Don't Fuck Up
Seattle's Alternative Comedy Scene Is Starting to Become Something Real—Will It Succeed?
People's Republic of Komedy at Bumbershoot
Performing repeatedly on the Vera Stage in three iterations: Best of Laff Hole, Youth Brigade, Canadian Invasion, and PROK All-Stars
There were four comedy clubs in Seattle in the 1980s: Giggles, the Comedy Underground, Laughs, and the Improv. It was the height of the standup comedy boom in America, and clubs everywhere were hopping. A lot of people were paying to see acts like Andrew Dice Clay and Gallagher. When the demand for acts began to outstrip the supply of comedians, producers pulled up inferior talent from the hacky rank and file to throw in America's face. The form's popularity took a turn. The country turned its attention to sitcoms and grunge while anachronistic dinosaurs like Carrot Top continued to flail around, to everyone's embarrassment.
At least that's the story Seattle's comedians and club managers tell. It sounds probable, and it contains a whiff of protest: that standup doesn't have to be painfully bad, that it can be good, that, perhaps, we're due for a comedy renaissance.
After the '80s boom, Laughs and the Improv closed and Seattle comedy retreated into Giggles and the Comedy Underground, with open-mic nights and, on the remaining nights of the week, touring headliners. The clubs were kept afloat by a small hardcore following and, it must be said, a certain kind of casual patron: young, white, male, and tipsy. It's no coincidence that the Comedy Underground has held on in Pioneer Square and Giggles in the University District.
"Frat boys" is how most comedians—from lifers like Cathy Sorbo to newcomers like Hari Kondabolu—describe the Giggles crowd. All the comedians interviewed for this story are fond of the Underground but imply (even if they don't come out and say it) that it harbors a kind of old-comedy feel. Near the end of a conversation with Dan Moore, one of Seattle's older practitioners of the new "alternative comedy," he says: "I want to tell you a story. I don't know why, but I will: There was this moment at the Comedy Underground. It was an open mic and this guy gets up in his frat-boy uniform with his pulled-down cap and everything. He calls this woman up from the audience and pours a bottle of water on her ass. We're all thinking, 'this is obviously a plant.' Pretty soon we realize it's not a plant. Then he pulls a penny out, tosses it into the crowd and says: 'Oh. No Jews.'" Moore has a pained expression. "The sense in the alternative scene is to be the opposite of that," he said. "When comedy does its job, it's about telling the truth—and how cleverly you can tell the truth."
You would think that the term "alternative comedy" would be as irritating to its practitioners as "grunge" or "adult contemporary." Naming something seems halfway to killing it, but most of the alt-comedians use the term unflinchingly, even if they aren't sure what it means.
Kondabolu, who grew up in Queens and originally moved to Seattle to work for a nonprofit called Hate Free Zone, says alternative comedy is an alternative to comedy clubs. In alternative venues, the audience is younger, the tickets are cheaper, and comedians are freer to experiment with weird material. Kondabolu describes his act as one part Gandhi, one part Malcolm X, and one part Weezer. He's a regular at Laff Hole, the center of gravity for Seattle's alt-comedy scene, which happens every Wednesday in a small, concrete-floor bar in the lower level of the Capitol Hill Arts Center. "The audience there is really amazing, really smart," he says. "They'll sit through two or three minutes without a clear punch line, of just storytelling. Then you hit them with something and they really get it."
Laff Hole is produced by the People's Republic of Komedy, a loose affiliation of four comedians—Daniel Carroll, Scott Moran, Emmett Montgomery, and Kevin Hyder—and their friends. They met through Hyder, the bearded elder statesman of the quartet, who owns the People's Republic of Koffee, a small cafe attached to a tattoo parlor on Capitol Hill. Montgomery, who has longish blond hair and a lovable sad-sack stage character he calls The Genius, was one of Hyder's coffee regulars and mentioned he was interested in standup. Hyder had been going to the Comedy Underground's open mics. He took Montgomery along.
"It started as two nights a week," Montgomery said. "Then four, then six." Then Hyder met Carroll (recently profiled by David Schmader in The Stranger ["Dying & Killing," Sept 13, 2006]), who also said he wanted to do standup. The three became a team, writing together at local bars, hanging out at the People's Republic of Koffee, and performing in various capacities at the Sunset Tavern, the Mars Bar, the Mirabeau Room, and elsewhere. Moran, a young comedian, lobbied to join the group—and within a year the foursome found themselves as a brand name, called the People's Republic of Komedy.
