Most of the marathons that happen in the U.S. don’t involve running. Across the country each week, there are events like shred-a-thons, hot-tub-a-thons, and lift-a-thons. And Nashville has become home to a stand-up-comedy-a-thon — non-stop jokes for more than a week.
Decades before Jerry Lewis stayed up all night with his telethons, there were stunts of flagpole sitting and dancing that sometimes lasted weeks. For over a year now, I have been studying precisely these kinds of endurance feats, from bowl-a-thons to swim-a-thons to hair-cut-a-thons. And I recently attended the Broken Record Comedy Show.
The title of the show is a joke itself, playing off the idea that comedy lasting so long must eventually sound like a broken record. But the event is also trying to break the record for the longest stand-up show by multiple comedians.
On a Sunday morning, people fill a small venue in East Nashville to kick off eight days.
“Who’s ready for jokes at 5 a.m.?” asked DJ Buckley in the opening set.
The comedy-thon — in its second year — is Buckley's brainchild. Last year, they almost doubled the existing record from 80 hours to 184 hours. Now they want to one-up themselves.
The audience comes and goes, stopping at the bar for food and drinks or retreating to a few couches with blankets. On stage, performers rotate.
“You know what I love?” says comedienne Megan Gailey from the stage. “When you see a business that obviously used to be a Taco Bell.”
The organizers adhere to the guidelines established by the Guinness Book of World Records. And most of the producers’ time is spent checking and double checking that they aren’t in violation.
But just after 11 p.m. on the second day, one of the show’s producers, Chad Riden, takes the stage.
“Thank you very much, everybody, for being here,” he says. “But I gotta tell you. I [messed] it up. I [messed] up the show.”
According to Guinness rules, no comedian can perform twice within 4 hours. And Riden accidentally sent someone to the stage 10 minutes too early.
“Here’s the reality of the situation, though,” he says. “It doesn’t matter, you guys.”
They decide to start over.
“When I found out we were going to do two extra days, I just started crying,” says Mary Jay Berger, another producer of the show. “I love it. I love the festival, but I was kind of like, 'no, no, no.'”
This is the most mysterious aspect of these endurance feats: Why do something you love to the point that it becomes agonizing?
The Camp Feel
“Everything just kind of runs together,” says comedian Narado Moore, who talks to me after finishing a two hour set a few nights after the clock starts over.
“I saw the sun rise Sunday morning and then watched the sun rise Monday morning, but because I had seen two sunrises it felt like I had been here for 3 days," he says. "Nope, it’s been one.”
When I ask if he still feels upbeat even nine days into the show, he says, “Yeah. Because it’s fun, man. It’s like a summer camp for adults.”
Many people made this comparison to summer camp. The thing about camp is that no one wants it to end. But if camp went on forever, it wouldn’t be so special.
On the afternoon of the ninth day, the audience looks tired but happy. After checking the time carefully to make sure they’ve gone just five minutes over their own record, the show ends in the simplest way. Chad Riden says thank you and jumps off the stage to loud applause.
People who organize marathon feats can have a hard time explaining exactly what motivates them.
On the show’s website, the tag line, in large font, says “The Greatest Dumbest Thing We’ve Ever Done Twice.” But Riden says it’s more than that.
“Ultimately, it’s just a comedy show. And to do a 10 day-long comedy show is dumb. There’s no getting around that," he says. "But I always wanted to create something that was for creativity and for fun and for the love of comedy, and I think we did that.”
It’s an explanation that will have to do. Perhaps, ‘thons — whatever the variety — are like jokes in this way. And “explaining a joke,” as author E.B. White once said, “is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.”
Kevin Gotkin is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.