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Chris Cyr Is Trying to Make It as a Comedian in St. Louis — or At Least Make You Laugh 

click to enlarge Chris Cyr

Ooh St. Lou Studios

Chris Cyr

Chris Cyr is an accountant by trade. But lately, he's been spending more time writing ad and marketing copy. And he's been dedicating his off-hours to performing live comedy around St. Louis, regularly night-crawling through three, four, five sets a week in clubs across town. With luck and hard work, he hopes to replace his many jobs with just one: stand-up comedian.

Cyr turned 40 last week, making him ten years older than the typical St. Louis comedian — and twenty years older than the youngest performers in the scene. His life plan shifted hard three years ago, when he went to an open mic, signed up and caught the performance bug. Fueled by Jameson (a.k.a. "comedy juice"), he's now been battle-testing his sets with the tenacity of someone building a career.

The freelance writing gigs he's been taking on of late are part of a bigger transition. As Cyr says, "I've always enjoyed writing, so this makes sense. I have a few accounting clients, with an ultimate goal of getting away from that entirely. I guess I should clarify that I really hated accounting, but it took me a long time to realize it."

His wife of eighteen years, Veronica Rivera-Cyr, has been supportive. He's a night owl; she's not. But they resolved any potential tension on their different lifestyles a long time ago.

When he first started doing open mics, he was out every night of the week. Now he's being more strategic. He says, "I have a couple nights a week at home. She understands that it's something I'm trying to make a job. We don't have kids. That's probably the only reason it works."

We followed Cyr through a week in the trenches, one in which he performed six times over five nights and, on one of his rare nights off, even got to enjoy a set by Louis CK at the Funny Bone, a nice karmic reward for, arguably, St. Louis' nicest comic.

Not cleanest; nicest. He's plenty dirty, plenty funny and plenty humble about where he's at and where he wants to go.

He tries hard not to be that guy; you know, the avuncular old-timer. "Everyone knows you're older than them," he says. "You don't want to keep drawing that out. You don't feel that much older, until you hang out and party with them. Then you feel it."

MONDAY AUGUST 1

HEAVY ANCHOR

On the first night of a marathon week for Cyr, he's at the Heavy Anchor for the first of two consecutive nights. Tonight is an open mic called Comedy Shipwreck; tomorrow, he'll be back as part of the "Decraplon," a game show experience that's one of many comedy events that have sprung up inside this funky, two-room venue on Gravois. Run by Jodie and Joshua Timbrook, the club has changed its programming a lot over five years. It's still mostly a music venue, but its movie nights, trivia games and early-week punk rock have mostly been replaced by a wide range of comedy.

"If it was strictly a music venue, it would get really monotonous," Jodie Timbrook says. The rotation "keeps me entertained and it keeps our customers entertained."

Unlike other "bar mics," where customers may be there for reasons other than comedy, the Anchor's performance space separates those who want to imbibe in laughter from those who don't. On Mondays, comic Chad Wallace has taken on emcee duties for Comedy Shipwreck; other nights and concepts are constantly being pitched to Timbrook.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 local comics mix-and-match sets in St. Louis these days. The best-paying are the dedicated comedy rooms at Funny Bone, Hey Guys and Helium, but a growing roster of venues in town, including the Heavy Anchor, Foam, Fitz's and Shameless Grounds, also host nights of comedy. The list is ever-changing, as some come (Purple Martin) and some go (Melt). And it's more often the comics, not the clubs, that make events happen, as they seek out new rooms, audiences and time-on-mic.

"I have had to say 'no' to some people," Timbrook says. "Obviously, we're a bar, a business, and we need to sell drinks. That's how we make rent and pay bills. For any comedy event, the bottom line is that it has to be mutually beneficial. And if it's an off-night and someone's got an idea, by all means, go back there and do it and we'll see."

For this edition of Shipwreck, about 45 people are in the audience. Most are themselves comics. In five-minute sets, they take the stage, run through their material and then introduce the next act. Eventually, most comics do their bit, then move to the other side of the wall, kibitzing in the main bar room.

On this evening, before holing up on the bar side, Cyr incorporates a few of the bits he's working on into his full set. As usual, the jokes are largely based on personal experiences, rather than on absurdities, and come in small, themed bursts.