In June of 2005, PROK did a month-long run at Capitol Hill Arts Center, called Laff Hole, before the center closed for a remodel. That August, Montgomery, who works the phones part-time at Pagliacci, took a pizza order for CHAC. He mentioned that he'd once had a show at CHAC called Laff Hole. The guy on the other end of the line was Matthew Kwatinetz, CHAC's director. Kwatinetz said that he'd like to have PROK back to host a regular night—plus a few pizzas. Laff Hole was born again.
Hyder stresses that PROK is not anti-comedy-club but that there's more freedom to experiment and fool around in bars, to play with a smart audience and loosen comedians from the time restrictions of the comedy clubs. "It's like the kids running the party instead of the parents," Montgomery says. "But PROK works because we have checks and balances. We all have big ideas, but there's always someone who eventually says 'Hey guys—we can't actually get a tiger.'"
Laff Hole is a disgusting name. It looks and sounds obscene. That's the point. Club names like the Laugh Factory and Giggles instantly evoke '80s comedy jackassery, but Laff Hole has a self-effacing charm, a kind of squirmy self-consciousness. And it has attracted more press attention than the Seattle comedy scene has gotten in years.
Predictably, that's provoking mixed reactions from the elder citizens of comedy land. The managers of Comedy Underground have been supportive of the burgeoning alternative scene. "That's a great group of comics," says Carl Warmenhoven, assistant manager at the Underground. "They're very creative—short films, sketches, they expect some knowledge from their audience." And the alternative scene is arguably helping the established clubs. More and more young comedians, for example, have been coming to the Underground's open-mic nights. Ten years ago, 15 people might show up. Now Warmenhoven says he sometimes gets 40 people who want to sign up.
Standup comedy is becoming popular again. It's happening all over the country, but Seattle has particular advantages—the competition for stage time here isn't so fierce that a new comedian can't work out his (and it's almost always his) material on a local stage.
What does Warmenhoven, who has been around the Underground since it opened in 1981, think about the term "alternative comedy"? "I don't know," he replies. "All of those comics are so varied. I asked some of them and they didn't seem to know what it meant either. I think they thought it was just a cool term."
Terry Taylor, who owns Giggles, offered a less charitable outlook: "Alternative comedy is just people who can't get booked in clubs so they have to go out and make their own nights," he says. "There is no alternative to comedy. Funny is funny." That is the classic road-dog approach—a perfect five-minute or eight-minute routine that you can perform anywhere, from some shit-kicking outpost to (hopefully) Letterman, and kill.
The alternative comedians might not have a clear definition of what "alt-comedy" is, but they have a clear idea of what it isn't. It isn't the hacky the-thing-about-women-is routines and it isn't what Moore calls the skull-fuck-your-grandmother school of shock. But it seems to be everything else, from old-school vaudeville patter and improv to use of films, samplers, and live musical accompaniment. It is almost impossible to render full spoken jokes in print (you'll have to go and hear them for yourself) but they include Hyder telling kids "you suck at art" and Montgomery, who has given his penis a unicorn name, saying: "Moondancer will fill you with rainbows tonight."
That alternative comedy is more experimental, more theatrical, more audience specific, makes it more interesting to people who don't consider themselves comedy fans. It also happens less in traditional comedy clubs than in bars (Mirabeau Room, CHAC's lower level) and rock clubs (like Neumo's and Chop Suey, both of which have been booking more touring comedians like Todd Barry and David Cross). "The clubs sometimes keep people away from comedy, for very good reason," says Dartanion London, another Laff Hole regular. He quit comedy for a while because too many comedians relied on cultural cheap shots at gays, women, and immigrants. "I can't even watch some of that shit anymore," he says. "It's like watching Borat, except Borat isn't there."
Whatever the traditional club owners think about the alt-comedy scene, they can't deny that it's happening—experimental comedians doing sets in bars and rock clubs are changing the shape of the industry. Taylor says that, despite the comedy boom, Giggles is doing poorly: "This year, we set a record for worst week of the year, 14 times." He blames the theaters, like the Paramount and the Moore, that are booking all the comedians and can afford to pay them more, and the media for neglecting comedy clubs. Alternative comedy also seems to be a threat—not just comedians like Cross and Eugene Mirman playing Neumo's and Chop Suey, but the local independent nights at bars.
In 2006, Taylor banned Peter Greyy, a well-loved Seattle comedian and a former emcee at Giggles, from his establishment because Greyy began producing ComedyNight (a joint venture with PROK) on Wednesdays at the Mirabeau Room. Taylor saw the night as unacceptable competition, even though Giggles isn't open on Wednesdays. "He was scouting my comedians and having them play his room," according to Taylor. "Other rooms hurt comedy clubs—if you divide a pie into more and more pieces, those pieces get smaller and smaller."
