During a recent Central Comedy Show, Olympia comic Chase Roper began his set with a bit about anxiety. As if on cue, the fire alarm went off, filling the room with a maddening staccato noise and nerve-racking strobing light. "I've never been heckled by a building before," he calmly quipped.
Then he added, over the laughter, "It's good this is happening over this joke, because I don't like it."
Later, Henry Stoddard, coproducer of the show, which happens on the first Thursday of the month, said the alarm was caused by a new employee putting too much oil in the popcorn machine, causing it to overheat. That's the only misstep I've detected after several months of attending the Central Comedy Show.
It's rare for a recurring comedy night to maintain such consistent quality control. Its greatness is a testament to the curatorial acumen of Stoddard and partner Isaac Novak. Over the last three-and-a-half years, they've built CCS into one of the prime spots in town for local and traveling comics to exhibit their wit. Recent showcases have drawn distinctive talents like Boston's Kwasi Mensah, Portland's Adam Pasi, Los Angeles's Ella Gale, and Denver's Gareth Reynolds.
As with most things in the comedy world, Stoddard and Novak's ascent took a while. The former began working on his joke-telling chops in Bellingham while attending college there. He cited Bellingham's lackluster comedy scene as one motivator to head south. Here, Stoddard met Novak, who also creates Central Comedy Show's striking posters.
Novak impressed Stoddard with his "amazing capacity for wanting to put on shows," which resulted in several iterations of an open-mic night called Plan B (later changed to Critical Hit), which began at the old Comet Tavern—where it lasted exactly one week before the bar shut down. (Novak doesn't accept the blame for the closure.) The twosome's night also peregrinated to other venues, including Julia's, but the restaurant/bar known for its drag cabaret didn't mesh well with a weekly invasion of what Novak describes as "mainly young, confused straight white boys, which is what open mics are mostly made of." Another problem with open mics is that they're rarely lucrative.
Burned out on that concept, Novak decided that henceforth he only wanted to organize shows, so he and Stoddard started holding Central Comedy Show at Gallery 1412. They loved the lo-fi, DIY aesthetic of the place, but were less wild about its 50-seat maximum capacity and the extreme room temperatures in the summer and winter.
Seeking a new home in 2017, Stoddard and Novak won over Central Cinema's programming director Doug Willott and owner Kevin Spitzer. The movie theater—which has a capacity of 120—amplifies the sound of laughter. When Novak saw his CCS logo projected onto the curtains, he and Stoddard knew they'd found their optimal zone.
"There are a lot of great shows being produced [in Seattle]," Stoddard says, "but not a lot of monthly theater shows. To be able to give local comics that kind of experience and longer sets where they take it for a walk and actually see what more professional comedy would be like, [Central Cinema is] awesome for that."
Novak and Stoddard reel off more than a dozen names when asked for exemplary performers in the region, including Gabriel Rutledge, Monisa Brown, Derek Sheen, Kermet Apio, Claire Webber, Kortney Shane Williams, Erin Ingle, and Wilfred Padua. While stars like Solomon Georgio, Hari Kondabolu, and Andy Haynes really blew up only after they left the Emerald City, CCS's brain trust thinks this town can foster phenomenal comedy—though if you really want to get famous, they admit, you need to move to LA or NYC, where you can more easily do three sets a night, often in front of key industry power brokers. That isn't common in Seattle, although it's improving.
Novak likens this situation to the way grunge was portrayed in the documentary Hype. "There wasn't a lot of attention from the music industry on [Seattle bands]. It was just a bunch of kids who were doing this because they loved it. The comedy scene here is a lot like that. The eye of LA is not on this city. At the same time, it does give you the freedom to just be weird and do what you want before you take your weird show to LA."
One key to CCS's success is the diversity of its lineups. Novak—a self-described "doughy straight white dude"—admits that 80 percent of Seattle's scene consists of that demographic (some of whom are great, he hastens to add), but he and Stoddard adroitly assemble bills that also include women, people of color, and gender nonconforming people. In a scene that has pockets of misogyny, Stoddard and Novak ally themselves with the women- and QTPOC-focused efforts of Comedy Nest at Rendezvous and Kris Streeter's The Planet at Outer Planet Craft Brewing. Novak says they want to make CCS "a more comfortable and egalitarian and inviting space" for comics who aren't straight white men.
For each show, the curators seek a range not just in cultural backgrounds, but also in "thought, ideals, points of view, and energy" to keep crowds engaged. You can't book all "mumbly, vocal-fried alt comics on one show," Novak says. Stoddard adds, "You need shouters." (Seattle's Luke Severeid is a standout of this approach.) But get too many of the latter, and "everyone leaves traumatized," Novak says.
One type of comic they typically avoid is the "edgelord"—those who emphasize shocking and offensive material. "I don't mind being offended," Novak says, "but I'm not trying to do that to this audience."
The Bill Burr school of antagonism has its place, they say, but not at CCS. "Dissonance is an easy laugh," Stoddard says. "If you could just confuse the mind for a second, you can get a chuckle out of it." They say this style was more popular here a few years ago, but it's diminished recently. Novak confesses that there are "a lot of really funny comics who aren't booked because their knives are too sharp."
Seattle comic Eric Lundquist, who did a killer bit about James Brown at February's CCS, said over e-mail, "Out-of-town comedians tend to find Seattle crowds to be a bit uptight, but [CCS patrons] really roll with the punches, and we're all grateful for that. It's great that [Stoddard and Novak] are all willing to take a chance on comics they've never seen before."
The plot twist in this story is Stoddard is moving to Portland in September. But don't fret, this means CCS will have two home bases in the Northwest. The plan is for Stoddard to book shows in Portland while Novak will keep running Seattle's show, and the expanded operation will enable them to get bigger headliners because the dual platform will make the gig more alluring.
Local comic Brett Hamil told me CCS is "the best indie show in town—I consider it a flagship for the best of what's going on in Seattle stand-up. They bring in consistently great out-of-town headliners along with carefully curated local openers. Then they pack the house. The chairs are all facing in the right direction, the audience is receptive, and there's beer. It's a deceptively simple thing and surprisingly few shows get it right, but Henry and Isaac have got it dialed in."