Toledo, Ohio standup comedian Keith Bergman has worn many hats. He was the singer and drummer for the band PB Army, he was a writer for the metal publication Blabbermouth and he was the co-creator of “Infernal Combustion,” a parody zine for the heavy metal underground. Imagine The Onion running stories about black metal bands burning down Norwegian stave churches and you’re not far off.
Despite his heavy involvement in music, standup comedy seems to be the thing that stuck, and according to his bio, his comedy “veers from smart, sardonic observations to ridiculous personal tales of keeping it together in a world gone weird.” Those observations have taken him to stages across the country, where he engages in one of the hardest things you can do in life – stand in front of complete strangers and try to get them to laugh at your jokes.
The Z Review caught up with him to subject him to the “Five Questions” treatment, of which he acquitted himself admirably.
TZR: What led to the demise of PB Army?
KB: The band just kind of ran its course. As everyone neared 40, it was inevitable we’d stop being an active, touring, going-for-it kind of band, and I was less and less creatively interested in it. The other guys are making great music with some friends of ours in a band called Simon Magus now.
Standup is marginally more respectable as a pursuit in one’s middle age, and it’s way less physically demanding. I can tour in a Nissan Maxima, but I still get to partake in the parts of road life that I enjoyed. I think it’s healthy to periodically re-evaluate what you want to do when you grow up, and make changes if needed.
TZR: Had you always wanted to do standup comedy or did you kind of stumble into it?
KB: I always liked comedy as an extension of writing. I originally thought I wanted to write sketch comedy, and thought standup would be way to meet like-minded people, but I quickly fell in love with the self-contained aspects of writing and performing solo. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad listening to George Carlin and Richard Pryor tapes, so it’s always been a part of my life.
I haven’t yet hit a point in standup of being jaded or tired of what I’m doing. I’m beginning work on my third hour of material and I still love the process and the long road to knocking a new idea into shape.
TZR: What comedians are your influences and who do you follow who’s working now?
KB: Of the big names, I’d have to say Chris Rock, George Carlin, Louis CK, Maria Bamford and Lewis Black are big influences for different reasons. Jackie Kashian has become one of my top five over the last couple years. There’s a great well of talent in the mid-level comics who get on TV but aren’t household names — Gary Gulman, Eddie Pepitone, Robert Kelly, Kathleen Madigan. And just like in music, there’s an underground of people who are some of the funniest, smartest motherfuckers you’ll ever see, and they’re generally the middle act at a club, or doing bar shows in the middle of nowhere. Stewart Huff is on his third album, and is as much a philosopher as he is a comedian, and he’s out doing Elks Lodges when he should be giving TED Talks. Sam Rager and Robert Jenkins and Reena Calm and Ben Kronberg and Jenn Snyder. I could name people all day who should be huge, and who hopefully will be if any more justice can be wrung out of this world.
TZR: Does doing standup comedy offer greater financial incentives than playing music?
KB: It’s like comparing a pile of dog shit with a slightly smaller pile of dog shit, but yes, comedy does pay a little better. The difference is, open mic is the equivalent of band practice for a comic. A band might expect some kind of compensation for any time they entertain the public, while comedians routinely get up for unpaid spots.
Just like with music, the money has gone down or remained stagnant since 1985, but you’re not splitting the take four ways and you can make and sell merch once you reach a certain level. Comedy also tends to lead to more paid work in tangential fields – acting, writing, voiceover, etc. I’m working on a book based on some stuff originally written for my act.
Side note — for some reason, and I don’t know why, but the hospitality is generally better for comics. It’s much more likely you’ll get put up in a decent hotel, fed, and given some drinks as a comic, even early on.
TZR: What was the most fucked up and unhinged thing anyone said to you in your capacity as a music critic?
KB: I trashed an album by the band Dissection, and the backlash to that one was vehement and fierce. When the band’s front man committed suicide several years later, a few people brought up my review and suggested I bullied him into taking his life. I got a couple death threats, including one anonymous hero’s graphic and detailed description of how he planned to slowly and painstakingly skin me and remove my organs in front of my captive family. All that for a three out of ten!