Reno's comedy scene is serious business
Dave Mencarelli has been writing and performing stand-up comedy in the Reno area for more than 17 years. As local comics go, he’s been pretty successful—he’s run Catch a Rising Star, performed and hosted at The Laugh Factory, earned a No. 1 spot for Best Local Comedian in RN&R’s Best of Northern Nevada 2016, and worked with other comics the likes of Dennis Miller, Gilbert Gottfried and Paul Rodriguez. But doing stand-up still scares the crap out of him.
“I’ve always had terrible stage fright,” he joked. “I hate getting up there. I love everything about comedy except doing it.”
That may be true, but the fact that he earns an actual income—albeit a small one—for regularly doing comedy is something new comics can look up to. Despite his persistent stage fright, he’s happy to share his words of wisdom for newbies coming up through the ranks.
Local comic Pat Shillito, longtime host of the Wednesday night open mic competition at 3rd Street Bar downtown, called Mencarelli “a sort of godfather figure” within the local comedy scene.
And it’s a bigger, more vibrant scene than you might realize. Helped along by Mencarelli, Shillito, and numerous others who’ve worked to create and grow opportunities, the Reno comedy scene is churning out a surprising level of talent.Make 'em laugh
“Probably all of us who do stand-up comedy were the funniest person at work or among our group of friends,” Mencarelli said. “Eventually that leads to someone—in my case, my mom—saying, ’You should do stand-up comedy.’”
At her urging, Mencarelli enrolled in a stand-up comedy class offered through Truckee Meadows Community College’s community education series, which culminated in a showcase at the Great Basin Brewing Co.’s former Thursday night open mic series. Mencarelli felt sure he was funnier than most of the folks in the class and became hooked.
What he described is apparently a universal set of traits among comedians—natural comedic talent, high confidence, and permission (and nudging) from friends and family to take the microphone. Then the intoxication of performing keeps them coming back.
On a recent Wednesday, just hours before the week’s open mic started at 3rd Street Bar, about a dozen comics converged to tell me about their small-but-mighty scene and their close-knit relationships. They shared similar stories.
Carson City’s Nick Josten came up through school doing theater and improv, but when a fellow actor invited him to join him in stand up, Josten found his real high.
“Making people laugh, getting that approval from strangers … it’s kind of like a drug,” Josten said. “You do it once, and you get addicted and want to do it again.”
“I first came here to see a friend do an open mic,” said Norm Enlow. “My wife leaned over and whispered, ’You could do this.’”
Within weeks, Enlow had his own five-minute slot at 3rd Street, and before long he was arranging another open mic show, the Comedy Power Hour, which ran for three years at Reno’s recently closed Wildflower Village.
Local bartender Courtney Reichel had toyed with doing stand up for years until her brother finally held her feet to the fire and said, “Well, what are you gonna do about it?” So she enrolled in the TMCC class.
“I knew they do a showcase at the end, so it would force me to go on stage,” Reichel said.
Since then, she’s not only ramped up her own stand up, but at the two bars where she works, Beck’s Brew House and Jimmy B’s, she’s helped start open mic events.
All these comedians exemplify the Biggest Little City doing what it does best—bucking tradition, supporting its own with ferocity and providing opportunities that might not exist elsewhere.
This, they say, distinguishes Reno’s comedy scene.
“We’re fiercely loyal,” said Jenny PezDeSpencer, who started doing stand up about 15 years ago and has since earned a few mentions in RN&R’s Best of Northern Nevada. “I’ve never seen anyone treat a new comic badly. No one bad-mouths other people’s open mics.”
“We’re a dysfunctional family, sure,” Reichel laughed. “But it’s welcoming. We want a thriving scene. We don’t have to like everybody or get everybody’s comedy, but we welcome everyone, and everyone gets a shot.”A guy walks into a bar
The comics at this table took great pleasure in detailing the enormous opportunity afforded comedians here. They described brutal gigs in bigger markets where they'd been required to spend hours outside clubs handing out flyers and luring in guests, the number of which directly correlated to the number of minutes—or, in some cases, seconds—they were granted on stage. Others spoke of requirements to bring in 10 or 15 friends or two-drink minimums. At 3rd Street, the standard is five minutes. Other shows may offer more.
In fact, open mics happen at least five nights a week in Reno, in venues including The Waterfall, The Jungle, Beck’s, Jimmy B’s, 3rd Street and even the occasional backyard or parking lot. For those finding the second-tier venues lacking—that middle ground between open mic and full-fledged comedy club—comedians create their own opportunities. Josten, for example, started up a monthly comedy showcase at the Brewery Arts Center in Carson City.
And the folks at this table insisted that the comedy in this small community is big-time quality.
“I’ve looked at other scenes regionally—Sacramento, San Francisco and others—and they may have more comics, a lot more opportunities for open mics, stage shows, showcases, whatever,” said Shillito. “But I’d put our writing against any comedy scene in the country.”Funny business
Of course, even in such a supportive market, success isn’t guaranteed. These comedians could rattle off a host of obstacles.
Actually, Mencarelli cited the sheer number of open mics as a challenge.
“You can have too many open mic nights,” he said. “When comics go start them up all over town, it gets diluted. If you only had Wednesday nights at 3rd Street, you’d have 60 or 70 people show up, but now they have so few people coming to each spot. … So that tends to be frustrating.”
He also pointed to a glaring gap between the large number of open mics and the two major comedy clubs in town, The Laugh Factory and Pioneer Underground.
“So how do you progress and go from a five-minute open mic to getting real stage time?” Mencarelli said, though he offered kudos to Josten’s showcase and other such efforts that help fill this gap. “Still, if you’ve got a solid 15 minutes of material that works, you’re wasting your time at open mics, but where do you go next? There just aren’t a lot of places locally to set your sights on.”
Several female comedians cite their gender as a unique challenge.
“Nobody ever said, ’Hey, you’re funny for a dude,’” said PezDeSpencer. “But we have to hear, ’You’re funny for a girl,’ all the time.”
Then there’s the simple matter of awareness. No matter how supportive they are of each other, they all know it doesn’t work if actual (non-comedian) audiences don’t come. Making people aware that these shows exist is an uphill battle, especially if self-promotion doesn’t come naturally.
Yet, though it’s hard, thankless, late-night work for little or no pay, they all keep coming back to stand up.
“If you’ve ever thought about doing comedy, I’d say it’s like sex,” said PezDeSpencer. “It’s messy, you’re not sure if you did it right the first time, but in the end you’re like, ’I’m the shit! Look what I did!’”