By Abram Brown
People expect comedians to always have a joke ready. So when I first meet Justin Trimm, and our conversation plods along about the weather, classes, and comics, I decide to test him. Tell me a joke, I say. Trimm, a Syracuse University junior with thick brown hair, looks across the Schine Cafeteria table at me. “A joke?” he asks. Yeah, a joke. He fidgets his short, husky body for a minute, his hands move in a circular motion, and his elbows rest on the plastic table. “Sometimes I’m not so good in front of audiences,” he says. “So this is the one I do when I’m bombing it.”
He tells me a joke about what mass murderers and God have in common. People say God moves in mysterious ways. In life, we say the same thing about crazy killers. But yet, we question gunmen so much more than God. If God took an AK-47 to heaven, St. Peter and Christ would just cower under a cloud and say, “It’s God—he moves in mysterious ways.” I manage a nervous giggle, which elicits a smile from Trimm.
Trimm’s dark humor can catch you off guard. It’s not conventionally funny—I certainly never thought of God and terrorists as punchlines. But Trimm’s style is understandable in some ways. It comes from a fractured past, moments of gloom he now channels into his nascent comedy career in Syracuse, N.Y. He’s Justin Trimm, The Nervous Comic, the kid who stirs laughter with lunatics, suicide, and penises.
Launching a comedy career anywhere, especially here in Syracuse, requires patience, wiliness, and endurance. The city features few spots to support comedians. Wise Guys, a two-story comedy club near Armory Square, is the area’s comedic Mecca. “But other than that, there aren’t that many venues. I’m a local now, and I’m still searching for spots,” Sabrina Davis, a Syracuse comic, said before a recent Palace Theatre set, as she sipped Budweiser from a red Solo cup. Syracuse comedians like Davis consider a Wise Guys invite their big break. And while only a few people came to her Wise Guys debut, she said she’d take another invite.
To reach Wise Guys, comedians usually perform first at open mic nights. Some complain about the restrictions. Even if Trimm wanted to try Wise Guys, he figured being 20 would hinder his chances (despite serving liquor, Wise Guys allows minors to perform). So instead, we check out Funk ‘n Waffles’ open mic. When we arrive around 8 p.m., Trimm puts his name down on the small white notepad. Trimm heard about this open mic night from a friend in his SU comedy group, Woo Hoo Comedy Hour. Since the troupe gets together only once a month, Trimm seeks out other venues.
About 20 people fill the restaurant’s tables, booths, and couches. Trimm and I sit in the back on red-leather stools and watch three comedians go before him. Two of the comedians earn a few laughs. But then The Joker gets up. The Joker is as an open mic regular and tonight he wears black leather pants and boots, a white flowing blouse, a green vest, and a red crown. His routine consists of him mumbling incoherent words into the mic, sort of like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Tired of The Joker, we stand for a minute in the foyer. As we talk, the emcee calls Trimm’s name. “Looks like it’s time,” he says. He turns around, faces the foyer’s glass wall, and bangs his head against it. Then he turns and heads for the stage.
Some people drink water or smoke a cigarette to calm their nerves—Trimm bangs his head on things. Or rocks back and forth, shifts his weight from foot to foot, or jumps up and down. Trimm never stands completely still. He suffers from a constant tremor in his limbs, a convenient inspiration for one of his better routines, the Human Vibrator joke. In elementary school, classmates asked Trimm why he shook so much. He would tell them, and then in a few months, they asked the question again.
Trimm hated school in general, he says. He didn’t have any friends. On Friday afternoons, he walked the three-quarters of a mile from Henninger High School to his family’s stout, white and pink Woodbine Avenue house. He went up the steps, through the front door and slumped onto the living room couch. He stayed there for hours, watching as much Comedy Central in front of the big-screen TV as he could before passing out for the night. Comedy became an escape from life. “It wasn’t an I’m-going-to-commit-suicide, Degrassi-teen-drama type of thing,” he says. But still, no one wants Gilbert Gottfried as his closest friend.
When Trimm left Henninger for SU, where he majors in writing and rhetorical studies, he took up comedy. In 2009, he answered a Craigslist ad for “talent” and met a local producer named Kelly Doane. Doane, a Syracuse comedy veteran known on the stage as “KD the Comic,” took Trimm in. He was part mentor, part older brother. Doane, a bald-headed pudgy man with a goatee, told Trimm to use his ticks, nerves, and anxiety as his shtick and search the darker parts of his life for material. “I call him the Darth Vader of my comedy group,” Doane says. Trimm developed one routine, Uncle Diddles, about a pedophilic uncle. He based it off his own uncle, who molested Trimm’s cousin. But he seldom uses Uncle Diddles now—it disturbed too many audiences, he says.
After graduation, Trimm hopes to move to New York City and establish himself as a comedian. But for now, he appears with Doane’s group at local stages like Orange Line Gallery, Jazz Central, and The Westcott Theater. A few weeks ago, Trimm appeared at downtown Syracuse’s historic venue, The Palace Theater, as a part of Doane’s Last Comic Standing Rejects Tour, Doane’s response to a past try-out for NBC’s Last Comic Standing.
Ninety minutes before the show, I meet Trimm at his parents’ home. His parents embrace his interest in comedy, he says. On a brown end table, next to the big-screen TV where he still watches Comedy Central, is a framed picture of him holding a microphone in the middle of a routine. We walk the three blocks to The Palace and sit in the back of the theater, an old movie house with red-carpeted chairs and a wood stage painted gray. A few minutes before Trimm is set to go on, Doane kneels beside him and whispers some advice, like a coach with his player.
Trimm takes the stage as Doane’s girlfriend introduces him to the audience. “Justin Trimm everyone! A ladies’ man, who’s single and lookin’ for love,” she belts over the sound system. Trimm takes the stage and discusses how he, a “fugly man,” finds trouble with love. Next comes his Mysterious Ways routine. The audience laughs at the appropriate points. He shifts then to his own version of The Aristocrats, an old, crude routine that every comedian personalizes. The joke about bestiality, incest, and semen falls flat. “That boy is fucked up,” says a young man sitting behind me. “He has some therapy issues.” Even after Trimm loses the crowd, he finishes the routine and walks off stage. “And we wonder why you’re single, Justin,” Doane’s girlfriend says over the P.A. system.
As Trimm walks back to our seats, he catches my eye. He drops to his knees, mimics a gun exploding near his head, and plays dead. Doane advises Trimm to work on his showmanship, to read a crowd better. By neglecting Doane’s advice, Trimm presented The Aristocrats’ to an older audience that couldn’t handle the bawdry humor. We soon leave after Trimm gets off the floor, and walk back to his parents’ place; his mood perks up as we walk. He’ll just have to shelve The Aristocrats, he says. “It’s too bad. I should’ve done this other joke I just thought of today,” he says. “What’s it on?” I ask. “Did you hear about the Pope and the Jews?” he responds, referring to Pope Benedict XVI’s proclamation that the Jews actually didn’t kill Jesus. I’m amazed at his eagerness to return to his off-brand humor. I shoot him a wrinkled-brow. He sees it and attempts to allay my fears.
“Well, actually,” he says, “The joke’s about Jehovah’s Witnesses.”