Ron Lechler is one of the most thoughtful jerks in Denton. That might be because he’s a Denton transplant via Michigan, though. We’ve caught him at a few Spiderweb Salon and Denton Comedy Collective showcases and he had us giving more thought to the comedy scene in Denton than we ever had before. Recently, we hung out with Lechler and asked him a few questions on his thoughts on comedy, leading dual lives and his views of Denton as nothing more than a byway. Read on for more.
Lechler?! What kind of a name is that?
It’s German. My great grandpa Helmut died at sea on a German U-Boat in World War I, but this helps readers to understand me virtually zero. I didn’t mean to sound critical of your question. Sorry. I mean, I’m not taking back what I said about it not lending insight. Sorry.
That's okay. It's cool. Also, sorry about Helmut. Our bad. Anyway, what brings you to town, Ron?
I moved to Denton last year when I was accepted into graduate school. I think it’s kind of rare for comics, especially at my age, to be graduate students. A lot of them want to be comedians because college didn’t really suit them. I happen to love academia too much to give it up, so I lead a pretty dichotomous lifestyle trying to keep it separate from what I do as performer. I think it’s worth it, though, because I find them both to be entirely rewarding, albeit in very different ways. It never shocks people from my high school that I’m a comedian, but they can’t believe that I’m in academia. They’re always caught off guard by how serious I sound when I talk about research, scholarship, and those facets of my career.
Denton isn't especially known for it’s comedy scene, or at least not much is known about the comedy scene in Denton at the very least. Can you give us a brief rundown of what it’s like?
The comedy scene in Denton is really modest compared to cities like Austin or Chicago. There are a handful of comics, maybe ten, that I perform with regularly. There are guys I still haven’t learned the names of who show up sporadically and there are guys performing for the first time every week. I don’t want to jinx it and say that it’s growing, but I think letting people know that there’s an outlet for comedy now is creating a hospitable atmosphere that comedians at all levels of experience can appreciate.
The Denton Comedy Collective encompasses the grand majority of comedians that perform here. Alex Smelser and Matt Solomon are sort of the brain trust, but we all try to work together. Matt runs an open mic at Banter on Thursday nights at 11. The scene had just got rolling when I arrived, but my understanding is that Banter is where everything started. We also show up at The Garage’s open mic on Monday nights at 10:30 and Mable Peabody’s Beauty Parlor and Chainsaw Repair on Tuesday nights at 9 (I think). Also, there’s a monthly showcase at Hailey’s on some given Wednesday. Sorry, anything having to do with numbers always seems arbitrary to me, so I have trouble remembering it.
A lot of us go to Arlington or Dallas to perform when we can, which is neat because we’ve formed a bond with some really talented people there. Really cool acts like Clint Werth and Barry Whitewater and Brian Moody perform in our showcases sometimes. It’s really inspiring to be part of a network of really gifted writers and performers.
Audiences in Denton are pretty small and apathetic, generally speaking, but that’s common in a lot of scenes our size. You learn something on stage regardless of the size of the crowd. I’m actually really impressed with how far the scene here has come in just one short year. The problem is that the best and most talented comics here move to bigger cities to make a go of it. I think the point of Denton is to leave it. My buddy Martin Urbano was my favorite local act since the first time I saw him perform and he moved to Austin to pursue comedy. As foolish as it would be for him to stay here, I’d do anything to have him back.
What’s the best heckling situation you’ve been involved in?
The best heckling situation is where it doesn’t happen. There’s something about comedy that makes people think that they can somehow improve it by interacting, and that’s just never true. There’s an unwritten contract between an audience and performer, and some people just don’t understand or respect it.
I had a guy at an open mic try to tell me that he didn’t like the direction my material was going in the middle of my set. I’ll never understand behavior like that. If you don’t think I’m funny, that’s totally okay with me, but it doesn’t mean the show should stop. That same guy played guitar later and even though I found his Sublime covers to be trite and derivative, I didn’t yell it at him during his set. Heckling looks really insane when it happens to anyone but comedians. Imagine a heckler at a play or dance recital. That’s how I know that it’s unacceptable behavior across the board.
Experiences run the gamut. I’ve been heckled by women who tried to sleep with me later. I berated a heckler until my neck turned bright red and he left, and I found out later that he was mentally ill. I made a joke about natural disasters and some guy said, “You think people dying is funny? Why don’t you come to my hometown and tell some of your jokes again. Us Oklahomans could really use a laugh,” and I said, “It’s we Oklahomans.”
