I’ve never met any comedian like Joseph Scrimshaw. He’s a nerd’s nerd and comedian’s comedian doing hyper-specific jokes for hyper-specific audiences in a time where a lot of folks are trying that same thing, very badly.
Scrimshaw started comedy while getting an art degree in college, and he couldn’t help himself from making fun of everyone else’s art. In Minneapolis, he started in sketch, storytelling, and children’s theater, and began putting together one act shows that play all over the world. Now, he’s a contributing writer to RiffTrax and runs his own podcast called Obsessed, along with a live comedy gameshow with Hal Lublin called HEADCAN(N)ON at the Nerdist Showroom.
More importantly, Scrimshaw performs at fan conventions all over the world. He’s one of the leading names in this field and he’s on the verge of being absolutely everywhere. So I sat down to ask him how he does it.
Joseph, we’re in a period of comedy where “nerd comedian” has become a gross shortcut — the kind of dude who shouts a Transformers reference and it gets laughs. You’re a consummate professional working in the convention circuit. How do you differentiate yourself from the hacks we’ve come to expect, and how do you let the audience know they’ll need to be smarter to follow your material?
I think there’s a big difference between using a reference as a punchline and needing to understand the reference to understand the joke. People might cheer if I say I’ve spent a lot of money on Star Wars action figures. But that’s a cheer, not a laugh. When I say “I was in debt for $30,000 because I chose to spend my student loans on Star Wars action figures and just let the interest rack up for a decade”, now it’s a joke. And a very painful, honest one.
With any comedy audience you need to figure out what’s the culture—do people know about this thing I’m talking about? Can I explain it in a way that makes it interesting and accessible? Can I make it human and relatable enough?
But with an example like the Star Wars action figures versus student loans, any audience would comprehend those references, but a geek audience at a convention has FEELINGS AND OPINIONS, and a relationship with those references.
You’ve got an album about Star Wars and social justice. The Venn Diagram for that audience is either very big or very small. Tell me about your process and your reception.
The Venn Diagram is surprisingly large! The album is called Rebel Scum. I ended up doing it because I just asked myself what were the two things I was thinking about most in life right then and the honest answer was Star Wars and social justice.
I like doing weird and sometimes even meta-comedy, so in the show and album, I set it up as this weird mash-up of these two specific subjects. But I discovered they flowed together very easily. One of my favorite realizations was talking about ageism and realizing there was very little ageism in the Star Wars galaxy. Yoda is over 800 years old. He has a cane and a lightsaber and he will fuck you up with either one.
I did the set at conventions and on tour with The Doubleclicks and I was always thrilled that when I said the show was about two topics, Social Justice and Star Wars, they got about the same amount of applause.
A lot of fans who know me from doing Star Wars podcasts like Force Center bought the album. I know some of those fans are more conservative and at least half of the album is not about Star Wars. It’s about things like feminism and racism and assholes on the internet and I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback.
This year, you did a full hour standup set about just Doctor Who at a big fan conference. This’ll be your next album? How do you prep something like that? Walk me through this — including letting me know your favorite Doctor Who joke.
It might be my next album. I don’t want to do just genre specific albums so I might put another one out first. My other album is called Flaw Fest and it’s just about all of my issues in life. (Although it still mentions video games, James Bond, and The Phantom Menace.) So maybe it will be my next, next album.
The Doctor Who show, which I did for about a 1000 fans at Gallifrey One this February, is structured to tell the story of my relationship with the show and how it’s affected my life from being bullied on the playground to how I met my wife to how I cope with the horrible, ceaseless forward movement of time in real life.
So there are personal jokes and more referential jokes. My favorite is a story about sitting near Matt Smith, the 11th Doctor, at a bar during San Diego Comic-Con. He got up and left without finishing his beer. I told my wife, Sara, I needed to go drink The Doctor’s beer and she looked at me like I was insane. I realized that I just liked the show so much I wanted to literally take it inside me by drinking the beer and backwash of the Time Lord.
I also like comparing the modern Doctor’s regeneration to a Taylor Swift concert, but that’s a bit more involved.
You and I have watched a lot of Doctor Who together. Why don’t I like it more?
