that he felt passionate about them, but at a time when neither the audience or comedian are certain who this guy is, jokes about size anxiety and bodily functions facilitate a connection. Telling those jokes helped Polk figure out the craft of comedy, just as doing that has for countless others. “You do that whether you believe in it or not,” he says, learning in the process about rhythm, set-up, structure and surprise. “Once you’ve mastered the fart/poopy/dick jokes, then you can move on to Here’s some things I actually believe and use the same template.”
The best comedians make their perspective and personality the core of what they do. They do jokes and tell stories that could only come from them and that reveal who they are how they look at the world. A couple of years ago, Polk started to hear himself in his comedy, and that has freed him up to play with the audience more and go with the mood of the room in a way that was hard when he was more dependent on his jokes than his point of view. “You have to be able to hear yourself and be yourself,” he says.
In his comedy, Polk presents himself as part of the city’s burgeoning class of creative young people who has anxieties about those who channel their creativity in less practical ways. “If a magician fights a juggalo and loses,” he says onstage, “that’s how you get a steampunk.” The vocabulary of punk and rock ’n’ roll are taken for granted in his act, and if he explains anything as he does in the case of “juggalo,” it’s to get to another joke.
In general, Polk finds this to be a good time to be in comedy. The proliferation of it online and on streaming services means that audiences are better informed than ever. They know, for example, that open mics represent comedians working stuff out, sometimes with notebooks in hand. It helps that national comedians have dropped in on the local open mic nights and have also come in with ideas that are in progress. When Polk sees touring comedians doing their showcase set, he watches them the same way everybody else does, going along for the ride. When he sees them at open mics working out new material, he watches very differently.
“Oh wow,” he says. “These guys tell half-assed jokes sometimes, just like me.”
The addition of a number of theaters and venues has made New Orleans a better comedy city than it was for years. “If you want to do comedy for the right reasons—for yourself, to make people laugh—it’s probably the best time there’s ever been to do it,” Polk says. It helps that comedy communities these days tend to be less competitive than band scenes were when he played. He has been a part of scenes where bands perceived each new one as a threat, but “with comedy,” he says, “It’s like Ohmigod, that’s good. C’mon! It’s not like their taking away any money because there isn’t any.”
Some have worried that a more conservative attitude toward what can and can’t be said in a joke has hurt comedy, but Polk doesn’t buy that. Comedy is under more of a microscope than it once was because of its popularity, he says, but “I don’t believe in the PC Police. You can say what you want, but you’re not absolved of the consequences. Say what you want, but say it the right way or make it funny or deal with the blowback.”
In Ruston, Polk’s early forays into music and comedy were ways to express his creativity, and that restless desire to flex as many comedy muscles as possible remains. The Tuesday night Massive Fraud show is a sketch comedy night, and planning, scripting, and executing a funny idea is as satisfying as a good stand-up set, but in different ways. It’s a home for ideas that don’t fit into a joke, and it’s a more social pleasure. It’s also a smart business decision because the line between performer and creator is a fluid one, and a future gig in one arena could lead to another.
“It’s fun,” he says. “It’s another tool in the tool kit, and a good skill to have.”
Andrew Polk hosts the My Spilt Milk Awards April 7 at the Howlin' Wolf. Voting closes Friday at midnight. The show will also include short sets by The Soul Rebels, Rotary Downs, Tank and the Bangas, The Breton Sound, and AF the Naysayer. Tickets are on sale now.
Updated 3:51 p.m.
The Tuesday night Massive Fraud show was wrongly identified as a sketch show when the story first ran. Massive Fraud is a sketch group that hosts a stand-up night on Tuesdays. The text has been changed to reflect this.