Stand-up comic Ryan Singer has a restless, agile mind. A 20-minute conversation finds him musing on subjects such as how teaching fifth-graders relates to comedy; how The Neverending Story teaches that education leads to sorrow and you're lost in this world without luck; stopping by the original Bob's Big Boy at 2 a.m. in hopes of meeting David Lynch; and transcendental meditation. He'll gladly remind you, though, that he's always got a dick joke at the ready.
Singer is often referred to as a comic's comic, regularly making comics-to-watch lists, but he is, as he admits, far from a household name. He's been a comic for 12 years, and is popular enough to make a living at it, having made the inevitable move to Los Angeles from his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, a few years ago. Exploring this stratum of career road comics who remain somewhat underground was the original inspiration for the Organic Comedy Tour undertaken by Singer and Jarrod Harris back in January. The comics filmed the tour, documenting the diverse and thriving comedy scenes across the country.
"Great underground comedy scenes are happening outside of the three big cities everyone always thinks of—New York, L.A. and Chicago," explains Singer. "There are a lot of innovating stand-up comics in these places who, thanks to new outlets created by technology, are finding their voices a lot sooner than comics used to. The original idea of filming was to make a movie, but we realized there was no way we could include all we wanted to from all 23 cities we visited. So now the idea is to do a web series, with each episode focused on a city."
Most of these shows took place in alternative venues that occasionally host stand-up nights, rather than traditional comedy clubs. The boozy, cheesy atmosphere of the comedy club hasn't really changed much over the years, and though those clubs are still essential to the life of a touring comic, Singer says the alternative venues offer a chance to be more creative.
"Whatever you imagined stand-up might be like when you started out, whatever you want to do, you can try out in those rooms," he says. "You're not going to have a bachelorette party or a birthday guy and 10 of his friends who got free tickets drinking endless buckets of beer. They do pay better, but sometimes playing comedy clubs feels like babysitting."
The Organic Comedy Tour made a stop at Pilot Light, and Singer insists it was his favorite show of the tour. (He has high praise for local comics Jeff Blank and Matt Ward, who will be opening for him Saturday.) His set had moments of looseness and improvisation that might not have gone down as well in a more traditional room, such as when he called a woman he was courting so she could listen in as he delivered material he had written about her. (The whole thing was a bit awkward, and she hung up before he was finished. Today Singer says, "That was almost too real for me!")
Though he can be plenty goofy (check out his Neanderthal family and monster hunter bits), he also delves into more personal, serious matters. A theme that has recently popped up is getting older. On last year's Comedy Wonder Town album, he reckoned that he's "half-way done living" at 35, before riffing on getting married, wanting to have a baby, and his lack of health insurance. Just as there are a limited number of basic plots in literature, there are only so many comic topics, and aging is an enduringly popular one. What gives Singer's comedy extra zest, though, is how he hits on uncomfortable truths you don't always find in less adventurous comics. You can hear recognition and appreciation of this in his audience's laughter.
"Certain things are inescapable, especially as you get older and are still by yourself," Singer says, explaining why this topic has worked its way into his act. "When most everyone in society follows a blueprint and you don't experience those same things, you start to wonder about yourself—what prevents you from experiencing those things? Immortality is our quest and that's what having a baby is about. That's what I'm obsessing over lately, anyway."
A perhaps more enjoyable and longer-running obsession for Singer is the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, where he finds inspiration for his own craft.
"I love Brian Wilson's mind," he says. "My dream is to create the comedy album equivalent of Smile. Of course, that's impossible, and I'm not sure what it will sound like. But it took him 30 years to make Smile, so maybe I'll get there someday."