Joe Klocek Tells the Stories Behind the Punchlines

In Previously Secret Information, Klocek tells jokes in their purest, unexpurgated form.

Joe Klocek likes getting down with his audience. Credits: Shannon Casey Splain

Search the name “Joe Klocek” on YouTube and the top hit will show a grainy, seven-minute, forty-second clip posted in June of 2008. The title: “Heckler Vs. Comedian Joe Klocek.” Nearly 223,000 views and 1,649 “likes” thus far. The video shows a small, trim, long-haired, sport-jacketed Klocek performing at San Francisco’s Punchline club, recognizable for its orange lighting and cityscape backdrop. In the video, Klocek invites a heckler up onstage. The audience whoops. The heckler obliges, shuffles up to the mic, and immediately starts capping on Klocek. Whatever he says is inaudible on the recording, but it’s evidently mean enough to piss Klocek off.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the comedian protests, putting his hands up defensively. “It’s not fuckin’ ‘rap-off,’ all right? You’re not Eminem in 8 Mile, all right?” The crowd jeers. Let the showdown begin.

Fellow comedian Bruce Pachtman couldn’t help but mention the clip when he introduced Klocek at Sunday’s edition of Previously Secret Information, the monthly showcase they host at San Francisco’s StageWerx Theater. Launched in April, the show uses storytelling, rather than traditional stand-up comedy, as its primary medium. For Klocek, that’s partly about self-indulgence, and partly about artistic quality. The main shortcoming of comedy is that it’s almost always distilled into punch-line form, which doesn’t leave the joke-teller much room to actually narrate an experience. Not to mention the audience misses out, Klocek said. “I would have these experiences that were really cool, sometimes kind of sad, and sometimes kind of weird. I would just have to edit them down to five or six jokes.”

As indicated by the heckler YouTube clip, Klocek likes getting down with his audience. He’s into reverse heckling, insult contests, and cross-talk. He loves going off script. Above all, he loves telling a story — particularly a story about a bad decision — and reveling in all the gory details. That’s actually what brought him to comedy in the first place. Klocek related the story of a bad breakup to several friends, who all laughed heartily at his expense. One friend suggested he talk about the breakup at an open mic, to an audience of strangers. Apparently, it killed. Klocek says that what initially separated him from other comics was his ability to milk humor out of personal tragedy. “That got beaten out of me,” he said.

The whole impetus for Previously Secret Information was to take stand-up back to its most natural, unexpurgated form: the overly verbose setups, the indulgent asides, the riffs and observations that aren’t planned out ahead of time. Klocek wanted it to be as basic as possible. That meant no rehearsing or writing things down. There’s no microphone, so the person on stage has to project his voice and make the audience lean in. It’s about as honest as you can get, on a proscenium stage.

When he first pitched the idea last January, no one thought it would work — not even Pachtman. “When you say ‘storytelling,’ people think, ‘Oh, public library, puppets, a guy with a guitar,” Klocek said. “I called up Bruce, and he had the same reaction. He said, ‘Aren’t people gonna think we’re dressing up as Mark Twain?”

But Bruce gradually warmed up to the idea, and over the course of seven performances, the two managed to hone their act. They recruited well-known acts like Will Durst and Will Franken to come in and, well, just talk. It was a bit like getting a fashion reporter to recap Saturday’s Big Game for the sports section. You’d get a lot of hesitancy at first, and maybe a bit of pretension, and eventually, you’d have the story in all its girly detail. Durst talked about the 180 jobs he had before attaining success as a comic: pedicab driver, restaurant pirate, weed peddler, sod farmer, tomato in a small-town parade, coffee server at an all-you-can-eat pancake stand, Santa Claus at Southgate Mall, foundry worker, tour guide at one of those evil caves where “the stalagmite becomes the attraction.” Durst reached for his cue cards at first, and occasionally got lost in a thought. He clearly wasn’t used to a format that didn’t deliver a laugh every thirty seconds.

That’s the fun of it, Klocek insists. “When I have a comic on, I say, ‘Hey, I know your jokes so don’t do them. The audience will smell that. It will look insincere and plasticky.”

Thus, nearly all Previously Secret Information installments start off awkwardly. There’s that delicious moment when we get to see a seasoned performer caught off-guard, rendered as graceless and vulnerable as Klocek’s heckler at the Punchline. Most of them regain their footing. Some never quite grasp the new medium. Some natter on for twenty minutes, and get very few laughs at all. But given the liberties allowed in storytelling, that’s to be expected. It still pays dividends.