How do you find a good laugh in this town?
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2010 - You need a laugh. You need to get out. But where do you go?
The Funny Bone at Westport is the one constant in the St. Louis comedy club scene. Others haven't had the staying power.
The Ramada Inn in Fairview Heights has hosted a couple of incarnations of humor with Comedy Etc. II the marquee now. Laughs on the Landing seemed to have all it needed: a nice, broad stage; professional lighting and sound; an easy-to-find location on Laclede's Landing, with proximity to other night clubs; and enough capital to initiate a booking policy that quickly brought touring acts alongside the staples of open-mic and industry nights. But it's now dark.
So instead of a building that is a destination place for comedy, comedians and promoters have had to find places for shows and try to make the acts the destination. This means booking acts into rooms built for rock'n'roll, art galleries, small theaters and other venues, such as coffeehouses, that wouldn't be confused for what we've come to consider a traditional comedy club. And it means constant promotion.
At Lemmons, on the City's South Side, there's comedy, but that's not all. A look at a recent week's schedule found some nights that showcased the talents of bands -- such as Nasty Cat Bath, Death of Yeti and Butcher Holler -- and others that simply said COMEDY.
On a recent, blustery Tuesday evening at Lemmons, about 45 people scattered throughout the "stage side" of the quirky, split room, well outnumbering the half-dozen found on the "bar side." Many, if not most, of those attending planned to participate, as freestyle improvisation moved between long- and short-form exercises and games. And as many of these people come to Lemmons regularly, there was a sense of familiar folks getting together, even as what played out on-stage was born of that moment. After all, no one could plan for performer Jeff Miller to jump so high (while portraying a goat) that he'd knock aside a ceiling tile with his head.
Lemmons has become one go-to spot for local comedy, highlighting improv weekly and bringing stand-up showcases to life on at least one weekend night a month.
Other places to find shows are the Mad Art Gallery and such theater spaces as the Gas Light and Ivory theaters, the latter of which has adopted several, sketch-themed comedy shows in recent months. Lamented taverns like the Wedge and Hi-Pointe had been go-to spots.
Ed Reggi, a longtime local improv coach, teacher and performer, says that comedy clubs face some of the same challenges as other bars, but have a few wrinkles unique to them.
"Comedy Clubs are like any night club in that they have a short shelf life," he says. "Comedy clubs, especially, have a higher risk of turnover because of the constant state of media competition in our lives. Today, every home has a nice TV, some even have giant flat screen TVs; and with high definition cable or satellite services people don't have to leave their homes to be entertained. They can come home and simply escape the stress of life while sitting on their sofa.
"Live entertainment," Reggi says, "takes a lot of variables to make it work, most of which is location, location, location. St. Louis makes this even more of a challenge for a comedy club. With the city going through a long roller coaster of a renaissance in the last decade, I personally have been involved in several failed comedy club ventures -- all failing due to the surrounding climate. Comedy clubs need a vibrant city life; and they need something St. Louis doesn't have, foot traffic.
"Comedy Clubs work where people walk and do other things. Let's face it, comedy and improv is not like theater," he adds. "People seek out seeing Wicked or The Sound of Music, but rarely do people seek out comedy. It's an afterthought for an evening with little to do. Comedy is a bonus or add-on thing to do in an evening, first date or just a relaxing night event. People just don't seek out comedy weeks in advance. They do that only for headliners and those acts are playing at the Fox or Touhill. What St. Louis comedy clubs don't realize is that they need to be located where the action is located, not where there are tumbleweeds."
Reggi also warns that two forms of comedy - stand-up and improv - won't work on the same bill and may not even be suited to the same venue. (Lemmons better take note, if he's correct.)
"Doing both stand up and improv in the same venue is deadly," he says. "It's hard to regulate who is coming to see what. It truly requires a special way to balance. Most people want to see good stand-up. Rarely do audiences want to see improv. Improv and stand-up don't mix. It's like oil and vinegar, sushi and the sun, and Jews and Arabs. I don't know why St. Louisans don't get this. It has been tried over and over, and it doesn't work. It would be like offering storytelling during a wrestling match."
Doug Golden has had a hand in all types of comedic fields, including improv, stand-up, sketch work and coaching. He feels there is room locally for a blended mix of styles.
"I think improv or sketch comedy could be a real asset" to comedy clubs, Golden says. "If you offer something other than the standard format, it should help to keep people interested. The downside of your typical, two-three comic night is that if you hate the comic, you're stuck. But with sketch and improv, most things run roughly five minutes; if you don't like it, there's always the next thing."
Golden, who cut his teeth with the Brand X troupe in the 1990s and worked at Union Station's Catch a Rising Star during that same era, figures that the club scene has gone through a long, still-unfinished shakeout.
"In particular, when there was a comedy club boom in the late '80s, early '90s, I think there was overbuilding," he says. "Much like the real estate market, for instance. Because of this, they needed bodies (comics) on stage. That had two results. One, it watered down the product; i.e. people who probably really didn't belong on stage were there as headliners. Since the overall product was diminished, I think it made it less attractive for people. Two, it did help develop some good comedians, like Bill Hicks, who might not have been given much of a chance in a tighter stand-up environment. Hicks may not be the best example, but I do think that it gave some comics time to work things out.
"As it is, comedy has been corporatized," he says. "They aren't very adventurous and they don't care much about their product: comedy. They seem to view their actual product as alcohol, as long as they're selling lots of it, they don't care what piece of shit is yakking on stage. This differs from club to club, of course. I can only assume that, generally speaking, smaller clubs/start-ups care more about comedy, established ones don't."
So, you still need that laugh. And the Touhill and Fox and The Funny Bone don't have what you want that night. What are you to do? As you find comedians you like, follow them through their websites and you're likely to find other funny folks performing who you can add to your list -- until and unless St. Louis has another comedy club rebirth.
Thomas Crone is a freelance journalist.