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'Killing It' onstage turns literal for these comics in Mike Bockoven's new novel

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's usually nothing worse for a comic than bombing on stage, just standing on stage in a dead silent club. But for the comedians in a new horror novel from Mike Bockoven, telling a bad joke is the least of their concerns. They're fighting for their lives. "Killing It" follows a group of comics stuck in a club with a deadly adversary. Author Mike Bockoven joins us now to talk about the horror-comedy mashup. Thank you for joining us.

MIKE BOCKOVEN: Hi. Thanks for having me on. It's a pleasure.

RASCOE: Comedians have to be a bit fearless because, I mean, it takes a lot of guts to get in front of a crowd and try to be funny. This book kind of turns that on its head because you have this real crisis where you see characters struggle with what it means to be courageous, right?

BOCKOVEN: Yeah. First off, I love horror comedy in the first place, and when you get a really good horror comedy, there's almost nothing better. You know, I tell people that I like to think I can understand Bergman, or I like to think I can read something very literary and have a good discussion about it. But I'm not going to lie and say that my favorite movie isn't "Return Of The Living Dead," you know?

RASCOE: OK.

BOCKOVEN: Just - horror comedy is great when it works. And so that's kind of what I was shooting for. But to your question, the idea that it takes bravery to do this thing is - and I learned kind of in the research - kind of undercut by the fact that a lot of people who go into standup really have this desire to do it. And it's that desire that drives them to do this big, scary thing and then get good at it. And so you take that turn it on its head a little bit. You take it into the horror realm, and I thought that was more or less a compelling idea.

RASCOE: These characters - they crack jokes even at times when it may be dangerous for them to do so. Do you feel like that's a fundamental part of being a comedian, like, using humor to survive any situation?

BOCKOVEN: I think the idea of being inappropriate and then doing this inappropriate thing in an appropriate venue - that's a fascinating idea. Going on stage and talking about intimate stuff and controversial stuff and political stuff and whatever else a comedian is going to talk about and then get offstage and just immediately flip that switch and not be that way - and I think the answer that that I've seen and just gleaned from being a standup comedy fan all my life is some of them can, and some of them can't, you know? And I think that's fine, without being a stand-up myself.

RASCOE: The comics in this book, they're all in very, like, different places in their career when they end up fighting for their lives. The one that really stood out to me is Jackie. She's a veteran comedian in the boys' club that is the comedy world, and she's experiencing some newfound success. Tell us a bit about Jackie and her brand of comedy.

BOCKOVEN: Yeah. Jackie Carmichael, the character - like, all the characters, are kind of a jamming together of some comics that I really like and have followed over the years. You know, there's a bit of Jackie Kashian, you know, hence the first name. There's a bit of just kind of road dog comics, the people who have gone out, done the work a bunch and then come back and found success in a different venue. And I love that about comedy because you find a lot of comedians turn out to be real good dramatic actors. And I've also heard it doesn't work the other way. You know, a lot of dramatic actors can't be funny.

RASCOE: No.

BOCKOVEN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

BOCKOVEN: I don't want to see Tom Cruise do stand-up, you know? So it's...

RASCOE: Yeah, no, no. Well, I mean, the women in this book are really the stars of the book and, in many ways, the heroes of the book. But let's not sugarcoat this - the men in the book are pretty terrible to women, I mean, like, horrible. I mean, and there is some physical and sexual violence. And then you have men who, like, ghost their dates and don't return phone calls or, like, just bump women from their stand-up slots. What are you trying to say about this male-dominated industry of comedy?

BOCKOVEN: What am I trying to say? Excellent question. As with some of the dysfunction that comes with a lot of great comedians, I don't think you need to look too hard to find women not being treated fairly in any number of facets of our society. And I imagine stand-up is very tough for women. And, again, I don't have firsthand knowledge of this. This is me kind of being a fan and gleaning these things. Without being a straight white guy who is the last person you want to hear his opinion on these sort of things, it just seemed kind of obvious, you know, that if you're going to create these characters and make your heroes women, that they're going to have to deal with some pretty awful men, aside from - you know, and we're spoiling the book - aside from the main - one of the main characters who's upstairs with a knife trying to kill everybody.

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah. He's pretty bad. That's pretty bad.

BOCKOVEN: Yeah. Yeah. And that was a theme I kind of hit on early on. I mean, even the, quote, unquote, "good ones" were, you know, very easy to step over someone else if it was going to get them a leg up in their career. And consulting with a stand-up friend of mine, he's like, yeah. You got that pretty close. I'm like, OK, good to know.

RASCOE: (Laughter). You mentioned earlier that you love horror comedy. Now, you said "Return Of The"...

BOCKOVEN: Oh, yeah. "Return Of The Living Dead" - that's just absolutely one of my favorite movies just because it is both very funny, very gruesome and has the - how do I want to put it? - no characters in it are dumb. Everyone does things that make a lot of sense. And even while following logic and trying their best to get out of their situation, they just make everything exponentially worse. Every decision just makes it worse and worse and worse until it's just terrible.

RASCOE: Are there any horror movies - there are a lot of horror movies that might be unintentionally funny. Do you have any of those that you watch that you find to be unintentionally funny?

BOCKOVEN: How much time do you have, Ayesha? I can...

(LAUGHTER)

BOCKOVEN: Yes. I could make you a list of - just trying to think of what jumps off from the top of my mind. But yeah, the thing about that - I'm in my mid-40s. When I was in my 20s, you watch some of those movies, and you laugh, and you're like, ha, ha, look at the people who didn't know what they were doing, who made kind of a bad movie. And you laugh at it.

And as you get older and especially as you start your own artistic endeavors, you start to go, wait a second. These people were doing a lot with a little. Even those trashy '80s slasher movies - someone was putting in the work, you know? And as someone who's tried to put in the work, you're like, I admire what you were trying to do. I mean, you hauled a camera out there, man. You got some friends who decided to do some gore effects. You went swimming - you know, just all the stuff you got to do.

RASCOE: That's author Mike Bockoven. His new book, "Killing It," is out now. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

BOCKOVEN: Yeah, I appreciate that. And if I could encourage your listeners to pick up a horror book - because there are a lot of people out there doing a lot of great stuff - I think you'd have a good time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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