In the front row, perched at a hightop bar table, sit three audience members: a thirtysomething guy, his girlfriend and her mother. All evening, at the Strip District's BeerHive, the trio has been sipping drinks and chuckling as local comedians riff on relationships, work, raising kids and pop culture. This is comfortable comedic territory. Until the host introduces Alex Stypula.
Stypula, a moustachioed 27-year-old, takes his spot, yanks the microphone from its stand, and without even acknowledging the crowd, delivers an angry tirade on how AIDS ruined blood orgies for everyone.
The trio tense up and place their drinks on the table. Stypula then recounts, in grisly detail, an attempt to re-animate a corpse.
The couple check their cell phones and fumble with their napkins. The mother stiffens her back, crosses her arms and emits loud, disapproving sighs.
Stypula frantically paces the stage, as if he forgot something in the wings, all the while firing off bursts of shocking dialogue about animal abuse, self-mutilation and child abduction.
Without saying a word, the trio decides that it is definitely time to leave — not an easy feat from the front row of a comedy show. The boyfriend, glancing over his shoulder to see if Stypula is watching, helps his partner slip on her coat. The mother unhooks her purse from the back of the chair and stands up.
Stypula launches into to an elaborate story about encountering a police officer while trying to dispose of a body. As he utters the words, "dead prostitute," the mother bursts out in laughter and falls back into her seat. The couple, too, give way to laughter and sit back down. For the next several minutes, the three of them wipe tears from their eyes and struggle to catch their breath as Stypula addresses sex after death, terrorism, slaughterhouses and disease. When the set ends, the mother, physically exhausted, looks at her daughter and says, "What just happened?"
Later, Stypula tells a reporter, "The best feeling is when people that I know don't want to laugh, laugh."
Stypula grew up in central Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, and ended up going to college in Spain. Back in the States, he spent a semester in St. Louis, hated it there and returned to Pittsburgh to stay. He now works behind the scenes at a local market, but makes it clear that the day job is just a means to an end. "Comedy is the only thing I ever really wanted to do," he says. "It's my biggest love in life."
Many comedians tread in the realm of the dark, scary and disgusting. What sets Stypula apart is the character he's created. He describes his on-stage persona as "Not necessarily evil. Just no real sense of general morality." His material is shocking while not being dependent on shock value alone.
Take his bit about a newly remodeled bathroom. In the setup, a friend visits Stypula and asks to use the bathroom. The twist comes when the guest discovers that Stypula has turned the room into a pit full of captive children. Given recent events, this "joke" clearly verges on poor taste. Stypula knows this well; he turns the focus away from his victims and toward himself and the guest. Irritated by the guest's lack of approval and embarrassed by the whole situation, Stypula simply says, "But I told you I remodeled my bathroom!" The pit, however grisly, is just a prop. A nightmarish scenario becomes a metaphor for everyday socially awkward situations. The real joke is on Stypula, who casts himself as a misguided protagonist whose diabolical plans never quite turn out the way he had hoped.
Audiences aren't always kind. Recently, booed by a crowd at the Pittsburgh Improv for telling a joke about bestiality, Stypula was feeling rattled. As he tells the story, he tried to win them back, failed, and left the stage a little early. Still, Stypula says, afterward he was pulled aside by a man who said, "I can't let my wife know this, but I thought you were really funny."
It's risky comedy, but it's paying off. Stypula, says fellow comedian and show organizer Aaron Kleiber, "really crashed the scene last year." Stypula was crowned winner of 2012 Gilda's Club Great Comic Search. Since then, he's appeared on the WDVE morning show and as a featured performer on numerous stages in the Pittsburgh area.
Stypula takes life's greatest terrors and, somehow, makes them a little less frightening. For his audience, laughing in the face of horror becomes a cathartic experience.