I’ve never been to a comedy club. Until the shows I’ll mention in this piece I’d never attended a comedy show. When I was younger and had friends into one comedian or another, I’d listen to their albums and sometimes find them funny, but I never understood how they could listen repeatedly, laughing just as heartily the second and third times through. I mean, we’d already heard the joke, right?
I’m not sure what word you think of most readily when someone says “comedy.” My next word is “tragedy.” It’s probably because of my literary background, but it also contains a kernel of the reason I’ve avoided comedy and comedians: I’ve always thought of comics as a little sad.
So, when Matt Ward, local comedy impresario, started sending me messages inviting me to comedy shows, I didn’t exactly jump at the first chance. Eventually I decided to give it a try. I attended a show at Pilot Light in December. Several comedians took the stage as warm-ups for the primary act, Ryan Singer. Pilot Light is a cozy dive in the Old City, selling canned beer and staffed by local musicians. I’d heard music there, but never comedy.
The crowd built very late and, as a result, the show started later than advertised. Eliot Rahal hosted the event and punctuated the pause in between comedians with “zingers,” mostly one-liners intended to insult. They were modestly funny at times. Hunter Roberts led off the night followed by Matt Ward and then Jeff Blank. The crowd had filled noticeably and the response seemed pretty good, to me.
One of the things I learned that night is that comedy is at once personal and relational. What’s funny to you may not be funny to me and vise versa. At the same time, if either of us is in a good sized crowd that thinks something is funny, we’re more likely to start laughing , as well. That’s why “the room” is talked about so much in comedy. If a few people think the comedian is hilarious, the rest of the crowd tends to follow along. If no one laughs, it’s deadly.
That’s also probably at the heart of my hesitance to go to comedy shows: I get very uncomfortable watching someone struggle on stage. Watching a comedian struggle with an unresponsive audience is about as painful as any public experience I can imagine. And it’s always a risk.
At the Ryan Singer show, I felt the audience responded pretty well to the openers and Ryan Singer himself is a polished comedian who would be very unlikely to bomb. I enjoyed quite a bit of his material, though I thought it went on a bit. His final piece was performance art featuring himself on drugs. It was funny and uncomfortable. It really pushed the edge. Matt later told me that whatever the audience reaction, the comics present really admired someone who “goes all in” and takes that kind of risk.
Ryan talked a bit about his most recent tour. It was eye-opening to me. He talked about sleeping in his car or on couches and eating out of a can by the side of the road. It wasn’t glamorous. When I asked Matt about it, he confirmed that life on the road for comedians is similar to life on the road for musicians: the pay is bad, the hours are hard, you have to contend with people who’ve had too much to drink. The difference, he noted, is that the comedian is alone. It’s hard for me to imagine living like that and getting trying to be funny on stage night after night.
I asked Matt why they do it. If the rewards are so low and the risk so high, what’s the attraction? He said the first time a comedian is on stage and gets a real laugh – not just one from their friends, it’s like crack. It’s euphoric and you want to do it again and again. He said, “It’s the easiest job most of the time, but when it’s hard, it’s the hardest.
So they go out into an environment which has only grown tougher in recent years as the number of comedy clubs nationally has dwindled and pay for a headliner has dropped from around $500 a night for a headliner to $250 or less. Think of the expense of being on the road and the canned food and couches start making sense.
Matt’s production company is Knox Comedy and the events are billed as “Knox Comedy Live.” This was one of many shows at the Pilot Light. Many of them feature comics like Ryan Singer who have a national following. Tickets for that show were $8.50, so it will hardly break the bank. In addition to straight comedy shows, he’s also sponsored “roasts” at Pilot Light that have proven very popular. The one I wished I’d made was the roast of Harry Potter. February 23 at Pilot Light you’ll find a Roast of Super Mario which should be funny.
In addition to the random or semi-regular shows at Pilot Light and other places around town, Knoxville has one devoted comedy club. Side Splitters is in West Knoxville and has been open for about four years. Their location on Parkside Drive was originally the Comedy Zone from about 1989 to 1991. Comedy Zone started at the Holiday Inn on Papermill Drive before their move to to the Parkside location. Comedy Zone, in turn was replaced by Side Splitters.
The heart of the scene, however, is probably the stand-up, open mic nights which are sprinkled around town. Matt said there is a stand up, open mic most days of the week, with opportunities for aspiring comics to take a try at The Well, Carleos, Sidesplitters, Twisted Mike’s Tap Room and Sassy Anns. The most established, however, is at Preservation Pub. That’s where I met Matt for our conversation.
I attended the 143rd show in a string which started in May of 2011. Called Upstairs Underground, it starts every Sunday night at 7:00 PM. We talked about what makes a “tough” room. Bright lights topped the list. Apparently people are more comfortable laughing in the dark. Seating should be close to the front. But most of all, there has to be a receptive crowd. That night at Preservation Pub the crowd was notably absent. The Grammys were on television which may have kept some people away, but the comics were convinced the big wrestling event on television was what had doomed the crowd.
It was an off night all the way around. A drunken group sat near the stage, but talked loudly during the entire show. One of their members got into a verbal altercation with one of the comics when he was in the middle of his routine. Jokes fell flat. Comics attempted a single joke, maybe two, then said, “I’ve got nothing.” It was painful. It was the show I’d feared before I started looking into the whole thing. I’m glad I saw the Ryan Singer show first.
Fortunately, most shows aren’t like that. Matt told me that more people than ever are coming out to hear comedy. The Preservation Pub open mic had drawn 30 to 50 people (non-comics) each of the previous several weeks, making it a practically full room. He feels that whereas very few people saw comedy as a viable entertainment option just a few years ago, that has now shifted. He also encourage people to come out and give it a try, noting that it’s a supportive and encouraging environment.
Matt, himself, is all in. He quit his good paying management job with Verizon to pursue comedy full-time. He realized quickly that being a road comic wasn’t going to work for him. With a wife and a child, being with them is of major importance to him. So, he’s carved out a way to have both. He organizes stand-up shows, books comedy shows like that one at Pilot Light, and events like the roasts. He does his own stand-up work. He produces an annual comedy festival, the Cape Fear Comedy Festival. He also represents and books a comedian who has done quite well.
The other project you might be interested in checking out is the series of booze cruises on the Star of Knoxville, which he co-produces with Victor Agreda, Jr. The next chance to take a comedy cruise is, conveniently, February 14 (that’s Valentines, guys). It could be a perfect date for you and your sweetheart with featured comedian Tim Northern. Here’s a sample of what you might expect: