Jason Groce: “Stand Up to Standing in Puddles”
Based on the number of jokes that start out with a line about someone or something walking into a bar, you could deduce with reasonable certainty that drinking establishments are rife with comedy. After years of bartending, I can personally attest that there is some merit to that theory. As alcohol is consumed and inhibitions vanish into the night, behavior changes and people tend to get clumsy. This can create funny situations, but do bars and comedy really go together all that well?
To answer to this question, I sought the advice of Gene’s Haufbrau bartender and resident comedian Jason Groce. Over beers and much laughter, we spoke about the dynamics of bartending versus stand-up, what’s funny and what isn’t and why he doesn’t want to be like Zach Galifianakis.
Like many of us in the industry, Jason’s venture into food and beverage was as much circumstance as it was happenstance. So how did a graphic design grad from Clemson find himself slinging drinks in one of Charleston’s oldest bars?
“Being in Charleston, getting fired from an advertising job and not working for about three months,” he said. “I worked two doors down from Gene’s, and I came in one day and asked if they were hiring part-time servers. They said ‘We don’t hire part-timers; we hire full-time staff.’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing that. … there are tons of ad agencies paying high-dollar salaries around here. Three months later, I walked back in and said, ‘Can I please have a job?’”
Taking advantage of the food and beverage industry’s ever-present attrition, Jason advanced from a few shifts per week to an expanded role in the bar.
“I went from working Thursday days, where you’d have two tables, to working Friday nights, where I’m hyperventilating waiting tables,” Jason said, moving on to the night he broke up a fight, which bought him door shifts. “The next thing you know, you’re covering bar shifts for this person and filling in for that person. I finally just realized ‘Well, I guess I’m full-time now.’”
Outside of Gene’s, Jason is perhaps known best as a driving force behind the Charleston comedy scene; he does sketch and improv comedy at Theatre 99 and hosts a monthly open-mic stand-up night at The Tin Roof. His one-liners have been evoking laughs from audiences since his teen years.
“In high school, my dad actually encouraged me,” Jason said. “He has to be the only dad who actually encouraged his kid to go into comedy – no dad does that. Ever.”
His first live comedy experience was a Steven Wright show at Furman University – with his father.
While his early experience established Jason’s comedic foundation, the “reaction” keeps him in the funny business.
“Everybody likes the feeling of saying something funny and being laughed at. … in a good way,” Jason continued. “I still get that feeling where you make people laugh, and you just feel like this is the best feeling in the world.”
The Tin Roof show is a testament to the effort Jason puts into his comedy writing. As the host, he opens the show with original material to gauge its quality.
“I hate unoriginality,” he confessed. “I had this person tell me a joke I was doing was really close to one Zach Galifianakis does. So instantly I was like ‘gone; done.’ I already get mistaken for him enough; I don’t want to sound like him, too.”
It has been my experience that even when you think about the most horrible things imaginable, you can always find a joke in there somewhere. With that in mind, I asked Jason if there is anything that simply isn’t funny.
“I’ve heard jokes about every topic now,” he said. “But I don’t want to think about 9/11 jokes because then I have to think about 9/11. But I’ve heard funny jokes on just about any subject. There are weird jokes out there that I think are absolutely hysterical.”
For a guy who wears so many hats, it might surprise you which he finds to be his favorite.
“I get lost most in graphic design. That’s what I went to school for and when I pass those lottery signs, I always think, ‘With a million dollars I could open one really nice studio,’” he said. “But the comedy thing … it’s amazing. And there are those moments when you can make a little bit of money doing it. I’ve thought about moving to New York and making $300 for a 30-minute set. But the bartending thing is fun. It’s like a stage. There are people there, and they’re staring at you. But I’m not one of those cheesy bartenders. I’m not like ‘Hey I got this joke for you.’ I know you’re there to hang out with your friends. I’m kind of a hands-off bartender.”
If you’re thirsty, seek Jason out at Gene’s and let him help you navigate through one of the largest beer lists in Charleston. If you need a chuckle, look for him on Facebook for near daily zingers in his status updates or to find information about upcoming comedy events.
by Chris West