River Butcher Just for Laughs

River Butcher got into comedy to bring the joy

“I was very afraid until I got there, but once I was actually on stage, I wasn’t afraid any more. I felt like, ‘Oh, okay, this is what I’m supposed to do!'”

L.A. comic River Butcher is very happy to be back in Montreal doing Just for Laughs. He’s written for A League of Their Own and appeared in Adam Ruins Everything and Good Trouble. His first half-hour special, A Different Kind of Dude, is exceptional, while his special Take My Wife was nominated for a GLAAD award and received heaps of praise from critics. 

Taylor C. Noakes: How did you get your start in comedy?

River Butcher: I started doing improv at Chicago’s Second City in 2009. Some other friends had gotten into it and I said to myself, “I’m at least as funny as they are.” I loved the class, I loved performing in front of other people. I grew up watching standup on TV; as a kid in the 1980s, it was on all the time. And I always enjoyed making other people laugh. I didn’t really do theatre in school as a kid, but one year we did Odyssey of the Mind. [Author’s note: Odyssey of the Mind is a creative problem-solving competition that involves performance and is more common in the United States.] I made some jokes as part of the performance, and that was my first taste of it. I was 12. I made one of the judges laugh really hard and thought to myself, “I want to do this.” I also really loved sports and at the time it felt like I had just made a three-pointer and people were saying, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you just did that!” I loved that — I loved making people laugh and getting a response. Now, I love bringing people joy… especially now, because joy is so hard to find sometimes.

I eventually found some people in improv who didn’t like the format and wanted to try standup, and so we encouraged each other to go to an open mic night in Chicago. That was in August of 2011. I haven’t looked back since. I found standup and that was it for me. It’s what I loved to do. I love to act, I love to write, I love to be in writer’s rooms, I love baseball… but what I really love is to speak extemporaneously. I truly feel like that’s my purpose, so however I can apply that purpose, it is really satisfying and gratifying.

TN: Do you remember your first time?

River Butcher: Cole’s Bar in Chicago had a really popular open mic night where, like, 60 people would show up. It started at 9 and would go straight through to last call, ending around 2 in the morning. And because so many people would do it, you would have to get there as early as possible to sign up, but the owner of the bar had a rule that you couldn’t sign up and leave. If you signed up, you had to stay. It created a really incredible environment because people were really committed and they valued the open mic. Anyways, I was there with a friend and we were like numbers 33 and 34, and from 6 to 11 p.m., we’re taking turns — I’d say I want to leave and he says let’s stay another half hour, then he’d say he wants to leave and I’d say let’s stay another half hour and so on and so forth, until finally it was my turn to go up. And I guess because I was starting standup at age 28, rather than 20, I had a more formed idea of myself, and when I got on stage I just took off. Which is not to say that I was incredible at it, but rather that I did three minutes of material and some of the jokes were funny. I didn’t knock it out of the park, but I knew where I was supposed to be. Once I was on stage, I wasn’t afraid. I was very afraid until I got there, but once I was actually on stage, I wasn’t afraid any more. I felt like, “Oh, okay, this is what I’m supposed to do!”

TN: What was the worst you ever bombed?

River Butcher: I was doing the open mic nights for a while and there was this one night where I thought I had bombed. And I went home, went on Twitter and wrote something like, “I just bombed the worst I ever bombed” and this comedian who was following me, who had also been doing the open mic nights, said “Get your head out of your ass. Nobody bombs at an open mic night, that’s what they’re for.” And I thought that the open mics were the show because they were so good in Chicago, they seemed like shows. It drastically shifted my perspective. Like, immediately. Like, “Oh, this is practice, and I need to set my perspectives and expectations differently.”

River Butcher got into comedy to bring the joy

I also did a private gig in New York City, for a large corporation, and I was billed as “LGBT entertainment” because I guess they had a lot of LGBT employees and they were having this party that was like, “after hours at the office.” And I was wondering where I’d be performing, where the stage was, and it’s just a board room with 20 people sitting around an oval conference table. And I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t know about this.” And I bombed so hard because I didn’t have enough experience to change course or know what to do. I wasn’t the kind of comedian who roasts everybody, you know what I mean? I ended up talking with the caterers for the rest of the night.

TN: Do you remember the first time that you felt like you had really made it as a comedian?

River Butcher: That’s a great question. I remember the first time I did a booked show. I remember this time somebody asked me to come out and do a 20-minute set at this comedy club in the suburbs of Chicago, and I maybe had 5. But I did it, and it paid, and I felt like, “Hey, maybe I am really capable of doing this.”

I think when I did Conan I felt like I was really a comedian in the world of standup comedy. I had an album coming out and was there to promote it. And it was Conan — television — and I was doing standup, and then it felt like, “I’m not just capable of this, I’m actually doing it.” And I think it was the same year, if not the same summer, that Matteo Lane and Joel Kim Booster also did their first sets on Conan, and all three of us had come up in Chicago. It felt like, not only am I doing it, but so is my cohort, my class of comedians.

TN: Who are your comedic inspirations?

River Butcher: My friend Paul F. Tompkins. He was the first comedian I ever saw doing comedy live, and it was magic. It was incredible — to see an artist working the form and the craft. Tompkins laid out how to do it, and I learned a lot from listening to his podcasts. Now we’re friends. Not only is he incredibly funny and talented, he’s a wonderful human being that I’m so grateful to have in my life.

OFFJFL presents River Butcher at Place des Arts’s Salle Claude-Léveillée on Thursday July 27, 9 p.m., $40.50

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Comedy section.