River Butcher Talks Jokes Versus Storytelling and Heckling Versus Cackling | Comedy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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River Butcher Talks Jokes Versus Storytelling and Heckling Versus Cackling


Published January 18, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

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Comedian River Butcher breezes through sharp pandemic-era observations at the top of his 30-minute standup special, "A Different Kind of Dude." A master of calling out things that otherwise might go unchecked — like those dangling fake testicles that some truck owners attach to their back bumpers — Butcher has choice thoughts on everything from how fiber gummies can be dangerous in large quantities to the questionable life choices he associates with men from his home state of Ohio, the "dudes" referenced in the special's title.

Available to stream on YouTube, "A Different Kind of Dude" also introduces viewers to the "new" River Butcher, one who, during the pandemic, began a gender transition.

"I've been taking testosterone for about a year," he says to cheers and applause. "And, honestly, sometimes I just feel like history's slowest werewolf. Just a hair every now and then."

"A Different Kind of Dude" is the latest entry in Butcher's catalog. He's released two comedy albums, Butcher and Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootleg; cocreated and starred in the sitcom "Take My Wife"; served as a consultant for the Amazon original series "A League of Their Own"; and, for several years, hosted the baseball-themed podcast "Three Swings."

Butcher currently has shows booked in two places: San Francisco and Burlington. During a recent phone conversation, the comic stressed his love of the Queen City and the Vermont Comedy Club, where he performs on Friday and Saturday, January 20 and 21. Seven Days caught up with Butcher by phone to chat about writing material, how he deals with praise and criticism, and his new special.

SEVEN DAYS: You balance traditional (setup/punch line) observational jokes with storytelling that has its own rhythm. Is that something you plan, or does it happen naturally?

RIVER BUTCHER: It's a little bit of both. I like storytelling. I respect it. But I'm not a storytelling comic. I enjoy a straight-up setup/punch line, 10-second joke. I like a good tag. That's why I try to keep it in my storytelling. There are jokes within it. It's usually just a larger piece that contains more jokes because I like to keep people's attention. It makes my job more fun to tell more jokes.

SD: Do you find that storytelling has overtaken standup?

RB: I don't think anything ever fully overtakes anything, especially in comedy. I think it's just where you're at, what you're listening to.

With the recent evolution of TikTok becoming what's breaking people —breaking in the good way — who's telling a story in a 15-second fix? To me, it's renewed that idea of getting [the joke] out. How quickly can you tell this joke to somebody that's, like, flipping through a feed and maybe even reading your joke? It's created a whole new consciousness of joke telling.

SD: In "A Different Kind of Dude," there's a moment when you interact with an audience member who's having a big, vocal reaction to one of your jokes. Where is the line between that kind of disruption and heckling?

RB: What's interesting about that is, I shot that half hour in July of 2021. So if you can mentally place yourself there, in New York, we thought the pandemic was over. I hadn't been doing standup in person that much. I was completely out of my normal routine. I was like, This guy is heckling me. I had to slow down and just think, What is up with this guy? And he was just enjoying it.

I was also onstage as my new self for the first time. So many things were going on in my mind. Five years before that, [this person] probably wouldn't have bothered me. So I had to take it very gently and remember, Oh, this guy wants to be here.

Even before the pandemic, I would try to approach somebody that's having a loud reaction as gently as possible — especially with my audiences, because they tend to be LGBTQ and often neurodiverse. I have to check myself. My ego doesn't need to be so fragile. Rarely am I being heckled.

SD: To that end, how do you feel about sharing criticism with other comics?

RB: I have learned, in my own life, that criticism is just not something that I share with another human being. Especially not other comics. I never know what's going to be criticism to another person.

Sometimes I think of a tag, but somebody has to be very close for me to be like, "Hey, are you open to a note to this?" Because sometimes notes or tags feel like criticism to people. I get really sensitive when I get offstage. So I just keep it to praise with my fellow comedians. You know, what's the point? I think it's a good tag. They might not. I'd rather keep my friendships intact than share that.

An opposite practice for me is learning to take criticism with a grain of salt. It has nothing to do with me.

SD: And what about praise?

RB: I just love to hear from a fellow comic, "Hey, man. Great set." That's a thing from Maria Bamford. She always says that, and she's paying attention, too. She watches people's standup, you know? The best compliment that you can give to any comedian is watching their set.

SD: Any upcoming projects you want people to know about?

RB: I am in a deep hibernation and a deep welcoming-what's-next phase right now. I'm sort of moving away from Twitter. I would encourage people to follow me on Instagram. That's probably where I'm gonna start doing more new and exciting things.

I'm shedding my old self, and the Vermont shows are a big part of that, of expanding and bringing some new material into an hour that I've been working on that I hope to put out next year. So that's what I've got going on. Maybe a new podcast. I'm not sure what's going to happen, but it's gonna be fun.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Laugh Lines | River Butcher talks jokes versus storytelling and heckling versus cackling"