The thing that all these experiences have in common is that none of them were good experiences. It’s never fun for me. I hate when audience members make me shut them up because I end up looking like a jerk too. Everyone should get the chance to do the performance they planned on. Especially considering how little stage time we get every night or every week, trying to take any amount of it away is really rude.
You deal a lot with race and religion in your comedy. Is there any sort of underlying message you’re trying to get across in those jokes?
To be clear, I don’t think my humor deals with race so much as it does racism. I think these topics are easy fodder for comedy because as ideologies, they’re so full of holes. There’s so much silly nonsense built into those topics already, pointing it out comes easily to anyone who’s looking for it.
I don’t think there’s any sort of underlying message to those jokes, but it would be nice if they helped people take a look at themselves and do some reflection and perhaps even re-evaluation of the quality of their character.
And to be fair, I have just as many jokes about breakfast foods or going to the zoo, but they never seem to get much attention.
Do you feel as if the adversity you face as a for-lack-of-a-better-word "edgy" comic, is too much, too little, or about what it should be?
I would never call myself edgy, but I think comedy as an art can be purposely intense and provocative. That’s how I want to be a part of it, so I'm liable to catch flack from time to time. Offending audiences is inevitable, but that doesn't mean that a topic is beyond humor. The most horrific topics are the ones that need humor the most. I have a library of clean, silly non-sequiturs; tame jokes that are entirely devoid of controversy… and equally devoid of meaning. I could spend my career saying “Why do they call it a shower head? Is there a shower tail somewhere?” but it would be an empty and disingenuous pursuit. It’s vitally important to me as a performer that my voice on stage matches my voice on the inside. When people have a problem with me being myself, it stings a little bit. While I steadfastly support freedom in art, I’m not impenetrable or unfeeling.
Are there any topics that you, yourself, consider too taboo to be included in your act?
Jokes never go too far, but they can be poorly done. When people get offended, I never think I went too far. I just know that I did something the wrong way. For me, there’s nothing that’s off limits. Everything can be funny and has to be. Like everyone else, there are things that hit really close to home with me personally like family alcoholism, cancer, or sexuality, but I would never tell someone they couldn’t talk about those things. Humor is how a lot of people cope, and we should be allowed to.
Are there any jokes that you used in your act in Michigan, but didn’t fly after you moved to Texas?
I make an effort to make my humor pretty universal, but there are some jokes that just don’t fly here in Texas because there’s no context for understanding them. I couldn’t really make a joke about bottle return here. Similarly, Michiganders wouldn’t get a joke about outdoor ceiling fans, because they’ve never seen them.
There’s one joke in that I have to tell different ways depending on what state I’m in. I have a joke about a place called White Settlement, Texas and how awful and bigoted the name is and the town must be to keep it. When I tell it here in Texas, I’m overtly condescending like I’m some progressive liberal from the “free states” trying to make everyone feel ashamed. When I tell it in Michigan, it’s more like, “You guys are never going to believe the sort of things they allow in Texas.”
Steven Wright or Patton Oswalt?
Steven Wright and Patton Oswalt are both great writers and performers. Comedians like Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright were the reason I started telling jokes in the first place. They had this endless barrage of painfully funny non-sequiturs. Patton Oswalt is from the totally opposite end of the spectrum. I think he’s one of the most valuable assets the comedy community has, because he’s the closest thing we have to an academic. He’s so smart and eloquent not just in performance, but as a representative for the industry.
I love them both and I can listen to albums by either of them over and over. A younger me would pick Steven Wright, but Patton Oswalt is more my style now.
What makes a good audience for a comedian?
To be a good audience, an audience only needs one thing: A willingness to be entertained. If the crowd is excited and wants to laugh, everything’s going to go smoothly. Too many open mics are just comedians interrupting a someone’s dinner. A lot of times, an audience didn’t even know there was going to be a show. More often than that, an audience is just the other comedians. While not ideal, comedians make great audiences because, for the most part, we’re attentive and courteous. I’ve actually had a lot of experiences in Dallas where comedians don’t watch the other comedians’ sets. They just hang out at the bar and talk amongst themselves. I was blown away by the fact that they didn’t wanna participate in the thing they claim to like so much. They had virtually zero interest in new, local acts. It’s never like that here in Denton or Kalamazoo, MI, where I’m from. I’m proud of maintaining that sort of integrity in our scene.
What would make the comedy scene in Denton better?
The Denton comedy scene just needs time. Most of our guys have only been telling jokes for just over a year. Sometimes I wish I could fast-forward three years to see who has burned out and who’s gotten really good. The poignant part is that by three years from now, everyone with potential will have moved on to somewhere bigger and better.