These days, he's being regularly booked into support slots at places like Helium and Funny Bone, slots that pay. Open mics like this still serve a valuable purpose: "You want to have material you know like the back of your hand, you want to show proficiency in your material. Here, you can try something new, the brand new stuff, see if people get into it and see what works."

Like a lot of open mic shows, the performer demographic tonight is white, male and clustered from late-twenties to mid-thirties. That's something Cyr says is being addressed.

"Gender-wise, it's still very male-dominated," he says. "Even though there's diversity, racially, you don't always see that on shows. You'll see a show and it's three white dudes, or three black comics. People are trying to fix that; even the clubs are. I know a lot of people are consciously trying to make events that mix up race and gender on stage, and that works for the audience as well. I try to bring in comics from out of town, or that no one's heard of, just to diversify points of view. And racial and gender diversity makes it even better."

On this night, though, it's a bit of a boys club and the dick jokes are flying. Later in the week, they'll really go airborne.

click to enlarge A comedian prepares. Chris Cyr, backstage at Helium, readies for his set. - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
  • PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
  • A comedian prepares. Chris Cyr, backstage at Helium, readies for his set.

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 3

HELIUM COMEDY CLUB AND THE CROW'S NEST

The new heavy-hitter in town, Helium Comedy Club, is part of a chain of five clubs from Portland to Philadelphia. Since opening earlier this year, it's brought in name comics, including the upcoming Gilbert Gottfried and Josh Wolf. Attached to a restaurant and lounge on the lower-level of the Galleria, the room's built for comedy shows.

Along with touring acts, the Galleria also runs a few local showcases, often built on themes. There's nothing tricky about a show called "Dirty": It's made to be dirty. As in durrrrty. Comics of all races, genders and ages are invited to bring their dirtiest material to this paying gig. (Admittedly, the attempt to open up gender fell short, with only the shining Amy Milton on the female ledger.) The audience, as you might guess, buys into the program and wants it as durrrrty as possible, too.

Cyr brings his dirty act, sure, as do another dozen comics. The night starts off slow, though, and the first few acts play to a pretty cold crowd.

Most performers are given a short four minutes to win over the audience. Brian McDowell is among the few granted a couple extra and he centers his six minutes on a hilarious riff about dating single moms. Long, lanky, wearing a suit and emphasizing a somewhat awkward vibe onstage, McDowell is seemingly able to flip a night that had been heading the wrong way. If not roaring with laughter, the audience is at least entertained and chuckling.

"I would love to say the dazzling brilliance of my jokes is what turned them," McDowell says later, "but my low self-esteem won't let me. It's more about connecting with the audience early, so they will accept what you put in front of them. I can tell within 30 seconds of being on stage whether or not I am going have a good set. It's all the energy that you bring on stage and the confidence in what you're going to say.

"I was a little worried about that audience, because there were some funny comics that they didn't like that much. I was very relieved and slightly surprised that they seemed to dig me."

It's a tough night for Cyr, and once his set at Helium is finished, it's not over yet. Instead of lingering after the show in the neighboring lounge to accept his $20 payout and commiserate or celebrate, he's headed to Maplewood with at least half the comics who performed in Brentwood.

There, at the Crow's Nest, Cyr and co-host JC Sibala preside over Wild Card Wednesday. It's a standup show, an open mic with a twist: At the last minute, the comics pull an oversized card and have to do whatever is suggested; one, for example, has to drink every time the comic does; comics can also win extra time, or be forced to go clean or do crowd work.

Cyr, before or after a set, is generally unflappable. Often carrying a notebook and sipping at a Jameson, he's especially in his element when hosting a show, laughing at other comics, greeting newcomers and chatting up friends. If he's ever nervous, it must happen on the way to the gig.

On this evening, Cyr is back to some of his material from the earlier Dirty show. On stage, he's not much different from his day-to-day self. He's invariably dressed in blue Levis and a black shirt. There's a light sing-song quality to his delivery.

It's a curious experience to hear the exact same jokes time and again, only at different venues. For Cyr, it is what it is. "If you follow a comic from open mic to open mic, you're hearing what they're working on right now," he says.

