By Stephanie Self
“I compare comedy to magic more than anything else,” said comedian Justin Rupple.
I was perplexed when Rupple said this as I sat across from him behind the stage of the Pioneer Underground. Awaiting his performance that evening, we talked about what it means to be truly original as an artist, what makes great comedy and his journey as someone who wants to make his living by making people laugh. Wearing his baseball cap over wavy dark hair, which framed his stubble-covered face, T-shirt and jeans, he certainly did not look like a magician.
“OK, so a magician they say ‘hey, look over here. Look over here,’ like [the audience] is looking at something real,” Rupple said. “But he’s really distracting them from the big reveal. It’s the same in a joke: the punch line is the surprise.”
Originally hailing from Seattle, and now residing in Los Angeles, Rupple, 30, went to the University of Washington to pursue a career in broadcast journalism. He is a self-described “talker,” always preferring to tell stories orally. Along his path of attempting to work in radio, he began pursuing a profession 10 years ago that offered more personal satisfaction than journalism.
“What’s so amazing about stand-up, specifically about stand-up, is that the people who come to see you, they’re begging you to make them laugh,” Rupple said. “They are literally paying money to get a concentrated, reduced heroine form of laughter. We feel that in movies, but in an hour and half there’s a lot of set-up between the punchlines. But you’re praying that this funny guy or girl is going to pick you up off your ass and make you hurt from laughing. And I love it so much that I just wanted to be one.”
Unlike other ways of performing, like music or acting, comedians know right away if they’ve succeeded or failed. Silence is punishment, and laughter is the reward. To pursue such a career would seem terrifying to many, but Rupple has already come to terms with such a risk.
“The toughness when people talk about how tough doing stand-up is, all it really is convincing your brain that the 50 to 1,000 people in front of you are just the three people you have in your life that are best friends,” Rupple said. “Because we’re all funny, but a good chunk of us can’t separate that from strangers. We don’t want to show ourselves to strangers.”
But the bravery it takes for Justin Rupple to be a comedian comes from the comfort in knowing that comedy relies heavily on shared experiences. People don’t often find humor in life events or stories that they can’t connect to.
“Ninety-nine percent of all human experience is being experienced by everyone, all the time,” Rupple said. “People think we’re the only ones. Bullshit. Everyone experiences everything. ‘No one knows what it’s like to be cheated on.’ Yes they do. Everyone’s been cheated on. Everyone’s been screwed over. Everybody’s had successes. It’s not like I’m saying something new. They’re walking into the same room they’ve walked into a hundred times and seeing something different there that they didn’t see before.”
Besides showing someone something they’ve never noticed, the truly rewarding part of Rupple’s job came from an experience he had when he was still a budding comedian.
“The first time I did an hour show, and I was hoping I could do it,” Rupple said. “I was on the road and they’re paying me a lot of money to do it and after it was over, I was like, ‘I think I did all right. I got a few laughs.’
“And this guy comes up to me afterward like, ‘I haven’t left my house in two years.’ And I said, ‘Hey I’m glad I was able to get you out.’ And he said, ‘No, you don’t understand. My wife passed away two years ago, and all the music and all the stuff I loved about life just died with her. I have not left the house. I’ve read newspapers, but otherwise… And today I needed to go and get alcohol and the store was closed down the street. So I came here. And you were on stage, so I sat down. And I haven’t laughed in two years until tonight.’
And he bought me rounds of drinks, even though I didn’t drink, and I drank with this motherfucker and blacked out. The next day I got in trouble with the hotel people because I trashed the hotel room. I ended up peeing off the balcony. But it was the nicest compliment I had ever had in my whole life.
Like, you mean to tell me that no one else made you laugh? Jerry Lewis wasn’t doing it? Jim Carrey wasn’t doing it?’ And I don’t care if I don’t make the millions of dollars. This is it.”
That’s when his comparison of magic to comedy made sense to me. Despite all the self-deprecating nature of comedians, including Justin Rupple, laughter can be magical no matter how trivial the source may be.
Stephanie Self can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.