It’s hard to imagine that one of the best parts of your life could result from one of the worst moments in your life, but for Dan Hoppel, that’s how his career in comedy began.
Growing up watching Comedy Central, he had always thought about trying stand-up, but he was married with bills and responsibilities.
“What if I’m good at it? I’m going to have to leave. I’m going to have to travel. I can’t do that; I have a wife at home whom I love very much,” he thought.
“Then we split up. I actually walked in on her with another guy, and that was in April. 13 days after that day was the first time I got on stage.”
Just like that, after 10 years of marriage, his life was headed in a completely new direction. He states all this plainly, matter-of-factly – it hasn’t really been that long, but it’s like another lifetime now. Seeing him today, however, it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else but telling jokes.
“I had five days of a massive, massive depression – like hood up, not eating, not drinking, not sleeping, not bathing or any of that stuff – and then I said, ‘You know, I can be bitter for the rest of my life or I can move on.’ It was hard. It was really hard, but I kind of latched onto that and I started writing a set, a three-minute set, to see if I could actually do it,” he recalled.
“From the first joke I told, it changed my life completely. It absolutely changed my entire view on the world, on what I wanted to do, on what I found satisfaction and fulfillment in. It was the beginning of a new chapter in my life, and I’m very thankful for it because I don’t know where I’d be without that.”
From shaming to laughing
Hoppel is a 32-year-old Pittston resident, a graduate of Dunmore High School and the University of Scranton with a double major in history and political science and a double minor in theology and philosophy.
“And now I tell dick jokes. I’m pretty proud of it,” he quipped.
Sitting in The Main Bean in Luzerne, he’s about an hour early for his board game group, who meet weekly at the little coffee shop. While he has yet to add “Dungeons & Dragons” to his “nerdom,” he enjoys European and strategy games, his warm and charming personality defying the shy, quiet geek stereotype associated with this pastime.
“I was a very awkward child, and I didn’t know how to be socially normal. I was a nerd, I was a geek, I was very introverted – I was not very comfortable in my own skin,” he began.
“As I hit my early adolescence, we got Comedy Central on our cable. It was the first time we got it in this area, and I started watching stand-up religiously and I loved it. Not only did I love it, I learned a lot about how to tell passingly funny jokes and how to be passingly funny and how to be a little more quick-witted. So I’ve loved stand-up my whole life. I was the guy who would force my wife to sit down and watch stand-up that she hated. I was like, ‘No, no, you don’t understand! It’s so brilliant! Look at how he’s twisting the subject!’ and she would just be like, ‘You’re an idiot. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.’ That was something I always liked and thought I would be able to do.”
His first chance to test that theory was at Wise Crackers at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, performing a five-minute set about his weight – a subject he has always been comfortable talking about.
“I wanted to take something I could be a little flippant about and cute but also not condescending to myself about, so I worked on this set for a while. I was on my porch every day talking to myself. People would walk by and I would just be reciting my set to myself, which I’ve gotten better about not doing that in public,” he admitted.
“I had been a fan of stand-up for so long. I listened to a lot of stand-up podcasts, people talking about the art of stand-up, so I had a good idea already about what not to do. Don’t be overly shocking for the sake of shocking. Talk about something you actually feel. Don’t try to freak the audience out into laughing – connect with them – and that’s what I wanted to do.”
He also took some advice from Wise Crackers owner and longtime comedian Scott Bruce.
“He’s like, ‘Listen, if you have the balls to get onstage in front of an audience, you have the confidence to believe that people have a need to listen to what you have to say; you have more courage than most of the people in the world,’ which is, in a way, I guess is kind of true. That’s the first thing people say – ‘I could never do that.’ It really doesn’t seem that hard, to me at least, because I never had a problem speaking in front of people.”
Hoppel had always been articulate, mastering public speaking and debate in high school, but he was undeniably “freaking out” and shaking just a bit when he stepped onto the stage and into the blinding lights, but he was soon at ease.
“I told my first joke, and it landed and I got a laugh. And I told my second joke, and it landed and I got a laugh. It was like a release of something, hearing that laughter, and they weren’t very good jokes, to be completely honest. Most of them were not very good, but I was able to seem comfortable enough to connect with them a little bit. That scattering of laughter was enough for me to have this rush of euphoria, like, ‘Oh, this is a feeling I need to have again.’ I latched onto it and that was it. From that day, my life has been, in a very large part, dedicated to trying to become a stand-up comic.”
