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Grand Rapids’ comic Russell Barnes does his stand-up routine at Dr. Grins Comedy Club.

 

For the love of laughter
In comedy, timing is everything. And the timing has never been better for local comedy..

By Dwight Hamilton
Photography by Johnny Quirin


The best seats at the Sunday Night Funnies are near the bar in the back.

It’s where stand-up comedians congregate in The Landing Lounge, even if they aren’t scheduled to perform on stage. The comics evaluate each other’s performances, offering positive reinforcement for good sets or good-natured ribbing when things go wrong.

The Funnies started more than a year ago, when a seasoned comic approached the owner of the Radisson Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids about putting on a Sunday comedy show.

At the time, Sunday nights in the hotel’s lounge were slow and staffed by a skeleton crew. But as word spread about local comics performing their stuff, The Landing started attracting new patrons.

Now Sundays tend to be at or near capacity, demanding two bartenders and three waitresses.

All for the love of laughter.

Despite Michigan’s depressed economy, or perhaps because of it, Michigan is proving a fertile ground for up-and-coming performers. Almost any night of the week, nightclubs, bars and restaurants in the Grand Rapids area feature local stand-up comics.

 

Comedian Matt Lauria entertain at Dr. Grins.

“The scene is better than it has ever been,” said Stu McAllister, house M.C. at Dr. Grins, a comedy club inside The BOB that features national touring comedians Thursday through Saturday nights. “With new venues like The Social Exchange, Shots Bar and Grill and the Crazy Horse, it’s going really strong now.”

Dr. Grins features an “open mic” set at the beginning of Thursday night shows, giving local comics a three-minute chance at glory. Known as one of the hottest clubs in the Midwest, Dr. Grins gets so many requests for its open mic slots that comics typically can only secure a spot once every several months.

Grand Rapids’ comics perform varied styles, such as observational comedy, musical comedy, one-liner jokes and cringe humor. Despite the differing styles, the performers share a common devotion to the craft.

The depth of Grand Rapids’ talent has not gone unnoticed. Eric Yoder, of national comedy booking agency Funny Business, describes Grand Rapids’ comedic talent as “intelligent, relevant and dynamic.”

“Booking comedy all over the country has shown me that different regions in the country produce different styles of comedians,” said Yoder. “I’ve found that comedians from Grand Rapids represent a unique style. Their comedy is intelligent, well written, but not condescending. They provide a good mix of blue collar material — that is, (they are) able to stay relevant and interesting.”

Comedians Matt Sterenberg, Bob Dekker and Joe Anderson perform an improv act at Dog Story Theatre.

Last October, Allen Trieu, Trevor Smith, Adam Degi and Matt Lauria put on a “TwentySomething FunnySomething” show at Wealthy Theatre.

“This is something we talked about almost as soon as we all met,” said Trieu, winner of Grand Valley State University’s “Last Laker Standing” stand-up comedy contest. “The four of us really wanted to do something together because we had all become fast friends, respected each other’s comedy and felt we had styles that complemented one another.”

The young comics, who shared a common background of winning various collegiate and metropolitan comedy competitions, established a packaged show, like the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, but marketed to their own demographic.

Lauria, 2007 winner of Western Michigan University’s “Last Bronco Standing” competition, found a media sponsor and worked to book the Wealthy Theatre.

“We met for breakfast on the morning of the show and talked about how great it would be if we could fill 250 of the 400 seats,” Trieu recalls.

That night, the show sold out.

“We had to delay the start of the show by nearly a half hour because there were still people trying to get in,” he said. “Looking out from the back and seeing the line and people putting folding chairs in the aisle, we realized we had exceeded our expectations by far.”

to stand-up. Improvisational comedy also has a strong local presence. Veteran troupes River City Improv and Fishschtick, the entertainment troupe of Fishladder Inc., as well as upstart groups Notable Sawyer regularly bring laughs to Grand Rapids audiences. Unlike stand-up, which typically uses prepared material, improvisational actors create a live, unfolding story on stage, taking suggestions from the audience as the actors play off one another.

 

D.K. Hamilton performs his stand-up comedy routine at Dog Story Theatre.

Again, local entertainment opportunities are increasing. One new forum for improvisational comedy is Dog Story Theater, 1115 Taylor St. NW. It’s a “black-box” theater — a large rectangular room with no fixed stage or seating. This set-up allows flexibility for performers, and a casual, intimate and inexpensive entertainment experience for the audience. The venue hosts Monday Comedy Night, which features local improvisational actors, such as Second City alum Joe Anderson, and caps off every Monday show with an open improv jam, allowing participants of every skill level to get into the act.

Area comics and improv performers have a running argument over which art form is more difficult. Anderson, who does both professionally, gives the nod to stand-up.

“Even though they both fall under the comedy ‘umbrella,’ they’re so completely different,” he said.

“With improv, if you say or do something that’s only kind of funny, the audience usually still responds well because they know you’re making it up on the spot. With stand-up, they know, or at least assume, you came up with the idea, wrote it down and practiced it, so by the time they’re hearing the joke, it should definitely be funny. No grace.” GR

Freelance writer and local comic D.K. Hamilton will perform at this year’s Detroit Comedy Festival.

   
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