Recently, he was panhandled at a gas station. Bingo. His set now includes the encounter — including the panhandler's weirdly specific request for 62 cents.

"I do observational stuff," he says. "If I get panhandled at the gas station, I get five more minutes of material."

FRIDAY, AUGUST 5

FIREBIRD

There are nights when comedy is just going to work, sometimes for the simple fact that people are in the room to take in, yes, comedy. On this Friday night, Cyr is slotted into a twenty-minute gig, in the sweet spot between emcee Brandon Judd's ten-minute opening salvo and headliner Kurt Braunohler's hour-long headliner. About 60 gather inside this simply-appointed rock & roll room and, to their credit, they're properly in the mood. True for Judd, for his buddy Cyr and for the traveling Braunohler.

"A big part of the crowd being so receptive is that it's a full comedy show. The crowd is primed to see comedy," Judd notes. "They know they're going to see people tell jokes the whole time and they're ready to laugh.

"It's easier with a larger crowd because psychology works to get people to laugh more readily and more often when a larger group of people are laughing. I feel I can play around more with material and go off on tangents with a larger crowd because if something is kinda funny, there's a bigger response than if something was kinda funny with a group of ten or two people, which I've had before."

Cyr's set, like Judd's, just seems to work this evening. Jokes that Cyr used in other contexts over the week to tepid or flat responses get over on this room. Tonight, they're unabashedly laughing out loud. "Comedy is subjective," Judd notes. "Chris is very funny and he's worked at his material, revised it and rewritten it to get the best response. I saw Chris at his first open mic and he's come a long way. His experiences are relatable and the crowd can identify with them easily. Even if he's talking about something unique to him, he can get a crowd on board and make them understood his feelings in that situation."

Rollicking laughter is in the air tonight. As Braunohler approaches his closer, he launches into a minutes-long routine in the voice of a beaver, humble-bragging about his tail. Audience members are visibly rocking in their chairs, wiping away tears, cracking up without a trace of self-consciousness.

Braunohler kills it, and for the warm-up comedians, Judd and Cyr, it feels like their victory, too. It's hard to imagine any place in St. Louis being happier at that second in time.

To see a moment like this, the highest of highs, gives you a sense of why comics risk the lowest of lows. Sometimes, those linger in the distance; other times, they're your very next show.

click to enlarge "Even if he's talking about something unique to him, he can get a crowd on board and make them understood his feelings in that situation," says Brandon Judd of Cyr. - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
  • PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
  • "Even if he's talking about something unique to him, he can get a crowd on board and make them understood his feelings in that situation," says Brandon Judd of Cyr.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 7

NICK'S PUB

You wouldn't think the meanest human beings in the world would all find themselves inside the same bar in Dogtown on a random Sunday night. But you'd be wrong, as three different groups of friends recently gathered at Nick's Pub with what had to have been a secret psychic agreement forged among complete strangers to torture the on-stage comedians.

And Cyr is not just a performer. He's also a co-host, filling in with Sibala for the usual emcee Kenny Kinds even as a middle-aged couple, a birthday party of ten and a random crew of five all take turns at basic, merciless heckling.

Even before the gig, Sibala, now five years deep into his career, is positive the big table in back is going to get stupid; Cyr, ever the optimist, is less sure. He'll find out soon enough.

Cyr warms up to passive-aggression. He starts with a joke that killed a few nights ago. "My mom was fourteen when she had me, and my dad was seventeen. My grandma says that I love the miracle that brought you here. And I alway reply: 'Grandma, that's a really statutory miracle.'" Silence.

"The president of Comedy City asked me to tell that joke again," he says, and this time, there is laughter — a bit.

"That told me that the room was going to be a weird crowd," he says later. "They listened and chuckled, but wouldn't actually laugh."

He actually fares better than opener Rocco Hogan — by now the audience drops the "passive" and opts for pure "aggressive," badly knocking the young comic off his plan; in what is at least his third set of the week, Hogan takes it on the chin. Next up, the frenetic Ella Fritts winds up arguing with the nearest table of hecklers; Sibala, from his seat, has to threaten one patron after he vows to kill Fritts if she isn't done in two minutes. So that happens.

