Comics Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle and Patton Oswalt once toiled on this circuit. And a new class of Washington comedy expats, including Rory Scovel, T.J. Miller and Erin Jackson, is getting noticed nationally after putting in time at Dupont’s Topaz Hotel and the D.C. Improv.
“The people who rise to the top in this area can go to almost anywhere in the country,” says Tyler Richardson, a comic who runs a monthly comedy showcase at the State Theatre. “Their talent shines, and it shows. It’s a great city to learn to get funny.”
Hundreds of D.C.-based stand-up comics hit open mikes nearly every night for no pay. It’s impossible to know who will be next to land on “The Tonight Show” or become a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” but a few names come up repeatedly: Emily Ruskowski, who snared the title of funniest college student in a D.C. Improv competition; Brandon Wardell, who at 20 already has performed in two national festivals; Tim Miller, who has turned winning over audiences into a science; and Reggie Melbrough, a standout storyteller who is bringing comedy to a niche crowd of Columbia Heights scene-sters.
Here are their stories.
Emily Ruskowski bounds onstage at Ri-Ra in Arlington with the verve of a talk show host. “Who’s your favorite New Kid?” she asks, setting up a joke. “Justin!” yells an assured voice from the back corner.
“Nooo!!” Ruskowski yells back with the exasperation of a tween whose parents just don’t get it. “Justin’s not even a New Kid!” The audience erupts.
Of the handful of female comics working the local circuit, 28-year-old Ruskowski is easily the most positive, a departure from the hard-edged women, such as Lisa Lampanelli, Chelsea Handler and Kathy Griffin, who dominate national comedy.
She “has a likability about her that people connect with,” says fellow comic Tyler Richardson. “She’s got this bubbliness about her.”
Ruskowski, a Massachusetts native, says comedy doesn’t always need to be nasty. “It’s supposed to be something that makes people feel good and feel happy.” While growing up overweight, she says, “the only time anyone ever paid attention to me was when I’d say stuff that people thought was funny.”
When Ruskowski applied to graduate school for clinical social work at George Mason, she made sure the school participated in the D.C. Improv’s annual Funniest College Contest. In 2010, less than a year after her first open mike, Ruskowski clinched the title of funniest college student. Her win netted her a 12-month cache of Popchips. But more important, she won a guest spot at the Improv.