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Funny business: D.C.’s second-tier comedy scene
Walking into Penn Social, an E Street bar, on a Sunday night provides a glimpse into your average D.C. watering hole. Helmeted football players sprint across several flat-screens while young urban professionals mingle and cheer on their favorite teams with beer in hand.
Nothing seems to be amiss here, and yet it’s a sore sight for any local comedy fan’s eyes.
What once was a premier comedy theater with two floors and a 300-person capacity performance room is now a bar with televisions mounted on the walls and a game room where headlining stand-up comedians had previously graced the stage. Anyone stopping by the former Riot Act Comedy Theater for a drink after work would never know it was once one of the few leading destinations for comedy in the District.
Though the politics surrounding the club’s closure are more related to the departure of one of its owners and ensuing legal battle, D.C. comedy clubs in general struggle to hold up against dwindling audiences for local comedy.
“It’s really an effect of the weakened economy,” said Paul Schorsch, who recently started up a weekly open mic night at Penn Social. “All the comedy clubs are hurting since fewer people are going out. The Internet also makes it easier for people to see standup acts online for free, but there’s really just generally less demand for comedy.”
This nation-wide trend, however, has particularly damaged the District’s relatively small comedy scene. While D.C. Improv and the Arlington Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse across the Potomac continue to thrive on making laughs, these are the only major local venues that consistently fill their seats with paying customers.
Wayne Manigo, a local comedian and co-founder of the D.C. Comedy Writers’ Group, points to this severe lack of venues as the greatest weakness of the local comedy scene. “Having enough venues to promote the local comedians,” he said, is essential for making D.C. comedy stronger. He claims that having D.C. Improv as “the only venue available on a mainstream level” makes it difficult to declare with any conviction that comedy has a strong presence in the District, despite the number of talented comedians in the area.
“If you’re a local comedy club, you should be nurturing the local talent,” Manigo said. “Featuring the same 10 local people at the Improv isn’t enough.”
The realities of the economy and the entertainment business, however, mean that the Improv frequently stick to its role as a venue for comic celebrities as a means of generating income.
Having celebrated its 20th anniversary over the summer, D.C. Improv has clearly perfected a method of effectively drawing both audiences and comedians to its intimate basement venue near Dupont Circle. Contrary to what some local comedians may have to say about the D.C. scene, the Improv still has a rosy perspective from the top. The club’s manager, Allyson Jaffe, insists that “D.C. is a great place for comedy, and the local comedy scene continues to thrive here,” in spite of the economic downturn and lack of venues.
While D.C. Improv typically headlines comedians who have toured nationally or have appeared on television networks such as Comedy Central, Jaffe emphasized that the venue “also [has] local comics appearing as emcees and feature performers prior to the headliner” and has showcases in its Lounge.
When asked about changes she’s noticed in the comedy scene over recent years, Jaffe pointed to the growing number of open mic nights in the District as a positive trend that is “great for the comedy scene because comics can basically get out and perform almost any night of the week.” The growth of open mics over the past few years has come in conjunction with the Improv’s own shift toward headlining more national acts.
Having performed at the Improv since the ‘90s, D.C. Improv instructor Chris Coccia says this change is essentially a consequence of the weak economy. “Early on, you might have seen more local acts headlining there, but it just doesn’t seem to work anymore. It’s had to become more of a business,” Coccia said. “It’s nice to be able to bring in a local guy who is funny, but, again, if you can’t fill those seats, it’s just not going to work.”
The commercial nature of show business is a frustrating reality for many local comedians, yet the Improv has remained a successful comedy club over the years for both its shrewd business practices and its ability to build a lasting relationship with comedians.
National comics such as Dave Chappelle and Georgetown’s own Mike Birbiglia (C’00) got their starts at the Improv, and the club has managed to keep bringing such luminaries back. “It’s one of those clubs that really knows how to create a relationship with its performers,” Coccia said.
According to Coccia, homegrown celebrities who would otherwise perform in larger theaters “keep coming back because they appreciate what [Improv] done for them.”
This reciprocity makes the Improv such a thriving success, yet relationships like these are difficult to cultivate for local comedians trying to break into this higher level of performance.
The high pedigree of the Improv means, however, that the vast majority of local talent simply isn’t up to scratch. Reggie Melbrough, another local comic who runs an open mic at Looking Glass Lounge and other venues, feels that the Improv’s longtime success is even a clear indicator of its superiority in the district’s comedy scene. “There’s a reason why Improv is going strong and honestly, I don’t think there are that many local comics who actually deserve to be on the Improv stage.”
According to Melbrough, complaints from local comics will only “fall on deaf ears,” so impatience and frustration at the Improv will go nowhere. “We’re not the gatekeepers,” he said.
Racking up a solid resume is the only viable way to get noticed. “They want people who have credits—have you worked with headliners? Have you worked with multiple venues?” Coccia said. “Have those venues brought you back? They don’t want to see that all you do is run an open mic.” It’s difficult enough for local comedians to develop material for the open mic stage, but understanding what is necessary for the club scene is a different matter entirely.
Eddie Bryant, a local comedian who may be best known for his YouTube video mocking gentrification in D.C., recognizes that transitioning to a club venue like the Improv from open mics is much harder than it looks. “You really don’t have any training grounds,” he said. “A room is one thing, but a club is a totally different bind. You really have to train to do that, and the learning curve is a little off.” This learning curve has as much to do with talent and experience as it does with understanding the way the entertainment business works.
