If you really love jam bands, you need to have a sense of humor. It’s part of the package. To fully appreciate the music and the often ridiculous scene surrounding it, you have to be able to laugh about it. As Brett Siddell, professional comedian and card-carrying jam band enthusiast, explains,
It’s part of it. It’s such a big part of it. If you took out comedy from our scene, it’d be a disaster. It’d be horrible. Everyone too serious and insular and even mean. With humor, it’s this beautiful, silly, friend-making, lovely situation, with music as the soundtrack. We just kind of wanna highlight how damn funny some of this stuff is. It’s just so clear to us. And I think it’s clear to a lot of other people.
The “we” he’s referring to is Wokes with Jokes, a team of comedians staging standup comedy shows which highlight the hilarity of the jam band scene. The group of comics, which features Siddell, Walker Berry, Ariella Wallen, Pamela Mahler, and MC Richie Alfson, is preparing to mount their latest show, “Wokes with Jokes: Standup Comedy about The Disco Biscuits and The Scene“, on Saturday, April 21st at Philadelphia’s Liaison Room before The Disco Biscuits hit the stage for their final night at The Fillmore.
And yes, that’s “Wokes,” not “wooks.” Explains Siddell,
“One of the first comments we got when we posted about this was ‘that’s not how wooks is spelled.’ Several things: First, of course, I know how to spell ‘wooks,’ I’m doing a wook-based comedy show! Secondly, there is this concept of ‘woke’ now too, I’ve even heard it in noun form here and there. A ‘woke’ is someone who says something like ‘I only eat grass that died naturally with its friends and family around it for lunch. And then do a bump off a toilet for dinner. And breakfast.’ More importantly, it’s off by a tiny bit to catch your attention, like Lyft, or Grindr, or Dwyane Wade. So it’s a little off, which is what attracts people. And also…um…it fucking rhymes!”
Doing standup comedy about the jam band scene—joining two of his biggest passions—has been a goal of Siddell’s since 2011, when he and fellow Wokes with Jokes comedian Walker Berry brought a play-out boombox with a microphone to Mayan Holidaze in Mexico. As Brett explains,
We’d bring it to the hot tub and put a huge ten-foot sombrero on and do standup. And just like this project, people didn’t understand what was going on for a little bit—they didn’t get it—until they listened for a second, and then they were dying. So ten years ago, or so, is really the inception of it, and we’ve just been trying to piece this together with more formality ever since then.
While the idea for jam band standup dates back the better part of a decade, Siddell’s love affairs with both music and comedy go back much further. Says Siddell,
I’ve been doing standup comedy for close to 20 years … And then in 2002, halfway through college, I went to High Sierra Music Festival to see The Slip. But I didn’t really know about any of this world at all. I saw The Slip play the late-night tent at High Sierra, and then this band Sound Tribe Sector 9 came on, and I was like, “Okay, I guess,” you know? And I was completely floored. Now we’re used to all that stuff. But I didn’t know that anything like that even existed.
Flash forward a little bit, and I’m into both. I love comedy. I make a living doing comedy–I do that on the radio at Sirius XM–but I’m also so into this world. There’s an old motto of writing, which is “Write what you know.” And in terms of comedy, I was sort of sitting there debating all day because of that, because I’d go up onstage in New York City and be like, “Do you guys wanna talk about people on ketamine at all?” … These people don’t know what I’m talking about. I guess I’ll talk about banking? I don’t know…
“Now, it’s kind of a meshing, things that I have experience in and love and find a lot of funny things in, and something I have been working at for close to two decades now, which is standup comedy,” notes Siddell. He adds,
Why I say how long I’ve been doing standup so much…I think when some people think about what we’re doing, they think it’s just some funny kids on the lot…Which we are, I’m not gonna deny that. But we are all professional comedians that also will be going for it from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and just be killing that the whole time…And if you laugh hard enough at that, which most of us do, you’re like, “Well what’s the other avenue for this? You can’t just be in the pit all the time!”
Siddell is confident that this particular brand of comedy is perfect for the scene it lovingly roasts. “This scene, as you know, is rife with criticism. And that’s fine, you know? … But what I really think is fascinating…is if there’s anything people love more than the music in this scene, it’s talking shit about the scene!” he says, laughing. He continues,
It’s so fascinating and so crazy to me and so hilarious, that to not expose that sort of hypocrisy would almost be a comedic fault. We love this stuff. Love. Love, love, love. … I think whoever’s confused or questioning whats going on, or if they think it’s like a roast…It’s kind of a roast, in the way that you’d roast your uncle. Jeffrey Ross, the roastmaster, the guy who’s synonymous with roasting now, his book is called I Only Roast The Ones I Love. That’s kind of the policy, even, of roasting.
Just like big fans love to talk shit about their favorite band, people would love to talk shit about this whole concept. Brett explains, “I’d say [the response to Wokes with Jokes has been] about 4/5 positive and 20% negative, without seeing it. Because there’s 20% of people who have written, like, ‘Why the hell would I go see somebody make fun of my band?’ …And that’s the whole thing we want to make fun of! [laughs] Like, that’s exactly who I want to talk about.”
Brett uses dessert to illustrate the comical nature of uptight fan criticisms: “You’ll be like, This apple pie is so delicious!’ And the guy next to you says, ‘Fuck this apple pie. I haven’t seen good pie since ’94.’”
Siddell and company have now put on several sold-out performances, including shows focused on the Phish scene during the Baker’s Dozen. They also recently staged an Umphrey’s McGee-themed Wokes With Jokes during the band’s recent 20th anniversary run at New York’s Beacon Theatre, which was attended by bassist Ryan Stasik and, according to Brett, the entire Umphrey’s road crew. Explains Siddell,
This was a big deal for us for a lot of reasons. Umphrey’s are friends of ours… There’s a new comedy club right across the street from The Beacon. This seemed like it was gonna be a home run. But it went even better than we really could have imagined because Stasik shows up, and the full crew. I mean, like, they did soundcheck and then they all came to our show. … Of course, they wanna come laugh about the band–it’s kind of like laughing at the boss! And Stasik…if you had to pick one [guy in the band] to come join in, you pick the silly bassist. Of every band! It’s like, let’s not overthink this. Let’s have the nicest, best-looking guy in the band. (Kris, I’m sorry, you’re close, but it’s Stasik).
He openly appreciates Stasik letting the jokes roll off his back, a trick he has no doubt learned countless times over performing for opinionated jam band fans for 20 years. Siddell recognizes that he’s up against the same hard-to-satisfy crowd and the same potential criticisms that face the bands he jokes about. He muses, “I had one friend tell me, ‘You have really set yourself up for a bad reaction! They hate what they love, and they don’t even like you!'”
But like the pro he is, Siddell seems unfazed. In fact, he seems to relish the challenge. “I guess final thoughts would be: If you’re curious, or even if you hate the idea, come,” he says, “Come shit on it. Come shit on it just like you shit on your favorite band.”
At the end of the day, it’s all love. Wokes with Jokes just wants you to accept that and learn to laugh at yourself…ya damn wooks.
Wokes with Jokes: Stand-Up Comedy About The Disco Biscuits and The Scene will take place on Saturday, April 21st at the Liaison Room in Philadelphia, PA ahead of the Disco Biscuits third night at The Fillmore Philadelphia.