Comedy for the community: finding humor in Music City

The room is dim and a bit hazy. On the left side of the room sit two booths, each with worn, cracked black leather. With the faint lighting, they seem like two tables out of a small-town bistro or a satirically cynical 50’s-era diner. The centerpiece of the room, slightly off center to the right, is a fifteen by fifteen foot stage with a single microphone. I sit four rows back in the corner of the room, watching a pre-show ritual that I have seen time and time again in small venues all across Music City. A man with long, sandy-colored hair adjusts the microphone’s chords. He fits in perfectly with the rest of the group that arrived at the venue early. They are the quintessential East Nashville crowd: beanies, flannels, unshaven beards and shoulder tattoos. Small groups of patrons congregate, laughing and occasionally reaching out for a hug if another regular walks in the front door.

“I got tickets to see Rogan at the Ryman,” one guy says to his friend.

“I kind of want to go to a Cosby show now, just to see what it’s like,” another one says, as he walks toward the bar.

As the minutes pass and we approach show time, the room continues to fill and the hipster crowd continues to talk, exchange greetings and discuss comedians. Eventually, the lights dim and a made-for-radio voice fills the room to an energetic, Sunday-night round of applause.

        “Live from The East Room in beautiful East Nashville, it’s the Spiffy Squirrel Comedy Show!”

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For residents of a city known globally for its music, the Spiffy Squirrel Comedy Show is only one of many stand-up series that provide a haven for the comedy fans of Music City. For every writer’s round at the Bluebird, there is an open mic night at Mercy Lounge. Largely unknown to the typical Nashville tourist or  resident, the comedy scene remains a niche community in a city teeming with creativity. In 2015, comedians flocked to The East Room to perform 184 straight hours of stand-up comedy, breaking the Guinness World Record for longest consecutive stand-up show. Nashvillians can do more than sing, but trying to find the comedy scene means doing some digging.

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When comedy first came to Nashville, Zanies was the only place to find stand-up in Music City. The Chicago-based comedy club opened its doors in Nashville in 1983, and it still remains the city’s most prominent comedy landmark. The 300-person club hosts many nationally touring comedians, from Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson to The Office-alumnus Craig Robinson. It’s the comedy equivalent of The Ryman.

But a twinkle-eyed singer-songwriter is not going to waltz into town and get put on the Ryman stage. Aspiring local comics also cut their teeth in venues like like Exit/In, The Basement and The High Watt just like their musical counterparts.

Walk by Exit/In, and you cannot help but see the mural of past performers who all graced the stage on their way to fame. “Johnny Cash” underlined and scribed in a stylized font. Look further at the mural and see “Tom Petty” and “The Ramones.” Look even further, in the midst of all the musical talent and hall-of-fame artists, and see “Steve Martin” and “Cheech & Chong”—comedic legends whose names are camouflaged in the Exit/In sign, yet would be showcased at almost any traditional comedy venue.

I remember the first time I walked into the halls of one of those famous venues: The Second City in Chicago. It is a theater famous for its improvisational comedy, both as a performance space and a training ground. Rows of pictures hung on the wall of the famous alumni who had graced the stage in the last half-century—black and white photographs of Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers and John Belushi, all enshrined on the walkway into the famous theater. There was no question that this was a place steeped in comedic history. My friends and I flipped through the program, randomly placing our fingers on the headshots of the performers who we bet we would one day see on Saturday Night Live. That’s because whether you’re an improviser in Chicago or any other town in America, The Second City is your Mecca. It’s the home base, a pilgrimage site. Simply put, it’s just where you go.

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Nashville’s Premier Comedy Troupes (Photos Courtesy of LOL Nashville Facebook Music City Improv.com, and Nashville Improv Company Facebook)

That “place” is what Nashville comedians are missing. For the city’s three main improv troupes– LOL Nashville, Music City Improv and Nashville Improv–it is not easy to find a regular performance space. But Luke Watson, artistic director of LOL Nashville, is committed to solving that problem. This spring, he and his business partner, Music City Improv artistic director Scott Fields, plan to open the Third Coast Comedy Club, a permanent home for laughter in Nashville.

