It’s Tuesday night at The Complex, where it’s likely you’d be taking in a concert and shaking some serious booty. Yet this crowd is far from rowdy. Most of the 20 or so men and women gathered are bent over spiral notebooks and legal pads, writing or studying intently, perhaps sipping on a drink. The only hint as to the entertainment that will eventually occupy the small wedge of a stage in the corner comes from the television over the bar, playing Comedy Central’s Tosh.0. For a night devoted to open-mic comedy, the mood is surprisingly serious.
At least until the comics start taking the stage. One by one, they make their way in front of the toughest kind of comedy crowd there is—mostly other comedians—to try out new material or perfect a slight twist on old material. Michael Eccleston shares his thoughts on giving a reviled historical figure a fair shake: “Say what you want about Hitler, but he does have one thing going for him: He killed Hitler.” Gay comic Brett Hodson reveals why he’s looking forward to all the closeted Mormons coming to town for the upcoming conference weekend: “Nothing works better as lube than shameful, shameful tears.”
The ranks of funny men and women have swelled, inspiring comedians to launch weekly or monthly showcases throughout the Wasatch Front. They’re diving into subjects that might be surprising to those who assume comedy in Utah is family-friendly and innocuous. And they’re dealing with the clashes that inevitably emerge in a highly competitive artistic field.
But a comic is only as good as his or her stage time, the number of minutes and hours sweated out onstage before heckling crowds. And with only a handful of local comedy venues, stage time for comics to work on their bits wasn’t easy to come by. In recent years, comics are more frequently turning up in bars and nightclubs to ply their craft, resulting in what some see as a rift in the comedy club scene. Beyond the feuds and philosophical differences, there’s simply a talent pool that seems to be getting larger—and more talented—with each passing week. “I wouldn’t say [the comedy is just getting] ‘riskier’ or ‘edgier,’ ” says Levi Rounds, a past winner of City Weekly’s Artys Award for Best Local Stand-up Comic. “I would say ‘better.’ ”
Change of Venues
While Keith Stubbs’ Wiseguys comedy clubs have been the primary stages for comedians for more than a decade, in the past two to three years, comedy shows have begun appearing at more and more venues. In February 2010, comedian Steve McInelly launched a monthly showcase at Club DJ’s in Kearns. Comedians Greg Orme and Christian Pieper started a regular “Cat Fashion Show With Jokes” at Muse Music Cafe in Provo. Murray’s 5 Monkeys features a Thursday-night open mic. And, most significantly, there’s The Complex, which, in addition to its weekly Tuesday-night open mic, offers a monthly “Comedy With a Complex” showcase, primarily featuring local comics, as well as touring comics occasionally. These all followed the lead of the “Sunday Funnies” comedy night at Mo’s Neighborhood Grill. Stubbs estimates—though he notes that “it all depends on your definition”—perhaps as many as 100 local comedians are regularly performing in Utah.
Why the number of performers and venues has grown so much and so rapidly is pure speculation, but comedian Andrew Jensen believes that the rise of social media plays a significant role. “Now, places who’d never advertise [a comedy show] because they didn’t want to put money into it, they’d just say, ‘You show up and bring your crowd’—well now they can advertise,” Jensen says. “It’s so easy, because they have a Facebook page. You say, ‘We’re having a comedy show,’ then all the comics ‘like’ that page, then everybody who knows those comics goes, ‘What’s that page?’
“I used to make and print out fliers and go out on the streets. And this was like, five years ago! No one passes out fliers on the street [now]. … There’s no footwork. It cut everything in half, and you can see your results.”
And those shows are drawing crowds. A Wednesday open mic at Wiseguys in April was packed, though Stubbs notes that audience size can vary greatly from week to week. At a “Comedy With a Complex” showcase in March, the Complex’s Ben Fuller had to delay the start of the show to drag in extra chairs and tables to accommodate the audience. They were treated to performers like Dean Weber, who began his set by asking the crowd, “Have you ever been so drunk, you couldn’t walk—so you had to drive?” Alex Winitzky rolled out a hilariously surreal explanation for why Oct. 7, 2003—the date Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California—marked “the date and time society was doomed forever.” Self-described “Viking librarian” Cody Eden shared why “getting drunk from wine was like getting V.D. from masturbating—no upside.”
“When I started seven years ago,” Rounds says, “it was eight comics at Mo’s and a shitload of comics at Wiseguys. Now, it’s about equal. It’s definitely snowballing. It’s a snowball on a very gradual hill.”
A Brief History of Comedy
Even a little more than a decade ago, the prospects for a thriving local stand-up comedy scene wouldn’t have seemed particularly bright. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a few Utah venues—including the Comedy Circuit in Midvale, and Johnny B’s in Provo—brought in national touring comedians. For the locals, things weren’t particularly thriving.
“It was dismal,” says Rodney Norman, a Utah native who had started doing comedy in Kansas City before relocating back to Utah circa 1999-2000. In addition to the occasional shows run by eventual Wiseguys founder Stubbs at Brewvies and Fats Bar & Grill, Norman recalls, “There was one open mic at a VFW bar in Highland … and that was pretty much the scene.
“[Comedy Circuit] would never use anybody local at all. Never. So there was a comedy stage in Utah that nobody from Utah could ever get on.”
Norman places the number of regularly performing local comics during that time at around eight; Stubbs estimates between 10 and 15. As they respectively ran comedy shows at venues like Fats and Jordan Commons, Norman recalls, “[Keith and I] got talking, that we needed an actual place rather than doing this piggy-backing on everybody else.”
Stubbs—a touring comic with a business background in his pre-comedy career as a stockbroker—had already run a club called Laughs (originally Laffs) in Ogden from 1996 to 1999. Unable to reopen as Laughs because he’d sold the club and the name before a brief relocation to Seattle in 1999, Stubbs instead found a one-time church building in West Valley City that opened as Wiseguys in February 2001.
It might have been considered something of a leap of faith to open another Utah comedy club, but for Stubbs, it was actually a pragmatic decision. “You can’t make money [as a comic in Utah] in my opinion … and that’s why I opened Wiseguys,” Stubbs says. “I was touring and I figured, ‘I’ll just open this and survive on it.’ There’s not enough here to live on, to have a life.”
It still proved challenging to build something as simple as a regular open-mic night at Wiseguys. Norman—who quit his day job at the Utah Transit Authority to become the manager of the West Valley Wiseguys—recalls the natural competition between comics as one of the obstacles. “Usually you start bringing your buddy, but they come and see you when you’re really bad, and then they politely decline to come again,” Norman says. “So open mic turns out [to be] doing stage time in front of other comics, which is like the worst audience you can have. … At first, you’re in awe that these people are so funny. Then you hear their jokes over and over, and you think you’re funnier than them. Then you think nobody’s funny.”
Yet it remained a goal to provide a place for local comics to get better—again, for pragmatic reasons. “We tried to bring everybody along,” Norman says, “because we were trying to get comics strong enough to open. You get the locals strong enough to open for anybody, then you don’t have to bring in other people.”