The gregarious Justin Luke follows a short, crowd-calming set from Sibala, but Luke is so aggravated by the heckling that his last words are aimed directly at a guest: "Your mother should've aborted you." That couldn't have been Luke's planned closer, but the night has taken him to what feels like the edge of madness.

At times, during the worst of the heckling, Sibala and Cyr can do little more than exchange knowing glances, sipping at their Jamesons and hoping for a change in luck.

The Nick's gig is one of the tougher "bar mics" in town, as a big portion of the audience isn't there to specifically catch comedy, Kinds notes.

"You try to keep them engaged," he says. "Fatigue can set in, once you get about ten comics into a night. So you use music, effects, anything you can to try to make it an event."

Still, he adds, "it's a real nice room, it's really intimate." Completely sealed, Nick's comedy space is a patio in name only, a classification that allows relief from the city's smoking ban. It's also a quirky room: A life-sized Captain Morgan now blocks the mini-backstage area and the microphone can (and does) get affected by the radio frequencies of passing trains. Luke, already suffering the nightmare of heckling, has his mic completely spazz during this set as the locomotive rumbles past, adding to the mania of his five minutes in Satan's kitchen.

A few folks shine despite the obstacles. Swimming against the evening's tide, Ben Johnson has his moments, as does Stryker Spurlock. And Milly Naeger is a true beacon, riffing in a fast-paced, surrealistic style. If her material requires a bit more thought than the room wants to offer, it's a case of pearls cast before swine, really.

It happens, Cyr figures, and those who live through it are better for the experience. They'll last beyond the three-months-and-out syndrome that many open mic warriors suffer — even if, as survivors, they'll carry scars.

"There's a confrontational part of our culture," Cyr figures. "We're loving this idea of having something in our back pocket, which we're just dying to say. It's the live-action version of an internet comment."

MONDAY, AUGUST 15

STARBUCKS

When Cyr watches a comic bomb, he views the scene with the detachment of a scientist. He feels something for that person on stage; hell, he's been there and knows the feeling. But he's watching, always watching, how one comic can turn it all around, while another falls deeper, ever deeper, into the pit.

"From a sitting-in-the-audience perspective," Cyr says, "I don't know if the word is schadenfreude, but there's something about watching someone fall apart on the stage. You know it's not physically going to hurt. They could have an anxiety attack about it later, or they might cry at breakfast. But at that moment, they have to deal with it. It can be very entertaining to watch. Bombing has helped me become a better person. Learning to fail at something is really important."

When he's writing, Cyr generally lingers over iced coffees at the South Kingshighway Starbucks; heck, he takes meetings there. Relaxed and tapping at his heavily stickered laptop, Cyr seems content with the pace of how his new could-be-a-career is going. He knows that the last week's epic run of shows won't be unusual going forward; in a few days, he and another comic, Eric Brown, at heading to a contest in Peoria; there's an episode of his Impolite Comedy show at Crack Fox to promote; a weekend run as a feature at Helium is almost booked; and he's always hitting the bar mics.

On some nights, like his most recent open mic at the Crow's Nest, when comic after comic plays to little laughter, perfecting the same riffs for weeks on end, you might wonder why anyone would do it, why they'd put themselves in a position that many people find terrifying.

Cyr knows.

It's not the chance for financial gain. "If you're getting into this for the money," he says, "it's just like starting a band: don't."

Instead, it's the euphoria of making people laugh, the sheer joy of holding the audience in your hand and making them react.

"Someone might give you a deeper philosophical answer to all that, but when you make it flow and it's funny and they like it, it's definitely lovely for the narcissism that every performer has on some level."

The moment when your jokes work, he says, makes you feel "great. It just makes you ... feel ... great. Especially because I don't like crowds; I detest being in a crowded place. But I also like attention.

"To me, being on stage, I'm making myself the center of attention on my own terms. Plus you've made people laugh, providing them an involuntary response. Physically, viscerally, it just feels great."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained the wrong last name for one of the comics interviewed. He is Brian McDowell, not McDonald. Also, the coffee shop hosting open mics is Shameless Grounds, not Foundation Grounds. We regret both errors.

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