The stand-up comic is unafraid to judge an audience by the clothes it wears.
“My stand-up for the last nine years has been figuring out how to sell certain things to audiences.”
Tyler Sonnichsen isn’t referring to products but references. As a music fan, rock ’n’ roll figures prominently in his comedy, but he can’t count on his audiences to know all the bands. “I have a joke that talks about a song by the group Lifetime, who are a pretty obscure Jersey punk band from the ’90s,” he says. “If people don’t know who Lifetime are, I’m not surprised. Maybe one person out of 100 you encounter [will have heard of them]. You go to a punk festival and everybody knows who Lifetime is.” He sets the joke up so that those who don’t know the band can still get a laugh, and he believes jokes like that are important regardless. “I appreciate whenever I see somebody talk about something they’re really passionate about.”
Sonnichsen will perform at the Hi-Ho Lounge Sunday night as part of the Ragnarok 3.0 Comedy Tour with comedian Evan Valentine. He’s currently a PhD student in Geography at University of Tennessee who got into stand-up in Washington, D.C. He has to think about the impact of references—punk and otherwise—because they’re an important part of his comedy. “People say You have to dumb down your material. You have to think of topics every single person in the room has experienced,” Sonnichsen says. “I don’t agree with that. You shouldn’t dumb anything down. You should speak from your own experiences and what you’re passionate about because I think the audience is more likely to connect with someone saying something they genuinely care about.”
Sonnichsen’s hardly alone in his stance, which is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary independent comedy. He points to Kyle Kinane, who emerged from the Chicago pop-punk scene, and Mike Lawrence, whose references form the texture of his act. They use their references to help identify their audience—people who recognize the cultural milieus they come out of, and those who can identify enough to make a connection. Others can certainly get the jokes, but they’re not the primary audience, and they don’t experience the same sense of validation that comes with having their lives and pop culture interests show up in someone’s comedy.
Sonnichsen has a video on his website that documents the first time a personal reference reached beyond the core audience. The joke riffed on the game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? He played the computer game and liked it because he liked geography, “but I realize a lot of people never saw the TV show and the impossible-to-complete final round,” he says. “But there are certain things that everyone can identify with if they grew up in the ’90s,” videogames and wrestlers among them. “It turned the crowd on my side.”
Pop culture references can be a shorthand between a comedian and the audience that gets them, and are an impediment only for those with ambitions to play Caroline’s in New York, the big rooms in Las Vegas, and theaters around the country—places where the sizes of the rooms demand a degree of universality to reach a wider audience. Sonnichsen’s ambitions aren’t arena-sized; he’s simply looking for connections. He felt a kinship when he saw guys in a bluegrass band in Knoxville wearing the T-shirts of heavy metal bands he’d never heard of, and “if I see a comedian wearing a T-shirt of a band that I love, chances are pretty good that I’m going to be interested in what he has to say.”
Punk rock does more than help Sonnichsen find his people, though. Punk's "No More Heroes" ethos means that when pressed, he'll identify Mitch Hedberg as his favorite comedian, but his real favorites are his peers. "Honestly, the people who inspire me the most are the ones I see night in, night out," he says. "You can see the new Kyle Kinane special and be so inspired, but when you're surrounded by people you love and respect but who at the same time are pushing you to be better and do it on your own terms, that's incredibly valuable."
When he returns to Knoxville after his current tour, he’s scheduled to play for the residents of a nursing home, perhaps the least punk venue available. Others might be concerned that stories about crazy callers on campus radio might be over their heads, but Sonnichsen’s not worried. “I think they just enjoy seeing someone tell jokes.”