His first target as a comic – his lifelong struggle with his weight – was an easy choice to make, but not for the reason audiences may think.
“I have a problem with how people view overweight people. I really do. And the reason is because everybody has terrible, terrible debilitating flaws, but the difference between me and you is I have to wear mine, so you can deny and hide and in some way keep the world away from seeing your flaws. I can’t. I never will be able to. From a really early age, I had to come to terms with that,” he acknowledged.
“I have to accept that about myself, and I can try to work on it, of course, but it’s still there. It’s helped me to be a lot more tolerant of other people’s flaws, but one of the things I’ve noticed with being overweight is people automatically have these stereotypes in their head. It’s very hard to hold those stereotypes up to something when a walking personification of that stereotype looks you in the eye and talks to you and is nothing like what you thought it was going to be.
“One of the reasons I talk about my weight so much is because I like being on stage and forcing people to look at me and say, ‘Oh, this is not a guy who just sits around eating Doritos all day and never doing anything. This is a guy with issues who is struggling every day like I am with whatever my problems are,’ and it forces them to kind of put a face to what they thought was just a bullshit struggle. It’s a lot harder to kind of discount that at that point; it’s hard to say, ‘Oh, he’s just a slob who doesn’t care about himself,’ when you’re looking at somebody who clearly does care about themselves but also has a hard time controlling those issues. The challenge with stand-up is to do all of that while also being funny.”
So why be funny? Why not be a motivational speaker instead?
“Comedy just opens you up to being more receptive to those kinds of feelings. If I can make somebody laugh a lot, they’re going to be much quicker to say, ‘Oh, this guy is a person with issues just like me. Maybe I should be a little more understanding of other people’s issues,’” he explained.
“In a country where racism and homophobia are increasingly frowned upon, fat shaming is still widely accepted. I’m not in any way comparing my struggle to that of somebody who’s growing up gay or who has to grow up with racial tension around them. I’m not saying that at all, but it also doesn’t mean that my life is a cakewalk.”
He pauses, never missing the chance to crack a joke: “Cake…” he chuckles.
“It’s very frustrating, and I try to use that as an outlet to get people to see that that’s not the way it is. I hope it works. I’ve had people say to me that it did happen. I’ve also had a guy say to me, ‘I knew you were going to be funny. Fat people always have to be funny. What else do they have going for them?’
“Well, I don’t know, my winning personality? My diabetes? I don’t know. I have something!”
Much like his onstage routine, Hoppel jumps from joke to thoughtful statement effortlessly, noting that this prejudice is so ingrained in our culture that he even catches himself falling prey to it.
“It’s a lot easier to justify your life than it is to justify other people’s lives. I’ve even been at points where I’ve seen an overweight guy eating a ridiculously huge burger and been like, ‘Dude, what the hell?’ And then I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. He might not have eaten all day.’ I’ve been in that situation where I’ve had a candy bar because I haven’t eaten anything all day and I need something to just get me through work, and I know somebody’s going to look at me and be like, ‘Can’t put don’t the chocolate for two minutes. C’mon, fatty!’ and that’s not the case at all! It’s hard to train your brain not to think like that, and I think you have to because we do not live in a society that nurtures that kind of acceptance and tolerance of people, giving a benefit of a doubt to people.”
But by putting himself lower than the audience, he can also gain their trust and feel free to take a little jab at them, too.
“It’s not a deep message. The message is just this – I’m a fat guy, I’m funny, and I want you to listen to what I have to say and maybe, from that, just get that I’m a person just like you. And hopefully you’ll get that other people in my situation or other similar situations are also people just like you.”
Discovering local comedy
In just a few short months, he met quite a few people just like himself at open mic nights, like the one held here at The Main Bean every Sunday. Like many local residents, he had no idea there was a comedy scene in the area at all until he started searching for it. Those he’s learned from, like Zack Hammond, have become some of his best friends and favorite comics, local or otherwise, booking shows with Hammond as Nightfall Comedy.
“I love that community, and it’s awesome to have those people not just to learn off of, but I don’t know that a lot of us would have been friends if it wasn’t for comedy. I learned this very quickly – comedy is like the fraternity that, no matter what you do in life, if you are part of that, you’re brothers and sisters,” he emphasized.
“It’s definitely a scene I did not know was here, but I’m glad it’s here. I love being a part of it. They’re like my family. If I stopped doing comedy tomorrow, I would not stop being their friends. If I ever somehow hit it big, I would definitely wait a year or two before forgetting them completely.”
