Standup comedy in Columbus has seen a welcome boom in the last few years. It points to an exciting future for the comics and the dedicated following they’ve attracted — and those who’ve yet to experience it.
When Laura Sanders started doing standup in 2007, other more experienced comedians told her of the Dark Ages of Columbus comedy.
“Way back in 2005 when there was only one open mic a year, and no one even liked it,” she says with chuckling exaggeration.
The Columbus scene wasn’t as minimal as Sanders was told, but those comedians wanted her to appreciate how standup was evolving to more organized shows and polished comedians. The scene is still developing, sure, but it’s reached an impressive local presence.
“The biggest transition I see is when you start doing comedy you’re getting people you know to come out and support shows,” Sanders said. “The amazing thing is at shows now, there’s a bunch of strangers.”
Outsiders are attracted to shows around Columbus more and more because a couple of factors have coalesced. The biggest one? A lot of hard work from some really funny people.
All but one of the comedians I spoke with started doing standup about five or six years ago — it takes that long to develop a solid act. The lone exception is Sean Somerville, who’s been at it for 10 years, making him like the Godfather of local standup (though it’s doubtful, given his humble nature, that he would accept that title).
“I feel more like I’ve been a caretaker of the Columbus comedy scene with the open mic part of it. I don’t think I’ve done anything really special, but I’ve tended to my shows like a garden,” Somerville said.
Somerville, who describes his style as a pretty dry with an odd observational perspective, couldn’t play down his contributions more. He organized and hosted a couple open mic nights before finding a permanent home at Surly Girl Saloon almost seven years ago. It’s now one of the best in a city where open mics happen almost every night of the week.
A regular open mic night is crucial to fostering both a comic and a city’s standup scene. New comics get a chance to see if they’ve got the chops and veterans can experiment with new material. It’s not a coincidence Columbus saw talent blow up soon after Surly Girl provided a sustainable and popular space for comedy.
“Right before I started, there wasn’t a scene — people who were really talented and doing great things now moved to St. Louis or Indianapolis, or stuff like that,” said Justin Golak, who books and hosts a bimonthly show on Shadowbox Live’s Backstage Bistro stage.
When Golak and high school friend Sumukh Torgalkar decided to take a shot at comedy, Surly Girl and campus hangout Scarlet & Grey Café were the two regular open mic nights, along with the Funny Bone’s weekly Columbus Comedy Showcase. Torgalkar saw these as tiered open mics where he could perfect his intellectual, engaging musings on, for example, racist medical journals and golfing with a hard-on.
“I started at Scarlet & Grey to get five minutes down before I went to Surly Girl. I didn’t step on the Funny Bone stage for, like, six months, until what I had was really polished,” Torgalkar said.
Chris Coen emcees the Funny Bone’s showcase every Wednesday and has seen a number of people go on stage and fail. Now he’s seeing more new comics succeed, through dedication and practice.
“Columbus has a good enough independent scene to where you can get time here to work; that’s what it’s great for,” says Coen. “I think it’s pretty cool someone like me, who’s been doing open mics every week, I walk into a show and I’ve never seen any of these [comedians] before.”
While the numerous performers have excelled over the last five years, those same comedians hesitate to say the scene is established.
“People say that it’s growing, which I think is true, but that implicitly implies that it’s still relatively young,” said Golak.
There’s an untapped number of hardcore comedy fans — comedy nerds, if you will — who aren’t fully aware of how talented the local scene is. To attract those people, the scene needs to offer what Golak refers to as “fan tools”: websites and social networking sites to post videos and let fans know about upcoming shows.
The website columbusisfunny.com is a step in that direction. The site lets visitors check out local acts, promotes upcoming shows and provides contact information for comedians.
Golak and Sanders have also given fans another tool — they recorded their first CDs at last Tuesday’s Backstage Bistro show. Their recently released comedy albums are 30 minutes of very strong, funny material. “Influenced” is a great example of Golak’s flowing conversational style and “Ohio Built Lady” has a female perspective that will have both sexes laughing out loud. Links to purchase both CDs can be found on columbusisfunny.com.
Both Golak and Sanders have made the brave commitment to never perform that material locally again. Neither wants regular attendees of local shows to hear the same material over and over, and it compels them to come up with fresh material.
Coen also understands the importance of merchandise, and not just for monetary gains. His DVD “American Drunk,” for sale on his personal site, is a brash performance that displays his incredibly confident stage presence. His best raunchy, sharp jokes pop on film just like they do at live shows.
As the word about standup in Columbus grows, so do the venues seeking an opportunity to feature local comedians.
Golak started the Backstage Bistro show early this year. He sees it as a successful transition from the open-mic scene to showcase shows, especially since it’s tied in promotionally with an already established venue.
“I think that’s a big step, even though from the outside it just looks like another booked show. It’s big that someone will take standup and make it a part of their lineup,” says Golak.
Last Friday, the Short North Stage hosted a diverse comedy show, organized by Torgalkar, in their Green Room. The musical theater company plans to continue building a relationship with local comedy.
“We look forward to making more commitments. We’d like to get a regular scheduled comedy night,” said Rick Gore, executive producer at the Short North Stage.
The recent success of standup is as much about a community among the comedians as it is about the laughs. A creative kinship has cultivated friendships while making it possible for them to strengthen local comedy collectively.
“You can’t really build a scene by yourself. It’s luck more than anything else that the people who’ve stuck around and become good at standup are just really truly nice and funny people,” said Somerville.
The best example of how well the group of local comedians works together is how different their individual styles are.
“Somebody could be funny, next person goes up, completely different style, equally as hilarious,” Coen explained.
Both Coen and Sanders have utterly riotous jokes about penises, um, in motion, yet they couldn’t be more different. You’ll just have to check them out to know what we’re talking about. And if you do, you’ll quickly go from being one of those “strangers” Sanders was talking about to being a regular at local comedy shows. See you there.