Currently, most performers options are “bar prov” venues and open mic nights. For instance, instead of having their own theater, six improvisers crowd onto a small stage, barely big enough to fit a four-piece band, and perform amidst mild chatter from an eclectic audience of middle aged Nashvillians and Jack-Daniel’s-tank-top-wearing tourists who were expecting to see a band play Wagon Wheel. Sometimes a improviser might trip on a cymbal left behind by the venue’s house band. It is not the perfect venue or emphatic crowd that most comedy legends had in their early days. But, for the love of the craft, Nashville comedians happily perform at the welcoming venues. The problem is, the venues are spread throughout the city, leaving the scene divided.

Marathon_Motor_Works_1Marathon Village (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

When Watson and Fields discussed the lack of unity in local comedy, they realized it was because their comedy family lacked a permanent home. So, they got together with a broker and began scouting locations for Third Coast. After a year of scouring Nashville, the two business partners settled on Marathon Village. Closely-resembling the refurbished-vibe of its Marathon Village neighbors, the new club maintains a warehouse feel. The interior will be simple: black walls, concrete floors and exposed rafters. The building will feature both a theater and a separate, prohibition era-influenced bar.

“We’re not doing this for the money,” says Watson. He cannot help but smile when talking about the club that he dreamed of starting soon after moving from Atlanta in 2013 and getting involved in the Nashville comedy scene. “We’re doing this for the community.”

Watson goes on to explain the Nashville comedy scene, mentioning all of the different venues he’s performed at and open mic nights he’s attended. He easily lists off ten seemingly obscure venues in ten seconds. Comedy is spread all over the city, and I realize that even as someone plugged into the college comedy scene, I had no idea where to find most Nashville comedy.  

Beyond the physical divisions, the Nashville comedy community is also segregated within the art itself: stand-ups hang with stand-ups, improvisers hang with improvisers, and sketch-writers barely exist. Third Coast will be that cornerstone that gives the entire scene its home base. The bar will be  separate from the theater, providing a space where Music City comedians from all genres can hang out, share ideas, test jokes and write scripts.

        “If you get people to drink together, they’re going to be friends,” Watson says.“If Tony Bennett can do a duet with Lady Gaga, then we can have a stand-up comedian be friends with an improviser.”

To get a start on Third Coast’s mission, Watson and Fields invited everyone that they knew who was involved in comedy in Nashville to Edley’s Bar-B-Que in East Nashville to surprise them with the announcement. From the one-year veterans of LOL Nashville to established Nashville stand-ups, comedians packed into the famous Southern eatery. As everyone mingled together, noshing on beer and barbecue pork at the restaurant’s glossy wooden tables, Watson and Fields announced their plans to open Third Coast, making sure the Nashville comedy family was the first to hear about the new home.

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Ben Oddo and Morey Hill (Photo Courtesy of The Ben & Morey Show Facebook)

Ben Oddo and Morey Hill—co-hosts of The Ben & Morey Show—are two of the scene’s newcomers who were at Edley’s to witness the announcement.

Ben and Morey, along with their friend and producer Davis, created a local late night talk show that mirrors the style and humor of network programs like Late Night and The Tonight Show. Every Thursday night, the two young comedians put aside their day jobs to don khaki suits and sport jackets and turn the Centennial Park black box theater into their own studio. Set in what can only be described as a thrift store living room—a lipstick red couch, floral chair and retirement-home lamp—the friends deliver a back-and-forth monologue to an audience of beer-drinking millennials.

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The Set at The Ben & Morey Show (Photo Courtesy of The Ben & Morey Show Facebook)

The Ben & Morey Show­—entering its second seasonappears to be the exact type of performance that could find a home at Third Coast. It mixes stand-up and sketch comedy, follows a weekly format and engages those outside the community, bringing in guests from different sectors of Nashville to interview for each episode. So far, the show has been a grassroots effort that shies away from booking musical acts, instead providing the Nashville audience something “fresh.” The two aren’t trying to land a television deal through the show; they are doing it for the art, or in this case, the fun.