With the knowledge that D.C. Improv is a principal comedy club booking out of L.A.-based agencies, Bryant explained that the networking process is harder for local comedians who don’t have this kind of agency representation. “They’re the big boys on the block,” he said of D.C. Improv. “And, in their eyes, you have to grow until you’re a big boy.” Having managed to perform on the Improv stage a few years ago, Bryant noted that his ability to “bring (his) own clientele” to the audience is likely what got him noticed by “the big boys.” Even now, though, he is constantly performing at local gigs in order to build his career without relying on the support of the Improv and other comedy clubs.
“It would be nice if the Improv had a local night,” he said, “but it is what it is.” This is a reality that every local comedian has to reckon with.
Though D.C. Improv is usually the only establishment that people recognize with stand-up comedy in the District, there is a vast underground scene of open mics that has grown from comedians’ desires to kickstart their own careers. Almost every night of the week, comedians at every level of experience can be seen on display in restaurants, bars, and hotel backrooms. Though audiences can be sparse, any brave soul can get stage time any day of the week.
Brian Parise, a local comedian who has performed at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal and who is being featured in D.C. Improv’s upcoming Comedy Lounge Show, pointed to the abundance of “chances to get up and get better” as one of the comedy scene’s greatest strengths and as a way to fortify the local talent that exists under the radar.
“You see a lot of really talented people come out of D.C.,” he said. “The fact that you can get up on stage a lot definitely helps that.” Making weekly rounds at open mics in the Topaz Hotel and other venues, Parise has evidently been taking advantage of those opportunities since he started his comedy career five years ago.
Some of the most successful local open mics, including RFD in Chinatown, are able to both draw large crowds and rack up a long waitlist of comedians hoping to perform because of their insistence that a large variety of comedians are able to come through. “We have a strict policy in our room where nobody can perform two weeks in a row, which keeps up the cycle,” said producer Ralph Cooper. Intentionally keeping the waiting list “very random” helps keep the choice of comedians “impartial.” This rotation provides a truly mixed bag of comics for the audience every week.
This transience in open mic shows is also a reflection of the wider comedy scene. Curt Shackelford, who runs open mics at Rira Irish Pub, Topaz Hotel, and the Hyatt, noted that the “incredibly diverse mix of people makes this town highly transient—there’s a new influx of people every year that keeps the scene fresh.”
Tony Woods, an internationally touring comic who has been featured on channels like Comedy Central and HBO, also points to this shifting mix of comedians as one of D.C.’s greatest strengths. “Some of the best comedians in the country, or even around the world, come out of D.C.,” he said. “It’s really an eclectic think tank of comedians, as most people in D.C. are from somewhere else and everybody has a different point of view.”
This level of diversity, though, can mean that the comedy scene can be fractious and can split between both comic cliques and different audience demographics.
“We are definitely cliquey,” Melbrough said. “Unless we see a new comic making people laugh, we’re not necessarily going to welcome you into the community. Even though we respect anyone who gets up and tries to make people laugh, we have this mentality that you’re not one of us.” This attitude keeps local comics competitive with one another and often breeds a kind of arrogance among local comics, according to Cooper.
“Every show producer thinks they can do this better than the next person,” he said, while questioning whether open mics are truly inclusive. “They ban people and are funny about who they let on stage,” he said of certain local open mics before adding, “There’s a lot of cronyism, backbiting and conjecture.” The divisiveness in the comic community, however, is even more evident in the split among audiences. Rather than cater to a cohesive and diverse crowd, many open mic shows in the area pander to a specific demographic.
“There’s a lot of segregation in comedy,” Melbrough said, “where white comics don’t go to black rooms and black comics don’t go to white rooms.” Known as “cable segregation,” this can create the perception that comics can find their niche audience and make no attempt to move beyond it into the mainstream.
It can also betray a subtle form of racism. “If you’re a white comic making jokes about black people only when they aren’t in the audience,” he said,“you’re not pushing the envelope or contributing to the art form, just making hate speech.”
Finding less of this problem in the D.C. scene, he thinks, would make comedy stronger in a city that can be known for being split among comic genres and demographics. “You don’t see a lot of crossover, but when you do, those people are truly funny because they’re just there to make people laugh regardless of race.”
Understanding a variety of audiences is the key to success anywhere, but especially in the eclectic city that is Washington, D.C.
Comedy is both a business and an art form. Balancing those two components of the industry is fundamental to succeeding anywhere, yet any effective D.C. comedian must learn how to straddle both before being launched onto the national stage. The District’s inescapable identity as a “stepping stone” for the grander forums of New York and L.A. may be the city’s greatest roadblock. That the most successful comics flood out of the District to seek fame and fortune is a reality of the entertainment business, yet many local comics hope to see the city build a reputation that is truly on par with the amount of talent present here.
“The greatest weakness of the comedy scene here is our inability to recognize it for what it is,” said D.C. Comedy Writers’ Group co-founder Mandy Dalton. Pointing to the rise of Chicago as a comedy hub in spite of its detachment from the entertainment business, Dalton emphasized the need to embrace D.C.’s unique comic identity over imitating that of cities better known for comedy.
“There’s a voice here that influences everybody once you’ve been here for a while,” she said. “We just need to embrace that a little more.”