Greyy is reluctant to talk about his rocky relationship with Taylor, but says the point of ComedyNight was to bridge the gap between young comedians from Giggles and the Comedy Underground, get them all in a room every week, and see what happened.
Here's what happened: Greyy got banned from Giggles, and then the Mirabeau Room closed, ending ComedyNight. At that point—this was in September of 2006—Laff Hole was a monthly event at CHAC and the People's Republic of Komedy was cohering into a strong identity. As Greyy started looking for another ComedyNight venue, CHAC offered Laff Hole a weekly Wednesday slot. They agreed, to Greyy's chagrin. He didn't think the city would want another alternative comedy night if PROK had taken over CHAC. Greyy was worried about saturating the market. "We're all still friends," he said. "But there's still a little bitterness in me about how it all played out."
It's a little ironic that what prompted Taylor to ban Greyy—the fear of competition and market saturation—is exactly what prompted Greyy to disassociate from PROK. The smallness of Seattle's scene is a source of anxiety for some of its impresarios. Others, like Warmenhoven from the Comedy Underground, say the more comedy the better for everyone.
To that end, comedians Kondabolu and London have organized a comedy festival this week, called the Week of Fun, to show off what the scene has to offer. They pooled their money and bought this issue's Stranger Suggests page through last month's Strangercrombie auction to hawk the festival. The Week of Fun is a watershed moment for the scene. If it succeeds, Seattle comedy might bloom into its own. If it fails, it will confirm its own insecurities—that local standup is still the redheaded stepchild of the performing arts.
Three women are taking a chance. This month, Julie Mains, Patti Allen, and Beka Barry are opening Mainstage, a comedy and music club across the street from KeyArena in lower Queen Anne. They're gambling that the Seattle comedy market could use another comedy club—one that will woo top-shelf comedians away from the theaters as well as be a home base for the alternative scene.
"It's time for Seattle to be a comedy town the way it was a national music town 10 years ago," Barry says. The People's Republic of Komedy will have Monday night at Mainstage—they started in the comedy clubs, moved out to the bars, and are coming back around. It's a little odd for a Seattle comedy club to overtly court the alternative bar-comedy scene. It's even odder that the club is owned and run by women. Barry says she "could go on" about why there aren't more women running through the comedy mill, but, ultimately, she doesn't know why. There are the safety issues of women working alone on the road, the male-dominated club circuit, the vicious competition.
"In your first year of comedy, you take it in the nuts over and over and over again until your ego either shrivels up or forces you to keep on going," she says, adding that for reasons either social or biological, most women aren't built to prevail in that kind of environment. "It's really, really hard. I spent the first five years of my comedy career taking the check while someone was grabbing my ass."
It's another Wednesday night at the Capitol Hill Arts Center and the foursome of the People's Republic of Komedy are getting their shit together. There's talk about the sound, the lights, the decorations. Comedians—London, David Cope, Rosalie Gale—filter in. They seem to know most everybody in the audience. The scene is vigorous, but still small. "My problem with the comedy scene is that there are more comedians than fans," Montgomery says. "If there's a hardcore comedy fan, within a month they're onstage or taking pictures or fucking somebody. I want to see the day when all the hardcore comedy fans aren't in my cell phone—when I don't know their last names."
The show starts, with comedians telling jokes about snoring and black-market manatee skins. Some are cocky, some are shuffling, some are hilariously awkward. Some are funnier than others. The audience is small but appreciative and it's not clear what's alternative about this comedy.
Until Paul Currington takes the stage. He's a little older and a little slicker with how he manipulates the mic. He rubs his balding head in that I'm-a-nervous-comic way. He tells jokes about buying kids for his clothes or clothes for his kids or something and his credit card being declined. He makes a few carelessly lewd jabs at his audience's sense of decency. He gets a few laughs but it's immediately apparent that he's doing something that belongs in another place and time, something that would sit easier in a comedy club. Emmett sidles up to me and explains that Currington is a more traditional comic, that he's curious how Currington's routine will play in front of his crowd. He's doing okay.
Then it's Emmett's turn. He's going up to do his Genius routine, the mush-mouthed character who loves unicorns and is always getting burgled or deserted or something else pathetic. "What do comics say to each other before they get onstage?" I ask. "Actors say 'break a leg.' What do comics say?"
Emmett takes a gulp of beer, eyeing the stage that he's about to occupy. "I don't think of myself as a comic," he says.
"But what should I say to you?"
"How about: 'Don't fuck up.'"
"Okay—don't fuck up."
He nods, slugs the rest of his beer, puts on his Genius face, and meanders up to the stage.
He doesn't fuck up.