I think the primary theme of Doctor Who is hubris. In England in 1963 some people got together and said, “We have a very small budget. Where shall our show be set? Oh, I know, ALL OF SPACE AND TIME.”
The show features ridiculous amounts of hope and positivity in the face of disgusting, terrifying monsters who are sometimes clearly just old British men in rubber suits. The fantastic plot twists are sometimes explained away by the Doctor literally waving his hand and saying, “I’ll tell you later.”
If you’re not onboard for huge helpings of hubris, Doctor Who is a long, rough ride.
Unlike a club comic, you know months in advance exactly what kind of audience you’ll be performing for. Does this make it easier or harder? Are Star Wars fans like shooting fish in a barrel at this point?
In general, it makes it much easier. Geeks at conventions are generally very friendly audiences. It’s the weekend and they’re at a giant party surrounded by all the stuff they love. They’re not snobby about comedy. They don’t fold their arms waiting to decide what part of your set might be “hack.” They just want to laugh and maybe think a little.
But just like any other audience, they will only laugh if it’s honest and funny. In my experience, if you wanted to, you could get by on some pandering, but only for the first few minutes of a set.
Picture Krusty the Clown at a convention. He could get away with yelling, “Uhh! Pikachu! Dungeons and Dragons, amirite? Accio laughs! Hey-o!” for 90 seconds tops and then the audience would get bored and turn on him.
So to use a geek reference, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel if you’re a Stormtrooper who still has a good chance of missing the fish.
Tell me how to craft the perfect nerd joke.
Say something honest and funny, but maybe include Obi-Wan Kenobi. Here’s an example. I tell a true story about my mother giving me a weird, inaccurate description of where babies come from. When I was like five years old she told me “Babies come out of a hole that is NEAR a woman’s legs.” It’s not exactly a lie, but it’s not exactly true. That’s the heart of the joke, but at conventions I can add the tag: “It’s only half-true. It’s Obi-Wan Kenobi true,” and people understand and love that.
Compare nerd audiences for me. What’s the shorthand for the types of people you see in Star Wars audiences versus Doctor Who versus… what else? Sliders? Bronies?
Like in any crowd, it’s mostly an age/demographic breakdown. I did a show at a mostly anime-centric convention. There were a lot of people with large foam swords and they weren’t from Cowboy Bebop so I wasn’t sure who they were. They liked the stuff in my set that was honest and personal. I asked them if they liked Star Wars and they cheered. But when I did the bit, it only went okay because they comprehended the references but weren’t as emotionally invested in Han Solo as they were in Sailor Moon. So I think for any audience, it’s not really about KNOWING the references, it’s about LOVING them.
Outside of understanding references, here’s the great big beautiful secret about performing at conventions: you don’t have to just do genre jokes. As much as geeks can be pedantic, as an audience, they’re very open. I could, and have, gone to a convention, done 5 minutes of jokes about video games, and then a totally normal club or festival set and they’re still into it.
At its best, nerd/genre culture is about accepting people for whatever they like and that translates to being really open about trying new things in comedy.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen in the Con world?
The team of Zardoz cosplayers at Dragon Con. If you’re not familiar with Zardoz it’s a weird sci-fi movie where Sean Connery wears a large red diaper. There’s a large group of dedicated Zardoz fans wandering the streets of Atlanta every Labor Day weekend.
What’s your favorite story from the road?
Last fall, I did a tour with musician/comedians, The Doubleclicks and Molly Lewis. We did a show in North Carolina which went great. Afterward we stopped at an old-timey ice cream and burger shop. It had a big glass window you ordered through. The window was covered in newspaper clippings. There were reviews of the ice cream parlor, articles about the owners, little league baseball teams celebrating a victory at the shop, and then, inexplicably, an article about the gruesome details of a murder in 1996. Yay, America!
Your podcast Obsessed allows you to interview lots of people about their pop-culture (and otherwise) obsessions. You’ve talked a lot about your things on the show, but what’s an obsession no one knows about you?
Here’s the honest answer: I can’t think of a damn thing about myself that I haven’t already said on a podcast. It bugs me when people use double space after a period in tweets. I am a monster.