That ball-busting comradery is necessary when facing audiences in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a region infamous for its tough audiences.
“I noticed from doing shows around here, people want to see a very broad, goofy kind of comedy. My comedy is certainly silly in a lot of ways, but I also take it very seriously. I take that silliness very seriously and I try to cultivate that silliness into something that people can walk out afterwards and say, ‘Oh, I get where he was going with that,’” he observed.
“It’s just a different mentality around here. It’s a much more blue-collar area. Granted, there is comedy that can work around here, I think, but we have to seek out our audiences very hard. The dream of every comic is to have the most broad audience – you want to be able to get in front of everybody and laugh. That’s what you should be able to.
“It is nice when you get in front of people who are receptive to what you’re doing and want to hear your kind of comedy, which we don’t have a ton of. I feel like there is that crowd around here, but we don’t know where it’s at.”
With nothing but love for NEPA otherwise, Hoppel said his best shows have happened a little more south, particularly one night at The Alternative Gallery in Allentown.
“I got onstage and something just snapped. I told my first joke and I couldn’t even go into my next part of it because of the laughter. From that point on, I always heard people talking about getting in the zone and finding your flow and everything, and I never understood it until that night. I controlled the audience completely. It was intoxicating,” he described.
“It was just riding that wave from joke to joke. Not only that, but riding the silence and controlling every aspect of my set was insane. I never felt anything like it.”
Back home, just trying to get potential audiences to leave their homes to attend a show – even a free one – isn’t easy.
“There’s a great comedy scene around here, and there’s people who are trying really hard to make you laugh. People should really start coming out to this stuff. We’re not making any money on the open mics. This is not a source of income – this is a source of pride of us. This is a way for us to get in front of people. We want to give you laughter and joy and entertainment for a while. I will never stop trying to build that scene around here with everybody else. I want it to continue to grow, and I want people to know that it’s here.”
The voice of confidence
Hoppel handles freight claims by day, but that’s not him. His influences include the relatability of Louis C.K. and the positivity of Pete Holmes, but that’s not him either. His true comedic voice, he feels, still eludes him, though he may be closer to finding it in under a year of practice than some funnymen are in five.
“I’m trying to find the place in my head where, no matter what goes on in my day, when I get onstage I am Dan Hoppel the comedian, whoever that might be. I don’t know who that is yet. I don’t know what my voice is. I haven’t found my voice; I haven’t found my persona. My persona I’m kind of getting to. I have an idea of what I want to talk about. My actual voice? No idea yet,” he shrugged.
“I have no delusions about what I need to do. I know that it’s going to be a while. I know that I’m going to have to work very hard on it, and my only timetable has always been every show needs to be better than the last. That’s the only thing.
“I never feel like I’m competing against anybody. I’m always competing against myself, against my last set, against every set I’ve done. I want to do better every time.”
And he does. In only his second appearance at the NEPA Scene Open Mic Nights at The Woodlands Inn in Wilkes-Barre, he won the audience vote, and as a result, he is going to emcee the NEPA Scene Mid-Winter Showcase there tonight at 8 p.m. He’s already hosted other events and opened for professional headliners, consistently fulfilling his top goal – to keep moving forward.
“I want to keep doing comedy. I want to keep getting better. I want to keep writing new jokes. I want to find my voice. I want to find my stride. I want my audience. And I really want to start getting some more shows going around here, and I don’t mean just for me,” he listed.
“Even though I’ve had a lot of negativity in my life, I try to be a very positive person.”
That optimistic attitude has even resulted in weight loss, losing 120 pounds over the last year.
“I did it by never focusing on more than the next five pounds, which was the mistake I made my whole life. When you look at how much weight you have to lose, it seems insurmountable. But when you break it up into every five pounds, it’s easy because five pounds is a week or two. It’s nothing,” he said.
“It’s the same with my comedy. There is no hour right now. Right now, there is 25 minutes. And then once I hit 25 minutes, there’s 30 minutes. The good thing about that is while I’m doing that, I’m continuing to grow and learn and see other performers and try new venues and really figure out what I want to be as a comic. That’s my plan right now, and I hope that’s always my plan, really, to just to keep getting better.
“That’s what, hopefully, the future holds. That or a heart attack. I don’t know. One or the other.”
Photos by Robb Malloy/NEPA Scene
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.