Doogie Horner seems to thrive when taken out of his element—as shown above in the frankly terrifying viral clip of him winning over the cranky, stand-up-hostile audience on America’s Got Talent by good-naturedly yelling over the boos that he’s going to come hunt them all down like bugs and squish them in their houses. And that’s what makes him a good emcee choice for this summer’s First Person Arts Grand Slam And Barbecue this Wednesday—he doesn’t do stories. He does jokes, and occasionally, humorous flowcharts.
“Some stand-ups are natural storytellers,” Horner says. “That’s a different kind of writing than I do. I write towards a punch line.”
Story slammers craft narratives from kernels of experience, generally extrapolating anecdotes into some sort of epiphany. Stand-up comedians, meanwhile, generally don’t have the luxury of taking their time, and—as you can see from the Universal Comedy Flowchart, one of Horner’s many graphics floating around the Internet—he’s already spent a pretty decent amount of time analyzing comedy. We talked to Horner about stories versus jokes, attention spans, and how hecklers can sometimes make a set more interesting.
The A.V. Club: Did stand-up come before writing for you, or was it the other way around?
Doogie Horner: First I was a painter, and I wasn’t very good at that. I tried illustrating, then screenwriting and writing, and I was just terrible at everything. Then I tried stand-up, and I enjoyed doing that.
Doing stand-up really helped and improved my writing. When I was just writing, I could be too long-winded. I was trying really hard to really write. But when you speak in front of an audience, you learn they have a certain attention span and you need to be succinct.
AVC: How do you think doing stand-up compares to good storytelling or writing?
DH: Very rarely do I have a story that really happened in my life, or a point of view that I can share and turn into a joke. I have like zero jokes based on real life. If I got up there and told a funny joke story, the crowd will be like, “Well, that didn’t happen. Be real, let us in for a change.”
AVC: What do you look for in a story?
DH: Short stories now don’t seem to have a clear beginning, middle, and end, or a climax, or a point. Old stories would have that arc more clearly. New stories, it seems like, “He sat at the kitchen table, watching his wife cook dinner. He heard the phone ring, and it was his daughter.” I like old stories where something happens. Where’s the chase scene?
AVC: From America’s Got Talent to your stand-up around town, you’re known for being pretty adept at turning crowds around. What’s your take on being heckled? Is it your worst enemy or an opportunity?
DH: I’m rarely happy when someone heckles me. Like, “Oh, I’m glad you’re going to do that even though I’ve written all these jokes.” At the same time, when someone heckles me, I’d rather address it than ignore it. I don’t like letting that person get away with it. I feel a personal responsibility to yell at that person. You said your piece, now I’m going to tell you what I think about you.
Honestly, sometimes I do enjoy it because it can be funny. You have to not actually get angry, because that’s awkward for the audience. Some of my best sets have been when I’ve had terrible, terrible sets where people just hate me, and then I yell at them, and we get into it and it winds up being a really interesting set.