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5 divergent Pittsburgh comedians bring life to 'Race to Coffin' show

| Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
The Race to the Coffin Comedy Tour features Pittsburgh comedians (from left) Jesse Irvin, John Dick Winters, Shannon Norman, Tim Ross and Alex Stypula.

Many comedians in history seemed to have an unspoken death wish, but very few openly admit it or, in this case, make a tour about it.

The Race to the Coffin Comedy Tour pits five divergent Pittsburgh comedians in a tight 90-minute “rager” of a comedy show. The belief behind the show is that their “ambition and potential exceeds our life expectancy.”

The show, which comes to Club Cafe on Dec. 20, features John Dick Winters, Shannon Norman, Jesse Irvin, Tim Ross and Alex Stypula. Four of the comedians worked together on a show called “Nothing Sacred” at the Pleasure Bar in Bloomfield and, according to Winters, “their acts kind of meshed.”

They began to “spitball ideas” for a tour name, and Norman suggested the name “Race to the Coffin.”

“It doesn't surprise me that Shannon came up with the name,” Winters says. “He just thinks like that.”

They picked up Irvin as a fifth member, and the tour was born.

Fresh off a successful mini tour to Gainesville, Fla., the tour is starting to really find its voice. To many comedians, stand-up is the last bastion of free speech, and the “Race to the Coffin” tour is going to take full advantage of that ideal. This show is not for the faint of heart. The tour taps into the American socioeconomic psyche that focuses on the right to “the pursuit of happiness,” but not necessarily attaining it. The show mines that disillusionment with comedic effect.

These guys are doing this tour the old American way: They're winging it. They're not concerned with how much money they make or whether they'll get a Showtime special; they just want to make people laugh in an irreverent way. They also are not doing the traditional comedy-club venues. They are doing the punk-rock festival circuit, bars, coffee houses. Not all the shows are going well. They had to cancel a show in Clarksburg, W.Va, and they weren't well received in Beaver, but they killed it in Georgia and at an underground music festival in Gainesville.

Jesse Irvin

Irvin, 29, a transplant from Punxsutawney, has been doing comedy for two years and comes across as a young college buddy who would always be there to help you move or buy you coffee when your girlfriend dumps you. His comedy revolves around navigating the awkward modern mating dance. He is a clever wordsmith, and his jokes often catch you by surprise with their intelligent twists. Irvin finds that comedy is cathartic in helping him deal with his battles with depression. He calls the tour “a very unfiltered look at the dark side of things.”

Shannon Norman

Norman, 32, is the most natural of the performers on the tour. He has a Ron White storytelling appeal dressed up as Larry the Cable Guy's city cousin. Lightning quick with his references, Norman's mind seems to move faster than almost everyone around him. The stage is his workout room, and you can see his mind working as he presents the joke on stage. Growing up in North Braddock, he was “voted class clown at an alternative high school.” An outcast in the tough North Braddock community, he found that comedy helped him survive. He got into stand-up when his friend who was living on his couch said, “Dude, you should do stand-up.” Norman's fiance at the time said, “I think you're funny, but I don't think other people will think you're funny.” Well, she was wrong. A short time later, Norman landed a job on the “It's Alive” show playing Stiffy the Dead Clown and then went on to stand-up stages soon after.

John Dick Winters

Winters, 30, is a mountain of a man with ink on almost every inch of his body. Intimidating, brusque, intelligent and on point, Winters hasn't been blessed with that filter that allows people to not say things that might be deemed inappropriate. Winters is the most honest of the performers. His bits sometimes cut deep, but you can't call him a liar. He shows his love of the counterculture comedy of George Carlin when he jokes about his struggles with being a reluctant father or dealing with his dogs. Many people may think that Winters has a grudge against the status quo of comedy, but it is the opposite. “I just love comedy so much,” he says. “Don't let anyone tell you how to do stand-up. It's your vision. The ‘Race to the Coffin' is our DIY comedy tour.”

Tim Ross

Ross, 28, is the jokesmith of the tour, churning out material for stage and for his active online presence. He has been performing for two-and-a-half years and hails from New Brighton. His bearded, button-down personality is confident yet not cocky, because he knows his jokes have his back. He cites “Brian Regan's goofiness and Mitch Hedberg's joke-writing” as influences, even though his act doesn't remind you of either of the two comedians. He got his start by “taking a public-speaking class and doing funny speeches for his assignments. Those laughs pushed me to do an open mic, and I was off from there.” Ross described his act as “bumbling through life and dumping my shortcomings on stage.”

Alex Stypula

Stypula, 28, hits the stage, and his “controlled insanity” takes it to the next level. While other comedians dance on the line of audience acceptance, Stypula takes a 20-minute vacation on the other side of the line with hilarious results. Stating his only purpose is to be funny, he realizes he is not for everyone, but he “powers through it.” Stypula's manic presentation relies on “speed, volume and how I write jokes,” he says. “There are loud guys, but not any with my speed.” He is a no-huddle offense of comedy. He was the only one who didn't cite Carlin as a mentor; he likes Upright Citizen's Brigade and “really didn't listen to stand-up until I started to do it.” Stypula doesn't know where the “Race to the Coffin” tour will take him; he just wants to support himself doing comedy.

Comedian Matt Wohlfarth is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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