Get up, stand-up!
It’s not just airplanes, Michael Jackson and mothers-in-law: There’s a lot to talk about in Reno’s stand-up comedy scene
So this guy walks into a bar. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. By the way, what’s the deal with airplane food? Excuse the weak intro—I’m trying out new material. Actually, I’m no comedian, but traversing the circuit of local stand-up comedy over the past few weeks has me speaking the language. Anyway, the “walks into a bar” part is true: I walked into several recently in an attempt to perform an unofficial survey of the local stand-up scene.
3rd Street, 125 W. Third St., 323-5005, hosts an established, well-attended open-mic comedy night every Wednesday at 10 p.m. Local comics gather like day laborers to loiter around and ply their trade. Each comic gets five minutes, and at the end, the audience picks a winner who gets the privilege of a long set the following week. In a way, it’s like rewarding the winner of a pie-eating contest with more pie. You think writing a five-minute comedy set is tough? Well, it is, but try cobbling together 15 minutes of different material on par with your winning set, with only a week to optimize your timing and delivery. This may explain why, on the night I attended, the reigning champ fell flat.
Oddly, I found myself respecting even the comics who bombed. It takes fortitude to twist in the wind when your punchlines are rewarded only with the passive sound of beer being gulped. The harsh reality is that weathering a stone-faced audience can be just as big a part of stand-up as eliciting laughs. I feel bad for singling him out for this dubious distinction (not really), but local comic Rob Gregory—or Greg Robbery, depending on whom you ask—provided a prime example when an unremarkable narrative joke flopped. He followed it expertly with a well-timed, “Yeah, that was a joke. That didn’t really happen.” This off-the-cuff remark got the biggest laugh of Gregory’s set and offered some evidence of good comedic instincts despite a mostly off night.
Overall, 3rd Street is a good spot if you don’t mind staying out until midnight at a smoke-filled bar in the middle of the week. About a third of the comics earned my genuine laughs, a couple earned courtesy chuckles, and a couple earned dismissive eye-rolling.
One night stand-up
Another venerable open-mic night happens at Great Basin Brewing Company, 846 Victorian Ave., Sparks, 355-7711, every Thursday, starting at 9 p.m. The night I visited was very lightly attended and made awkward by the presence of a large extended family dining near the stage. With several small children. At 10 o’clock at night. You ever see these people? Just eating dinner like it’s totally natural to be hanging out with your toddler at a brewery on a weeknight? What is up with those people? There I go again with the stand-up-speak. Apparently, there are often people in the crowd at Great Basin looking to fill their bellies, not looking for belly laughs. When I was there, the family’s presence dampened things because the comics seemed self-conscious about using foul language and discussing adult topics. Except for Kyle George, a one-liner specialist whose restraint eventually caved, causing him to regale the family with a pretty great lesbian joke I won’t repeat. Another bright spot was Tim Dufrisne, whose self-deprecating humor reminded me of the great Louis C.K. Generally, I got the sense that the Great Basin open-mic is consistently good, but I happened to be there on a strange night.
My next stop was at Studio on 4th, 432 E. Fourth St., 786-6460, because I heard there was an open-mic there every Tuesday at 9 p.m. Instead, I was treated to the comic stylings of an all-ages hardcore show. To be fair, hardcore is fundamentally hilarious, but it didn’t fit my narrow objective. As a substitute, I checked out the Catch a Rising Star comedy club inside the Silver Legacy, 407 N. Virginia St., 325-7452. Catch is a national chain of comedy clubs with spots in New York, Providence, Princeton and … Reno. Don’t ask me how this happened, but even midweek, Catch was well-attended. The comics weren’t local when I went, but it was enlightening to see a touring pro in contrast to locals still finding their sea legs. Geno Bisconte’s rapid-fire insult-based schtick was impressive, blending the taboo—spousal abuse and race-based jokes—with quick-draw ridiculing of audience members. The experience left me with a deepening appreciation for the craft of stand-up, and a reminder to keep quiet in the audience.
Stand-up and deliver
Another fledgling local open-mic night takes place at the Biggest Little City Club, 188 California Ave., 322-2480, on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. I’d heard it was sparsely attended, but I also heard unconfirmed rumors that the legendary Tony Clifton recently made an unbilled appearance. As you may remember, Clifton is an abrasive, unattractive lounge performer of questionable talent with not-so-mysterious ties to Andy Kaufman. Did Clifton appear at BLCC? If so, was it the real Tony Clifton? Is there a real Tony Clifton at all? We may never know, but the rumors piqued my interest, and I decided that BLCC deserved inclusion in my survey of local comedy spots.
I was pleasantly surprised by BLCC’s comedy night. Though populated mostly by the comics who were there to perform, it was a friendly, supportive crowd, and the comics on the whole were the best I’d seen yet. Maybe it was just that the weak links were less weak than the weak links elsewhere. By now, I was seeing familiar faces, and I really enjoyed hearing familiar jokes tweaked, as their respective writers experimented with them and mined them for laughs. A highlight was the timely arrival of John Ager, a seasoned stand-up veteran who has toured professionally and can perform on command without notice. BLCC open-mic host Adam Holwerda was wrapping things up for the night when he saw Ager’s car outside, and sneakily introduced Ager as he walked in the front door to hearty applause. This could have been disastrous, but Ager confidently took the stage and went right into a boisterous routine, lampooning Facebook and the Kisses for Kyle Foundation. Seeing a polished performer like Ager was a fitting way to finish my tour of the local venues.
Acquainting myself with the local comedy scene raised some questions. What might possess one to stand in front of drunk strangers and risk humiliation? When I ask Holwerda, he tells me it’s to impress girls. “I joke about first dates in my act because … I want one,” he says. Thus far, no luck, but as a consolation, he’s developed a lot as a stand-up comedian after only a few months of searching for dates. Another comic anonymously tells me that all comedians just want attention, and it has a vulnerable ring of truth. “Sometimes just having a roomful of people look in your direction is enough,” he says.
If you’re looking for dates or just attention, and you don’t fear the sound of chirping crickets, there are plenty of opportunities for you in Reno. Whether you’re an aspiring jokesmith or just a fan looking for action, a place to start is renostandup.com. The site is run by Brian O’Neill (or Bro’Neill, as he was mockingly introduced at one venue), who launched it as a fan and subsequently got into the craft himself. It’s a great place to start if you’re curious about local comedy. It features a comedy calendar, as well as links to the web presences of many local comics. If you’ve read this far, you’re obviously looking for laughs. Or you yearn to roll your eyes dismissively at a bunch of amateurs. Either way, comedians are standing by.