By Liz Baudler
The Moth GrandSLAM, held on a chilly December night at the Park West, had the feel of a party fueled not just by the energies of ten stellar storytellers competing for the ultimate glory of being the GrandSLAM winner, but by three particular men. Newcity chatted with Brian Babylon and Don Hall—Moth StorySLAM hosts at Martyrs’ and Haymarket Pub and Brewery, respectively—and producer Tyler Greene, about what they’ve seen over the years.
What do you guys think makes a good story?
Don: An ability to not paint yourself as the hero, and structure. If you ask a question in the beginning or you create some sort of “I want to know,” and then you reward the audience with the thing you want to know, then you have a good story. Making mistakes are the best fucking stories because mistakes are things that you learn from. The only thing you learn from success is how to keep doing things the same way. It’s flaying the flesh. And it’s not about therapy. It’s about saying, “this is where I was at, this is a thing I did, it was wrong and I’m stupid or whatever, but this is what I’ve learned and I’m better now.” Don’t tell the story while you’re still bleeding. Wait until it’s a scar.
Tyler: The first time you do it, you’re not great. You find out, oh, there’s more to this than just getting up and talking. You have to actually make something. And you have to do that and still sound like you didn’t make it.
Brian: What makes a stand-up comic good is that they can tell the same joke over and over but it seems like it’s the first time. This is not stand-up comedy. When people come up and they’re real, when they’re able to pull that off in front of like 400 people, those are the best stories. When people over-prep themselves, they fail. You can tell when people are using too many words. You didn’t have a thesaurus for what happened to you. Show me what happened when it happened. If you stay on the theme, it could be raunchy, it could be heartwarming, but if it’s real, I could care less about what it is. You can smell real a mile away.
How does atmosphere help people do that?
Don: Martyrs’ is a rock ‘n’ roll club, and Brian’s a stand-up comic, and it’s mostly standing room. So it’s got a rowdier vibe, and I think you get more people who are like, “fuck it, I’m going to do a story!” They just get up and throw caution to the wind, and you get great stories out of it. Haymarket is more like a really cool bookstore with food and booze. It’s got lower ceilings, a tiny stage. It seems a lot more familial. People are really thinking about their stories. It’s just a different vibe. I don’t think one’s better than the other.
What’s the average mix of storytellers like?
Tyler: Sometimes it’s loaded with people who do stories, that’s their side gig. Sometimes it’s all new people. For the most part, it’s about fifty-fifty. It’s all randomized to a certain extent, which is kinda great. It opens it up to a certain degree of—I don’t want to say danger, but like unexpected results.
Brian: This one guy jumped off the stage and did a kind of performance art thing that was like, next level. I’ve been doing five years at Martyrs’ and it’s a good crowd, but it’s always the different nuances of the storytellers. It’s always different energy, but energy is high, and it’s always a good time.
Don: The night Lily Be came and won at Haymarket was unexpected. The theme was hope, and it’s the first time she’d ever done the show, and she told a story about being gang-raped in the back of a car. I mean, the NPR junkies sitting in the audience were DE-VA-STATE-TED by this story. It was beautiful and horrifying.
Tyler: Lily just talks to you in a way that reminds you of someone in a bar. You cannot stop listening.
themoth.org. January 19 at Haymarket Pub and Brewery, 737 West Randolph, (312)638-0700, 5pm doors/8pm stories. Theme: Cravings; January 27 at Martyrs’, 3855 North Lincoln, (773)404-9494, 6pm doors/8pm stories. Theme: Cold.