And that seems to be the general consensus for comedians in Nashville. The average Music City comedian is not looking for an opportunity to break out of the small market; they perform comedy because they love it. Lisk, who calls professional comedy nothing more than a “pipe dream,” plans to pursue the art after graduation mostly for enjoyment. “As long as I still feel myself improving, and I’m still enjoying it,” he says, “then I don’t see any reason to stop.”
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LOL Nashville Improv Group in Action (Photo Courtesy of LOL Nashville Facebook)

However, even though Lisk is not outright pursuing comedy as a career, his planned move from Nashville to Chicago after graduation is all too common in Music City. With the draw of larger markets, specifically New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, many Nashville comedians who do have spotlight dreams see the scene as a limitation. LOL Nashville is one improv troupe that has suffered from an often-rotating cast. Watson has lost many of his improvisers–several of whom were Vanderbilt students–to the three major comedy cities. He admits that it’s hard to convince people to stay and perform a show once a month in a bar when they can go perform nightly at theaters in Manhattan.

All of this is why Watson and Fields feel such an urgency to open the doors to Third Coast. At the core of the comedy club will be its main stage show, a program that will feature improv comedy as well as sketch comedy in the future. To direct the show, Watson enlisted Erika Elam, a former performer with The Second City and Improv Olympics in Chicago. Elam will also help teach classes at Third Coast Comedy Club. Watson hopes that that the opportunities to continue learning will entice some of Nashville’s most promising comedians to stay in the south. But even if the comedians come, that does not necessarily mean the fans will.

With more people choosing to spend their Friday and Saturday nights out at comedy shows, the audiences become more difficult to please. Pity laughs are hard to come by when it costs fifteen dollars to get in the door. The crowd is not cold, but they hold the performers at a distance: equally ready to both laugh and judge. This is different from the Spiffy Squirrel, where the barrier between the performers and the audience is practically nonexistent.

Uproarious applause echoes Spiffy Squirrel host Chad Reiden’s promise to “bulldoze The Gulch” if he is ever elected mayor (he ran during the last election). Throughout the rest of the show, the loyal crowd is leaning in, sparring with the comedians and even flirting with the night’s headliner. There’s little barrier between the audience and performers, because most of the fans are regulars. Even so, the show is only once a week. Third Coast has to have enough talent to fill several days a week.

Watson himself admits there’s a lot riding on the club; he and Fields have to deliver on what they have been promising about community and the first real “brick and mortar” for all comedians in Nashville. “But I think that’s going to push it to succeed,” Watson says. His face is serious, a rare occurrence for a comedian. “That pressure is going to make us very focused on what we’re putting onstage, making sure it’s quality and not cutting corners.”

Sitting through the Spiffy Squirrel Comedy Show, watching improv in Nashville, talking with Ben and Morey—I don’t see Third Coast being short on quality content. There is talent in Nashville, and even more than that, there is passion. But unlike many cultural scenes that mature in rather isolation—like the Seattle grunge-rock scene in the 1990s—the Nashville comedy scene has not been cultivated solely through grassroots efforts. As Nashville continues to expand at a rapid pace and be labeled as the next “it city,” more and more people, many of whom have comedy experience, continue to help carve out different cultural enclaves in Music City.

As Morey quips, “I think the underwater basket-weaving scene here is growing. I mean, everything is growing in Nashville right now.”

To Watson, the comedy scene is at a precipice, about to explode. “You’ve got a consumer base, a crowd that’s going to be amazing, and we’ve got a venue that’s going to be kick ass.”

As a town that will always be known for its country music, many people probably never thought they’d see the day where bands start moving to Nashville who despise country music and are here solely to pursue garage rock. Nashville’s alternative scene has blossomed to one of the nation’s best, and Music City has become even more of a melting pot of sound. So if there’s room for multiple genres, why isn’t there room for multiple art forms?

That’s a question that we—the audience—must ask ourselves. I am not talking about the audience at the Spiffy Squirrel Comedy Show. I’m not talking about the improv troupes that come out and support each other at The Basement and City Winery. These people are the scene. It’s those of us who have never heard of Spiffy Squirrel and were unaware that Nashville had improv troupes that will determine comedy’s place in Music City. The Seattle music scene was good before it became known. Soundgarden and Nirvana had the talent—the fans just started listening.

“I see this as a test,” Lisk says of Third Coast’s imminent arrival. “LOL has certainly done very well doing shows and has been selling out a lot, so I think that’s enough of an indicator that opening a club is certainly a good idea. But, whether or not it’s going to be an idea that more people want to jump in on and start opening more of them, I think that will be determined by the next year or so.”

Lisk is right. Comedy is in Nashville. Comedians have built up the scene higher than it’s ever been before. With our extra push, Nashville might one day be known for more than just its good voice.

No joke. 

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